Going With the Grain

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This year there is a huge crisis for those who are particular to observe the mitzvah of Yoshon. The price of wheat rose to $12 a bushel (about three times higher than recent years) and at one point hit a record high of $25 a bushel (six times the usual price)!

The sharp increase may be a result of the use of several grains for bio-fuel, as well as a drought in Australia and a sub-par rice crop in China. In addition, the demand for wheat abroad triggered an ever-increasing percentage of exported crops, which caused the U.S. wheat surplus to be diminished to the second lowest level in U.S. history. This raised the price of wheat. The small amount of surplus wheat needs to be mixed with the new spring flour (as explained later in the article) so the wheat flour sold to the distributors will have some consistency.

As many people struggle with the price of wheat, we will examine the source for the prohibition of eating Chodosh, and the possible requirement of its practice in the Diaspora.

The source of the prohibition of eating Chodosh originates in Parshas Emor (23:14):
You should not eat bread, parched grain flour or parched kernels [from the new crop] until this very day, until you bring the [Omer] offering for your G-d. [This is] an eternal statute throughout your generations, in all the places that you live.

The Torah prohibits eating from the grain harvest that has taken root after the Korban Omer (an offering of barley) was offered in the Beis Hamikdash. One must refrain from using it until the Omer of the subsequent year is offered, on the sixteenth day of Nissan. In addition we cannot harvest the grain until after the Korban Omer is given.1

The Chinuch 4 explains that this mitzvah serves as a reminder that all of the food we have is provided by Hashem, therefore, the first portion of grain belongs to Hashem. Only after the Korban Omer is offered can we enjoy the grain ourselves. This is particularly illustrated through grain, which is a staple food.

The laws of Chodosh apply to the five grains: wheat, barley, oat, rye, and spelt. They are Chodosh unless they took root prior to the sixteenth day of Nissan. [There is a halachic dispute whether they must be planted three days before the Omer or fourteen days]. 2 However, the laws of Chodosh do not apply to any other grains, such as corn, rice, buckwheat, soy, potato and tapioca.

In the times of the Beis Hamikdash, the local community in Yerushalayim would wait until the morning of the sixteenth of Nissan when the Omer was offered. The rest of the population in Israel would wait until noon, to be sure that the Korban Omer was offered. Since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, there is no Korban Omer. Therefore, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai instituted that the community should wait until the end of the sixteenth of Nissan to eat the new grain. Furthermore, here in the Diaspora, where we keep a second day of Pesach (since we are not sure which is the real day of Pesach [Sefeika D’yoma]), one should wait another day until the end of the seventeenth of Nissan to eat the grain. 3

Presently, in the Jewish community, the mitzvah of Yoshon and the prohibition of eating Chodosh are very interesting phenomena. On one hand it seems quite evident that there is a mitzvah of not eating Chodosh, yet in the Diaspora we find that it has not been accepted as a regular mitzvah (like Krias Shema or Tefillin) and it is not observed by the entire Jewish community. Even more so, entire communities that go out of their way to be extra careful in the observance of every mitzvah, are not particular about eating Yoshon. Why is it that some forbid Chodosh entirely, while others do not consider it a problem?

Today, verifying that a product is Yoshon is a very complex task. In earlier generations, before the information age, it was even harder, if not impossible, to verify Yoshon status, so it is easy to understand why the Rabbonim and Poskim were lenient and “Melamed Zechus” on those who did not keep the mitzvah of Yoshon.

In 1980, the Lubavitcher Rebbe mentioned: “If one goes out into the streets of Brooklyn, New York, or even in Williamsburg, one will not find a single individual who is careful not to eat Chodosh. If you will indeed find such a Jew, blessing should be bestowed upon him, but I at least have not found such a Jew” (Sichos Kodesh of Acharon Shel Pesach 5740, Chapter 76).

At the time, the concept was indeed foreign to communities in the Diaspora, however, halachically, there is a very strong basis to say that the laws of Chodosh apply today as they applied in the times of the Beis Hamikdash. Most Lithuanian communities follow the Vilna Gaon, who was of the opinion that Chodosh applies in Chutz L’Aretz (outside the Land of Israel), while many Chasidic communities follow the Bach’s opinion that the laws of Chodosh don’t apply outside of Israel.

