On Eating Bugs

The Locusta migratoria species, with its two “jumping legs” clearly visible.

In this week’s parsha, Shemini, we are presented with the Torah’s extensive dietary laws. All bugs and insects are forbidden for consumption except those that are winged and have two large jumping legs in addition to their four other legs, ie. locusts (Leviticus 11:21-22). The Torah names four families of such locust species which are kosher. Rashi comments that we no longer know how to identify these species, so for practical purposes no one eats such insects anymore (although a small minority of Mizrachi and Sephardi communities did consume locusts until recently).

The bigger issue today is the broader prohibition of consuming bugs, and how it applies to inadvertent consumption of tiny bugs in fruits and vegetables. It has become common to hear extremely negative language regarding such accidental consumption, with people saying (untrue) things like inadvertently eating bugs on poorly-washed lettuce or strawberries is “five times worse” than consuming pork, and with reputable kashrut organizations pushing more and more stringent requirements for washing produce—using bright lamps and magnifying glasses and even doing “laboratory testing”. Is any of this actually required? What does Jewish law actually say about washing produce and consuming errant bugs?

An Olive and a Lentil

One of the places in the Talmud that discusses the prohibition of consuming bugs is the little-known tractate Meilah. At the top of page 16b, we are told: “Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: With regard to eating bugs, one is flogged for eating a k’zayit of them. What is the reason? It is because the term ‘eating’ is written in the Torah with regard to them.” A k’zayit is literally an “olive-sized” amount, roughly 30 grams. Rav Yehuda says one has only really transgressed the prohibition—and would be flogged in ancient times—if they eat a minimum of 30 grams. His reasoning is that the verse in the Torah (Leviticus 11:41) says “And every creeping thing that swarms upon the earth is a detestable thing; it shall not be eaten.” The language is clear that you must have the intention to actually eat the insect, and “eating” is defined as consuming a minimum of a k’zayit. Based on Rav Yehuda’s teaching, inadvertently eating some tiny microscopic bugs, of negligible mass, on fruits and vegetables (which obviously one has no intention of eating, and doesn’t actually want to eat) is not a sin. One would consciously have to consume more than 30 grams to be liable.* (It should be noted that in Makkot 13a, the Talmud states that deliberately eating an entire whole bug, even a tiny one, is forbidden. This is really self-evident, but it must be reiterated that our discussion is not about deliberate bug consumption, but inadvertent ingestion when intending to consume something else.)

The Talmud then brings a teaching of Rabbi Yose bar Rabbi Chanina that while the prohibition in the Torah begins with the language of “eating”, it concludes with the language of “impurity”—that we shouldn’t taint ourselves with “anything that swarms on the ground, which I have set apart for you as impure.” (Leviticus 20:25) And the general rule with impurity is that something as small “as a lentil”, k’adasha, transmits impurity. It seems that according to Rabbi Yose, consuming even a k’adasha of bugs makes one liable. Now, even with this more stringent opinion, one who accidentally eats tiny bugs not plainly visible on the fruit or vegetable has still not transgressed, for these bugs are obviously still much smaller than a lentil! One would probably not fail to see a lentil-sized bug in his food. Nor would several microscopic bugs together sum up to more than the mass of a typical lentil.

The Talmud finally reconciles the two opinions by saying that the lentil-sized prohibition is for dead bugs, since death carries an extra impurity, whereas the k’zayit is for living bugs. Either way, tiny bugs on lettuce or strawberry, not plainly visible to the naked eye, nowhere near 30 grams, and consumed unintentionally, do not qualify as a sin. Keep in mind that the typical strawberry weighs about 9-10 grams total, and a typical leaf of lettuce about 15-20 grams (and the largest of them no more than 30 grams). Even if the strawberry or lettuce is totally infested with bugs, it doesn’t come close to the minimum measure of liability. In fact, an entire head of lettuce weighs only about 300 grams, so it would have to be a whopping 10% bugs by mass (which obviously it never is), plus one would have to eat it knowing it has so many bugs in it having actually seen them to have transgressed! In short, the chances of accidentally transgressing the bug prohibition is essentially zero (though of course there is still a mitzvah to check the produce just in case).

In fact, our Sages taught that there are actually situations where a person could even eat prohibited bugs knowingly and it wouldn’t be a sin!

Categories of Bugs

In his list of 613 mitzvot, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) counts five separate mitzvot for not consuming bugs, delineated by category: (1) flying bugs, (2) “teeming” bugs, (3) “crawling” bugs, (4) bugs borne out of fruit, and (5) aquatic bugs. (And there is an additional positive mitzvah to check that a locust is kosher before eating it.) The first category includes flies, mosquitos, and bees, while the second category includes snakes and scorpions alongside centipedes and beetles. The third category includes bugs like snails, but also mice, lizards, and the like. The fifth category includes leeches and aquatic worms, but also anything that doesn’t have scales and fins.

