Tuesday, April 24, 2012
where's the beef?
I heard the following story on Shabbos, one of my daughters told me that she heard the same story from a teacher at school with some minor variations, and I found it via google as well (link). Here's the short version more or less as I heard it:
A man flying somewhere by plane gets up to wash after his kosher sandwich is brought to him by the steward. As he makes his way back to his seat, it dawns on him that his fleishig sandwich is now basar she'nisalem min ha'ayin (the halacha is that meat left unattended around non-Jews may not be eaten). Despite his hunger, the man does not eat the meal. Seeing that he has made no move to eat the sandwich, his non-Jewish neighbor in the next seat inquires as to whether he is going to eat his food. The man offers some explanation about not really being hungry and tells the neighbor that he can have it. The neighbor then confesses that he has never many Jews and was curious as to what the kosher meal tasted like, so he switched the sandwich with his own.
Aren't Chazal brilliant, coming up with this law of basar she'nisalem min ha'ayin? Even when you think there is no danger, the halacha is smarter than you are, isn't it?
I really, really dislike stories like this.
Had it been my sandwich, I would have taken a big bite out of it. Firstly, the halacha is (Y.D. 118) that if a Jew comes and goes, if he pops in and out of where the food is -- he is yotzei v'nichnas -- so long as the non-Jew does not know exactly when he will come back (e.g. so long as he doesn't say something like, "I'll be back in an hour"), the meat is not basar she'nisalem. Since the person in the next seat had no way of knowing whether his Jewiah neighbor would be gone for 30 seconds or 10 minutes, as far as halacha is concerned, that is enough of a deterrent to remove any suspicion that the meat was switched.
Didn't you ever walk into a restaurant and see the mashgiach sitting out front? Do you think the mashgiach never takes a break -- he just stands there is the kitchen, watching the food every second? Of course not. So how do you know that the non-Jewish cook didn't swap out a slice from his turkey sandwich with the turkey on the plate he is preparing? The answer is yotzei v'nichnas (there are other good reasons, but this is one of them). If you eat out in a deli without worrying that Juan standing behind the counter switched your corned beef with his own when the mashgiach's eyes were elsewhere, then you can eat on the plane without worrying that the Juan sitting one seat over swapped the kosher meal for his own when your back was turned.
(Parenthetically, many folks where I live employ non-Jewish babysitters and housekeepers. As my wife correctly pointed out, the housekeeper or babysitter knows full well no one will be home until the end of the day -- there is no yotzei v'nichnas -- and is alone with a kitchen full of food and utensils. How many people after hearing this story ran over to their Rav to ask how to handle such a situation [see Igros Moshe Y.D. I:61]?)
Secondly, and maybe this is the more basic point, the halacha of basar she'nisalem min ha'ayin does not mean we suspect non-Jews of maliciously switching around food on us (see Aruch haShulchan Y.D. 118:30 "V'hinei haskamas kol raboseinu haRishonim v'haAchronim..."). It's only if the non-Jew will benefit from the switch in some way that we need to worry. I am willing to bet that kosher airline food is in no way superior to or more appetizing than non-kosher airline food (the sandwiches in the story were so alike that the person did not even spot the switch), so why suspect a switch-a-roo when there is nothing to gain? (You do need to have the meal double-sealed until delivered to you to ensure that you get a kosher meal because the airline does have a vested interest in your being a happy customer and would benefit by serving you a treif meal should your kosher one be left behind.)
The moral of the story here is not how smart halacha is and how paying attention to its details pays off -- Nope. The moral of the story is that the price of remaining ignorant of halacha is going hungry, albeit maybe feeling more emotionally fulfilled.
No one would ever tell a story about someone like me who would have no qualms about eating the sandwich because al pi din there is no issue, and as a result would end up eating treif. What would be the lesson there? Where's the feel-good ending? Instead, we tell stories about people who follow their own imagination of what halacha should be, and as a result, are rewarded with a miraculously positive outcome. We love the logical fallacy of argumentum ad consequentiam -- a fancy Latin way of saying we judge the truth of things based on how the consequences turn out. If everything works out great, even the worst decision based on irrational nonsense looks like genius. If things go poorly, the greatest strategist who made the best moves looks like a fool. (And we wonder why people are drawn to emotionally appealing segulos and practices instead of just doing what halacha requires. OK, we don't need to beat that dead horse any more.)
I wish there were more stories told of the first variety. To take another example, the story of someone who keeps Shabbos and miraculously sees his business improve does not impress me. What impresses me is the story of someone who chooses to keep Shabbos even as he watches his receipts decline and his business take a hit.
Stories like this airplane ma'aseh substitute a faith of fairy-tales for the real thing. The danger is that either listeners never mature and become adults who live in hashkafic Disneyland where they really believe dreams come true or they realize that reality is so at-odds with what they have been taught that they check out of Torah altogether.
Stories like this are a big fluffy bun with nothing inside. The basar that should be there is nisalem min ha'ayin and the meal in unsatisfying at best, misleading at worst. Dear Meachanchim: Where's the beef?