Readers in the Los Angeles area have been buzzing (no pun intended) for almost two weeks now about the Jewish Journal’s cover story about bugs in vegetables. The story aroused much exasperation and cynicism in the Pico-Robertson ‘hood, as it implied that one could conform with the prohibition on consuming bugs only through a combination of tedious inspection and washing of some vegetables, paying an exorbitant price for others, and giving up entirely on yet others. The story featured the sweeping sub-headline “The presence of even one bug can render an entire vegetable not kosher. On this matter, Orthodox rabbis are unequivocal.”
Unfortunately the Journal story omitted a significant portion of the classical halachik discussion on this issue, the portion that applies normative halachik leniencies to the bug issue. For the sake then of expanding the parameters of the discussion in the ‘hood, I offer the following brief points (you are invited to check the Bnai David – Judea bulletin over the next several Shabbatot for the fuller discussion at www.bnaidavid.com):
(1) We are forbidden to eat bugs that are big enough to be seen by the naked eye. And leafy vegetables that tend to have bugs on them at least 10% of the time, need to be checked. On this, Orthodox rabbis truly are unequivocal. What’s the checking procedure? To quote the Star-K website, “Make a complete leaf by leaf inspection, checking both sides of the leaf. Wash off any insects prior to use.” Pretty straightforward.
(2) Bugs that are not on the surface of leaves, but which are lodged inside the florets of broccoli for example, are by Torah law, deemed insignificant (“batel”) as they occupy less than 1/60th of the broccoli’s total mass. There is however, a potential complication introduced by rabbinic law, which generally regards any complete organic unit (like a bug for example) as being resistant to the laws of “insignificance”. Thus the possibility that embedded bugs too must be removed.
(3) However, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, the Star-K’s rabbinic administrator explained in a 2007 article, why the laws of insignificance pertain to embedded bugs nonetheless. There is a reasonable chance, he points out, that any given head of broccoli may contain no bugs at all, which is to say that the presence of embedded bugs is a “safek” (doubtful). And as a general halachik principle, we only refrain from rabbinicaly prohibited items when they are certainly present, but when they are only possibly present, we rule leniently. In Rabbi Heinemann’s words, “[in] cluster vegetables, where parasites hide themselves in the vegetable’s florets and we cannot see them through visual inspection, the halacha postulates that we can take a lenient position and assume that the florets are insect-free”.
(4) He continues that it is nonetheless “proper” (perhaps to insure that we’re not dealing with an unusually heavily-infested head) that the Star-K’s checking procedure be used, which involves the following fairly simple steps: “Agitate florets in a white bowl of clean water. Examine the water to see that it is insect-free. If insects are found, you may re-do this procedure up to three times in total. If there are still insects, the whole batch must be discarded. If the water is insect-free, look over florets to see if any insects are visible on the tops and stems. If no insects are noticed you may use the vegetable.” Again, pretty simple and straightforward.
(5) Rabbi Heinemann was far from the first to rule leniently on these matters. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, in his classic halachik work Aruch HaShulchan identifies three additional reasons why bugs that are embedded in vegetables need not be checked for or removed (at all). One of the three reasons is that the rabbinic stringency concerning complete organic units was never meant to apply to items that people find repulsive (like eating bugs for example)
Of paramount significance is Rabbi Epstein’s motivation for seeking leniencies in this area. He observed that the religious Jews of his day routinely ate vegetables, only removing the bugs that were visible on the surface. “And it is unthinkable to suggest”, he says, “that the people of Israel (“Clal Yisrael”) are all stumbling with regard to this prohibition.., and it is proper therefore to search [for leniency] in their merit.” And he concludes his discussion by saying, “and God will judge us meritoriously, just as we are bringing merit to the people of Israel”
It is this spirit, the halachik authority taking responsibility both for the law, and for the people, that has sadly fallen out of today’s bug conversation, warping much of the contemporary rabbinic approach.
Please do follow up with your own rabbi with further questions, but the general approach outlined above, is a solid halachik framework.