Something Fishy About Anisakis?
The current halachic rage – the status of fish known to host worms – presents two layers of fascination to me. From the very beginning, I recognized that how you generally understand the intersection between Chazal and science should determine how you approach Chulin 67B in light of scientific findings about the life cycle of the anisakis parasite. I thought that it would produce a rematch of the sides that squared off against each other regarding Rabbi Slifkin’s books. It didn’t. People weighed in on the fish in ways that seemed completely inconsistent with their expressed views on Chazal and science. (In many cases, this was because they simply had not gone through the gemara in any great depth.)
Additionally, there is an issue of loyalty. I have been a happy, contented mispallel at Rabbi Gershon Bess’ shlit”a, shul for over two decades. Rabbi Bess has been leading the charge against anisakis, and I therefore got drawn into the sugya.
When Rabbi Gil Student posted the latest from the OU , I tried responding on the Daf HaKashrus website, only to discover that the issue hasn’t been posted for the general public yet. I therefore am casting my net in a different place. I don’t think we’ve done halacha in Cross-Currents before; it really isn’t set up for serious halachic discourse. Then again, my comment on the Daf HaKashrus article doesn’t argue halacha so much as urge people (see the last paragraph) to learn more about the issue, so that their diets will be consistent with their hashkafa. Here is my comment:
The anisakis issue goes beyond the question of wholesale transgression of an issur d’orayso of sheretz hamayim, as if that is not severe enough. It penetrates to the heart of the our attitudes towards the relationship between Torah and science, and whether we regard the halachic system as having any integrity. People eager to employ koach dehetera might find themselves surprised when they learn about the conceptual basis for spearing that next forkful of fish.
You can approach anisakis in one of three ways.
1) You can argue (as many of the Chassidishe do) that worms form in the flesh through spontaneous generation. This is the basis of the Gemara in Chulin 67B permitting darni de-kavri, just as the gemara earlier had permitted kukyani at one point because minei gavli- they are formed from the flesh of the fish. Arguments by scientists denying such generation should be ignored, because science must bow to the mesorah of Chazal, who clearly accepted spontaneous generation. Furthermore, there is no reason to take issue with the clear statement of the gemara (which actually does not exist, and begins with Shulchan Aruch) that all worms found in fish flesh are kosher because they are products of the flesh. Therefore, there is no reason to get alarmed about anisakis any more than issues reported decades ago regarding other fish parasites.
2) You can argue that spontaneous generation must be rejected on the basis of voluminous evidence for what we know of reproduction. Nonetheless, halacha is determined by what Chazal said, regardless of whether they were “factually” right or wrong. The Ratzon HaBorei is that we follow Chazal, lehakel u-lehachmir, according to the information available to them in their day. (See the hakdamah of Sefer Dor Revi’i to Chulin, pgs. 7-8 in the most recent edition.)
3) You can argue that our task is to understand what principles Chazal were laying down based on their mindset. We then apply those principles based on our current understanding of the metziyus.
It is inconceivable that the OU would follow the first approach. Moreover, as recognized by Rabbi Belsky, shlit”a, himself, the gemara does not categorically rule that all worms found in fish flesh are permitted, period. It is easy to demonstrate that the gemara itself considered the possibility of worms that entered the alimentary canal of the fish, and found their way from there into the flesh by burrowing. The gemara only rejects this because worms would then be found in the gut, and were not in the fish considered by the gemara. The sardines in question have worms in their gut.
The second approach could conceivably be used, except that the gemara, as noted, does not categorically state that all worms found in flesh are permissible! Had the gemara stated that all worms found in the flesh of fish are permissible, without equivocation and without further analysis, it could be possible to use the Dor Revi’i’s approach, and permit them today. We would treat them similar to the way we treat killing lice on Shabbos, using the Dor Revi’i’s own example. The Pachad Yitzchok to the contrary, once the gemara permitted killing them (because it assumed that they generated spontaneously), they remain permissible to kill.
The gemara, however, does not say this. Again, as stated above, the gemara eliminates other possibilities of the provenance of the worms, and attributes it to spontaneous generation only when it is satisfied that they did not enter the fish through the digestive tract or some other orfice. Our observation of the life cycle of the anisakis parasite, our knowledge of how they enter the fish, encyst themselves in the stomach linings, and eventually burrow through to the flesh, would lead us to the conclusion that they are forbidden.
The third approach would seem most attractive, and is the one that Rabbi Belsky had been using till now. The gemara’s statement about worms coming from the flesh is taken as a principle that organisms whose entire (or majority) macroscopic development takes place within the flesh of a host can be considered halachically as part of the host, rather than halachically significant entities. Rabbi Belsky clearly declared this in a shiur a few years ago found on the OU website. By reasoning that I struggle to understand, Rabbi Belsky nonetheless argued that evidence that anisakis develops significantly outside the host fish before it is swallowed could be ignored. We are free to assume, as poskim have for centuries regarding the worms that they found, that the development of the worm takes place within the flesh of the fish, and is therefore still permissible. It looks like he is combining the first approach with the third, or shuttling between them. I can’t say I get it.
So what are these worms doing in the gut of the sardines? One would have to argue that they burrow out of the flesh where they originate and into the gut! Since we are confident, says Rabbi Belsky, that the worms are the kind that Shulchan Aruch permits, if we can be sure that the ones in the gut are of the same kind as the permissible flesh-worms, they too will be permitted. For this he turned to the scientists at the American museum, all of whom would be horrified by the pathway he describes. Nonetheless, since their DNA analysis shows that the gut-worms are the same as the flesh-worms, they are all mutar according to Rabbi Belsky, even thought those same scientists would all declare that they are the same because they travel from gut to flesh, not the other way around.
Rabbi Belsky in his response regarding the Anisakis clearly acknowledges that the worm originates from the outside. If so, how can he now claim that the path is from flesh to gut? Does it enter the gut, travel to the flesh – as he himself writes- then travel back into the gut? Even more troublesome is the fact that in the sardines the worms are found predominantly in the gut and to a much lesser extent in the flesh. I just can’t wrap my head around this.
For readers as confused as I am, I could not recommend too highly reading Rabbi Bleich’s magisterial treatment of the issue in the current issue of Tradition. He, too, cites DNA evidence – published evidence. His conclusion is reassuring as to the integrity of halachic analysis, although he does prohibit eating anisakis-infested fish.
Foregoing eating such fish seems to me to be a small price to pay for halachic consistency. For those less interested in halachic principle, let me reassure them that the impact on one’s diet is minimal. The vast majority of the fish we are used to eating are not problematic. The people most impacted are owners of fish companies that primarily sell the afflicted varieties. Most of us, it can be said, don’t have a horse-fish in this race.