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12. Borer - Part 2: Sorting Things Out

April 28, 2015 | by

Taking the good, not the bad.

In our previous lesson, we set out a framework for understanding what the melacha of Borer means. Now, we will see how it is possible to select items on Shabbat without violating this melacha.

The Sages identified three conditions for permitting selecting on Shabbat. They are:

  1. you select the item by hand
  2. you plan to use the selected item right away, and
  3. you select the item you want from the item(s) you don't want (rather than the other way around)1

In Hebrew, these criteria are known as: Biyad (by hand); Miyad (right away); and Ochel mi-toch Pesolet (choosing what you want from what you don't want). In shorthand, this is called "Biyad, Miyad, Ochel." The rhyme between the first two words helps make these conditions easy to remember.

In this lesson, we'll explain what these criteria mean. We'll also understand why the Sages felt that selecting in this manner made it acceptable on Shabbat.

Let's imagine that on Shabbat afternoon, Dan and his son sit down together to learn the weekly parsha. Dan has prepared a snack bowl of pretzels, peanuts and chex. This presents a classic case of Borer, which will help us to explore the three conditions:

Condition #1 – Selecting 'by hand'

This means pretty much what it says. If you want to eat the pretzels, then you remove them from the bowl by hand. The idea is not to (1) use any utensil that is specifically made for selecting, such as a strainer or funnel, or (2) as we'll discuss in a minute, use any utensil in a way that improves your ability to select the item you want.2

When can a regular utensil be used? When it serves only as an extension of your hand – that is, when it doesn't make any difference how the item is selected, except that it's more convenient.3 So let's say that Dan brings out a bowl of melon balls – cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon. If he only likes the watermelon and wants to pick those out to eat, he doesn't have to actually pick the watermelon balls by hand (thankfully!), but can get them by means of a spoon or fork. Here, the utensil is just a cleaner and more polite way to get the food.

What's an example where using a spoon is not allowed? Let's say you want to remove the froth from chicken soup. Since the spoon will do a better job of separating than you could do with your hand, in this case you can't use it.4

Condition #2 – Selecting 'for use right away'

This condition is a little trickier. The idea is that rather than preparing items ahead of time, we make our selection only when we're ready to use the item.5

Getting back to Dan and the snack mix. If he only likes pretzels, he couldn't pick those out ahead of time. Instead, when he wants to eat some, he can take whatever pretzels he wants from the bowl. The idea is that we should take only what we want at the time. (Of course, we don't usually know exactly what quantity this will be, but we guess-timate).6 This satisfies the requirement of 'for immediate use.'

What if it's not practical to do the separating immediately before use? Say you are preparing a fruit salad to serve as dessert for Shabbat lunch. This involves peeling fruits, which is an act of Borer because you are selecting one part of the fruit from another part (more on this later).7 Therefore, you should make the salad right before you are ready to use it. Does that mean that you have to make it literally right before you are serving it, or can you make it before the meal starts? Well, the halacha views a meal as one unit of time, so anything you need to do for the meal can be done just before the meal starts.8

However, the halacha would not permit you to prepare the salad before going to synagogue in the morning, in order to save time later. This is because there would be a time gap between when you did the Borer act and when you actually use the fruit salad. (For this reason, it's not unusual to see people come home from synagogue and begin a set of food preparations right before they begin their lunch meal. They are being mindful of this limitation regarding Borer.)9

The general rule is: Ideally the selection should be done immediately prior to use. However, it is permitted to select earlier if this is the last practical moment to do so – for example, selecting before the meal begins for the sake of dessert to be eaten at the end of the meal.

Condition #3 – Selecting 'what you want'

In this third condition of Borer, the halacha uses the term 'Ochel mi-toch pesolet'10 – literally, choosing the food from the dregs.11 This term is not to be taken literally, since (a) it applies to all items, not just foods, and (b) since the determination of what is "food" is subjective: whatever you want is, for you, "food"; whatever you don't want is for you, "dregs."

This means that, when selecting on Shabbat, a person needs to choose what he or she wants, rather than removing what he or she does not want. If Dan wants to eat pretzels, but not chex, then the pretzels are the "ochel" and the chex are the "pesolet." If his son wants the chex, then for him it's the other way around.

The Sages required this way of selecting because it is the way we usually eat (in Hebrew, derech achilah), and Borer is allowed when done in the course of normal eating.12

An exception to this rule is where it is not possible to remove the 'food' from the 'dregs', since the food is covered by the unwanted material. Classic examples are a banana or a hard-boiled egg. The only way to get to the ochel(food) is to go through the pesolet (in this case, the peel or shell). The halacha permits this, because it views the act of peeling as a way of extracting the fruit, which is desired, from the peel, which is not desired. Thus, the principle of taking the 'food' from the 'dregs' is satisfied.13 This is derech achila, the normal way to eat a banana. (Of course, one would still need to satisfy the other conditions of "by hand" and "right away.")

The Cohen family sits down to Shabbat dinner. A large tossed salad is served. Rachel Cohen doesn't like cucumbers, and wants to remove them. This would be a problem of, since for her, the cucumbers are pesolet. But what if her brother Josh loves cucumbers and is happy to be the recipient of Rachel's?

In this case, Rachel can directly remove the cucumbers and give them to Josh. Why? Because Josh's desire for the cucumbers gives them a status of ochel, and Rachel is allowed to remove ochel (the cucumbers) from ochel (the rest of the salad).14

What's Next?

In our next lesson on Borer, we'll look at how these principles apply in several specific scenarios.

  1. Orach Chaim 319:1
  2. See Mishnah Berurah 319:2
  3. Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 1:124); 39 Melochos, p. 403.
  4. Mishnah Berurah 319:62; 39 Melochos, p. 403-04.
  5. When it is not eaten right away, it resembles the act of Borer as done in the Mishkan – where the grain was put into storage. Thus, when it is eaten immediately, it is not a Torah-level act of Borer. (Talmud – Shabbat 74a)
  6. Mishnah Berurah 319:5; 39 Melochos, p. 412.
  7. You may recall that we also discussed peeling fruits in our first lesson on the melacha of Dosh.
  8. Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 4:74)
  9. Yet another reason to make sure to eat something at the Kiddush before leaving synagogue!
  10. Pronounced, OH-chel mee-TOCH peh-SOH-let. (Each O is a long O).
  11. Rabbi Ribiat translates ‘pesolet’ as “spoiled or useless matter.” 39 Melochos, p. 404. Others simply call it “garbage.” Colloquially, people will call it ‘good’ and ‘bad.’
  12. Biur Halacha 319:3; Halachos of Shabbos, X.D:2 (p. 147).

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