What to do With Grandma's Treyf China - Episode 66
Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times! I'm Rabbi Avi Killip here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. And we're recording, actually, this afternoon, live from Hadar, from Hadar's inaugural halakhah intensive! This is a new program that we're running for the first time this year, where we've invited in a group of people to study halakhah for a week. So tell me, how's it going?
Rav Eitan: It's great, this is what everyone thinks, like, my dream life is, sitting around all day just studying halakhah, talking about all the details of Jewish law. And it is actually pretty great!
Rav Avi: It's actually, when I was pitching this week to someone, I literally used the word "dreamy" — I said, doesn't it sound dreamy? It's basically a week-long Responsa Radio we have going on here. This is a question that I think on the surface can seem very superficial, and maybe even, yes, silly or materialistic. I want to say that I personally am really feeling this question right now in my life. So I'll read the question and then maybe I'll share my personal background.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, tell me, I want to hear why, yeah.
Rav Avi: This question came with a subject line, so the headline is "Inheriting Fine Dishes." And here's the question: "We've been offered a set of Lenox china dishes that were used in a non-kosher meat-eating kitchen. I have heard of a rule about letting things sit for a year untouched, and then they magically become kosher and eligible to either milchig or fleishig." I love the use of the word "magic" in this question. "This has always seemed sort of strange. Are there limits in applying such a rule?" First of all, kashrut that happens by magic is just, it's great, it's the best kind, and they can be milchig or fleishig! Personally, I guess I've reached a life stage where there's many women in my family who are in a downsizing, cleaning mode, all of whom don't want their fine china but want desperately for the fine china to stay in the family. I've had three different women of the generation ahead of me in the past year offer me their fine china dishes, and all three sets, I would say, fall into this category. And so A, I really see this question as very practical, in that I am asking it myself, and B, I really sort of see this as much more than a kashrut question, and see a deeper emotional valence, which hopefully will come out.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, yeah. Okay, let's try to break it down as we usually do, to like, you know, a couple different ways you can look at it. So let's start with, well, "fine dishes" — I assume we're talking about china here, we're talking about, you know, glazed —
Rav Avi: Lenox china, please!
Rav Eitan: Oh right, they say, sorry. Lenox china. Great. So we're talking about porcelain, we're talking about something that's glazed. So let's just start with the specific material we're talking about, which I think is one background to the question here. You know, something I think people can sometimes forget around the laws of kashrut is that there is a concept of things that are totally non-porous, that just do not absorb anything. What the Talmud refers to as shia, they're just, they're not bolim, they're not potim, they don't swallow anything up, they don't spit anything out. They have no coefficient of absorption, is the way we kind of talk about it formally. And those things don't need to be kashered or never have a status. Anything that you determine is in that category, it's just irrelevant, whatever happened to it. So there's all kinds of Jews who put glass in that category, and then they will just use glass in that way, really without any regard for their history. Rav Ovadia Yosef extends that to Pyrex as well, and there have even been some recent poskim that have tried to argue that the same is true for stainless steel, that you're just dealing with things that don't in any way absorb anything. There is a reasonable argument that glazed china falls into that category as well. That is to say, it just never absorbs anything.
Rav Avi: That's because of the glaze?
Rav Eitan: Well, actually, even the porcelain itself, Rav Yaakov Emden, back in the 18th century, does this whole thing, he's like, I did an experiment, I took porcelain and I weighed it and then I immersed it in water for a long time and soaked it, and I weighed it on the other end and it came out the same exact way.
Rav Avi: Kashrut science!
Rav Eitan: Exactly. And he actually —
Rav Avi: Interdisciplinary halakhah.
Rav Eitan: Fantastic. You know, kashrut takes you a lot of weird places outside of itself. And Rav Yaakov Emden actually ruled, he said porcelain is in this category of, it does not absorb. And it's just okay to use it, it doesn't matter, and there's no, like, kashering procedure that, you know, plays out in that way. And where the glaze is relevant is, this seems to be dealing even with things that don't have the kind of glaze we have today, so all the moreso, if he was willing to say that porcelain was non-porous, the kind that's floating into the West in the 17th and 18th centuries, all the moreso things like Lenox china fall in that category. So I do think there is a sort of background position here, which I wanna emphasize, was not broadly accepted, but which existed and sort of has echoes where, well, maybe we're talking about the kind of thing that is already non-porous. Which is to say, the consideration around a Lenox china plate might be different than the tagine that you inherited, that is a non-glazed, earthenware thing that was used for, you know, lamb-yogurt dishes of whatever sort, and now has been sitting around, you know, for a long time. So that's the first thing.
Rav Avi: Okay. But even so, you're telling me that's not generally the way people think about china.
