Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 16 June 2012 / 25 Sivan 5772

The Halachic Adventures of the Potato

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

Ever since first ‘making the scene’ via the victorious Spaniards shipping them from the conquered Incas to their own colonies and armies throughout Europe in the late 1500s, the ubiquitous potato has been a considerable mainstay on the world stage. From circumnavigating the globe with Sir Francis Drake, to famed French physician Antoine Parmentier's waxing poetic about this nightshade’s nutritional value, to Queen Marie Antoinette wearing a headdress of potato flowers at a fancy ball (obviously while she still had her head), by the 1770s the potato had become a staple crop throughout Europe. What other vegetable has been credited with helping facilitate such diverse events as the Industrial Revolution, the Great Irish Famine of 1845 (due to their susceptibility to blight), Russia’s proclivity for vodka, and a U.S. Vice President’s public spelling debacle? Yet, aside for the tuber’s worldly presence, it also holds a unique place in the annals of Halacha, and not just by its significance in cholent, latkes, and fresh hot potato kugel.

Bracha Brouhaha - Mind Your K’s And T’s

If one were to take a poll as to the potato’s proper bracha (blessing required before eating), the vast majority would respond that since the potato is a vegetable and grows from the ground its proper bracha is “borei pri ha’adama[1]. Yet, although this seems clear-cut, interestingly, there are those who make a different blessing: shehakol, usually reserved for food items not naturally grown. The source of this remarkable ruling seems to be an enigmatic translation by the Aruch, a contemporary of Rashi (est. 1040). When referring to the proper bracha of mushrooms and other food items that do not actually get their nourishment from the earth and consequentially their bracha being shehakol[2], the Aruch translates them as “Tartuffel[3]. Not familiar with the archaic word, the Tehilla L’Moshe maintained that the Aruch must have been referring to “Kartuffel”, colloquially known as the potato. He added that the great Rav Naftali of Ropshitz made a shehakol on potatoes as well.

This rationale is also found in several other sefarim, and there are prominent authorities who therefore made a shehakol bracha on potatoes[4]. In fact, Sanzer and Kamarna Chassidim follow this custom.

However, the facts do not really corroborate this as potatoes not only grow and root in the ground, but they also get their nourishment from the ground, as opposed to mushrooms and their ilk. Some point out that it is not possible for the Aruch, who lived in Europe in the 11th century, to have meant “Kartuffel”, as tubers were unknown on that continent until almost five hundred years later![5] Therefore, the vast majority of authorities rule that the proper blessing on the potato is indeed “borei pri ha’adama[6].

Kitniyos Clash

Another interesting issue related to the potato is its exclusion from the Askenazic prohibition of eating kitniyos (legumes) on Pesach. Several reasons are given for the actual prohibition[7] including that kitniyos are often stored together with grain and real chametz might actually end up inside the kitniyos container, cooked dishes made from grain and kitniyos look similar, and that kitniyos can be ground up into flour, and a ‘bread’ can be made from them. Since there are those who will not be able to differentiate between them and their Biblically forbidden chametz counterparts, kitniyos was likewise prohibited.

So how do our spuds measure up? It would seemingly be quite difficult for anyone to mix up potatoes with chametz grain, so that rationale to regard potatoes as kitniyos is out[8]. But, potatoes can be and are made into potato flour and potato starch, and there are those who do bake potato ‘bread’! If so, why would potatoes not be considered kitniyos? Shouldn’t they be consequentially forbidden for Ashkenazim to partake of on Pesach?

In fact, and not widely known, the Chayei Adam does actually rule this way, and the Pri Megadim mentions that he knows of such a custom, to prohibit potatoes on Pesach as a type of kitniyos[9]. However, the vast majority of authorities rule that potatoes are not any form of kitniyos and are permissible to all on Pesach[10]. The reason for this is that at the time when the Ashkenazic Rishonim established the decree prohibiting kitniyos, potatoes were completely unknown! It is possible that had they been readily available they might have been on the “forbidden list” as well! Yet, since they were never included, and especially as there were those who objected to the kitniyos prohibition in the first place[11], contemporary authorities have no right to add “new types” to the list[12]. As Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach noted[13], Klal Yisrael never accepted the kitniyos prohibition to include potatoes.

Cooking Quarrel

The potato was viewed quite differently by many, respective of the time and place. For example, as noted above, it was prized by French nobility in the 1770s. Yet, by the mid- 1800s tubers were considered peasant fare in many locales, including Ireland and Russia. This divergence of attitude actually has a halachic impact.

