Ritual Slaughter of the Latke
by Raphael Finkel
It is well known that our tradition surrounds the most important
actions in life with ritual. The importance of life-cycle
rituals and holiday-cycle rituals underscores their stature.
On the other hand, there is no particular ritual for, say,
hunting boars. The Jewish tradition has nothing much to say about
it, except that hunting bores.
Eating has long held a fascination for the Rabbinic mind, not to
mention the Rabbinic stomach. We are all familiar with some of the
rituals involved with food: Washing the hands before going to the
supermarket, checking for the OU, reciting "Who brings the can
opener out of the drawer", and the injunction to leave a little
food in the can for the cat. In the Talmud, there is a dispute
whether searching diligently for the o u itself fulfills the mitsvo
of "bedikas hekhsher" or whether one needs to also know the rules
for affixing the OU, over which one recites "lehagboa hekhsher".
For example, did you know that according to Rashi, the OU must be in
the upper third of the label, and must be vertical, whereas according
to Rabbenu Tam, it must be sideways?
This attention to detail is the hallmark of importance that we
attribute to food. I want to raise your consciousness (and maybe your
gorge) and explain to you the Torah-true Halakhic way in which latkes
must be prepared, according to Rambam's "Sefer", so called because
each chapter begins with the word "Sefer". In particular, Chapter 23
is called, "Sefer example you want latkes." Another chapter, dealing
with food poisoning, is "Sefer ways to can latkes". You may not be
surprised to hear that there is no mention whatsoever of Homentashen
in this standard reference. They just don't rate. In fact, the only
reference I could find to Homentashen in the whole Rabbinic
literature, which I read through yesterday (in the Cliff notes
edition), was in a chapter on spinach Homentashen in the justifiably
obscure responsa of Poppy, the seltzer man.
Say for example you want latkes. The potato must be healthy. Any
potato unable to swim upstream with the current is considered sick,
and you have to wait until it recovers before you can use it.
You have to properly slaughter the potatoes. You need a knife sharp
enough, in the words of the Rambam, so that it can cut 30 bunches of
krokhmal in 10 strokes. I expect that's pretty sharp.
You slaughter the potato with a quick double cut, holding the knife so
the blade is facing up, attacking the potato from underneath.
If there are any eyes on the potato, they must be facing up, so the
potato doesn't see the knife coming. The stroke must sever at least the
main artery of the potato, although according to Rambam, this is
difficult with our modern potatoes, which have no arteries, and it
suffices to cut at least .357 inches beneath the skin.
Any potato juice that come out within the first spurt is treyf; you
must let it pour on the ground and stomp on it, quoting meanwhile from
Deuteronomy, "thus be done to the manna whom the king delighteth to
You then check the dead potato for health. If there is a hole between
the veena and the keyba, the potato is treyf and may not be eaten,
although it may be used for a paperweight. If you carve a dreydl out
of it, the dreydl is kosher, but the knife may only be used as a
screwdriver from then on. If there are any adhesions on the skin, the
potato is glat treyf and must be discarded. You must remove the eyes
(in Yiddish, this is known as "eyebering"); as long as they are not
removed, the outer part of the potato is treyf (literally, "the eyes
have it".) Modern latke factories don't bother with the extremely
time-consuming removal of the eyes, so they sell the outer part of the
potato to non-Jews.
You must be very careful if you are making a large batch of latkes not
to slaughter two potatoes from the same plant on the same day. The
Bible explicitly says, "You shall not slaughter it and its plant-mate
on the same day". The Talmud tells of a thief who stole two potatoes
and slaughtered them on the same day. As you know, the penalty for
stealing is that you must pay back double. But if you steal a potato
and slaughter it, you must pay back 5-fold. The Talmud records a
discussion about whether, when the thief slaughtered the second potato,
he was obligated to pay the 5-fold penalty or not, since he was by that
same act guilty of the "two on the same day" rule, and was thereby
sentenced to the harsher punishment of juggling 5 eggs and cleaning up
the mess. Let it be a lesson to you: Buy each potato from a different
store, you should never have a problem.
If you peel the potatoes, you are obligated to donate one twelfth of
the potato peels to a Cohen, assuming you have peeled at least 20
potatoes and you have gotten at least 1/4 cup of peels from each. The
best way to do this is to put the peels in an envelope and mail it to
the first Cohen or Katz you find in the phone book. It is also
acceptable to stop people on the street, ask them if they are Jewish,
and if so, talk them into performing this important mitsvo "putting out
the peelings" themselves.
I could go on, and I will.
Remember to salt the potato and leave it to drain for at least 24 hours.
We do this in memory of Lot's wife Latke, who was turned to salt. Use a
lotta salt, in memory of Lot's daughter, Lotta.
You may wonder why Sephardic Jews don't eat latkes. It stems from two
differences of interpretation. The Torah speaks about a "Poroh Aduma",
a red potato without blemish. The Sephardim consider red potatoes too
holy to eat, so they avoid latkes. On the other hand, the Ashkenazim
think only Swiss cheese is too holy to eat. They liken "Poroh Aduma"
with "Pereh Odom", the common person, and consider a red potato glatt
kosher. Kosher airline meals made with potatoes therefore always
specify "red potatoes".
The other difference of opinion is the meaning of "you shall not yoke
them together". The Sephardim read this as a prohibition of mixing eggs
and potatoes. The Ashkenazim say, and I quote "Love and Knishes", the
authoritative cookbook, "So nu, use two eggs already. You want more, so
you should use more."
Let me warn you about applesauce. Its proper preparation is just as
complex as latkes themselves. It is best to consult a competent
One last warning. You may remember that the Megilla tells us that the
Persians cast latkes, which they called Pur, from which we get the name
Purim. You must fry the latkes to make them kosher. Let them burn a bit,
in memory of the burnt offerings. But don't do like the Persians. Don't
cast them. If you cast them, they'll turn out Pur for you, too.