Rav Eitan: That's right. It's not, I would say, people are certainly very hesitant, people weigh in on the questions of kashrut, poskim say oh, china, non-porous, and it's not really the way that people who are careful about these things practice. But it's always important to note that that's out there, and it gets factored in sometimes in the larger discussion. Okay.
Rav Avi: So option one is, didn't need to be kashered anyway.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, nothing to talk about.
Rav Avi: What's next in line?
Rav Eitan: Let's not force ourselves to accept the premise that porcelain is non-porous, okay? I want to focus on another piece here, which is, we talked about dishes, not pots. Right? So we are actually talking about things that, by definition, are not used on the fire, are not used on heat sources. There might be some things that are bowls, and, I think some Lenox china are enough grade that you can put them in an oven up to a certain temperature, so, okay, we'll come back to being concerned about that. But, you know, for sure we're dealing with things that for the most part, their dominant use is what we call as a receptacle for food taken out of something that was used on the fire, as a kli sheni. And in that sense, they have a different status, where even though yeah, we don't just say, well, use any plates you want with meat, milk, because they're not thrown on the fire, there is a standard that after the fact, bedievad, if you kind of accidentally mix things up with a plate that wasn't on the fire, pretty much there's no way for you to treif it up. We don't make you throw out a plate that you accidentally put the wrong kind of food on, in the way that if you accidentally cooked meat in a dairy ceramic container in the oven, we might say yeah, that's gone, you gotta give that away, you know, or smash it.
So that, I think, is important — we can maybe have some debate of, well, soup bowls, ladling hot soups straight in, maybe that I'm a little more nervous, but the salad plates are probably fine. It's hard to imagine the teacups and the saucers ever having had hot non-kosher food in them. But even if you have some concern, there is another element here with when you're dealing with a set of china, they are secondary in terms of the relationship to heat. We're talking about keilim shni'im, and therefore don't absorb things, at least, after the fact.
Rav Avi: I hesitate to ask this, but does cooking things in the microwave count to you as cooking things?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, no, you're definitely right — the microwave definitely complicates it.
Rav Avi: Some of the dishes that were offered to me you can't put in the microwave, because they have gold rims — some of them you can.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. I would say the microwave does, in fact, complicate things. It makes things a kli rishon, at least more plausibly something that is being, you know, kind of treated directly. I don't want to say there's no way out of it, because at the end of the day, the way that the microwave is cooking the food is sort of with direct interaction with the food molecules and particles in a way that's not the same as, I heat the pot and that's what heats the food.
Rav Avi: Wow, fascinating. Real kashrut science happening there.
Rav Eitan: But still, when you put plates like that in the microwave, like, they do get hot. Certainly certain kinds of earthenware ones. And that probably does complicate it. So I'm sorry, but you're right to have a little bit of complication there.
Rav Avi: All the people listening are like, why did she have to ask about the microwave?
Rav Eitan: But this is really what gets us to, I think, the key thing, which is the magic of the 12 months.
Rav Avi: Yes, tell us about that! Without the 12 months, right, it seems like we have two roads we could go down: one road is, they're totally fine, and the other road is, nope, they're unsaveable and they can never be saved. Those are the options that we have right now?
Rav Eitan: Well, so, I think we have different axes we can play with here. I think ultimately where we'll come out is, well, when would we allow these different considerations to sort of stack up and get us to a permissible outcome, no pun intended on stacking up plates. So let's go to the 12-month thing.
Rav Avi: Okay, great.
Rav Eitan: Which kind of seems like magic. It basically is essentially in this Talmudic source that talks about earthenware containers that were used to store gentile wine. So this is a whole other category, never done an episode on it yet, maybe we will — the idea that wine is like a particularly high-voltage kind of a thing, it's a social lubricant in terms of people breaking down boundaries with each other when they drink it, it's also associated with religious and cultic rites, and so you're worried about, does it come from some idolatrous space. In any event, one of the things that rabbinic sources talk about all the time as being forbidden to consume is wine that comes from non-Jews and non-Jewish spaces, et cetera. But what do you do if you have, like, some really nice vessels that wine was stored in and you're happy to pour the wine out, but is there any way you can make use of those? And the Talmud says about these: rinse them out really well, and then let them sit for 12 months, and on the other end of that, essentially the idea is after 12 months, any remaining residue will have completely evaporated, completely disappear, and there will be no consequence or influence on anything you will subsequently put in those vessels.