In the second chapter of the Mishneh Torah’s Ma’achalot Assurot, the Rambam codifies the Talmud’s words in saying that one is liable for lashes only for eating a k’zayit of live bugs or a k’adasha of dead ones. Of course, deliberately eating an entire bug even if it is tiny is forbidden (2:21). That said, if the bug has lost even a single leg, it is no long considered an “entire” bug and one is not liable! (2:22) When it comes to bugs born inside fruits, one is not liable for eating them inadvertently at all (2:14-15). This is because the Torah states one is forbidden from eating bugs “upon the land” (as in this week’s parasha, 11:21 or 11:29 for instance), and not those inside fruits. However, once the bug has emerged entirely from the fruit and is now on the ground, it is forbidden, for it is now “upon the land”. The Rambam qualifies this by saying that if a particular type of fruit is known to be particularly infested, then it should be checked for bugs. Otherwise, one can eat the fruit even if there might be a bug hiding inside that one is unaware of.

Finally, and most importantly for our purposes: if one ate a bug that has emerged from the fruit partially—but has not completely fallen to the ground—it is a doubtful situation and one would not receive lashes because we are not sure if this is truly a transgression or not (2:16). This would apply to the vast majority of cases today when it comes to fruits like strawberries and raspberries. Tiny bugs often do remain inside. However, they are really tiny and very difficult to spot with the naked eye, usually hiding behind the little white seedlings and blending in with them. They have not “emerged” and fallen to the ground. Considering that one is not eating them deliberately, and that they have not fully emerged from the fruit, and that their sum total certainly does not add up to an olive-size, or even a lentil-size, there is really no need to worry!

When it comes to aquatic bugs, the Rambam notes that the Torah’s language only prohibits “seas and rivers” (Leviticus 11:9). Thus, one is permitted to drink water from wells, cisterns, springs, cave-waters, and the like—even knowing that there are tiny bugs in there! “A person may bend down and drink without holding back even though he swallows these flimsy teeming animals when drinking.” (2:18) And this is the point with which the Shulchan Arukh, composed some four centuries later, begins.

In Water and In Fruit

A copepod under a microscope

The Shulchan Arukh (Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488-1575) begins the laws of consuming bugs by stating that a person may drink water from a contained natural source and not be concerned that there are little bugs in it (Yoreh De’ah 84:1). This is reminiscent of New York City tap water, which is known to have microscopic crustaceans in it—tiny shrimp called copepods. It’s not the same case, though, since New York water is not coming from a contained well or cistern. Nonetheless, the copepods are invisible and a cup of water would contain nowhere near a k’zayit or k’adasha, nor is there deliberate intention to consume the crustaceans. For such reasons, some poskim are lenient and permit drinking New York City tap water, while others are more stringent and say it should first be filtered. (It’s probably a good idea to filter all tap water anyway for health reasons!) It seems that all agree one can wash their dishes with the water, and shower in it (despite the fact that one does inevitably swallow some water with their shower).

After dealing with other water issues, the Shulchan Arukh turns to bugs in fruits: “Bugs that grow in harvested fruit are permitted, for the Torah only forbade crawling things that crawl on land.” (Yoreh De’ah 84:4) As noted above, the Torah’s language always uses the repeating refrain al ha’aretz, “upon the land”, or a similar phrase. Thus, harvested fruits detached “from the land” that might contain some tiny bugs within them are not a concern. And the intention of the eater is obviously to consume the fruit or vegetable itself, not the bug.

The Shulchan Arukh then clarifies that if the bug has emerged from the fruit, it now becomes forbidden, and considered “upon the land”. Here, the Shulchan Arukh is more stringent than the Mishneh Torah, arguing that the bug is forbidden even if still found atop the fruit and having not yet reached the land. However, if one sees a hole in the fruit, one can still consume the fruit because the bug is considered to be “inside” and not fully emerged! Later commentaries on this point are stringent and forbid holey fruit that has been “bored”. Most of us would probably feel the same way, and not want to consume a perforated fruit.

Then the Shulchan Arukh explains that unharvested fruit still attached to the source is considered “upon the land”, and any bugs therein are forbidden (the Rambam said the same). If it was harvested and dried, and more than 12 months have passed, a person can consume the fruit even without an inspection, for it is assumed that no bugs inside will survive so long. We are also taught that bugs which are tightly bound to the produce (the example given is under the skin of peas and beans) and have no room to “crawl” around don’t count. The Torah’s language describes the bugs as “teeming” or “swarming” or otherwise “crawling” and “wriggling”, so a tiny bug stuck to the produce in an immobile and covered-up way, eaten unintentionally, is no problem. This does not apply to bugs that might be stuck to stems and the like (שרביטים), since they are clearly exposed and have plenty of room to move. Going back to the strawberries, those little bugs under the seedlings are bound quite tightly, and don’t move very much if undisturbed. This should provide yet another layer of leniency to the strawberry issue.

