Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Teves 5763 - December 18, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Using Insect-Free Vegetables

by Rabbi Aryeh Gefen

Except for a few rare souls possessed of a special spiritual inspiration, very few people venture from the central region of Israel to the hothouses in Gush Katif -- particularly since Kassam missiles were fired at them.

"And I never cease to be amazed how these two come, time after time, and nothing can deter them. Their singular, unwavering resolution arouses in me great respect for them," says one greenhouse owner, referring to Rav Shlomo Shmulevitz and Rav Binyomin Chazan from the Jerusalem Rabbinate's Department of Mitzvot Dependent on the Land of Israel. "Shluchei mitzvos einom nizokim," concludes the greenhouse farmer.

Recently I had an opportunity to speak with Rav Shmulevitz to get a behind-the-scenes look at the hothouses. Actually I was looking for material on current affairs, but what I found was a piece of information that is absolutely essential to share with the reading public to prevent stumbling blocks in matters of halacha chas vesholom. Who knows? Perhaps this was the real reason why the interview was ordained to take place.

In the middle of the interview Rav Shmulevitz, head of the department of kashrus supervision of the Jerusalem rabbinate, received a call from a furious customer. "I found a little fly in a bag marked `insect-free' and I nearly committed an issur deOraisa."

He listened attentively until the anonymous caller on the other end of the line had finished venting his anger. Then, with gentle patience, he asked the complainer to describe the little fly. Following his description Rav Shmulevitz' face lit up. "Do you still have the bag the vegetable came in?" he asked.

Receiving an affirmative reply he asked the caller to tell him the name of the grower and to read aloud the writing on the backside of the package.

The caller began to read with great surety in his voice, but gradually his tone of confidence turned to wonder and even became slightly apologetic. "Despite the care taken in the greenhouses, small flies may be found among the leaves of the vegetable. This can occur with all of the growers at all of the various companies, and therefore the leaves must be rinsed well under a strong flow of water. After rinsing there is no obligation to check [for insects]. Some take the extra precaution of soaking the leaves in a bit of soapy water for three minutes before rinsing."

When the caller had finished reading he had nothing left to say. "Uh-huh," he muttered and hung up the receiver abruptly. Rav Shmulevitz turned to me.

"Are people as careless with the small print on banking or legal documents, not even glancing at what they are signing?"

Isn't a Fly a Bug?

I was still plagued by several questions: Are there bugs or not? And if bug-free vegetables have bugs, why did talmidei chachomim institute their use? What's so special about the declaration "insect-free" if a real, live fly can still be found inside the package?

"There are numerous types of insects, worms and larvae," explained Rav Shmulevitz. "We perform sample tests. Produce grown in an orchard where the sample test showed the insects to be beyond the allowable number is rejected outright for sale as insect-free. Generally the crop from such a plantation is destroyed or is sold to the general public as a regular vegetable, and whoever wants to check can check it and clean it as he sees fit.

"Special cultivation under sterile conditions results in a crop of vegetables in which insects, worms and larvae are not found. Using new hothouse farming methods of strengthening the vegetables and spraying, the crops we certify do not contain regular worms which do not fall off with a light shake and regular rinsing. Through lab testing we regularly ensure the vegetables remain very clean."

Yated Ne'eman: Rav Shmulevitz, perhaps you could say a few words in general about the cultivation process itself.

Rav Shmulevitz: Cultivation is done under monitored conditions, with very dense screens that prevent the insects from coming near the vegetables. The ground itself is also cleaned and disinfected before cultivation begins. There is a double door to the hothouses to prevent various types of insects from roaming around freely. Before growing begins, samples are regularly taken from the site for testing. First the planting stage and later the distribution must be certified.

I want to stress clearly that these types of vegetables have a chazokoh of being wormy when grown under regular conditions in open fields. After the steps we take and after the thorough professional tests we conduct, the vegetables no longer have a chazokoh of being wormy. At this point they have a chazokoh of being free of all types of insects, worms and larvae visible to the eye. But we do not pretend to make a claim of bal yeiro'eh uval yimotzei, that absolutely zero worms or small flies are to be found. And if worms are found, they are the kind that are not difficult to be rid of, but are worms that come off under a heavy stream of water with light shaking. Please write this clearly and unambiguously to inform the public and to keep people from stumbling.