Rav Avi: And that's actually the Talmud, it's not even a later —
Rav Eitan: Yeah, that's the Talmud itself. Now, the question that it raises is, well, on the one hand it's a great proof text, because gentile wine was something that was like, whoa, very strict, very serious, it's connected to idolatry. On the other hand, gentile wine in most cases, you're not talking about something actually taken from an idolatrous temple, you just saw it libated in front of you — you're talking about something where as a kind of protection, a gezeirah, a distancing, you're strict about, maybe this is less of an intense case than other cases of kashrut. So, okay. There's some sort of back-and-forth, but you do have the Chacham Tzvi, who was Rav Yaakov Emden's father, who we mentioned earlier, talking about this as a precedent for even using dishes that were used for chametz on Pesach, if they've sat unused for 12 months. And actually, chametz is, you know, arguably more problematic than just garden-variety nonkosher, though there too you can sort of argue it out —
Rav Avi: But it's interesting, I almost want to say, but wine — non-Jewish wine and chametz on Pesach are not really kashrut, they're totally different laws altogether.
Rav Eitan: Exactly.
Rav Avi: But they are about food.
Rav Eitan: Right. So this is where I think it's a little, it's a little complicated and controversial. If you're considering it almost from, like, the science perspective, of, well, the permission is grounded in the fact that after 12 months there's nothing left of the food, what do I care what the food was? If that's the physical process it goes through, you're done. But if that's implicitly being piggybacked on top of, well, the chametz was permissible during the year and the gentile wine is just kind of like added stringency, you might be a little more hesitant to apply this. Okay. So that's the question now — I think we now have the building blocks of thinking about how might you pull this together. So the best responsum that really pulls these factors together is one by Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Moshe Feinstein is essentially asked about someone who did not grow up with any kind of observance in their life, and has now decided, as the teshuva describes it, to come back to Jewish observance and to become a ba'al teshuva, and wants to keep kosher in the house and all of these things, and has this set of dishes from before, which are really expensive and really nice —
Rav Avi: And they're theirs!
Rave Eitan: And are theirs. And they really would not like — and we'll get to how he interprets this in a minute — would not like to have to throw them all out or even sell them and then replace them. There's some need here, which I think is partially financial, but I think unmistakably, if you read the teshuva correctly, partially emotional, of, I'd like to be able to make this step into observance, and for it not to have to be that hard. And Rav Moshe sort of cites all the things we've talked about, saying, well, you know, first of all it is porcelain and there were a lot of people who thought that porcelain was fine. And second of all, well, actually most of these things they're not using, they're not pots, et cetera, et cetera.
And third of all, there is this view of the Chacham Tzvi that after 12 months everything is okay. And he's still nervous about all of that, and then he, what he whips out at the end is, he says you can rely on that in order to facilitate someone who wants to, in this case, right, do teshuva, who wants to basically fulfill a mitzvah that they feel they haven't been able to otherwise. Mishum takanat hashavim. Takanat hashavim is a reference to this discussion, it starts in the Mishnah and then later in the Talmud, about someone who steals a beam and they build their entire house with this stolen beam, and they then feel terrible about it, and takanat hashavim is, you don't make them tear down the entire house to return the beam; they just have to pay back the value of the beam, even though the initial person is kind of getting shafted by not getting that beam back. And the reason is that takanat hashavim, you have to basically pave the way for people to make these kinds of shifts. And what he sees here is, he feels an obligation to essentially make it easy, but not easy in the sense of, like, it's not hard. But sort of almost like, as seamless as possible for this person to be able to start keeping kosher in the house.
Rav Avi: It still feels a little extreme to me, in that you have to come at it from a place of, if the teshuva won't happen without, you know, if teshuva requires burning my house down, I'm not gonna do that. I can't dismantle my entire house. And it sounds like his understanding from this question that he was asked was, does becoming ba'al teshuva require dismantling my whole household or not? So I'm curious to hear from you, reading his teshuva, if you think that his teshuva in that situation actually applies to someone like me — it's not really like kashrut in my home is up for grabs and if you tell me I can't take my grandmother's dishes I'm gonna stop keeping kosher. That's not really on the table, so to speak. Pun intended, at my house. So, like, do I still get to use this teshuva, or is it not relevant to me, actually?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, so I'll comment on what I think he's doing and give you a thought, and we can sort of talk out where it leaves us. The reason, I think, that Rav Moshe's teshuva does have some degree of, sort of, an emotional and not just a financial element is, you know, it's not, like, that impossible to sell your dishes, in some way recoup some of the cost and buy something that's maybe a little bit cheaper and come away with a perfectly nice set. And sure, it'll cost something — will it cost, like, that much more than a couple of years of buying a lulav and and etrog, and this — I, you know, I don't know the scope of what we're dealing with here in terms of — it doesn't seem like it's a catering hall, we're talking about one person and their set of dishes. And in that sense, while there is financial loss, I'm not minimizing that — it does seem to me that Rav Moshe's also sensitive here to the notion that if you make people feel like in order to kind of go from one stage to another, they have to be kind of like completely discontinuous with, you know, what they had or where they came from, and all of that, that is not a good place to be, particularly when you have all of these reasonable interpretations of the situation lurking in the background that make it fine. Right, this is where the porcelain piece is important: he's sort of like, you know, let's remember, like, Rav Yaakov Emden did say this was okay. And even if that didn't become conventional, that feels central. I sort of pick up on that cue.
