Weekly daf: What is the status when prohibited material is merely a contributing factor?


Weekly daf: What is the status when prohibited material is merely a contributing factor?

Rabbi Shmuel Wise, Maggid Shiur at RealClearDaf.com

We learned about this in a lengthy discussion that began on 48b. In the mishnah there, R’ Yose and the rabbanan debate whether one may plant vegetables underneath an idolatrous asheira tree (during the winter when there would be no objection of deriving benefit from the asheira’s shade). The rabbanan permit it but R’ Yose does not, arguing that the vegetables will inevitably derive illegal benefit from the falling asheira leaves which will provide a kind of fertilizer. Apparently, the gemara observes, the rabbanan are of the opinion that we can disregard the benefit from the asheira’s fallen leaves since this benefit is of course only one factor that enables the vegetables to grow. When both this, a prohibited source, and this, a permitted source, are contributing factors, we needn’t be concerned.

Before diving into the ensuing discussion there, I’d like to make the observation that this argument of “this and this” needs some fleshing out; so, what that other permitted factors helped to produce what is before us – isn’t it clear that benefit is being derived from the prohibited source? What is the basis to be lenient? To use an extreme example (which will help us toward the answer), would anybody argue that if someone had a meal of pork and beans that he shouldn’t be liable since the beans also helped him get full?!

But, of course, our case is quite different from the above example and that is the point I’d like to bring out: eating non-kosher is a clear and direct benefit from something prohibited whereas using prohibited fertilizer to grow vegetables is not an overt or direct benefit. Rather, when we try and point out the sin that was violated, we would need to provide more background. You see, these vegetables received nutrients from something that was prohibited, so we must clarify. The act of eating pork, by contrast, does not exactly require much in the way of commentary. Thus, the argument of “this and this” is: when you’re dealing with a potential illegal benefit that is not clear and present, and the illegal benefit is merely a contributing factor to the finished product before us, the halachah is not concerned. (The consideration of the presence of the prohibited element is an important aspect also when we discuss cases where non-kosher got mixed in with kosher food: the argument for saying that the prohibited element is “nullified” is reinforced if we can argue that the prohibited part does not have a significant presence.)

The gemara proceeds to quote the mishnah back on 43b that appears to totally contradict the way the opinions of R’ Yose and the rabbanan are being presented in our mishnah. On 43b R’ Yose and the rabbanan argue about the proper procedure for disposing of metal idols. R’ Yose there allows the method of grinding up the idol and casting it to the wind but the rabbanan disqualify this method due to the concern that the ground up metal can be utilized as fertilizer! But wait, the rabbanan in our mishnah were unconcerned about using idolatrous material as fertilizer! R’ Yose, too, appears to contradict himself. Why is he not concerned for this fertilizer problem there as he is in our mishnah?

The gemara then says that we could answer for R’ Yose as follows: R’ Yose is indeed stringent even where the prohibited material is only a contributing factor, but in the case of 43b, there is no prohibited material whatsoever, for as soon as the person grinds up the idol, poof, it is nullified and is no longer prohibited. So, go right ahead and use that stuff for fertilizer – it’s not prohibited.

The gemara also reconciles the rabbanan’s view by proposing that in fact even the rabbanan agree that utilizing prohibited material is not allowed – even if other permitted materials are part of the process. Hence, they reject the option of grinding up the idol since it might be used later for fertilizer (and they hold that even a broken idol is still prohibited). To explain why the rabbanan are nonetheless okay with planting vegetables underneath an asheira tree, the gemara invokes a statement of Rav Mari in Temurah: “What improves the hide spoils the meat,” Rav Mari said. Rav Mari there is dealing with the unrelated subject of the most economical way of skinning an animal that has sanctity. He rejects the other proposed method there (which retains more value in the hide) on the grounds that the adverse effect on the meat offsets the benefit to the hide. In other words, there’s no net gain by using that other method. Paraphrasing Rav Mari’s words, the gemara explains that the rabbanan reason here that we needn’t be concerned about the benefit that the asheira’s fallen leaves provide for the vegetables, since that benefit is offset by the adverse effect of the asheira blocking needed sunlight from the vegetables. Going back to our extreme example above we can question this argument as well: if the pork and beans meal had a harmful effect on the person equal to the benefit he received, could this somehow redeem his sin? Of course not! But, using the explanation we offered above, it could be suggested that we can invoke the “net gain” argument specifically in the kind of case we’re discussing where it’s not so obvious to begin with that the prohibited element should be a problem.