New York – Several weeks ago, VINnews.com reported that Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands did the impossible: create the world’s first laboratory grown hamburger. While news of this $325,000 hamburger was welcomed by many, our concern is how such a creation would be viewed through the lens of halacha.
This hamburger was created by extracting stem cells (the body’s master cells; templates from which specialized tissue develop) from a cow’s muscle tissue. These stem cells were cultured and multiplied with nutrients and growth promoting chemicals, and later coalesced, forming tiny strips of muscle fiber. Approximately 20,000 of these strips were needed to create just one hamburger.
It is important to note that currently, with the price tag of test tube beef being in the six figures, its production unrealistic in the foreseeable future, and the exact scientific process kept under wraps, this halachic discussion is primarily academic, firmly entrenched in the realm of theory. If and when lab grown burgers become affordable and mainstream, its status would need to be appraised by the expert Rabbanim of the time, based on the actual metzius of how these burgers are made.
Several Rabbis addressed the issue of whether or not such a burger should be considered kosher and even possibly pareve, yet, based on different precedents cited, their theorized conclusions were quite diverse. Would this man made and modified meat be considered kosher or treif? Pareve or fleishig? This article sets out to address the different potential halachic possibilities.
Magical Mystery Meat
Truthfully, meat created from non-traditional sources has a tradition and precedent, and is already mentioned in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 59b and 65b), once regarding meat that came down from the heavens, and again concerning meat that was created using the Sefer Yetzira, “the Book of Creation” attributed to Avraham Avinu.
The Malbim (HaTorah V’HaMitzva, Parshas Vayera Ch. 18, verse 8) writes that meat created using the “Sefer Yetzira” is essentially pareve. That is why Avraham Avinu was able to give the visiting Angels a meal containing both milk and meat; the meat was truly pareve, as Avraham created it that day! The Cheshek Shlomo (end Y”D 98, s.v. v’da), Av Beis Din of Vilna in the nineteenth century, extrapolates further. He averred that ergo, milk from a cow that was created via the “Sefer Yetzira” is not truly ‘milchig’, rather pareve too. If so, some opine that our test tube burger should be considered not only kosher, but pareve as well, due to this halachic precedent.
However, even according to this theory, in order for the burger to receive this halachic status, the cow that the stem cells were harvested from would need to have had a proper shechita, precluding a biopsy from a live cow. As although meat created utilizing the “Sefer Yetzira” should not technically need ritual slaughter, as it was not truly alive, nevertheless, shechita still would be mandated, due to the Rabbinic injunction of Maris Ayin. [See Shnei Luchos HaBris (vol. 2, Torah Shebeksav, Parshas Vayeishev) and Pischei Teshuva (Y”D 62, 2)]. The most basic definition of this law is the prohibition of taking actions which strictly speaking, are permitted according to halacha, but nevertheless give onlookers the impression that we are doing something halachically forbidden. Accordingly, the same would apply to our home grown hamburger, and shechita would be required.
Another possible precedent posited was to compare the lab burger’s status to that of gelatin, which is a whole separate discussion in itself. Already controversial when cited in halachic literature over a century ago, gelatin’s kashrus status is still being debated.
Gelatin is a translucent, colorless, and flavorless solid substance, derived from collagen obtained from various animal by-products, mainly the bones and skin of cows and/or pigs. It is the gelling agent that makes marshmallows and ‘gummy bears’ gummy.
Rabbi Eliezer Eidelitz, in his book “Is It Kosher?” (pg. 122) explains the process to make gelatin: the collagen in the bones and skin of the animals is converted into ossein by soaking them in hydrochloric acid. Then it is soaked in lime for about a month, followed by a wash in sulfuric acid.
Contemporary authorities debate gelatin’s halachic status. Although Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky zt”l (Shu”t Achiezer vol. 3, 33, 5) permitted gelatin made utilizing hard cow bones, and Rav Ovadiah Yosef shlit”a (Shu”t Yabea Omer vol. 8, Y”D 11) even allowed gelatin made from cow skins, nevertheless, when this sheilah arose in the 1950’s – 60’s most Gedolim based in America, including Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l (Shu”t Mishnas Rav Aharon 16 & 17), Rav Eliezer Silver zt”l (in a letter published in 1950), Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Shu”t Igros Moshe Y”D vol. 2, 27), and Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l (Eidus L’Yisrael pg. 177), [as did most later poskim in Eretz Yisrael], all unequivocally prohibited gelatin, unless it was derived from properly shechted kosher animals.
