Within Jewish law there is a concept known as maarit ayin, which translates to “perception of the eye.” It is a shorthand term for the rabbinic prohibition of doing a permitted act that might appear to others to be a transgression. One classic example of maarit ayin is buying a drink at a non-kosher restaurant. The drink is fine, but it may be perceived by others as if one is there to eat non-kosher food. (Note that places like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, where it is common for people to buy coffee, is not the same as a McDonalds.)

There are several issues associated with maarit ayin. One is the risk that someone seeing a person involved in an activity that looks prohibited might come to think that the prohibited activity is actually permitted. Thus seeing a person whom one knows maintains a strictly kosher diet ordering at a non-kosher restaurant might cause others to assume that the restaurant is, in fact, kosher.

Another issue associated with maarit ayin is protection from the negative judgment of others. The person ordering the drink may be perceived by an acquaintance as knowingly acting contrary to halacha (Jewish law). Of course, the observer should judge the person favorably and not make assumptions, but human nature tends to be judgmental.

Maarit ayin can apply to a wide range of halachic issues and is mentioned in several different instances in the Talmud. For instance: “If a splinter has got into a person’s [foot] while [he was standing] in front of an idol, he should not bend down to get it out, because he may appear as bowing to the idol” (Talmud Avodah Zara 12a). Today, one does not normally worry about happenstance idol worship. In fact, maarat ayin as a legal construct is fascinating in that it can change with the times. The Code of Jewish Law makes mention of cooking meat in “milk from almonds,” which looks like real milk, and rules that if one cooks in this manner one should place almonds on the table as a sign. Today, however, non-dairy milk-like products are so common that there is no risk of maarit ayin.

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