One of the questions I am often asked by those of my students who do not keep kosher, is have you really never eaten non-kosher food? I generally reply along the lines that I have never knowingly eaten non-kosher food, have never eaten at McDonalds or Pizza Pizza and I have no idea what lobster tastes like (I hear it is very good) and I will not even eat some salad at a vegetarian restaurant.
But of course I cannot be sure that I have not mistakenly eaten non-kosher food, either through my own carelessness or that of those providing food for me. I say so with full acceptance that this is likely because I am not as worthy as the donkey of Rav Pinchas ben Yair.
This donkey, the Talmud relates (Chulin 7a-b), refused to eat untithed food, somehow having a sixth sense about what was and was not permissible to eat. Commenting on this, the Gemara notes that “The animals of the righteous, the Holy One Blessed be He, does not generate mistakes through them, the righteous themselves how much more so.” It is this principle that allowed Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi to declare that Beit She’an not be considered part of the Land of Israel regarding tithes (see our discussion here). He did so after hearing a report that Rav Meir ate such untithed produce from Beit She’an. Rejecting the possibility that he did so inadvertently and by mistake, the Gemara invokes this principle of Divine protection to the righteous, ensuring that they not eat non-kosher food.
That the righteous are protected from sin seems like a most worthy application of the principle of “measure for measure”; they put all their efforts into fulfilling the Divine will and in return G-d protects them from sin. If only it were so simple.
The Tosafits (Chulin 5b s.v. hasta) immediately note the many serious sins made by some of our greatest rabbis.
Yehuda ben Tabai, one of earliest of our Sages, mistakenly put a single eid zomeim, plotting witness, to death (Makkot 5b); Jewish law allows eideem zomemim to be put to death only if both witnesses are found to be lying in a deliberate attempt to have an innocent person put to death.
In another mistake involving a capital offence, albeit of much lesser consequence, Rabbi Yishmael read by candle light on Friday evening ignoring the rabbinic injunction not to do so lest one come to adjust the light (Shabbat 12b). Rabbi Yishmael, like many people in positions of authority, felt this law did not apply to him stating that, “I will read and will not adjust”. But alas, he was mistaken. After making this mistake, he proclaimed, “How great are the words of the Sages who said one should not read by the candle light”.
Tosafot argues that this Divine protection applies only to the eating of non-kosher food and no other area of sin. For a righteous person to eat non-kosher food is particularly disgraceful. Kashrut is not one of the “serious” mitzvoth, and violating its laws, by, say, eating a pork cheeseburger, does not carry the penalty of karet, excision, and certainly not a death penalty. Yet in so many ways kashrut is the marker of the Jew. With food being the most basic of human needs, kashrut is something we must be cognizant of 24/7 or just about.
That keeping kosher is integral to being a Jew is reflected in the fact that many Jews who are not particularly observant are careful to (at a minimum), eat only kosher meat and not to mix meat and milk – even if they may not be strictly kosher. As we humans share with animals the need for food, we must ensure we do not eat like animals. We can’t just eat what we want, when we want it, or how we want it. We must share our blessing with others, acknowledge Divine assistance in enabling us to have plentiful food, and must even feed our animals before we eat ourselves. Eating kosher – in all its broader aspects – is the way to distinguish us from animals. Eating non-kosher is degrading and hence the Divine protection for the pious.
As the Tosafists note, this protection applies only to the consumption of actual non-kosher food. It does not apply to eating kosher food at the wrong time, i.e., mistakenly eating before havdalah as Rav Yirmia did (Pesachim 106b). It presumably would not apply to inadvertently eating chametz on Pesach or any food on Yom Kippur.
This protection would not apply to the instances in which the halacha actually may allow the eating of non-kosher food. No Divine protection is needed because no wrong has been committed. I refer not to cases of a small amount of non-kosher food being nullified in a much larger mixture of kosher food. Rather, I refer to eating a nice, juicy piece of non-kosher food. This occurs when three pieces of meat, two of which are kosher and one that is not, are accidently mixed together and we have no way to know which piece is the non-kosher one. While I have little doubt that today, most Orthodox Jews would refuse to eat any of the pieces—even eating just one is a dangerous version of Russian roulette—there is no such opinion in Jewish law.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 109:1) rules that since there is a greater than 50% chance that each particular piece of meat is kosher, we can eat each particular piece, provided we don’t eat all of them in one sitting. Of course, when we are finished eating the chances of having eaten non-kosher meat will be 100%. But that reality need not concern us, and based on the principle of rov, relying on the majority, we can declare each piece of meat kosher. Even according to the strict opinion quoted by the RaMaH (one he labels a chumrah b’almah, an extra stringency not actually necessary) that one should eat only two of the pieces of meat, there is still a 66.67% chance that one has eaten non-kosher food. This is a great example of how halacha, like all legal systems, operates within its own parameters which at times deviate from scientific reality.
When all is said and done, the only way to guarantee that the food one eats is kosher is to grow it oneself. Thankfully, that is not a demand placed upon the kosher consumer.
 At the same time, I am old enough to have grown up in a generation in which oftentimes, one would determine the kashrut of a product by reading its ingredients.
 This is not as strange as it may sound. There is much research today demonstrating that animals pick up cues from humans. The very righteous apparently send strong enough cues regarding unkosher food that these can be picked up by their animals.
 Whether the many scandals in the kashrut industry where many, very unwittingly ended up eating non-kosher food is reflective of our lack of righteousness, or the lapse of this special protection (as the Gemara notes is the case by “the merit of the patriarchs”) or both, I do not know.
 Interestingly, in this particular case the Gemara explains that since “important people” did not normally “change light bulbs" even on weekdays, this decree did not actually apply to Rabbi Yishmael.
 A good example of this phenomenon in secular law is the differing standards of evidence required for criminal and civil cases. One can be found innocent of committing murder, yet ordered to pay monetary damages resulting from that same murder for which one has been declared innocent.