And the guidance I would give to someone in that situation is essentially, yeah, there's some degree of, like, emotional assessment that I think you need to make. If, really, it will be just as fine for you to part with these dishes and be able to have something else and it's just a matter of convenience, well, think about it: is there someone you know or a Goodwill shop where you're gonna give some money to tzedakah this year — maybe this year, like, the amazing thing you're giving is, like, an incredible set of dishes that someone would otherwise not be able to have them, would get them. And that's going to actually sort of fulfill the honor of whoever was there, et cetera, et cetera. And so in some ways I think, yeah, if people are asking this question just from, well, I'd love to not throw away this 200 dollars if I didn't have to, if that's, let's say, the end cost —
Rav Avi: If it was only a financial barrier.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, well, I might say, well, were you gonna give more than 200 dollars for tzedakah this year? Maybe you should give this, and, you know, you write this off of your ma'aser k'safim, like your tithing, you know, that you would otherwise do. And that's the right way to go. But sometimes I think people have narratives of, you know, these were my bubbie's dishes. And I've become observant, but I don't really want to feel like my bubbie's dishes were treif with, like, a capital T, even if locally I can't use them. And to the extent there's a pathway whereby it's almost like, I can "kasher the dishes" in quotes by them having had enough space from that bringing my grandmother's legacy into my kosher home — that feels to me like an extension to me of takanat hashavim, particularly when you have all these other factors that are potentially warranted leniencies.
Rav Avi: Right. I feel that very acutely in the ways that I feel like I've inherited my Judaism davka from these women from whom I've also inherited these treif dishes. You know, it's like, I get both of their legacies with those dishes.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. And I think that's powerful, and I think, look, this is a great example where a lot of times halakhah working at its best lays out kind of very clearly, here are the factors on the table, here are the things I think we need answers to. And quite frankly, you, the questioner, are probably the only one who can answer the factual questions that the law will then, you know, build off of and produce some kind of guidance and outcome.
Rav Avi: Yeah. I want to give one other reflection on the 12-month magic phenomenon, which is, and I think we've discussed this also on this podcast in the past, the reason which the rituals around kashrut are both logical and sometimes somewhat science-based, and also sometimes not at all science-based, or not at all logical, and really ritual. And it's about doing an action that will turn something from not permitted to permitted. And just how different it feels to me, the difference between saying, I need them to sit for 12 months and they've been sitting in my bubbie's basement for eight years, so they're fine and I can use them now, versus, I'm gonna put them aside, I inherited them, I'm gonna put them aside for a year, and at the end of the year I'm gonna take them into my kitchen. The second one, to me, really feels like an actual, a ritual act, taking a moment, marking it, saying there is something that needs to happen, I can't just bring these directly into my kitchen. And maybe the eight years sitting in the basement also feels like a ritual act, it's like, they had time, you know, for the wine to dry, so to speak. And that it doesn't actually feel so much like magic in the way that just saying, like, ta-da, porcelain is fine, goes straight from the dishwasher into my cabinet.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. There is something, I think, really strong about that, because, you know, in many cases, if you inherited, like, a pot, you would just kasher it, right? The only reason why we're having this discussion is that things like china dishes are either non-porous, or they're earthenware, and we think that earthenware can't in any way be kashered. And I like the way you're formulating it — it's almost like, when you're stuck in this situation it's almost like the kashering ritual becomes, I'll put it aside for a year. And even though we might not say that, as we saw just on its own, you know, with, like, a random ceramic pot, if it's something where you already feel like, maybe I don't have to kasher this thing at all, but there are other factors that make me feel like I should want to, that really does become the way you do it.
Rav Avi: Yeah. I'll just end by, you know, saying I really do understand this as much more than just a kashrut — it's an interesting question where potentially dishes, I think, are sometimes really a stand-in for, what are we inheriting, and what are we asked to change about ourselves and not inherit and let go of, and what, in turn, do we inherit and rise up and in the ways in which our table is our offering today, that which dishes we put on the table really matters to some people and to some extent. Thanks!
Rav Avi: Have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected]. Or you can leave us a message at (215) 297-4254. If you enjoy listening to Responsa Radio, please consider making a donation to Hadar at www.hadar.org, or Jewish Public Media at jpmedia.co. Responsa Radio is a project of the Center for Jewish Law and Values at Hadar, and is produced by Jewish Public Media, which creates, curates, and promotes excellent Jewish content.