The Biscuit, the Cream, and the Talmud

Dear Josep,

When you were here last December, you stopped at a candy store at the Mahane Yehuda shuk (open air market) in Jerusalem and asked the shopkeeper to recommend something to buy for my kids. He gave you a box of something, and told you they were very popular in the winter. The type of sweet he gave you is called a Krembo (a Hebrew contraction literally meaning “cream in it”). They consist of a round cookie, upon which is a pile of marshmallow cream (usually vanilla, but other flavors are available too, like mocha and banana), coated in a kind of waxy chocolate:

"Schaumkuss-1" by Rainer Z ... 18:49, 19 April 2008 (UTC) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Schaumkuss-1” by Rainer Z 18:49, 19 April 2008 (UTC) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

They exist in other countries, but usually with real milk cream, as opposed to the dairy-free Israeli version. (The one pictured above is German, I believe.) Why dairy-free, you ask? Because that makes them pareve, meaning neither milk nor meat, so they can be eaten as a dessert after a meat meal. (See “Jew Food, Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated” 😛 ) So desserts that are pareve are more widely sold and consumed than dairy ones, and I guess the Israeli manufacturers decided it would be more profitable. The storekeeper was correct: Krembos are indeed considered the Israeli winter-season answer to ice cream. (This is completely unfathomable to me. Why should there be any need whatsoever for a winter replacement for ice cream?! I’ll eat it anytime!)

So, there happens to be a very silly song by a well known dati leumi (religious Zionist) artist, Aaron Razel, about the Krembo. Well, actually, it’s not really about the Krembo; it’s about Talmudic logic. You see…. we are perfectly aware that sometimes the intricate details of deliberation involved in deciphering Jewish law can seem a little ridiculous. The adjective “Talmudic” has two definitions in the English dictionary, the first being, of course, “of or relating to the Talmud,” and the second: “characterized by or making extremely fine distinctions; overly detailed or subtle; hairsplitting.” (Both from Dictionary.com.)

As mentioned in The Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies, Jews have always excelled at making light of themselves, and Aaron Razel–who studied at the same yeshiva as Eitan, by the way–does just that in this song. The lyrics were adapted from an actual correspondence between a religious Jew and a rabbi, that Razel read in a Sabbath newsletter. He was tickled by the poetic quality of the question and answer, and decided to set it to music. Here is the silly music video, and my translation of the lyrics below.

The Biscuit and the Cream (also known as “The Krembo Song”)

[Spoken:] Hello? Hello? I have a question… I have a halakhic question. May I?

[The question:]

Regarding the Krembo
Which is commonly eaten
In winter, on the bottom,
It has a round biscuit

Upon which the cream rests…
The cream and the biscuit,
Are as one unit,
The cream and the biscuit,
The biscuit and the cream

The question is, on the Sabbath
The question is, on the Sabbath
If one does not like
Or does not want for whatever reason
To eat the biscuit,
Would it be permitted to separate it from the cream,
Put it aside,
And eat only the cream?

[Repeat]

[The answer:]

It appears that it is forbidden to separate them,
It appears that it is forbidden to separate them,
It is forbidden to separate them,
Despite the fact that they are as one piece,
For practically speaking,
They are like two types of food.

But if
He separates the biscuit
From the cream
In a way that makes it clear
That the biscuit will be left
With a little cream,
In a way that makes it clear
That the biscuit will be left
With a little cream,
If it is clear,
Then
It will be permitted!
Then, then, then, then
It will be permitted!

[Repeat first verse]

And now you must be wondering: what could possibly be the problem with separating the biscuit from the cream on the Sabbath?!

So here’s where I give some more detail on the prohibitions of the Sabbath! I gave a general explanation about “creative activities” in my post about Shabbat. But how do we know what an “act of creation” is? Which acts are forbidden, and which are permitted? The Oral Law teaches that the Divine commandment to avoid acts of creation on the Sabbath was placed, in the Torah, in close proximity to the instructions for building the Tabernacle, to teach that it is precisely the acts of creation that were necessary to build the Tabernacle that are prohibited on Shabbat. The Sages identify 39 categories of work that are included. The rest of the prohibitions of the Sabbath are derived from those 39 categories. There are also some additional restrictions set in place by the Sages in order to preserve the character of Shabbat and to prevent one from unintentionally transgressing a Torah prohibition (a concept we call “building a fence around the Torah”). I’m not going to list all 39 categories here, because it will probably bore you (though seriously, I never know with you 😛 ), but they include things like: all kinds of field work and food preparation, slaughtering animals and making material from their skins, building, writing, sewing, etc.

“Okay,” says you, “I read that entire paragraph and I still have no idea why there should be a problem to remove the biscuit from the cream of a Krembo on Shabbat!”

Wait for it: one of the 39 categories is “selection.” The original action upon which this was based was the act of sifting or separating the debris from the grain. But the 39 categories are not specific; they are a “template” from which we derive the kinds of actions we are supposed to avoid. So the prohibition of selection doesn’t just mean you’re not allowed to remove the debris from the grain. It means that it is prohibited to remove undesirable items from a mixture–of any kind. (For example, if you have a bowl of raisins and peanuts, and you hate peanuts and only want the raisins, you are not allowed to remove just the peanuts from the bowl. You are, however, allowed to pick out the raisins to eat immediately.)

So coming back to our Krembo, here’s the situation: we have a food item that is a mixture of two types of foods. (If it were one type of food, removing a part of it that was edible might not constitute selection.) Now, if our hypothetical Jew actually liked both the biscuit and the cream, there would be no problem separating the pieces, because both of them would be desirable! But because he dislikes biscuits, the biscuit is undesirable to him, therefore making that action “selection.” So, the rabbi offers a solution: if you separate the pieces in such a way that leaves a little of the desirable part (the cream) on the biscuit, it’s not considered separation, and therefore, it is permissible. Tada!

And there was much rejoicing throughout the land! By Zivya (אני) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped from original image.
And there was great rejoicing throughout the land!
By Zivya (אני) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped from original image.

And you thought kashrut was complicated. 😛

This example, conveyed so humorously in the song, gives a good peek into the inner workings of Jewish law…. and demonstrates why religious Jews need rabbis. Very few people could possibly maintain enough knowledge to be able to answer every single question like this that comes up from the most inconsequential situations! Rabbis are “experts” in halakha. A good comparison is how doctors are experts in medicine. In some cases, when you get sick, you don’t need a doctor–you know what to do to take care of yourself. But when you encounter a medical situation you are not familiar with, or that requires some expertise, you go see a doctor–a family physician or general practitioner. If it is something he feels he is not equipped to handle, he will refer you to a specialist–someone with greater expertise in that specific area. That’s exactly how it works in halakha. Sometimes you know enough to answer the question yourself. Sometimes you ask your local rabbi and he can answer for you, and sometimes, if it’s a very complicated issue, he must consult other rabbis who have greater expertise to come up with the answer.

So… scoff as they might at the “hairsplitting” quality of Talmud study, it requires great skill in logical reasoning as well as creativity. No wonder a disproportionate number of the world’s sharpest minds emerged from the nation whose lives revolved around it for more than a thousand years. 🙂

Love,

Daniella

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