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WTF: In An Emergency Like Harvey, Can Observant Jews Eat Non-Kosher Food?

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As the floods roar through Houston and the surrounding areas, over 30 individuals have lost their lives, countless homes and businesses have been damaged — and the Jewish community is nearly out of kosher food.

As my colleague Ari Feldman noted, kosher food is already hard to come by in Houston under normal circumstances — Jews comprise only 50,000 residents of the city and its suburbs, and a large percentage of those residents do not keep kosher. With many of the kosher supermarkets and restaurants submerged, the task is even more difficult. The next large scheduled delivery of kosher food from an out-of-town co-op is not slated to arrive until September 4th, though volunteers and organizations around the country are mobilizing to ensure kosher food arrives sooner.

For now, it doesn’t seem like Houston’s Jewish community is in any danger of going hungry. But this latest crisis raises the question — do observant Jews have to eat only kosher food, no matter how bad things get?

Surely, there has to be a point at which things get so bad that eating non-kosher food is a necessity, even for the most observant of Jews.

But just how bad does the situation have to become before we get to that point?

Saving A Life

The principle of Pikuach Nefesh, the preservation of human life, takes precedence over just about every other Jewish law (the exceptions are worshipping idols, murdering and forbidden sexual relations). A Jew is not only allowed to break another Jewish law to save a life — he or she is required to do so.

If there is absolutely no kosher food available and you are in danger of starvation, or you are sick and can only be made better by eating non-kosher food, you can eat the non-kosher food and make a blessing over it as you would with kosher food.

But it’s hard to imagine a situation today in which there is absolutely no kosher food available.

All raw fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, seeds and legumes are kosher. All eggs that come from kosher birds are kosher. All fish with both fins and scales are kosher, no certification required. There are over 230,000 kosher-certified foods available in the U.S. In a dire situation, many of the extensive rabbinic rules of kashrut can also be relaxed to some extent.

Kashrut And The Holocaust

The most recent time in Jewish history when many Jews were systematically deprived of kosher food — not to mention control over their daily activities — was during the Holocaust. As with most issues of Jewish law, a fierce debate took place between the rabbis of the time on the issue of whether or not one could eat non-kosher meat.

In Esther Farbstein’s fascinating book, “Hidden In Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust,” she describes one such debate that took place between the rabbis of the Łódź rabbinical board during the 1940s, after horsemeat had been brought into the ghetto. Many Jews refused to eat the meat, and on February 23, 1941, the Łódź board ruled that only those who had gotten personal rabbinic injunctions, such as very sick persons, could eat the meat, and stressed that “this food was permitted only in a truly life-threatening situation.”

But there were certainly dissenting voices. Many rabbis, Farbstein argues, believed that “since Hitler wanted to break the Jews’ bodies, the Jews’ primary obligation was to abide by the precept ‘you shall guard your lives’ — in other words, treat this as a life-threatening emergency and stay alive no matter what. In their opinion, the great sin in such times was the refusal to eat.” The evening was “marked by hairsplitting and razor-sharp halachic debate.” The majority of rabbis, in the end, agreed that “the struggle to survive was also a defiance of the Nazis’ policy and resistance to their intentions.” Later in 1941, all weak children were “permitted and required” to eat the meat. By 1942, tragically, all Jews in the camp were so weak that “the rabbis were personally trying to persuade those who refused to eat non-kosher food not to give up their lives by avoiding foods that could strengthen them.”

Thankfully, it is highly unlikely that Hurricane Harvey, or any natural disaster, will cause anywhere close to this level of devastation. But if it does, for heaven’s sake, eat whatever food you can find.

Got a question about something Jewish or Jew-ish? Email us!

Laura E. Adkins is the Forward’s contributing network editor. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter, @Laura_E_Adkins

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