New York – The origin of good old fashioned (or bad old – depending if one is health conscious) ordinary margarine is surprisingly fascinating. In the 1860’s France, with the rising popularity and cost of butter (due to the universal constant known as the law of supply and demand), Emperor (Louis) Napoleon III made a contest offering a considerable prize to anyone who could create a satisfactory substitute for butter. Additionally, the contest rules stipulated that this substitute must be inexpensive enough for the common man (apparently this French leader wanted to keep his head), as well as have been able to be mass produced for their Armed Forces. In 1869, chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries invented a substance he called “oleomargarine”, now known worldwide as margarine, and won the substantial prize. Unfortunately for him, margarine never really took off in his lifetime, and after selling the patent in 1871, he died a pauper in 1880. However, as big a role the now popular margarine plays in our daily lives, it interestingly plays a halachic role as well.
There is a remarkable Rabbinic enactment known as “Maris Ayin”. 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. In other words, although an observer has an obligation to judge others favorably (dan l’kaf zechus), nevertheless we still have an obligation not to do things that might raise an observer’s suspicions. The expression might be “looks can be deceiving”, but even so, one must make sure not to engage in questionable activities, or even questionable-looking ones.
The Mishna in Shekalim (8a, Ch. 3, Halacha 2) regarding the emptying of the Kupos in the Beis Hamikdash treasury, bases the prohibition on the verse in Bamidbar (Mattos) Ch. 32, verse 22 “V’hiyisem nekiyim meiHashem u’meiYisrael”, “And you shall appear clean (sinless) before G-d and before the people of Israel”. This issur is cited several times throughout the Talmud, including: Shabbos 61b, 64b, 137a, and 146b, Bava Basra 8b, Avodah Zarah 12a, Kerisus 24b, and Bechoros 43b – 44a. The Chasam Sofer (Shu”t vol. 6, 59) exclaimed the importance of this pasuk, and lamented that he is not sure if anyone could possibly fulfill it properly!
Although some commentators use the terms Chashad and Maris Ayin interchangeably, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu”t Igros Moshe Orach Chaim vol. 4, 82) who maintains that chashad is a Biblical prohibition while Maris Ayin is Rabbinic in nature, and explains the subtle differences between them. See also Shu”t Minchas Asher (vol. 1, 65 & 66), who defines them a bit differently. The Divrei Malkiel (Shu”t vol. 4, 61), maintains explains that Maris Ayin actually contains six different classifications.
One of the more famous applications of this rule applies to cooking (and/or eating) meat in (pareve) almond milk. Since this appears to an onlooker as cooking basar b’chalav, the forbidden mixture of meat and milk, it is therefore Rabbinically forbidden due to Maris Ayin (See Rema Yoreh Deah 87, 3 and major commentaries). There is a solution, though, to place almonds down next to where the cooking/eating is being done, to show to all that there is no actual prohibition occurring.
Employing this logic, updated for modern times, would seem to imply that having a cold cut sandwich lathered with margarine might just be forbidden, due to Maris Ayin, as the margarine can easily be mistaken for butter! But if so, why is this not more widely known?
The answer lies with a silky situation. The Mishna (Kilayim Ch. 2, Mishna 9) rules that combining wool and silk does not violate the Biblical prohibition of shatnez (wearing a mixture of wool and linen), yet is forbidden Rabbinically nonetheless due to Maris Ayin, as such garments could easily be mistaken for shatnez. Still, several centuries later, the Rosh, and even later, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 298, 1), ruled that in their times this was no longer an issue, as silk had become so common that it was easily recognizable, and no one would suspect a silk blend garment of being shatnez. The Rema (ad loc.) takes this ruling a step further and maintains that even a kanvas-blend garment, if it is commonplace, is also considered above suspicion; the Shach (ad loc. 2) affirms that in his locale kanvas is common and therefore not-applicable to the law of Maris Ayin.
The renowned Kreisi U’Pleisi, Rav Yonason Eibeshutz (Yoreh Deah 87, 8) extrapolates and expands on this concept even further, applying it as a general halachic rule across the board: any time that the questionable object (or action) becomes commonplace, Maris Ayin no longer applies, as it will no longer arouse suspicion. The example he gives is if in a place where cooking in almond milk is the norm, then accordingly it would not be necessary to place almonds next to the pot, as the average onlooker would simply assume that one is cooking in pareve almond milk, and not real milk. Other later authorities, including the Maharsham, (Daas Torah on Yoreh Deah 87, 3) and Yad Yehuda (ad loc. Pih”A end 5), have echoed Rav Eibeshutz’s ruling.
In fact, this basis for being lenient in cases of Maris Ayin has been widely accepted by contemporary authorities as well; the only issue being how common that item has to be in order to be entitled to this exemption. There was a famous dispute recorded approximately a hundred years ago between the Pe’as HaSadeh (Shu”t vol. 1, 36) and the Yigal Yaakov (Shu”t Yoreh Deah 23) regarding some novel egg-based desserts served at a wedding that looked remarkably dairy-like. Although both agreed with the Kreisi’s approach, they disagreed as to whether such desserts were considered common enough in their day to negate the rule of Maris Ayin.
However, nowadays, with popular and familiar daily staples such as margarine, soy schnitzel, burgers, and hot dogs, non-dairy creamers, pareve ice creams and whipped desserts so commonplace, the vast majority of contemporary authorities assert that me’ikar hadin there no longer is a Maris Ayin issue with these products at all. Who would suspect a religious Jew of using dairy butter, milk or ice cream after eating meat, instead of assuming that the pareve alternative is being used? Although some maintain that it is
still preferable to exercise caution since the dairy versions are presently more common, and maintain that one should keep the container or wrapper on the table at the time of eating, nevertheless, they agree to this halachic principle. That is why many do not even think twice about “buttering” their sandwich with margarine or having pareve “ice cream”, or coffee with non-dairy “milk”, even at a fleishig (meaty) meal.
This is an excellent example of halacha’s adaptability to a changing world. The rule remains the constant, but its practical application is dependant on our great authorities’ interpretation. So, to sum it up, although the creator of margarine never got to enjoy its questionable benefits, we at least can, both in the physical sense, as well as in the halachic sense.
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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.