The Vessel or What’s Inside of It?
A story is told that when Rav Soloveitchik’s wife Tonya, z״l, was hospitalized due to an illness, he and Haym had the run of the house. Following the technical laws of kashrut, they proceeded to eat cold milkhig food on fleishig dishes. When Tonya returned from the hospital, she was apoplectic. The Rav explained that he was doing nothing more than following the halakha of the Shulkhan Arukh, to which Tonya replied: “You and your Shulkhan Arukh are going to treif up my kitchen!”
This story gets to the heart of what keeping separate dishes
is all about. Most classically, it is treated as a concern that any flavor that might have seeped into the walls of the dish will transfer to the food currently in it – if there is no heat to transfer the taste, it shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively, however, it may be about maintaining a strict division, of keeping like with like, of keeping the status and identity of things well defined – milkhig food gets milkhig dishes, fleishig food gets fleishig dishes. This latter approach is often thought of as one that more reflects the understanding of the laity, one that does not reflect the true halakhic concerns. The matter, however, is not so simple.
When the people come back from the war against the Midianites in this week’s parasha, they bring with them the booty of war, including vessels and clothing. Elazar instructs them in what must be done with these items:
Everything that goes through fire, you shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean: nevertheless it shall be purified with the sprinkling water; and all that does not go through fire you shall make go through the water (Bamidbar 31:23).
The simple sense of these verses is that this is a purification process, since the people have just come in contact with dead bodies, and this is presumably the meaning of the “sprinkling water,” that is, they must be sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer. This is certainly true regarding the purification of clothes mentioned in the following verse. However, this would not explain why the vessels in this verse must also be passed through fire or water. Rather than conclude that the Torah is introducing a new purification process, the Rabbis understand that a different issue is at play.
These cooking vessels, say the Rabbis, must not only be purified due to contact with the dead but purged of the non-kosher tastes that they have absorbed. Thus, vessels used directly over the fire, such as a spit, must be purified or kashered, as we would say, by putting it over a fire, and similarly vessels used with boiling water, such as a pot, must be kashered with boiling water. This is the principle of ki’bolo kakh polto, just as it absorbed the taste, so it expels it.
But maybe not. Maybe this whole process is not primarily about removing problematic absorbed taste. Maybe it is about changing the identity of the vessel, taking a treif vessel and redefining it, through this ritual, as a kosher one.
What is the evidence for this? First, this verse appears in the context of ritual purification, which is all about effecting a change of status. Second, note that the Rabbis also learn from this verse that there is a mitzvah to immerse even brand new vessels purchased from non-Jews, the mitzvah of tevilat keilim. This is most easily understood as a ritual to change the status of the vessel – from a non-Jewish vessel to a Jewish one. The juxtaposition in the verse of this requirement to kashering one suggests that the two are serving a similar function – change of status. Reflecting and reinforcing this is the Mishna in Avoda Zara (75b) which deals with kashering and toveling vessels all in the same discussion. Taken together, it seems like we are dealing with issues of status and not necessarily absorbed taste.
Other halakhot and Talmudic discussions support this approach. When we kasher a vessel, we only look at its primary use – on the fire, with boiling water, etc. – and not at all the ways it might have absorbed the taste of food. After we do the kashering we have the custom of immersing the vessel in cold water, akin to a purification process (and what is done with a chatat, see Vayikra 6:21). Perhaps more significant is the fact that the requirement to kasher these dishes from Midian may not fit the general rules of absorbed taste, either because the taste would have already been spoiled, lifgam (Pesachim 44b), or as the 13th century Rav Aharon HaLevi (Ra’ah) points out, because there would not be enough of it to be considered the true taste of the original food (Chezkat HaBayit on Torat HaBayit 4:1, 11a).
If this isn’t about the taste of the absorbed food, what is it about? Ra’ah states, in the name of his teacher Ramban, that the prohibition to use vessels that were used with non-kosher food is because of what they are. Don’t use treif vessels. Whatever is in their walls doesn’t matter, if they were used to cook treif food, they are treif. In this way, kashering vessels is a form of purifying them, of changing their status and transforming them.
So who was right? Was it the Rav or was it Tonya? Is it the vessel, or is it what is in it? The truth is that both of these approaches exist within halakha, and an ongoing dialectical tension exists between them.
And so it should be. For while Rebbe Yehudah haNasi famously teaches, “Do not look at the vessel, but at what is inside it,” the reality is that we are always looking at the vessel, and this is not necessarily a bad thing (Pirkei Avot 4:20). We need to organize our reality. We need to assign labels, to categorize, to understand where one thing stands in relation to others. And the way a thing or a person appears, the identity they project, helps us do this in an efficient and effective way. There is a reason doctors go around wearing white coats and stethoscopes. It is true that this might lead to us dismissing someone who is not wearing that white coat or to giving too much weight to one who is, even if she is not such an expert, but it is better than the alternative – not having any idea who is who and how to navigate our way.
Tonya was right. Eating cold cheese off of a fleishig plate might be halakhically permissible. But blurring the boundaries and mixing categories is also a sure way to treif up the kitchen.
This approach is also central to the halakhic system, or any legal system for that matter. Halakha mostly operates with formalistic categories. Certain concrete, objective, quantifiable criteria are assessed, and that dictates what category something is in and what halakhot obtain. What halakha doesn’t do, except in rare cases, is look at the full context, the circumstances relevant to an individual or thing, and apply one law to the whole as a category rather than apply a different law for each facet of the case. This is the principle of lo plug – we don’t make distinctions. It would be highly inefficient, if not impossible, to have a legal system that operated on principles and not on formal categories. Looking at the vessel is absolutely necessary.
But if Tonya was right, so was Rebbe Yehudah haNassi. For a system that only looks at status and identity, that places labels on people and things and makes decisions on that basis, will lead to cases of error and injustice, to marginalization and exclusion. The woman in the white coat may not be a doctor, and even if she is, she may not know what she is talking about. If we are able, we need to stretch ourselves and go past the quick, easy categorization and its conclusions. We need to do our research, find out what truly is contained in the vessel.
Similarly with halakha. While a non-formalist approach undermines the halakhic system, an overly formalist approach can be blind to real people and real human suffering. There are times that we have to push ourselves and find ways to look at not just the category, but the real live person that is in it. There are ways that halakha accommodates this – concepts such as sha’at ha’dechak, an exigency where exceptions can be made, or times when we don’t say lo plug, where situations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. And then there are times when, like the laws of kosher vessels, the two exist in an ongoing dialectic relationship, where the particular circumstances and context can influence how the formal categories are defined.
In the end, we must find a way to keep our kitchens kosher, and we must find a way to know and care what each and every vessel contains.