Nowadays, although the Israeli Chief Rabbinate permits gelatin as kosher and has a distinct designation, “kosher l’ochlei gelatin”, on the other hand, no Mehadrin kashrus agency or Badatz in Eretz Yisrael, nor no mainstream certifying agency in America considers real gelatin kosher, unless it is produced from properly shechted kosher animals.
Back to our test tube burger, if it can be compared with gelatin, as it is essentially a meat based product that has undergone extreme change via chemicals, its halachic status would depend on the above machlokes. According to those who rule leniently with gelatin that is not kosher based, the same dispensation should be given to our Petri dish piece of meat and the actual source of the original stem cells should not trouble us too much. Yet, according to the mainstream opinion that kosher gelatin must originate from a shechted kosher animal, the same should apply to our lab created burger and be mandated for it as well.
Another interesting outcome of this machlokes is another one. Even amidst the mainstream ruling, there are differences between the opinions. For example, Rav Moshe held that real kosher gelatin made from shechted cows is considered completely pareve, while Rav Aharon Kotler was of the opinion that lechatchila one should still consider it somewhat fleishig and not mix it with milk. If we use gelatin as our halachic springboard, the same debate should also technically apply to our home grown hamburger. Accordingly, those who follow Rav Moshe’s psak regarding gelatin being pareve (for example, the OU), should also assume that the lab burger is also. On the other hand, those who follow Rav Aharon’s shitta should ensure that no milk is mixed amid the man made modified meat.
Although it would seem tenuous at best to consider microscopic cells removed from a cow’s shoulder and undergoing chemical treatment as a potential violation of the Biblical prohibition of eating ‘Aver Min HaChai’, ‘a limb from a live animal’, nonetheless, there is strong basis to still consider our homegrown hamburger meaty.
Halachically speaking, something that is present in minute quantities in a mixture is generally considered nullified as long as there is at least a 60 to 1 ratio against it (battel b’shishim). Although this would imply that the Petri dish patty would be considered kosher even if it was harvested from a non-kosher source, as the final patty has 20,000 muscle fibers grown from a few stem cells, on the other hand it is not so simple, as every rule has its exceptions.
One of the exceptions is a case of a ‘Davar HaMaamid’, an essential ingredient in the makeup of a product that establishes its form. This catalyst impacts it tremendously, far greater than its size belies. A prime example of a ‘Davar HaMaamid’ is the small amount of a calf’s stomach lining (rennet) placed in a huge vat of milk that turns it to cheese. The halachic status of a non-kosher ‘Davar HaMaamid’ is that it cannot be nullified, no matter how infinitesimal it seems compared to the final product.
It is entirely possible that the same rule should apply to our lab burger. Since the whole hamburger’s essence stems from those original miniscule meaty stem cells, it is feasible that they would have the halachic status of a ‘Davar HaMaamid’. If so, and they were harvested from a non-kosher animal, it might just deem the final product non-kosher as well. However, if these cells would be extracted from a properly slaughtered kosher animal, then the lab grown burger would be considered kosher and possibly somewhat fleishig if the cells are reckoned substantial enough to be considered meat; similar to Rav Aharon Kotler’s ruling regarding gelatin.
However, it is important to note that even following one of the premises that lab created meat would maintain pareve status, it still would not denote a kosher cheeseburger. The permissibility of such would depend on the laws of Maris Ayin. Since this halacha depends on how common an item is [as explained here], with a $325,000 price tag, a potential kosher cheeseburger is a long way off!
As stated previously, this whole cutting edge scientific discussion of genetically engineered beef is currently purely academic. We are enjoying some food for thought, not actually defining it halachically!
It’s important to realize that such technological advances were foreshadowed thousands of years ago by the wisdom of our Sages, discussing meat created via unconventional means. Time and technology have once again proven wrong those who might scoff at our Aggadic Mesorah.
This author wishes to thank former talmidim Chaim Orelowitz and Yisroel Meir Wachs, for being the impetus for this author’s interest and research in this topic.
This article was written L’iluy Nishmas the Ohr Somayach Rosh HaYeshiva – Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R’ Yechezkel Shraga and l’zechus Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam v’chol chalatzeha for a yeshua sheleimah!
For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: [email protected].
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim.