Shabbat Parashat Tetzaveh| 5766
Ask the Rabbi
Question: We hired a Philippine caregiver to live with my mother, who is barely mobile. Until now, others have cooked most of her food. Can the caregiver now cook or at least reheat the food?
Answer: We hope that the caregiver will give your mother the help she needs. Most Philippine caregivers are kind and cooperative about following the home’s rules, including kashrut. It is best for all when the rules avoid creating undue pressure, and a good relationships is crucial for the welfare of an infirmed dear one. On the other hand, halacha requires precautions and not relying on general impressions. Sometimes more restrictive rules that are simpler to follow work better than following more complex leniencies, which can cause mistakes and the tensions that come with subsequent scrutinizing and perceived recriminations. While we hope to find a golden mean for your situation, there is room for adjustments and further allowances if the situation warrants them.
The basic rules of bishul akum (cooking done by a non-Jew) can be said in a sentence. A non-Jew may not cook food that is not eaten raw, turning it into first-class food, without a Jew’s involvement in the process. Let’s deal very briefly with each component.
Cooking- Smoking food is permitted (Shulchan Aruch, YD 113:13). Poskim discuss if microwaving is permitted. While few permit it, it can be a mitigating factor (see Yabia Omer V, YD 9).
Not eaten raw- If a non-Jew cooks food that is sometimes eaten raw, even if it is usually cooked, the food is permitted (ibid.:1). A non-Jew may reheat food that a Jew already rendered edible. Not only are boiled milk and water permitted for this reason, but so are coffee and tea, whose principle ingredient is water (Yechave Da’at IV:42). Carrots are another classic example.
First-class food- Only food that nobility would serve is included in the prohibition (Shulchan Aruch, ibid.). This subjective criterion likely excludes farina/oatmeal, French-fries and more.
The latter categories are society based; many cases are borderline or based on machloket. Thus, we gave few details and warn about over-use. The next category enables developing a reliable plan.
Involvement of a Jew- Regarding the related prohibition of bread baked by a non-Jew, the gemara (Avoda Zara 38b) says that it is sufficient for a Jew to light the oven’s fire. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.: 7) and Sephardic practice, regarding the more stringent laws of bishul akum, requirea Jew to put the food on the fire (or light the fire after the food was put there) or stir the food as it cooks. The Rama (ad loc.) and Ashkenazic practice say that a Jew may light a flame, even at the beginning of the day, and have the non-Jew do all of the actual cooking. Furthermore, the Rama suggests having a Jew light the flame used to light the stove. Some apply this leniency to ovens with pilot lights. We can also use it to have a Jew light a “yahrtzeit candle” to light (the match that lights) a gas stove. The Aruch Hashulchan (113:44) says that one should rely on this last opinion only in a case of acute need and in the home of a Jew, but both lenient factors are present here. The significance of it being in a Jewish house is two-fold. Firstly, it is likely that a Jew will do some stirring (Rama 113:4) and also there is an opinion (Tosafot Avoda Zara 37a) that bishul akum applies only to cooking in a non-Jew’s house. Although we do not accept that opinion independently, poskim sometimes use it as a supporting leniency, especially if the one cooking is a hired worker (see Shach 113:7). (Yechave Da’at V, 54 uses that leniency as support regarding Sephardim relying on a Jew lighting the fire in a Jewish-owned restaurant). A Jew would have to turn on electrical appliances.
Due to a few kashrut considerations, it is best that the caregiver brings home only kosher food. For cooking, there are two preferable systems. If your mother can be in or around the kitchen, she can supervise its proper use (especially milk-meat) and light the fire. If she rarely gets out of bed, it is best if the food is cooked by a Jew or when one is around. If the caregiver demands freedom to cook for herself, she should have her own clearly marked utensils, which she must clean separately.
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