If a non-Jew cooks kosher food (from start to finish), it still might be prohibited for a Jew to consume it, based on the prohibition of Bishul Akum, literally - food cooked by a non-Jew. This is a Rabbinic decree meant to combat the plague of assimilation and intermarriage. However, in order for food to be included in this prohibition, it must meet two requirements: be unable to be eaten raw, and it must be ‘Oleh Al Shulchan Melachim’ - fit for a King’s table. Any kosher food cooked by a non-Jew that does not meet these requirements is permitted to be eaten[14].

A common concern is figuring out which foods are considered ‘Fit for a King’s Table’. The Chayei Adam, who lived in Vilna (located in modern-day Lithuania) in the early 1800s, ruled that potatoes are considered an important food item, fit for nobility[15]. As such, they are ‘Fit for a King’s Table’ and any cooked potato dish must be cooked by a Jew, or else will be prohibited as Bishul Akum.

However, the Aruch Hashulchan, writing in the 1890s in Novardok (located in modern-day Belarus), vigorously disagreed, maintaining that potatoes are food for the common man, and nobles would only partake of them due to the land’s overabundance of them, and not due to any inherent importance[16]. He adds that it is entirely possible that in the time and place of the Chayei Adam a potato dish might have been considered important, but by his time, the potato’s widespread popularity ensured that it no longer could have been rendered ‘Fit for a King’s Table’, and consequentially is excluded from the Bishul Akum prohibition. It is interesting to note that nowadays potato’s relevance is once again a matter of dispute among contemporary authorities regarding this important halacha.[17].

This Spud’s For You!

It’s amazing how not only our eating habits, but the entire world’s, have been changed by this simple vegetable. Can anyone even imagine Shabbos without cholent or kugel, or Chanuka without latkes? The common potato certainly has an uncommon and fascinating history, especially when viewed through the lens of Halacha.

For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author:

Disclaimer: These are just a few basic guidelines and overview of the Halacha discussed in this article. This is by no means a complete comprehensive authoritative guide, but rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issue. One should not compare similar cases in order to rules in any real case, but should refer his questions to a competent Halachic authority.

[1]Mishna & Gemara Brachos 35a and Tur / Shulchan Aruch O.C. 203.

[2]See Gemara Brachos 40b.

[3]Aruch (Erech Petter), cited by the Tehilla L’Moshe (Yismach Moshe vol. 3, pg. 12a).

[4]Likutei Mahariach (vol. 1, pg. 127b), Zichron Yehuda (pg. 23b s.v. al esrog, quoting the Maharam Ash), Shulchan HaTahor (204, 3 & Zer Zehav 2), Otzar HaChaim (Parshas VaYelech, Mitzvas Birchas HaNehenin), Pischa Zuta (Birchas HaPesach 12, 3). See Shu”t Divrei Yatziv (O.C. vol. 1, 82) and Shu”t Shraga HaMeir (vol. 6, 119), who staunchly defend the practice of making a shehakol. The Klausenberger Rebbe (Divrei Yatziv ibid. s.v. v’ulam) adds another reason to do so: since one can make flour out of potatoes and potatoes satiate and are filling, it might be considered in the same category of rice, whose proper bracha is mezonos (Mishna Berura 208, 25 and Shaar HaTzion 31). The rule is that if one is unsure what the proper bracha is he should make a shehakol. He therefore opines that potatoes should also be shehakol. The Steipler Gaon (Kraina D’Igresa vol. 2, 88 s.v. v’hadavar) disagrees, maintaining that the Gemara (Brachos 36b - 37a) singled out rice for this halacha of mezonos, and that it does not apply to other foods.

[5]Shu”t B’tzeil HaChochma (vol. 4, 83) and Shu”t Mishneh Halachos (vol. 6, 39 & 40).

[6]Including the Ya’avetz (Siddur Beis Yaakov pg. 108b, 100, 18), Mishna Berura (202, 40), Shu”t Imrei Yosher (vol. 2, 113, 2), Kraina D’Igresa (vol. 2, 88), Shu”t Igros Moshe (O.C. vol. 1, 60), Shu”t B’tzeil HaChochma (vol. 4, 83), Shu”t Rivevos Efraim (vol. 3, 124), Shu”t Mishneh Halachos (vol. 6, 39 & 40), Shu”t Az Nidberu (vol. 11, 48), Yalkut Yosef (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch O.C. 203, 10), Orchos Chaim (Spinka 204, 2), Darkei Chaim V’Shalom (293), Shvilei David (O.C. Klalei Brachos, 5, Ch. 2, 14), and Shalmei Nissan (on Perek Keitzad Mevorchin, Haaros 99, pg. 314 - 315) .