Shluchei Mitzvoh on the Front Lines

The shrill ringing of a cell phone interrupts our conversation. Gloom descends upon the table. The hothouse where Rav Shmulevitz was supposed to be today was the target of a bloody attack by a Palestinian terrorist who killed the owner's son.

YN: Aren't you afraid to travel and make regular rounds in these areas?

Rav Shmulevitz: Of course, when there is an imminent threat of pikuach nefesh no one endangers himself, for pikuach nefesh takes precedence over everything. But at the places we go to we see special siyata deShmaya. When you set out with mesirus nefesh for the sake of strict supervision to maintain the halacha and the necessary hiddurim for the sake of the sector that keeps the highest standards of kashrus, you do not worry. Many kashrus organizations won't go near these places and rely on the network of mashgichim we laid out throughout Gush Katif and the Gaza Strip. But it goes without saying that actual on- site presence is preferable, that it is preferable to see the hothouses firsthand, and that the quality of supervision is improved.

It is very different when unexpected appearances and surprise visits are made. We view our endeavor as a mission of supreme importance and a mitzvah, and if Hashem does not guard over a city the guard stands duty in vain.

YN: "Shluchei mitzvah einom nizokim. I never cease to be amazed."

Rav Shmulevitz: Let me tell you a story that borders on the absurd. Not long ago I interviewed a mashgiach whose wife objects to him traveling to these dangerous areas. I arranged a meeting with them at the Religious Council building in Jerusalem and as we approached Rechov Hachavatzelet where the meeting was to take place, we suddenly heard shots nearby coming from the middle of Rechov Yaffo. The gunfire was from a terrorist firing volleys of shots in every direction until he was shot by police.

Due to my experience I ran to the scene of the incident to help, leaving my shocked companions behind in the dangerous place where they had been walking. Needless to say, there was no longer any need for a meeting.

The Different Types of Bugs

YN: Which type of insects and worms cause you to disqualify an entire hothouse?

Rav Shmulevitz: In general, in Israel there are more insects than in many other parts of the world. Israel's location at the meeting point of Africa, Asia and near Europe brings high risks for orchards and ground crops to contract diseases which come from all locations. Israeli import laws for fruits and vegetables are very stringent, yet nevertheless diseases and other problems periodically make their way here from other parts of the world.

For example, in the banana plantations a few years ago we suffered, together with the Jordanians, from a type of worm called a nematode that settles into the roots and annihilates whole plantations.

There are several types of flies. There are tunnel flies, which are the most problematic for us. On one hand, they are clearly visible to the human eye. Sometimes they are found on celery or parsley. Rinsing doesn't help. There are also mites that attach themselves and come off with vinegar.

There are parasites--such as the Middle East fly--that come off with a bit of scrubbing and light shaking. The names are familiar to some people: leaf mites, fruit flies and tunnel flies. When we see that after all of the special procedures and cultivation techniques in the hothouse there is infestation, we reject the entire hothouse as a source for worm-free vegetables.

There are several types of fruits and vegetables that farmers are unable to grow without worms, despite numerous attempts. But scientific development and the vast experience acquired will probably bring new tidings over the course of time.

Strawberries, for example, are almost totally infested. Because of the way they grow they need a great deal of ventilation, so they cannot remain constantly inside a hermetically sealed greenhouse. Therefore various types of insects attach themselves to the fruit and leaves.

YN: Are there other methods of growing insect- free produce?

Rav Shmulevitz: There are methods of growing on water, known as hydroponics. This method, which was tried in the past in shmittah year 5712 (1952) [when the Chazon Ish was still alive], produces sweet lettuce ready to be picked within a few weeks. The vegetable is sold with the root, giving it a shelf-life one week longer than the normal standard.

By the way, gedolei haposkim disagree over the proper brochoh to be said. Maran the Chazon Ish ruled that borei peri ho'adomoh should be said.

