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A FUNGIBLE FEAST, MUSHROOMS IN HALACHA

by: Rabbi Zushe Blech

eprinted with permission of Rabbi Blech. Originally published in the MK Vaad News & Views, April, May, 2002.

There is a category of food that seems to defy classification. It is not fruit nor vegetable nor animal, yet exhibits the characteristics of them all. As every child studies the laws of Berachos, he quickly learns that there are two basic blessings for plants. The Beracha for foods that grow on trees is generally Borei Pri Haetz (Blessed … the creator of the fruit of the tree) whereas that for foods that grow on the ground is Borei Pri Ho’Adama (Blessed … the creator of the fruit of the ground). One quickly learns the seeming incongruities associated with these Berachos (a banana is considered the fruit of the ground while a raspberry may be considered a fruit of the tree), but one food – the mushroom – seems to defy conventional classification. The Talmud (Berachos 40b) states that although mushrooms grow on the ground, the proper Beracha is nonetheless Shehakol, the general Beracha for foods that are not plants. The Talmud explains that although mushrooms do indeed grow on the ground, they are exceptional in that they do not derive their primary nutrition from the soil, as do other plants. [Interestingly, the Aruch Hashulchan (204:5), among others, holds that if one made a mistake and recited Ho’Adama on mushrooms, it would be acceptable, since the Talmud does consider mushrooms to be Gidulei Karka (growths of the ground), although they do not derive their sustenance from it.] The unique status of mushrooms is not limited to their Beracha, however. Once reserved to Egyptian royalty, mushrooms have become a popular food with interesting Halachic ramifications.

Before we can discuss the Halachic applications of mushrooms as a food, we must first establish what they are. The mushroom is actually only a small, visible part of a much larger fungus. Unlike plants that rely on photosynthesis to produce their food, fungi act as parasites, deriving their nutrition from decaying organic material. Although we see mushrooms popping up from the ground, they are but the tip of the fungal iceberg. The main part of the fungus is under the ground in the form of white mycelia, which can grow into huge organisms (one huge fungus growing underground in Oregon that reputedly covers 2200 acres, and is thought to be the largest known single living organism in the world!).

The mushroom that we observe – and eat – is actually the “fruiting body” of the fungus, which the fungus sprouts as spore-producing appendages to spread its spores; the “vegetative” portion of the fungus remains underground. The most common mushroom of this type grown commercially is the species called Agaricus bisporus, which produces the white button mushroom. The popular Portobello mushroom, with a stronger meaty flavor, is actually the same mushroom picked at its fully mature stage. It is interesting to note that until about ten years ago, these overgrown mushrooms were considered a troublesome waste until someone realized that they served as an excellent meat substitute. This use for mushrooms, however, was actually presaged in the Medrash Alpha Beisa, which notes that Hashem has provided Kosher alternatives for non-Kosher foods: “I have prohibited Neveilos and Treifos (carrion and diseased animals), but I have permitted Kemeihin and Pitrios (mushrooms). [See Midrash Tanchuma (Parshas Shemini) for a similar analysis of other non-Kosher foods.]

The realization of the divine blessing bestowed upon mushrooms as a meat alternative has recently taken a giant leap in the form of Quorn. As part of a project to develop a novel food source, a British company identified a fungus called Fusarium venenatum in a local meadow. After much research, they determined that this fungus produces a food that is high in protein and other nutrients, low in fat, and can be processed into products that reportedly really taste good. They called this new class of foods mycoprotein – from the Greek mykes = fungus, and it has become the base for one of the most popular meat alternatives in Europe. While the manufacturers of Quorn claim that it is “mushroom in origin”, detractors claim that while it is indeed a fungus, it is nonetheless not a true mushroom and should thus require further testing. Labeling and regulatory issues aside, the product is currently poised to make a big splash from across the Atlantic. As opposed to mushrooms, however, this fungus is grown in large fermentation vessels, and its Kosher status will depend on the nutrients that are used in the fermentor, as well as the other ingredients that are part of the final product. If it does indeed obtain a Kosher certification, it should serve as a boon to the Kosher vegetarian gastronome.

The use of wild mushrooms as food, however, is quite ancient and poses no inherent Kashrus concern for either year round use or for Pesach. Commercial production, however, is of rather recent vintage, beginning in France in the early 1700’s and making its way to the United States in 1880. The key to successful mushroom production is finding an ample supply of decaying material (compost) to be used as the mushroom bedding, and finding a way to inoculate this bedding with the desired fungal spores. The compost used in mushroom production is generally made by mixing a variety of less than savory ingredients – horse manure, wheat or rye straw, peat moss, used horse bedding straw, chicken manure, cottonseed or canola meal, grape crushings from wineries, soybean meal, potash, gypsum, urea, ammonium nitrate, and lime. The composting process ensures that these materials are hygienic and safe, and since all of this material is – by definition – decomposed, it poses no Kashrus concerns.