Finally, we read that fruits which are known to be particularly infested while they are growing should be checked before consumption, inside and out. If it has been more than 12 months since they were harvested, one can eat them without checking, though one should still look superficially that there are no bugs on the surface. If one is going to cook these old dried fruits in a pot, one should immerse them in cold water first just in case any lingering bugs might emerge. Then one could cook them in hot water. If one cooked the fruit within 12 months of harvesting and didn’t check, the food is still permitted to be eaten. If one sees some bugs in the pot, they can be removed and the rest of the food consumed, though the Shulchan Arukh notes that some are stringent and say that if more than one bug appears the entire food should not be consumed.

To summarize: the Talmud holds that one has transgressed when the consumption of the bugs was deliberate, and adding up to an olive-sized amount for live bugs** and a lentil-sized amount for dead bugs. The Rambam codifies this as law, and further notes that bugs still within the fruit are not an issue, nor are bugs in enclosed natural water sources that are not seas or rivers. The Shulchan Arukh is more stringent with bugs on top of produce surfaces, but still lenient with bugs inside fruits and bugs in dried fruits over 12 months old. In all cases, actual transgression requires deliberate and conscious eating of bugs, not a tiny amount consumed inadvertently. A simple visual inspection suffices, and extra technology like bright lamps and magnifying glasses are not required.

Halakhic Extremism

We can see how from Talmud to Mishneh Torah to Shulchan Arukh—a timespan of about a millennium—the law gets slightly more stringent. This trend accelerated exponentially since then, and today people have fallen into all kinds of halakhic extremes that are completely unnecessary and serve only to make life difficult (not to mention unnecessarily expensive when it comes to kashrut). People will argue that we need to be more stringent today because produce is now more infested than ever before. This is the exact opposite of the truth thanks to pesticides, biotechnology, hydroponics, indoor farming, greenhouses, sanitation, government inspections and regulations, and so on. There is no doubt whatsoever that produce in the past was far more infested than it is today.

With all of that said, anyone out there who tells you that you cannot ever eat raspberries or figs because they are impossible to “de-bug” (strange because figs are a God-given species of Israel!); or says that if you don’t super-soak your strawberries with soapy water (and chop off the top half—which might actually be a bona fide Torah prohibition of bal tashchit) that you are sinning; or says that if you don’t prepare your lettuce with a bright lamp and magnifying glass and chemical “washes” (tools that were obviously unknown to our Sages) then you transgressed something “worse than pork”, tell them (politely) to go fly a kite. Such fearmongering people belong in the category of either ignoramus or extremist (or both).

The truth is that the bug issue is just one example in a plethora of halakhic extremes that have become the norm in recent times, not just in kashrut but essentially all areas of Jewish law. And sadly, this kind of thinking is precisely what’s destroying Judaism and pushing people away from Torah observance. Two millennia ago, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania warned that those who push such halakhic extremism only end up “erasing” halakhah (Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:4 or 9a) because it makes Judaism too difficult, too hectic, unnecessarily complicated, and unappealing. The result is that the Jewish masses reject not just rabbinic law, but Torah law entirely. Not surprisingly, the Yerushalmi compares such extremism to the Golden Calf, for it only serves to drive people away from Hashem.

In recent decades and centuries, halakhah has gone “off the derekh”, so it isn’t surprising that so many Jews have also gone off the derekh. Let’s bring both back on track.

For further analysis of halakhic extremism and Rabbi Yehoshua’s position,
see this class on ‘The 18 Decrees of Beit Shammai’

*Elsewhere in the Talmud (Yoma 73b), Rav Yochanan argues that one is liable even for a hatzi shiur, “half a measure”. In other words, one would be liable even for consuming 15 grams. Reish Lakish rejects this argument for a variety of reasons. One is: what’s the point of setting an exact shiur of liability, if you are then going to say that even half is forbidden? It defeats the purpose of setting a measure in the first place! In any case, even if we go with Rav Yochanan here (as halakhah typically does), even a hatzi shiur of bugs (15 grams) is an enormous amount, and won’t be found in any portion of salad or fruits. Keep in mind a typical ant weighs just 1 or 2 milligrams, and a typical aphid just 0.2 milligrams! You would literally needs thousands, or even tens of thousands of them, to add up to a hatzi shiur.

**In another place in the Talmud (Makkot 13a) where the Sages again cite the general rule of a k’zayit being the minimum for liability, Rabbi Shimon counters: what about consuming an entire, whole ant? The Sages concede that this is indeed a problem because one is eating a whole organism. Nonetheless, Rabbi Shimon’s case clearly involves someone deliberately eating a whole ant (and Rashi even comments that it’s a bug taken off the ground), and not a case of inadvertently consuming a microscopic bug while intending to eat only a fruit or vegetable.