Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of Civets and Dinosaurs: Miscellaneous Notes and Announcements

1. Ramban makes a comment in last week's parashah which is of incredible importance. On the passuk of "Ve'asisa hayashar vehatov," he points out that the Torah cannot discuss every case that arises (this is interesting in light of Ramban's mystical view that "everything is in the Torah"), and therefore we must extrapolate moral values from the mitzvos to apply to other cases. I think that this has ramifications for everything from software piracy to pyramid schemes to organ donation.

2. I was recently asked if Kopi Luwak is kosher. I had never heard of it, and was intrigued to discover that it is coffee made from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet. I don't have my seforim with me so I can't do the research now, but I can think of a few factors to consider: (1) The beans absorb enzymes from the civet's stomach, but then again, so does honey with bees; (2) There may be a difference with something that is excreted rather than regurgitated, on the grounds that kol hayotzei min hatamei, tamei; (3) There is debate in the Gemara and onwards concerning whether it is permissible to drink donkey urine; (4) Is it ever justifiable to spend $100 on a cup of coffee?

3. During my lecture tour, I often have the pleasure of experiencing people telling me that my books have made a positive impact on their lives. Last Shabbos, in Baltimore, someone came over to me and said, "Rabbi Slifkin, I have to thank you for transforming my life... by letting me know about DropBox!"

(Click here if you haven't yet installed this terrific utility.)

4. Yesterday I was in one of my favorite stores, the Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway. I saw two cheaply-priced gems that I didn't buy because I already own them, but someone else might want to seize the opportunity: Moshe Sokol's Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, and Lester A. Segal's Historical Consciousness and Religious Tradition in Azariah de' Rossi's "Me'or Einayim." These books are difficult to find and often expensive, but I highly recommend them both. And the Strand is a great place to find other rare and cheap books on Judaism, science, and pretty much anything.

5. Tonight (Wednesday) I am speaking about dinosaurs and evolution at the Talmud Torah Learning Program in Flatbush, 1305 Coney Island Ave. The presentation will be in the simcha hall at 7:30pm. Men and women are welcome; there is a $7 suggested donation. I will also have books on sale, including the new edition of The Challenge Of Creation (which hasn't yet reached the stores here), and you can get the set of all four of my books that are in print for just $90.

6. There are still a few spots left for this Sunday's Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo. Please spread the word, and email me if you want to make a reservation.


  1. Does anyone reject that Ramban? What would their approach be (e.g. anything not clearly forbidden is permitted or v.v)?
    Joel Rich

  2. On the civet thing, from an epidemiologist's perspective: Perhaps one also ought to ask the question of whether it is a safe thing to do in the first place. Digestive solid waste does not vaguely resemble anything clean or sterile. Even if there were no other halakhic issues, if I remember correctly the Rambam rules in Mishneh Torah that one is obligated to take care of oneself so that one may properly perform miṣwoth. One would at the very least want to make sure the coffee beans in question had been cleaned and disinfected with extreme prejudice before making coffee out of them. Because if something went wrong, one might end up getting sick from something that had been in that civet's gut, the same way that one can get sick from contaminated, undercooked meat. Because of the health concerns alone, I would never so much as dream of recommending that anyone consume such coffee without some real evidence that it is safe for human consumption.

  3. (this is interesting in light of Ramban's mystical view that "everything is in the Torah")
    It's not really a question, because obviously all of those secrets are not something that is readily available to people, so there is still a need for a general mitzva to be a mentsch.

  4. Aaron,

    IDK if the health concern is really justified. This method of coffee preparing is the coffee, like any coffee is roasted before brewing. The roasting temperature ranges from 370 to 540 °F (188 to282 °C), which should sterilize the coffee as well as any autoclave.

    The kashrus of it still sounds difficult regardless of its safety though...

    On a related note, Indonesia's top Muslim body was considered banning civet coffee, but decided not to in the end.

  5. "set of all four of my books"

    I assume that excludes "The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax", doesn't is?

  6. Tzurah, I'm aware that anything in the coffee should be killed if it is prepared correctly. It's what happens if something which goes wrong which I'm worried about.

  7. My books in print are:

    1. The Challenge of Creation
    2. Sacred Monsters (actually this is the last stock that will be available for several months or more)
    3. Nature's Song
    4. Man and Beast

    No plans to reprint Hyrax, unless someone volunteers to sponsor it.

  8. Regarding Donkey piss and deficated coffee beans, the link you included writes

    "(The CHAZON ISH (YD 12:6) explains that the reason it should be forbidden is not because the water that the animal drank became mixed with its body fluids, but rather because the water entered the body and merged with the body, becoming part of it. When it later exits the body, it is considered as something that is "Yotzei Min ha'Tamei," something that emerges from a forbidden animal, which is therefore forbidden itself. On the other hand, perhaps it does not absorb properly into the body, and thus it is like water that enters and exits and is permitted.)"

    It is notable that ingested food that is subsequently defecated never actually entered the body. Biologist would tell you (well I am) that the alimentary canal is external from the body, thus the coffee beans cannot be said to have "merged" in any way with the body.

    With regard to urine, pee is filtered blood (in simple terms) and can only be seen as having come from the body (similarly with milk).

  9. > "On the passuk of "Ve'asisa hayashar vehatov," he points out that the Torah cannot discuss every case that arises (this is interesting in light of Ramban's mystical view that "everything is in the Torah"

    Actually I don't find this "interesting." What I mean by that is that, clearly the Rambam is talking about the surface level of the Torah and the Ramban is talking about all the levels (including using at-bash, and whatnot).

  10. While I think Kopi Luwak should be assur due to ba'al tashchit (see R' Kafich's comment on giraffe meat in R' Zivotovsky's Jewish Action article), it seems that it should absolutely follow the first reasoning in bechorot regarding bee honey (as you noted):

    מותר מפני שמכניסות אותו לגופן ואין ממצות אותו מגופן

    Indeed, this is all the more clearly something שמכניסות אותו לגופן than nectar, since the beans are clearly recognizable, while nectar is not. Nonetheless, as many of your commentators noted in your last honey post, that reasoning might only be an asmachta. (See? The mark of a talmid chacham: even his satire generates practical nafka minas in contemporary halacha! :) )

  11. I would distinguish between bee honey and kopi luwak. The former is clearly permissible and was always a food item. The latter is problematic since the civet's enzymes change the taste of the coffee bean so as to make luwak coffee a very expensive treat. Hence those enzymes and the products of their reaction with the bean aren't nullified (in contrast to bee honey). The prohibition against using a food item stemming from a treif source thus remains. The digested and defecated bean should not be considered non-food waste since the bean is removed from the feces and carefully washed. There should also not be a problem with 'lo teshaktzu' for those who have no qualms about drinking something made from a defecated product. The latter is comparable to the permissibility to eat worms that the sages presume came from the host creature or plant.

  12. Y. Ahron,

    My understanding is that the kopi luwak do not change the coffee bean in any way, rather the beans that they select for eating are of the highest quality. This is just a method of selecting the best quality beans.

    It is possible that the beans are altered by digestive enzymes, however it cannot be denied that the beans never entered (or merged) into the kopi luwak' body.

    I wonder, if we applied a synthetic enzyme to the beans, would they be treif?

  13. Oh, I remember those days, with a very big smile!! I too have had Civet coffee. It was awesome. Civet is a small mammal inhabits the deep forest. In Indonesia, they inhabit the deep forest and coffee plantation of Sumatera (mostly in Lampung province) and Java provinces. This mammal is the best animal of coffee fruits selector.
    Kopi Luwak


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