The next step involves the inoculation of the bedding with spawn – the fungal spores that actually begin the growth of the fungus in the bedding. As is the case with the commercial propagation of other microorganisms, a culture of spores (spawn) is prepared and grown under specially controlled conditions to ensure that just the right strain of fungus is isolated. As the spawn develops, it is allowed to colonize kernels of moist rye or millet, which are then seeded into the bedding to begin the growth of the main fungus. Moist rye, one of the five major grains, would most certainly pose a concern of Chometz, and some have therefore cautioned against using such mushrooms on Pesach. On the other hand, most authorities do not consider this to be a problem. First, the grain is not actually the seed for the mushroom, but merely a carrier of the spawn. Second, the grain itself decomposes and is rendered inedible. In addition, one should note that all grain comes from sprouted seeds that are Chometz, yet the resulting new grain is certainly not considered Chometz when it is grown before Pesach. [There is indeed a question about the status of grain that grew from Chometz seeds that were planted on Pesach (see Chasam Sofer O.C. 104). There is no question, however, about grain that was grown before Pesach.]

Other types of mushroom-producing fungi grow in decaying wood. Shiitake mushrooms (from the Japanese shi = oak and take = mushroom) were originally grown on oak logs, but today are grown on oak sawdust. The flavor of these types of mushrooms depends on the type of wood on which they grow.

Not all edible fungal fruiting bodies, however, mushroom from the ground. One of the most prized items in the gastronomic world, the truffle grows underground and feeds on nutrients supplied by the roots of trees. These pungent and flavorful bits of fungus were noted at the times of the Talmud, where edible fungi were referred to as Kemehin and Pitriyos. Rabbeinu Yona explains Kemehin to mean those types that grow underground (truffles), while Pitriyos are the mushrooms that often grow on wood (and presumably on the ground). [The truffle was indeed so valued that a chocolate confection was named after it. The chocolate truffle actually contains no real truffle. Its shape – a round ball of chocolate dusted with cocoa – was designed to look like a dug up truffle, evoking the aura of delectable fungus after which it was named.]

Another Kashrus issue that has been the subject of discussion is the possible need to check mushrooms for insect infestation. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe Y.D. II, 25) notes that in Europe, mushrooms were known to be infested and there was therefore a requirement that they be checked. In North America, however, he argues that such infestation is not common and mushrooms are not considered to be subject of a significant concern in this regard. Rav Moshe does suggest, however, that one should still check mushrooms to ensure that the situation has not changed, and it is interesting to observe that his prescient injunction has recently been vindicated. Much of the canned mushrooms sold around the world are currently produced in China, and it seems that productions of mushrooms under otherwise reliable Hashgacha were found to be heavily infested.

Disparities of eating habits among different countries also mushroom into another area of Halacha. When certain foods are cooked, Halacha requires that a Jew be involved in the cooking, a rule called Bishul Akum. Only foods that are not eaten raw are subject to this requirement, and the status of mushrooms remains the subject of discussion in this regard. The Shach (Y.D. 113 s.k. 2) assumes that mushrooms are indeed subject to the rules of Bishul Akum because, in his days, mushrooms were only eaten cooked, which seems to be the current custom in Eretz Yisroel. As such, most Hashgachos in Eretz Yisroel require that canned mushrooms be Bishul Yisroel (cooked by a Jew). In North America, however, it is obvious that mushrooms are readily eaten raw (just look at any salad bar!), and the consensus of most Poskim is that the status of what is eaten raw is based upon the custom in each country. As such, most Hashgachos in North America accept canned mushrooms without Bishul Yisroel.

The Talmud (Shabbos 30b) relates that Rabban Gamliel was teaching his students about the wondrous events that would take place at the time of redemption. In one example he notes that the Land of Israel will produce fresh cakes every morning, basing this on the verse in Tehillim (72:16) “May there be abundant grain on the earth of the mountaintops”. When one of his disciples expressed skepticism on the feasibility of such a miracle, Rabban Gamliel merely told him to look at the mushrooms that sprout from the ground overnight. The Avnei Nezer (O.C. 111) explains that the allusion to mushrooms was more than just a convenient example. From the time of Adam, the earth was cursed and man was condemned to work for his food – “By the sweat of your brow thou shalt eat bread” (Bereishis 3:19). As we have seen, mushrooms differ from conventional vegetation in that they do not grow from the ground, and therefore, according to the Avnei Nezer are considered a source of blessing untainted by the curse bestowed upon the earth. Mushrooms come from the ground “ready-to-eat” without the need for further processing, as do grains, and he explains the Bracha of Rabban Gamliel to mean that, in the future, all grain will be similarly blessed. The Halachos of mushrooms, therefore, should serve as a tantalizing mor(s)el in our understanding of Halacha and Kashrus.


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