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Ritual Slaughter of the Latke

Raphael Finkel
Presented at the Latke-Homentash Symposium
Hillel House, Madison, Wisconsin
Purim, 1984

It is well known that our tradition surrounds the most important actions in life with ritual. The importance of life-cycle rituals and holiday-cycle rituals underscores their stature. On the other hand, there is no particular ritual for, say, hunting boars. The Jewish tradition has nothing much to say about it, except that hunting bores.

Eating has long held a fascination for the Rabbinic mind, not to mention the Rabbinic stomach. We are all familiar with some of the rituals involved with food: Washing the hands before going to the supermarket, checking for the "Ou", reciting "Who brings the can opener out of the drawer", and the injunction to leave a little food in the can for the cat. In the Talmud, there is a dispute whether searching diligently for the "Ou" itself fulfills the mitsvo of "bedikas hekhsher" or whether one needs to also know the rules for affixing the "Ou", over which one recites "lehagboa hekhsher". For example, did you know that according to Rashi, the "Ou" must be in the upper third of the label, and must be vertical, whereas according to Rabbenu Tam, it must be sideways?

This attention to detail is the hallmark of importance that we attribute to food. I want to raise your conciousness (and maybe your gorge) and explain to you the Torah-true Halakhic way in which latkes must be prepared, according to Rambam's "Sefer", so called because each chapter begins with the word "Sefer". In particular, Chapter 23 is called, "Sefer example you want latkes." Another chapter, dealing with food poisoning, is "Sefer ways to can latkes". You may not be surprised to hear that there is no mention whatsoever of Homentashen in this standard reference. They just don't rate. In fact, the only reference I could find to Homentashen in the whole Rabbinic literature, which I read through yesterday (in the Cliff notes edition), was in a chapter on spinach homentashen in the justifiably obscure responsa of Poppy, the seltzer man.

Say for example you want latkes. The potato must be healthy. Any potato unable to swim upstream with the current is considered sick, and you have to wait until it recovers before you can use it.

You have to properly slaughter the potatoes. You need a knife sharp enough, in the words of the Rambam, so that it can cut 30 bunches of krokhmal in 10 strokes. I expect that's pretty sharp.

You slaughter the potato with a quick double cut, holding the knife so the blade is facing up, attacking the potato from underneath.

If there are any eyes on the potato, they must be facing up, so the potato doesn't see the knife coming. The stroke must sever at least the main artery of the potato, although according to Rambam, this is difficult with our modern potatoes, which have no arteries, and it suffices to cut at least .357 inches beneath the skin.

Any potato juice that comes out within the first spurt is treyf; you must let it pour on the ground and stomp on it, quoting meanwhile from Deuteronomy, "thus be done to the manna whom the king delighteth to honor."

You then check the dead potato for health. If there is a hole between the veena and the keyba, the potato is treyf and may not be eaten, although it may be used for a paperweight. If you carve a dreydl out of it, the dreydl is kosher, but the knife may only be used as a screwdriver from then on. If there are any adhesions on the skin, the potato is glat treyf and must be discarded.

You must remove the eyes (in Yiddish, this is known as "eyebering"); as long as they are not removed, the outer part of the potato is treyf (literally, "the eyes have it".) Modern latke factories don't bother with the extremely time-consuming removal of the eyes, so they sell the outer part of the potato to non-Jews.

You must be very careful if you are making a large batch of latkes not to slaughter two potatoes from the same plant on the same day. The Bible explicitly says, "You shall not slaughter it and its plant-mate on the same day". The Talmud tells of a thief who stole two potatoes and slaughtered them on the same day. As you know, the penalty for stealing is that you must pay back double. But if you steal a potato and slaughter it, you must pay back 5-fold. The Talmud records a discussion about whether, when the thief slaughtered the second potato, he was obligated to pay the 5-fold penalty or not, since he was by that same act guilty of the "two on the same day" rule, and was thereby sentenced to the harsher punishment of juggling 5 eggs and cleaning up the mess. Let it be a lesson to you: Buy each potato from a different store, you should never have a problem.

If you peel the potatoes, you are obligated to donate one twelfth of the potato peels to a Cohen, assuming you have peeled at least 20 potatoes and you have gotten at least 1/4 cup of peels from each. The best way to do this is to put the peels in an envelope and mail it to the first Cohen or Katz you find in the phone book. It is also acceptable to stop people on the street, ask them if they are Jewish, and if so, talk them into performing this important mitsvo "putting out the peelings" themselves.

I could go on, and I will.

Remember to salt the potato and leave it to drain for at least 24 hours. We do this in memory of Lot's wife Latke, who was turned to salt. Use a lotta salt, in memory of Lot's daughter, Lotta.

You may wonder why Sephardic Jews don't eat latkes. It stems from two differences of interpretation. The Torah speaks about a "Poroh Aduma", a red potato without blemish. The Sephardim consider red potatoes too holy to eat, so they avoid latkes. On the other hand, the Ashkenazim think only Swiss cheese is too holy to eat. They liken "Poroh Aduma" with "Pereh Odom", the common person, and consider a red potato glatt kosher. Kosher airline meals made with potatoes therefore always specify "red potatoes".

The other difference of opinion is the meaning of "you shall not yoke them together". The Sephardim read this as a prohibition of mixing eggs and potatoes. The Ashkenazim say, and I quote "Love and Knishes", the authoritative cookbook, "So nu, use two eggs already. You want more, so you should use more."

Let me warn you about applesauce. Its proper preparation is just as complex as latkes themselves. It is best to consult a competent authority.

One last warning. You may remember that the Megilla tells us that the Persians cast latkes, which they called Pur, from which we get the name Purim. You must fry the latkes to make them kosher. Let them burn a bit, in memory of the burnt offerings. But don't do like the Persians. Don't cast them. If you cast them, they'll turn out Pur for you, too.

Postscript: At the symposium at which I presented this talk, Barry Buchbinder suggested that homentashn have an aphrodisiac effect. My response: "Poppycock!"

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