Pesticides, Health, and Kashrut – May We Eat Foods with Pesticides?

QUESTION

Rochester, NY

Are there kashrut implications to pesticides in fruits and vegetables and their impact on human health?

ANSWER

No, not form a kashrut perspective. I do understand that people would like to bring certain Torah-value concerns into the kashrut conversation, such as tzaar baalei chayim (cruelty to animals), treatment of workers, additives and pesticides, etc., but those concerns fall into other halakhic categories, not kashrut, which is about the halakhic status of the food as ma’achalot assurot (forbidden food) or not. So, if meat shouldn’t be eaten because of tzaar baalei chayim (I am not here going to unpack that), then the problem is not that the meat is not kosher, but that eating it provides a market for the meat and makes someone a mesaye’ah le’ovrei aveirah (abetting others in sin) in the act of inflicting tzaar baalei chayim (Just so you know, I am not a vegetarian, although I am an aspiring one).

Regarding pesticides – we have a principle of chamira saknata me’issura, and Hazal were often raised raised concerns specifically around what might be in foodstuffs. And we do actually find that at times they used the word “assur” in this context. To cite one well known and applicable example – meat and fish – Pesachim 76b

ההיא ביניתא דאיטווא בהדי בישרא – אסרה רבא מפרזיקיא למיכליה בכותחא. מר בר רב אשי אמר: אפילו במילחא נמי אסורה, משום דקשיא לריחא ולדבר אחר.

Rava’s position that we don’t eat the fish that was cooked alongside meat together with milk was a real kashrut concern, and hence the use of the term “forbade.” When Mar Bar Rav Ashi then stated that it shouldn’t even be eaten by itself because of health concerns, he says “נמי אסורה” – this is also forbidden. However, given that we are not talking about kashrut but about health concerns, this gets softened by the time you get to Shulchan Arukh (Shulchan Arukh YD 116:2), who writes only that “one should be careful” (although he does extend it to eating them together and not only when they were cooked together), and Rema writes that if they were cooked together the fish is NOT assur be’diavad (after the fact)

צריך ליזהר שלא לאכול בשר ודג ביחד, מפני שקשה לצרעת. הגה: וכן אין לצלות בשר עם דג, משום ריחא. מיהו בדיעבד אינו אוסר

It should also be noted that Rambam treated this like all other health concerns in the Gemara which, he felt, were either inaccurate or no longer applicable in his day, and he does not cite this issue of fish and meat anywhere.

A case of a health concern where the concept of issur takes hold in a serious way is that of giluy גילוי, liquids left exposed and unattended which were not to be imbibed out of a concern that a snake drank from them and deposited some venom in them. (See, for example, Mishnah Trumot 2:4 and the extended discussion in AZ 30a). This gets a lot of play in the Gemara, and yet, most of the time (if not all of the time) the discussion is more that the liquid needs to be disposed of, and the term assur is not, as a rule, used. Despite all this focused treatment and the sugyot on it, the Rishonim by and large said that given that in their day this concern of snakes and venom was not a serous one, the problem of giluy גילוי no longer applies. The Shulchan Arukh (Shulchan Arukh YD 116:1) does use the word assur in reference to the ruling in the Gemara, but then says that nowadays it is mutar

משקים שנתגלו, אסרום חכמים דחיישינן שמא שתה נחש מהם והטיל בהם ארס. ועכשיו שאין נחשים מצויים בינינו, מותר

The point being, that it is possible that a health concern lead Chazal in one or two cases to create a formal issur, but that is rare, and in halakha even those cases do not get treated as formal issurim, just as health concerns which need to (or don’t need to) be attended to. Certainly, absent a formal treatment by Hazal, not formal halakhic restriction, framed as kashrut or otherwise, would apply.

What we are left with is “hamira sakanta mi’issura חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא” (Chullin 10a), which means – that in your making decisions that affect your health, you should be more concerned with things that are possibly endangering to your life (or overall well-being) than you would be about the possibility of them not being kosher. Whether something falls into this category is up to you to decide. I, personally, would rather see people worried about high-cholesterol foods and the like than about pesticides. I think they are the bigger sakanah.

I will end by saying that in this area of protecting your own health – “ve’nishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם(Devarim 4:15)- the Rabbis gave a lot of discretion to the individual. Every day we make decisions that are risk-benefit tradeoffs (what car to drive, whether to drive or go on the subway, what foods to eat, whether to go skiing or swimming, etc.), and we are most definitely not told that we always have to choose the safest option or that there is a particular risk-benefit ratio that we have to achieve. To some degree this is based on the principle of dashu bei rabim דשו ביה רבים (Shabbat 129b, Yevamot 12b, etc.)- generally accepted behavior – but it goes beyond that. Hazal left this as an area for our autonomy and our subjective weighing of these risks. (When the risk is so large, it might be a different story, even when the behavior is widely practiced – see the discussion in poskim around smoking cigarettes).

So, yes, Hazal want us to attend to our health. How to prioritize which concerns are the most important to attend to when it comes to choices of the foods that we eat – that is up to us and not a matter of halakha or kashrut per se.

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