Why was it so hard for the Poskim throughout the generations to enforce the mitzvah of Yoshon? Why didn’t the Poskim make a Yoshon list for their congregants to follow? There are a number of reasons why Chodosh might not apply today:

1. We are in the Diaspora 6
In the Mishna there is a discussion regarding Chodosh in Chutz L’Aretz. Rabbi Eliezer says that Chodosh applies in the Diaspora, while the Chachamim disagree and hold that Chodosh only applies in Eretz Yisroel.

The majority of the Rishonim agree with Rabbi Eliezer and forbid Chodosh in the Diaspora, however, some say that we follow the opinion of the Chachamim (which are the majority of the sages) and Chodosh is only Mi’d’rabbanon. Some go even further and say that based on the Chachamim, Chodosh is allowed even Mi’d’rabbanon.

2. Grain belonging to a non-Jew 7
There is a dialogue in the Talmud regarding the grain of a non-Jew. Many hold that it cannot be used for the Omer offering in the Beis Hamikdash. The Bach derives from this that grain of a non-Jew is not included in the prohibition of Chodosh. It appears from the opinion of most Rishonim that Chodosh applies to the grain of Jews and non-Jews alike. There were Poskim who defended the Bach’s approach and there were those who disagree completely. Either way, his opinion became synonymous with the Chodosh debate.

3. Today Chodosh is only a Safek S’feika (Twofold Doubt) 8
The Ramah defends the practice of eating Chodosh by arguing that there is a double Safek regarding grain on the market. Is the grain on the current market from this year (after last Pesach) [prohibited] or from last year (before last Pesach) [permitted]? Even if it is this year’s grain, did that grain take root before Pesach or after Pesach? Some disagree with the Ramah, claiming that it is one big Safek, not a double Safek.

4. Today Chodosh is Mid’rabanan 9 (Rabbinic prohibition)
Chodosh may not be Mi’d’oraisa (from the Torah) for a number of reasons: a) we are in the Diaspora, b) the grain belongs to the non-Jew, and c) the Chodosh is Botul B’rov (the majority of the grain market is not Chodosh). Therefore, since we are not sure whether a particular wheat is Yoshon, we can rely on the majority and be lenient (Safek D’rabbanon Le’kula).

5. We are in Sh’as Hadchak 10 (a time of need)
Grain is essential to our diet. Since we cannot survive without it, the Rabbis allowed us to be lenient regarding this mitzvah.

6. It has become an accepted minhag (practice) with a Halachic basis, so we follow the minhag 11
Although the Halacha, according to some, seems to indicate otherwise one should follow the accepted practice.

7. Storage problems
Yoshon grain is often heavily infested with insects during storage.

Agricultural Grain Facts 12
Why have so many Poskim felt the need to find heterim (loopholes) for Chodosh? What does the Ramah mean when he says that Chodosh is a double Safek? Why don’t Chassidic leaders and communities require Yoshon? To answer these questions, one must further understand the nature of today’s grain market.

Spring & Winter Wheat Crops
Wheat is second only to corn (maize) as the most frequently grown crop in the world. It is an essential food which is used to make bread, pastry, alcohol and bio-fuel. The United States is one of the largest producers of wheat, along with China, India, Russia, Canada and Australia. Since the U.S. has such a large surplus of wheat, it exports a large percentage of the crop and has no need to import wheat from other countries (with the exception of Canada, depending on quality and pricing). The self-sufficiency of the U.S. wheat market enables us to assess the Chodosh issue based on the U.S. alone, without concern that Chodosh crops will come in from other countries. 13 In the U.S., there are two general crops of wheat: spring wheat and winter wheat, which differ in climate, maintenance and quality.

Generally speaking, spring wheat is Chodosh since it is usually planted after Pesach and harvested between August and September. Since spring wheat starts growing around Pesach, some plants actually take root prior to Pesach (16th of Nissan), especially when Pesach falls late in April. This creates a Safek since it is impossible to be sure that spring wheat is Chodosh. Some Poskim say that this is a Safek Mid’rabanan (as we explained earlier) so one can be lenient in this case.