There are also methods of freezing. Using a special cooling method from the field all the way to the store, a "chain of cold" is maintained. The vegetable is brought from the field in refrigerated trucks. For example, cabbage or broccoli is transported at a constant temperature from the field to the store. This improves the vegetable's quality and doubles its shelf- life!

There is also a method of selling chilled vegetables washed in sprayers in a special Jacuzzi with special cleaning solutions that leave the vegetable free of insects and worms.

YN: Many people are concerned about over excessive spraying. They are concerned that due to a desire to render vegetables cleaner from a halachic perspective they are poisoning them and making them unfit for consumption.

Rav Shmulevitz: It is well known that these vegetables are more protected from spraying and better kept from various diseases than other vegetables. The Health Ministry regularly takes vegetable samples and makes inspections, and samples of all of the major outlets that carry our vegetables are sent to the labs.

And what is the conclusion of these findings? Worm-free vegetables are extremely clean in terms of spraying and insects! The reason is simple: there is less of a need to spray when everything is disinfected and sealed in advance, not allowing all kinds of insects to take up residency on the vegetables.

Our final question is addressed to supervisor, Rav Binyomin Chazan.

YN: Does the tight, stringent hashgocho increase the price above the price of regular vegetables in the marketplace?

Rav Chazan: Competition among wholesalers is strong and competition is always good for the buyers. Still, worm- free vegetables are higher-priced than those of the local market, but presumably the prices will decrease over time. The growing costs and the detailed adherence to strict halacha involve significant expenses. Rejecting orchards and greenhouses for sale sometimes causes losses, but the demand for halachic stringency is first and foremost.

The buying public across the country, both the chareidi and the national-religious, places its faith in the mashgichim and the kashrus system, and the vegetables make their way to every location and to major wholesalers and of course numerous hotels and guesthouses, etc., which encourages us and strengthens us in dealing with all of the trials and difficulties surrounding the many branches of the kashrus system.

Rav Efrati Explains

Rav Yosef Efrati, head of the Beis Medrash Lehalocho Behisyashvus, adds further details regarding the special supervision of worm-free vegetables.

Most wholesalers have private laboratories where they inspect the vegetables and their level of cleanliness. Based on accumulated experience we decided to set up a lab of our own to which we bring samples from all of the greenhouses under our supervision. This lab has several unique advantages.

First of all it is completely objective since it does not belong to the wholesalers. Second, we accumulate samples from every type of greenhouse and every type of crop and various different locations. Thus we see a more complete picture and can establish more uniform, sharper criteria.

I would like to make this very clear: Since we collect samples from every location we see that there is a possibility of growing vegetables completely free of worms. Even if we find this level of cleanliness only among a few individual growers, the very fact that it is possible to reach such a level of cleanliness raises the criteria, and the demands made upon the other distributors increases a step. The very fact that such a possibility exists makes us set it as a goal that must be reached.

But we must repeat the truth of the matter. Rav Efrati says a "worm-free vegetable" means it does not have a chazokoh as wormy and no longer has to be checked. In other words, when this vegetable is grown under regular conditions it has a chazokoh as wormy. Under the growing conditions we are discussing it loses its chazokoh as wormy and now is no longer considered wormy!

But there are varying levels of cleanliness. And therefore our recommendation regarding all of the companies is to rinse the vegetable, since rinsing removes the worms and flies that are, rarely, present. We strive to reach one hundred percent cleanliness.

Here I must note the mesirus nefesh of the local mashgichim in Gush Katif and other locations, headed by Rav Shmulevitz, who is unafraid to supervise on a regular basis in the field and to constantly check the cleanliness of the product and its cultivation. Just as he does not hesitate to remove the kashrus from growers that do not accommodate halachic requirements.

We have merited siyata deShmaya in every matter associated with mitzvos tied to Eretz Yisroel around the country, and in the merit of the tremendous mesirus nefesh shown by the mashgichim we have merited siyata deShmaya in this area as well. Thus the public benefits from uncompromising kashrus in a product made by companies that sell worm- free vegetables under the supervision of this division of the Jerusalem Rabbinate.


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