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By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator
Q. I travel a lot, and there’s a product I’ve seen which would be really wonderful for me. It is precooked rice which does not even require refrigeration. There’s no hechsher on the package, but the only ingredients are rice and salt, and since both of those are obviously kosher, I can’t imagine there would any sort of kashrus concern. So, can I just take these with me and microwave them in my hotel room? [Of course, I know to double-wrap them in the non-kosher microwave.]
A. You are 100% correct that the ingredients do not pose a kashrus concern, but this is an example of a food where the processing poses an issue. That is because Chazal instituted a requirement that a Jewish person be involved in the cooking of foods that are not edible raw (אינו נאכל חי) and are fit for serving at a fancy event (עולה על שולחן מלכים). Cooked rice meets both of these criteria, and, therefore, require “bishul Yisroel” (a Jew being part of the cooking process). If the rice product you’re looking at had hashgachah, the certifying agency would make sure that the food is bishul Yisroel, but otherwise you should not use this product.
Your question was about a fully cooked rice product, but you might not be aware that even some rice which seems to be raw is also fully cooked. This rice is usually referred to as “instant” rice, and you’ll notice that the cooking instructions say that it can be edible after just 5 minutes of cooking. Those 5 minutes do not make the rice any more edible than it was before, and basically just warm up the rice and add some moisture. If you’d put the rice into a cup of warm water, it would become just as edible, and that tells us that it was fully cooked in the factory. For that reason, this type of product would require bishul Yisroel, and, therefore, also requires certification.
But most “raw” rice that’s on supermarket shelves is not fully cooked. Rather, it is typically just “parboiled” which means that has been partially cooked in the factory, so that it will only take you 10 minutes or so to prepare at home, but it is not yet fully cooked. Does this rice need bishul Yisroel? It was cooked in the factory, and the Shulchan Aruch says that if a non-Jew cooks a food till it is about halfway cooked (כמאכל בן דרוסאי), it becomes forbidden as bishul akum (i.e., food forbidden because it was cooked by a non-Jew).
Does that mean that all raw rice needs hashgachah? The answer to that depends on two factors. Firstly, one would have to know whether the factory cooked the rice “enough” to be halfway cooked. Secondly, it would depend on if one is Ashkenazic or Sephardic. Ashkenazim follow Rema who says that even if the food is bishul akum, if it still needs more cooking and that final cooking is done by a Jew, then it changes from bishul akum to bishul Yisroel and is permitted. So, the rice might leave the factory as bishul akum, but will become kosher/bishul Yisroel when the Jew cooks it at home. But Sephardim do not accept this position; rather, they rule that once the food is bishul akum and the cooking is complete, it is too late for it to be “saved” by a Jew finishing off the cooking. Thus, Sephardim would want to buy rice which is truly raw (or at least not halfway cooked), or which is certified by a hashgachah which ensures that it is bishul Yisroel. [If the rice bears a hechsher that follows Ashkenazic rulings, it is possible that they do not ensure it is bishul Yisroel, and instead assume a Jew will cook it at home thereby “saving” the rice. In that case, this rice is not suited for Sephardim.