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The Music of Halacha: Shabbat 21: Forks & Knives

We have already explained that there are certain conditions that allow us to separate food on Shabbat. One of the conditions is that the separation takes place by hand and not by means of an instrument designed for that purpose. This does not literally mean that the selection may only be done by hand. There are times that a utensil can be used. It depends on how we use the utensil. A person may use his fork or spoon to eat from a plate even though he is selecting from a mixture on his plate. This is because the fork does not make the selection any easier. It is simply cleaner, and more polite, to eat with a fork than by hand. The fork does not enhance or expedite the selection.


However, if the utensil makes the selection any easier than by hand, the person would be Halachically considered to be Borer – Selecting – with a utensil: We may not pour soup from a pot while holding back the noodles with the lid. The combination of the pot and lid is considered as separating with a utensil, and is prohibited. We could use the rim of a pot to pour the soup – what is desired – away from the noodles – what is undesired – by tilting the pot so the soup slowly runs over the rim.

A Brief History Lesson:

In 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, showed up in Venice for her marriage to Giovanni, son of the Pietro Orseolo II, the Doge of Venice, with a case of golden forks—and then proceeded to use them at the wedding feast. They weren’t exactly a hit. The local clergy roundly condemned her for her decadence, with one going so far as to say, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”

When Argyropoulina died of the plague two years later, Saint Peter Damian, with ill-concealed satisfaction, suggested that it was God’s punishment for her lavish ways. “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . This woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.”

Doomed by God for using a fork. Life was harsh in the 11th century.

While the church was responding to the new invention of the fork with fear and disgust, Halacha saw a challenge: “What would be the Halachic issues that could arise from a fork?” The first response was: The laws of Borer.

I love looking back in history and studying Responsa as part of history. Inevitably, the masters of Halacha saw each new invention as an opportunity and challenge to understand its place in the vast world of Jewish Law. This perhaps is the most essential instrument in the symphony called The Music of Halacha. The “new” demanded engagement, not fear or hesitation. Halacha does not begin with; “When in doubt – do without”, but with let’s understand how we can best use the new invention.

We can study cutlery for more insight into Halacha and the world.

Knives: Sharp or Rounded

The new shape and function of the fork led to a remarkable change in the design of table knives, which led to a dining divide between Europe and American that continues today.

The rift started, by some accounts, with Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to France’s King Louis XIII, who was so disgusted by a frequent dinner guest’s habit of picking his teeth with his knife that l’Éminence Rouge, as Richelieu was known, had the tips of the offender’s knives ground down to prevent it happening. Always desperate to follow fashion, others in the court soon did the same. Whether the story is true or not, once forks began to gain popular acceptance there was no longer any need for a pointed tip at the end of a dinner knife to hold and spear the food. In 1669, King Louis XIV of France decreed all pointed knives on the street or the dinner table illegal. Not only were new knives to be made with rounded tips; all existing table knives were to be rounded off to reduce the potential for violence. The new style of knife rapidly spread to other European countries, including England.

Halacha, in a very unRichelieu manner, discusses sharp knives in the context of Birchat Hamazon. However, it is important for us to understand how easily a simple, or even silly, decision by one person can shape so much of our lives. I never expected to find a result of Richelieu’s influence on my table, except, of course, when the children were younger and The Three Musketeers could be found on at least one lap, but there it is in the table knives.

I remember a young woman who would not eat in our home on Pesach because we served chicken. Her family would not eat chicken on Pesach because on their last Shabbat in Europe the local rabbis prohibited the sale of chicken on Pesach in order to punish the butchers for price gouging. Interesting beginnings can create new laws. When that happens, the music ceases to play, and Halacha becomes a long list of laws that have lost their meaning.

We risk losing our seat at the concert when we do not pay attention to the development of a Halacha or custom. Halacha demands attention, not only to its laws, but to its development and messages in order for us to hear its music.

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