Chulin 44: The Business of Kashrut

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

That the “Orthodox” community is more careful about kosher food than kosher money is sadly obvious, and demonstrated all too often. Despite the Torah’s manifold commands relating to money, somehow these mitzvotare not blessed with the same mazel that surround the laws of kashrut. The yetzer hara, desire, for money is much, much greater than for some forbidden food. This yetzer hara is a fierce opponent and has been known to take down many an otherwise righteous individual. The allure of money is such that it can “blind the eyes of wise and pervert the words of the righteous” (Devarim 16:19). 

When fighting an opponent as strong and determined as this yetzer hara, we must strategize well in advance of entering the marketplace. We must seek out the yetzer hara’s weaknesses and play to our own strengths. Nothing frustrates the yetzer hara more than trying to outflank and avoid him. The yetzer hara likes nothing better that a head-to-head challenge, something it rarely, if ever, loses. Give him a chance to do battle and the game is just about over. He is just too powerful, and few can overcome him. But avoid him with a well-thought-out game plan, with strategies for all possible contingencies—even throw in a trick play or two—and victory can be had. Deciding, for example, that 100% of the profits of a particular deal will go to tzedakah will likely do wonders for closing a deal the yetzer hara will hate.  

“Rav Chisda said: Who is the one who is a talmid chacham?” (Chulin 44b). Being a talmid chacham requires a great deal of knowledge. But that alone does not make a talmid chacham. Our tradition maintains that Torah scholars are those “whose fear [of heaven] precedes their wisdom"[1]. First and foremost, a talmid chacham excels in character development[2]. It is not by chance that Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, arguably the most influential authority on Jewish law of the past 100 years and author of the Mishnah Berurah, is universally known as the Chafetz Chaim, the name of his book on the laws of gossip and slander. 

And there is no greater area in which to demonstrate one’s impeccable character than in the area of money. Tosafot thus understands Rav Chisda’s question as asking who qualifies as a talmid chacham to whom, in contradistinction to the norm, would we return a lost object based a claim that it is his, and nothing else. 

So it comes as no surprise that Rav Chisda answers his own question by declaring that a talmid chacham is “one who declares his own animal a treifah.” When a question arises as to the kashrut of one of his (or her) own animals, a talmid chacham is willing to declare it treif despite having cogent arguments that might allow one to declare the animal kosher. He does not ask others for their opinion, but despite, or perhaps because of, the personal monetary loss involved, the talmid chacham rules the meat treif

No doubt some may find this silly; what could be wrong with asking an objective expert for an opinion? And no doubt, from a purely halachic point of view, such is the prudent approach. Yet in the mind of our Sages, a talmid chacham is one whose integrity is above reproach—and one who leaves no room for others to doubt such. Hence, the Gemara quotes with approval—bringing biblical verse for support, no less—that a talmid chacham does not eat “from an animal which a Sage issued a [permissible] ruling.” Not because it is required, but because that is the behaviour expected of a talmid chacham.  

The Gemara is thus troubled by the following: Rav Kahana and Rav Assi asked Rav whether enough of the windpipe of a particular animal had been cut to be considered a proper shechita. Not sure himself, he referred the question to Rava bar bar Chana, who ruled that it was, in fact, kosher. With its status approved, Rava bar bar Chana then bought 12 issarimworth of the meat of this animal. 

 

How could he do so? Did he not abide by the notion that a Torah scholar should not eat from an animal whose kashrut status was in doubt? The Gemara explains that this stringency applies only when we are dealing with a matter requiring judgment, where it is impossible to prove beyond a doubt one way or another. But if actual evidence can be brought to show that the animal is kosher, there is no need for stringency.

 

The Gemara then asks why Rava bar bar Chana was not “afraid”, without elaborating what that fear might be. Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershom explain that fear as being that people would say that he benefited from his own ruling. Having ruled that the meat was kosher, the seller may have been so relieved that he gave Rava bar bar Chana a great price on the meat. Whether there is any merit to such an accusation is irrelevant. Torah leaders must be concerned with the perception they create. And hence, the Gemara immediately quotes the ruling that, “If one issued a judgment, acquitted or convicted, deemed impure or pure, prohibited or permitted, or if witnesses testified, they are allowed to purchase the item. But the Sages said: Distance yourself from this disgusting thing and that which is like it” (Chulin 44b). Completing a commercial transaction with an item one has just ruled on creates very bad optics. Even if nothing untoward was actually done, can one really fault those who would say the ruling was tainted by his desire to buy the item on the cheap?

 

The Gemara explains that Rava bar bar Chana had nothing to fear. Only when a sale is based on an appraised—i.e., an estimated—value must we fear that one might issue a ruling hoping to get some benefit. But if meat is sold with a fixed price per pound, then any accusations of price favours is easily disproved.  

 

The Maharam https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meir_Lublin wonders why the commentaries focus on his external fear that he benefited from his ruling. Why not bring up a much more basic fear? Namely, that people might say that Rava bar bar Channa ruled the animal was kosher so that he could eat it, rendering the ruling itself wrong. 

 

To this, the Maharam answers that such a fear is not at all realistic. Everyone knows that the same person who might take a few dollars under the table wouldn’t eat non-kosher food for all the money in the world. He didn’t need to fear an accusation of a wrong psakso that he could eat treif; such was unlikely in the extreme to be true. But that a Torah scholar might not be on the up-and-up in his monetary dealings might, sadly, actually be true; and we must avoid giving one any reason to suspect such. Once again we are witness to how little has changed since Talmudic times. 

 

Of course, such a scenario does not mean that people won’t still accuse the rabbis of improper behaviour. But that is not our concern. One must go to great lengths to prevent creating a perception of inappropriate behaviour. But when one is transparent in demonstrating one’s integrity, one need not concern oneself with those merely looking to criticize. 


 

[1] In fact, traditionally, one was only permitted to teach Torah to those who would observe it—with Rabban Gamliel going so far as only allowing in those “who were as pious on the inside as on the outside”, i.e., only the meticulously observant. Much has changed in the Jewish world and today, it is imperative that we teach Torah to any who want to learn, regardless of their level of observance. While in prior generations there was no possibility of assimilation absent conversion, today the best protection against assimilation is day-school education, which must be open to all. 

 

[2] The Mussar movement was created to correct the flaw of placing much more emphasis on intellectual achievement and ritual observance than moral development. Those who opposed the movement, and taking time away from Gemara to study moral texts, did not object to this basic premise. They (mistakenly) believed that Talmud study alone would help to develop one’s character.