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Tartaric Acid

By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator

Q. A friend told me that tartaric acid made from non-kosher wine is used in kosher food.  How can that possibly be? 

A. What you heard is correct, and to explain why some permit this we must probe a bit into the halachos of stam yayin (non-kosher wine), with a bit more depth than we typically do in this column.  The Gemara (Avodah Zara 34a-b) says that when the seeds from non-kosher wine production dry out for 12 months, they become permitted, and it is generally accepted that the same is true if someone mechanically dries the seeds instead of waiting 12 months.  Rabbeinu Tam explains that this leniency is restricted to cases where the person first soaked or rinsed the seeds to create temed (a wine-like extract produced by pouring water over “leftovers” from wine production) and only then dried out the seeds, but just drying alone is insufficient.  Shulchan Aruch YD 123:14 accepts this limitation.  However, two halachos later (YD 123:16) he records the lenient ruling of the Rashba that one may use 12-month-old non-kosher wine barrels for kosher, without first removing the crystals which are attached to the inside of the wooden barrel walls.  These crystals are so dried out – in fact, wine companies need chisels and jackhammers to remove them – that Rabbeinu Tam agrees one can be lenient, even though the crystals were not used for creating temed.

Nowadays, those crystals are called “tartaric acid”.  Tartaric acid is used in winemaking (to lower pH), as a dough conditioner for bread, in soft drinks (particularly grape and lime flavors) where it contributes tartness, and in other foods.  It is also the starting material for cream of tartar.  Whereas it used to be chiseled off the sides of wine barrels, when winemakers began using stainless steel tanks instead of wood barrels or cement tanks, they found that the tartaric acid crystals were no longer attaching themselves to the walls!  They, therefore, developed chemical processes to isolate tartaric acid from the peels, pits, and other byproducts of winemaking.

Rav Belsky ruled that this type of tartaric acid is the same as the one described by Rashba and is, therefore, acceptable for use, even though it is produced from non-kosher wine.  Most of the national hashgachos in the United States accept this ruling, while those in Eretz Yisroel and most of the “Heimishe” hashgachos will not accept tartaric acid or cream of tartar as kosher, unless it is produced from kosher wine.  What’s behind this strict position?

There are three primary reasons to be machmir and disagree with Rav Belsky.  Firstly, Darchei Teshuvah (123:54) cites a machlokes whether the Rashba would permit a person to eat the actual crystals (i.e., tartaric acid) or was only lenient to use the barrels (with the crystals still attached).  Secondly, Minchas Yitzchok (7:60) follows the lead of Taz that we may only rely on the Rashba for cases of b’dieved, while Rav Belsky said that the consensus is to even permit it l’chatchilah.  Lastly, it is clear from the Rashba and Rabbeinu Tam that there is some level of “dryness” which is not enough to permit the seeds etc. and an even dryer level which allows the seeds etc. to be used.  It is not at all clear how to differentiate between these levels of dryness, and it is also not well-established that that the tartaric acid made nowadays is at the dryness level where Rashba would be lenient.

These are three reasons why some disagree with Rav Belsky’s approach.  However, it may be that there is an alternate reason to permit tartaric acid.  That is that instead of basing the heter on Rashba cited in Shulchan Aruch 123:16, we can suggest that modern tartaric acid is permitted based on Rabbeinu Tam cited in Shulchan Aruch 123:14.  As noted, Rabbeinu Tam explained the Gemara to be saying that dried out seeds etc. are permitted if they first went through a temed process.  In fact, descriptions of the modern process of creating tartaric acid from leftovers of the winemaking process (e.g., peel, pits, lees, pomace) indicate that the first step in creating tartaric acid is to recover any residual wine or sugar/juice from those leftovers.  That step is taken for financial reasons to get as much benefit from the leftovers as possible.  Once all alcohol and juice have been removed (via washing, steaming, distilling, or some other method), the chemical process of creating tartaric acid begins.

Thus, it turns out that tartaric acid recovered from these leftovers is permitted based on the Gemara as explained by Rabbeinu Tam, and there is no question that it may be consumed l’chatchilah.  The lees and pomace went through a temed-like process before they were dried, and, therefore, per Shulchan Aruch 123:14, all should agree that the tartaric acid and cream of tartar are kosher even though they were produced from non-kosher wine residue.  Thus, all three questions, which were based on a comparison to Shulchan Aruch 123:16, are no longer relevant.

This article first appeared in the Let’s Talk Kashrus column, Yated Ne’eman, July 28, 2023.