Most farmers, when left with a choice to plant their field with spring or winter wheat, grow their crop in the winter for the following reasons: there is a greater insect infestation issue during the summer, most fields need irrigation in the spring since the land is dry and precipitation is low, and soft winter wheat is easier to grow and less processing is needed, which makes the product more profitable. Therefore, most wheat grown in the U.S. is winter wheat, which is automatically Yoshon.

Barley and Barley Malt
Barley is a very popular grain which is used mostly as feed for livestock, but is also used in malt and beer. Barley is mostly grown in Eastern Europe, Turkey and Canada and is also grown in the U.S. in a smaller quantity. It is generally grown in the spring and may be Chodosh, because barley is much more climate sensitive than wheat and does not grow well in the winter except in locations with a very mild winter.

The new crop arrives on the market from October to December. Beer and malt (which is used as a processing agent in many flour mixes and as a flavor) produced from barley would arrive on the market closer to December. Incidentally, some Poskim are lenient regarding Yoshon and beer, because it is not included in “Lechem” that the Torah describes. This reasoning would enable the use of vodka and whiskey, as well. Other Poskim disagree with this premise and don’t differentiate between beer and barley or vodka and wheat. 14

Oats are grown in countries like Russia, Canada, Europe and the U.S. and are used to feed livestock as well as for human consumption; as oat flour, rolled oats, granola, and occasionally beer. Oats have greater tolerance of rainy, cool weather than other grains and are easily grown in northwest Europe where the climate is damp and wet the entire summer.
Oats can be planted in either the autumn or the spring, so they may be Chodosh. The first spring crop can arrive in the market as early as July or August. However, most oats in the United States arrive from Canada in September or October.

Rye and Spelt
Rye is mostly grown in Europe and in small quantities in Canada and the U.S. and is used in rye breads, whisky and beer, or as alternative medicine. In the U.S., rye and spelt are grown in the winter so there is no Chodosh problem. However, in Canada this may not be the case.
Practically Speaking Many products may not seem to be a Chodosh issue on their own, but have an ingredient that may be Chodosh. As the examples in the sidebar illustrate, there are many complications in implementing a Yoshon diet. For a company to commit to be a Yoshon facility, the kosher certification agency must be very aware of all these complexities and ensure that even the most minor ingredients are Yoshon. 15
In the past it was easier for large suppliers of wheat to store wheat or wheat flour until the winter for Yoshon. However, now that the demand is so great, there will not be much surplus left to store Yoshon anymore. The only option the kosher establishments would have is to pre-order the Yoshon wheat in the summer and pay for it in full. This is not likely to work, since companies may not have such a large cash flow and there are many storage problems involved, which have caused great infestations in the past.
Some kosher certifying agencies arrange for the storage of winter wheat flour as well as other winter flours for use during the Chodosh season. Unfortunately, flour stored for many months is prone to insect infestation. Recently kosher certifying agencies and food distributors came up with a solution: the flour suppliers would store wheat kernels before they were ground into flour, since the whole kernels are less prone to infestation. By the time the flour reaches the market, it is freshly ground, just like the rest of the flour on the market.
While there may be possible ways to ensure Yoshon, this article has explained the difficulties involved in monitoring Yoshon status and ensuring Yoshon flour is available. In addition, it is now clear why so many Poskim feel that the mitzvah of Yoshon is not applicable in our times.

Many products may not seem to be a Chodosh hazard on their own, but have an ingredient that may be Chodosh. Here are some examples:

Rye bread is not made with rye flour exclusively; it includes wheat.

Pasta companies add flour to their pasta as a non-stick agent.

Pizza shops line their ovens with semolina flour.

Tuna and other salads may have bread crumbs.

Alcoholic beverages such as vodka, gin cordials and whisky may contain a variety of grains, including barley malt added for flavor.

Many cereals (including corn flakes) and candies include barley malt as a flavoring.

Numerous pastries and breads contain barley malt as a reacting agent between the flour and the yeast.

Pre-mixed flours may contain barley flour for the above reason.

Soups and other liquids may use wheat starch as a thickening agent.

Muffins and other pastries may have rolled oats sprinkled on top of them.

Bakers may add whole wheat, wheat germ or fiber to a product to enhance its nutrition.

OK Kosher Cerification Field Representative