Do the Dishes Dunk

If setting up a new home and a kosher kitchen wasn’t enough work, there is a mitzvah that doesn’t get much attention that has played center stage in getting all of our utensils together.  And that is toiveling, ritually immersing pots, pans, dishes, silverware, and all other metal and glass utensils used to prepare or consume food in a mikveh.

It’s been a busy time of year for the mikvaot kelim, ritual baths used for purifying new dishes, because many people buy a whole set of separate meat and dairy dishes for Passover. (Alternately you can boil and burn your year-round dishes and cutlery.)

While it’s a separate mitzvah from kashrut, the two are often necessarily intertwined — because you can’t eat without both unless you live on disposable dishes and cutlery.  But oddly enough, it seems to me that toiveling gets far less attention, yet it seems so much weirder.

Looking to the origin of the mitzvah, which comes from Bamidbar/Numbers 31:23, Elazar HaKohen instructs the army returning from war with the Midianites.  Regarding all that they have captured, he says:“Kol davar asher yavoh ba’aish ta’averu ba’aish v’taher” — All utensils that have been used to cook forbidden foods must be purged of the flavor they have absorbed in the manner that they were used through fire and must be purified.

Kashrut entails avoiding or removing forbidden “flavors” from dishes (meat from milk and milk from meat), but this implies an extra level of purification.

According to the Gemara, Avodah Zara 75b, this added step of purification is accomplished through immersion in a mikvah — “V’chol Asher lo Yavoh Ba’aish Ta’aveeru Ba’mayim” – Anything that cannot be placed in fire should be passed through water.  We learn that any dishes and/or utensils have been previously owned by a non-Jew have to be ritually purified before they can be used to prepare food.  By extension, these laws are taken to apply to all eating utensils purchased from non-Jews.  That doesn’t sound so politically correct.  Perhaps that’s why this isn’t so popularly discussed.

Flipping back to the connection between kashrut and toiveling though, we can make sense of it all.  The table we eat our meals upon is likened to the mizbeach, the altar in the Temple.  Likewise, the vessels and utensils used for preparing food and for dining must be given special holiness and complete certainty that they are reserved for their holy purpose .

I can honestly say I didn’t have this lofty goal in mind when shlepping down cartloads of dishes (and trying not to break them when crossing busy intersections!) to the mikveh.  And preparation for immersion requires removing any substance that would intervene between the water and the surface of the utensil, such as dirt, rust, stickers, glue from labels, and price markings. I came home one night only to realize that in the dark I didn’t see some stickers on the bottom of dishes (why oh why do they do that?)

At the end of the day though, it does give a feeling to a fresh start in a new home, and hey, you only need to do it once!  Just remember that when selling chametz  for Passover — which this year needs to be done by the time this blog post is published — not to sell your dishes and only to sell the crumbs!  In a funny case of halachic logic, your dishes here would be then sold to a non-Jew and would have to be toiveled again after Pesach!

Toiveling guidelines from the Star K kashrut agency.


1 Response to “Do the Dishes Dunk”

  1. 1 Elle May 2, 2011 at 7:48 am

    I especially enjoyed this post as I am in the midst of setting up my first kosher kitchen and I too have noticed some of these weird situational issues of Halacha that confound me. or at least amuse me. I tell myself I don’t have to “get it” I just have to “do it” and that lets me off the hook from having to over think the things that just aren’t worth over thinking. Saves me a little thinking left for the important things 😉

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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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