“Kashrut and Copepods”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, is one of two parshiyot (the other is Re’eh, Deuteronomy 14:3-21) that serve as the main sources for many of the laws of kashrut, specifically regarding those animals and creatures that may be eaten and those that are forbidden.

Although many Jews know that kosher mammals must have split hooves and chew their cuds and that kosher fish must have fins and scales, very few are aware of the major prohibition of eating bugs, insects and creeping crawling things. (There are certain grasshoppers that are kosher, but most communities do not consume them because of difficulties identifying the precise species.)

In parashat Shemini, five verses declare the prohibition of eating things that swarm upon the earth. Leviticus 11:29-30 lists eight small animals that contaminate people, as well as objects, that come into contact with their dead carcasses.

Leviticus 11:29 reads, וְזֶה לָכֶם הַטָּמֵא בַּשֶּׁרֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵץ עַל הָאָרֶץ , These are the contaminated things, among the teeming animals that teem upon the earth. Although some of these creatures are not clearly identified, they are generally translated as the weasel, the mouse, the “great lizard,” the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard and the chameleon.

The Torah, in Leviticus 11:41, reiterates the prohibition. וְכָל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵץ עַל הָאָרֶץ שֶׁקֶץ הוּא, לֹא יֵאָכֵל , Every teeming creature that teems upon the ground–it is an abomination, it shall not be eaten. This includes snakes, scorpions, worms and other similar reptiles. Leviticus 11:42-44, includes the prohibition of insects that breed in filth or decay.

The Torah concludes, Leviticus 11:44-45, “For I am the L-rd your G-d, you have to sanctify yourselves and you shall become holy, for I am holy, and you shall not contaminate yourselves through any teeming thing that creeps on the earth, for I am the L-rd your G-d who elevates you from the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you. You shall be holy for I am holy.”

The biblical commentator R. Abraham Ibn Ezra who subscribes to the belief that “We are what we eat,” declares that one cannot have a pure, clean conscience with the knowledge that one’s own flesh is a product of a diet of insects, snakes and other vermin.

As science and technology have advanced, food specialists have alerted us to previously unknown contaminations in our food. The banning of DDT had a big impact on the numbers of bugs that are found in green vegetables and other farm plants. Advances in monitoring equipment have even found contaminants in our nation’s water supply, which may or may not affect our health. As a result of these discoveries, in the past fifteen or twenty years, an entire new industry has sprung up for the kosher consumer to ensure the availability of bug-free vegetables.

It is a bit ironic that the former Jewish settlements in Gaza, known as Gush Katif, were known for producing bug-free hydroponic vegetables of very high quality. Gush Katif products became staples in many observant Jewish homes, making life much easier for the kosher consumer, who no longer had to go through the rigorous process of carefully checking and cleaning vegetables.

However, in early 2004, reports appeared claiming that bugs were found on the leaves of the green vegetables coming from Gush Katif. An investigation was conducted and lo and behold, it was discovered that the vegetables themselves were perfectly clean, and that the process of rinsing the vegetables with New York City tap water was the source of the bug contamination.

Once the reports became known, the nation’s kashrut organizations, particularly the primary kashrut organization, the OU, confirmed that copepods, a tiny, almost microscopic, crustacean, were swimming in New York’s tap water.

New York City water was always known for its high quality, purity and excellent taste. In fact, New York City is one of the few major cities in the United States that is not required to filter its water because its sources are so pure. However, due to the lack of filtration, the New York City water contains copepods, which are harmless creatures that are even considered to be helpful for keeping the waters clean.

Copepods may be harmless, but they are a cause of great concern to observant Jews. The basic rule of kashrut is that if bugs are not visible to the naked eye they are not forbidden. Alas, these crustaceans are often just large enough to be seen with the naked eye and therefore are forbidden to be consumed. In fact, the rabbis say that eating a single bug may result in violating as many as eight Torah violations (many more than a bacon and cheese sandwich!).

Soon after the discovery of the copepods in the water system, religious Jews were advised to install water filters in their homes or to drink and cook with only bottled water.

Although installing the water filters was a rather expensive proposition and an inconvenience for our own family, having a hot water filter in the house proved to be a much appreciated convenience. Some would argue that the flavor of home-filtered New York tap water has an enhanced taste because it removes some of the chemical impurities and contaminants that are found in the unfiltered water.

It’s highly unlikely that many bugs in the New York water actually enter our household, especially those who live in high-rise buildings. These tiny, swimming creatures can’t really make it up to the third floor. Nevertheless, the fact that the Torah so frequently emphasizes the prohibition of eating these creepy crawling things gives observant Jews reason to pause to consider that perhaps the Torah knows something about the issues of health and cleanliness that even our most advanced scientists have yet to discover.

November 2004 was a big month in my professional career because I was quoted in The New York Times, not once, but twice in a single week. One article concerned a statue that had been recently dedicated in Central Park in memory of the founder of the New York Marathon, Fred Lebow. The second article was about those little creepy crawling things found in the New York waters, known as copepods.

Not a bad week for a Beginners rabbi.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is observed this year on Wednesday night April 12th, and all day Thursday April 13th, 2018.