[7]See O.C. 473, 1 inBeis Yosef and Rema and major commentaries - Gr”a (5), Chok Yaakov (5 & 6), Shaarei Teshuva (1), Shulchan Aruch HaRav (3, 4, & 5), Mishna Berura (6), and Biur Halacha (s.v. v’yesh).

[8]Halichos Shlomo (Moadim vol. 2, Pesach Ch. 4, Dvar Halacha 28).

[9]Chayei Adam (Nishmas Adam, Hilchos Pesach, Question 20) and Pri Megadim (O.C. 453 M.Z. 1). However, the Pri Megadim himself rules that potatoes are not Kitniyos (O.C. 464 E.A. 1).

[10]Pri Megadim (O.C. 464 E.A. 1), Shu”t Sheilas Ya’avetz (vol. 2, 147, 4 s.v. u’vhiyosi), Shu”t Divrei Malkiel (vol. 2, end 112; he adds an additional reason to be lenient: potato flour doesn’t look like grain flour and has a different consistency, therefore mitigating potential mix-ups), Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 453, 5; he adds that with the advent of potatoes one should never have to rely on the hetter of permitting Kitniyos b’shaas hadchak), Kaf Hachaim (O.C. 453, 21), Shu”t Igros Moshe (O.C. vol. 3, 63), Halichos Shlomo (ibid.).

[11]See Beis Yosef (beg. O.C. 453), quoting Rabbeini Yerucham, who called the Kitniyos prohibition a “minhag shtus”, and Rabbeinu Yechiel. The prohibition is also noticeably missing from the works of the Tur. The Ya’avetz (Mor U’Ketzia beg. O.C. 453) famously declared that if he had the ability to cancel the prohibition he would, as it mostly affects the poor.

[12]Shu”t Sheilas Ya’avetz (vol. 2, 147, 4 s.v. u’vhiyosi), Shu”t Igros Moshe (O.C. vol. 3, 63), similar to the rule set by the Chok Yaakov (O.C. 453, 9).

[13]Halichos Shlomo (Moadim vol. 2, Pesach Ch. 4, Dvar Halacha 28). However, Rav Shlomo Zalman personally was stringent with potato flour (ad loc. footnote 109). It is known that the Badatz Eida Chareidis of Yerushalayim were also stringent until the renowned Minchas Yitzchak became the Ga’avad and ruled that there was no reason to be machmir, even with potato starch.

[14]See Tur/ Shulchan Aruch Y”D 113 and relevant commentaries for all related halachos of Bishul Akum.

[15]Chochmas Adam (66, 4).

[16]Aruch Hashulchan (Y”D 113, 18). Interestingly, and although written more than a century earlier, and in Germany, the Ya’avetz (Shu” Sheilas Ya’avetz ibid.) also wrote that potatoes are exclusively “peasant fare”; similar to the Aruch Hashulchan’s assertion.

[17]The Maharsham (Shu”t vol. 2, 262) maintains that in his time (1890s, Berezhan, modern-day Ukraine), a cooked potato was considered “Oleh Al Shulchan Melachim’, however, if it was roasted it was not, and would not fall under the issur of Bishul Akum. The Debreciner Rav (Shu”t Ba’er Moshe vol. 4, 49) understands this to include potatoes roasting in oil (frying), and adds that nowadays, they would definitely not be ‘fit for a king’s table’. Other contemporary authorities are even more lenient - the Yaskil Avdi (Shu”t vol. 7, Y”D 6, 4, 4) seems to accept the Aruch Hasulchan’s position that standard potatoes are not ‘Olah Al Shulchan Melachim’. However, the Shevet HaLevi (Shu”t vol. 6, 108, 4, s.v. u’m”m; see also vol. 10, 124 where he is machmir even for potato chips) and Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos vol. 1, 438), are machmir for the Chochmas Adam’s opinion and maintain that nowadays potatoes can be considered ‘Olah Al Shulchan Melachim’ and even by fried potatoes, one should be machmir. See also Emes L’Yaakov (on Shulchan Aruch, Y”D 113, footnote 42) and Shu”t Igros Moshe (Y”D vol. 4, 48, 5) who seem to rule that potato chips and French fries are ‘Olah Al Shulchan Melachim’, but for a different reason (they do seem to accept that nowadays potatoes are chashuv). However, see Shu”t Shulchan HaLevi (vol. 1, Birurei Halacha, 25) who maintains that fried and roasted potatoes are in no way nowadays considered ‘Olah Al Shulchan Melachim’, and explains at length that Rav Moshe and Rav Yaakov would certainly agree.

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.

L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!

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