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The Torah portion of (Tazria-) Metzora contains certain laws of tumah and taharah (impurity and purity). In Chapter 15, 12, it says, “An earthenware vessel which the man with the discharge will touch shall be broken.”
The idea that an earthenware vessel cannot be purified through immersion is found earlier, in the Torah portion of Shemini where it says (Levit 11:33), “But any earthenware vessel into whose interior any of them [the impure crawling animals] falls, whatever is inside shall become unclean, and you shall break the vessel.”
Based on these verses, our sages ruled that an earthenware vessel can become ritually impure (tamei) only if the source of tumah (i.e., a dead animal or tameh person) reaches its airspace but not if it touches the outside of the vessel.
The Inner Meaning
The Kotzker Rebbe explained (quoted in Pardes Yosef, parshat Shemini) that earthenware is made of material that has no innate value (earth). Its only value comes from the fact that it has been formed into a useful item which can contain things. As such, it can only become impure from the space where it can contain things. In addition, since its value lies only in the fact that it’s a utensil, when it becomes tamei it can only be purified by being broken and losing its status as a utensil. In this respect it is different than utensils made of more important materials such as wood or metal. Because these have innate value, when they become impure, they may be immersed in a mikvah and are considered to be given a new life.
Man, too, is made of earth. And his value is only in his “content,” i.e. his inner character and behaviour. If he becomes impure through sin, he must break his own heart (i.e., achieve true contrition and submission) in order to be forgiven and spiritually purified.
Earthenware Cannot Be Kashered
Just as earthenware cannot be immersed for purification purposes but must be broken, the flavors absorbed in earthenware cannot be extracted by kashering. Therefore, if an earthenware utensil absorbs a non-kosher flavor, it must be discarded.
This is found in the Torah portion of Tzav (Levit. 6:21) where it says, “An earthenware vessel in which it [the sacrifice] is cooked shall be broken, but if it is cooked in a copper vessel, it shall be purged and rinsed with water.” This verse is referring to vessels used to cook sin offerings (korban chatat), thus absorbing the flavor of the offering. Those flavors become forbidden the next day as a sin offering may only be eaten on the day it is sacrificed. While a metal vessel may be kashered and expunged of this flavor, the same does not hold for an earthenware vessel. As the Talmud (Pesachim 30b
) says, “The Torah testified about earthenware vessels [that when they absorb the flavor of a prohibited substance], they will never leave their defective status.”
In Parshat Matot (Numbers 31:21 and on), when describing the methods of kashering the utensils captured in the war with Midian, the Torah does not mention earthenware at all. This is because we have already learned that such items cannot be kashered. (Likutei Sichot 18:369 note 43. See there as to why the laws of kashering metals are repeated there.)
Some say (Ba’al Ha’itur, quoted in Tur Yoreh De’ah 93 and explained in Taz 1) that the Torah only obligates one to break rather than kasher earthenware when sacrificial flavors are involved, but that other non-kosher flavors may be extracted by kashering according to the Torah law. However, the rabbis were strict and applied this law to all flavors.
Based on the above,
One may not kasher any earthenware vessels that were used with hot non-kosher foods.
Similarly, one may not kasher such vessels from their chametz flavors in order to use them on Pesach (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 451:6
see Y.D. 121:3
regarding non-kosher flavors).
If a dairy earthenware pot was mistakenly used for meat or vice versa, the pot has been rendered non-kosher and must be discarded (Y.D. 93:1
This law also applies to glazed
earthenware such as ceramic
(otherwise known as china). Even the opinions that glass does not absorb at all agree that glazed earthenware does absorb and cannot be kashered. The reason for this is that since the glaze is produced in the kiln together with the item, it has the same capacity to absorb as the earthenware itself (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 251:69)
Back to the Kiln
By the letter of the law, it is possible to expunge the flavors absorbed in an earthenware vessel by heating it until “sparks fly from it.” However, since this will often shatter such vessels, the rabbis forbade this method of kashering as they felt people would not perform it properly for fear their vessels would shatter. One may, however, kasher earthenware by heating them in a kiln that is used to make earthenware vessels (or in an oven that reaches similar temperatures). The reason for this is that because he is placing it into such intense heat, he is apparently not concerned that it may break (ibid, 9)
Used only with Cold and Soaking for 24 Hours
If a ceramic utensil was used for cold foods only, it can still absorb the flavors if the food remained in it for 24 hours or more. In this case, however, the ceramic may be kashered, either by immersing it in boiling water or by soaking it in cold water for 72 hours and changing the water after 24 and then 48 hours (ibid, 61
). Some say that this only pertains to Chametz but not to other forbidden tastes (Shach, quoted in Mishnah Berurah 451:117
Less than 24 Hours
Some say that earthenware starts to absorb liquids sooner than 24 hours (Ri Halavan quoted in Tur Y.D. 93 and Taz 2
there). Others say that no absorption happens in less than 24 hours. It is best to be strict and kasher earthenware in such cases in boiling water or by soaking in cold water as explained above (Pri Megadim Y.D. 93).
Used with Cold Chametz
On Pesach it is customary not to use any ceramicware that was used with chametz even if it was used only with cold chametz and even if it was kashered (O.C. 451:21)
Not Used for 12 Months
Some say that any flavors absorbed in utensils (even in ceramicware or the like) for more than 12 months are no longer considered to exist but are considered to be like dirt (Chacham Tzvi Siman 75 quoted in Pit’Chei Teshuvah Y.D. 122:3
). The twelve months in this context means 254 days (see ibid). Most authorities disagree with this view (quoted in Hagalat Keilim by Rabbi Tzvi Cohen page 55).
Nevertheless, one can rely on this opinion if there is another reason to be lenient. For example, if in addition to the ceramic utensil not being used in 12 months, there is one of the following factors (quoted in ibid, pg. 56):
It is unsure as to whether or not the utensil was ever used with non-kosher foods (Responsa Chaim Sha’al).
If they are also kashered three times [see below] (Sha’arei Teshuva 451:1). This is based on the opinion of the Ba’al Ha’itur (quoted in the Tur Y.D. 121
) that one may kasher earthenware by plunging it into boiling water three times. Although this is not the main halacha, one can rely on this opinion in conjunction with other considerations.
If the flavor absorbed in the utensil is only forbidden by Rabbinic law (Bait Avraham quoted in Pit’chei Teshuvah ibid
If the utensils were only used as a kli sheini [i.e., plates or bowls as opposed to pots and pans] (Darkei Teshuvah 122:46).
Reb Moshe Feinstein was asked (Y.D. vol. 2:46) about a family that was doing teshuvah and was starting to keep kosher. They had an expensive set of porcelain that had not been used in more than 12 months. Reb Moshe allowed them to use it after kashering it three times, based on the following factors:
- The Chacham Tzvi who holds that the flavor is not significant after 12 months.
- The Chacham Tzvi is also of the opinion that porcelain does not absorb flavors.
- The Ba’al Ha’itur who holds that one can kasher earthenware by doing so three times (see above).
- The dishes were not used for actual cooking but rather (mostly) as a kli Sheini (see above).
- There was a significant financial loss.
- This would encourage rather than discourage the family to start keeping kosher.
May we Merit to be Kosher in Body and in Spirit
Wishing you a Chodesh Tov and a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!