Defining the Melakha of Borer: Separation or Waste Removal

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

            The melakha of borer is usually defined as removing waste material from edible food (pesolet from okhel). It differs from dash, which also entails waste removal, in that it processes waste or inedible food that is not attached to the food.

            The Yeshuot Ya'akov (cited by the Biur Halacha) asks an interesting question about borer, and his answer dramatically alters the definition of this melakha. Typically, a melakha is only violated if the primary action is performed upon an object whose inherent utility is valuable. If the melakha is performed on an item that does not provide inherent utility, it is referred to as eina tzerikha le-gufa and it is not Biblically prohibited (according to many opinions). The classic example relates to a pit that was dug (in violation of the melakha of boneh, construction) because dirt was required. The melakha is performed upon the newly formed pit, but the pit provides no utility, since the digging was performed solely for the purpose of extracting dirt. Accordingly, the Yeshuot Ya'akov questions the entire basis of the prohibition of borer. After all, the act of waste removal is performed upon an object – the waste – that provides no utility! Why should borer be a Biblical violation if, in fact, it is a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufa?

            The Yeshuot Ya’akov responds by redefining the prohibition of borer. Borer is not defined as waste removal, but rather as separation between two mingled substances. There are several melakhot that are defined as “separation” – for example, cutting hair and nails, which violates the melakha of gozez – and they are all considered classic melakhot. Since the act of separation is executed upon the entire bundled/connected item, utility from either part that is ultimately separated suffices to define the act as tzerikha le-gufa. In the example of cutting hair, there is no utility provided by the cut hair. The only utility relates to the person's head, which is neater. Since the act of cutting is defined as separation, however, it was performed on both the head and the hair. Since the head receives improvement, this is considered a melakha that provides utility to one of the objects it was performed upon. Similarly, in the case of borer, the act is not defined as targeting the waste. Rather, it is performed on the mixture of waste and food. Since the food is endowed with newfound benefit, borer is considered a melakha that provides benefit to [one of] the item[s] upon which it is performed.

            This new definition of borer may lead to several interesting nafka minot. Firstly, does borer apply to separating two different edible foods? The simple reading of Shabbat 75a implies that it would, but Rashi changes the reading of the gemara, and several commentaries have suggested that he denies that there is a prohibition of borer when separating two types of food. This issue is actually a debate between Chizkiya and R. Yochanan in the Yerushalmi, with the latter claiming that borer does not apply. The best manner of explaining the permissibility of separating two types of food would be to define borer as an act of waste removal. If neither substance is defined as waste (since they are each edible), the melakha cannot be violated.

            In contrast, the mainstream opinions that do apply borer to separation of two edible substances may define borer as an act of separation, in which case removing waste or separating two different food stuffs are equally banned. The Ritva (Shabbat 74a) asserts that borer does apply to separating two forms of edible food, defining the melakha as an act of separation.

            Alternatively, those who apply borer to separating two forms of edible okhel may agree that borer is defined as waste removal, but maintain that waste is not an objective definition. If a person desires one of the food substances and not the other, the desirable substance is defined as food, while the less preferred item is defined as waste. By selecting one from another, waste has been removed and borer has been violated. Even, if borer is defined as waste removal it may still obtain to separating two foods!

            An interesting nafka mina between these two logics justifying the prohibition even for the separation of two edible products would be the application of borer to the separation of edible substances of the same variety. Is separating large pieces of chicken from smaller pieces a violation of borer? What about separating fried meat from cooked meat? The continuation of the Yerushalmi suggests that borer does apply in these cases, whereas the Terumat Ha-Deshen (siman 57) and the Maggid Mishnah (in his comments to Hilkhot Shevitat Assor 1:3) each suggest that it would not. If borer entails the separation of waste from desired food, perhaps it can only be applied to two types of different food – one of which is currently desired and one which is not. It would be difficult to envision borer regarding the exact same food that is only different in its size or form of preparation. If borer is defined as separating substances, however, it may well apply to any selection process, provided there is some disparity between the substances being separated. Even if the foods are identical, as long as there is some logic to their separation (large pieces from small pieces), borer has been violated.

            An additional question relates to the minimum quantity (shiur) of food that has to be processed in order for borer to be violated. The gemara (95a) describes the scenario of curdling milk into cheese and defines this as a form of borer. The gemara describes the minimum shiur of this type of borer as a grogeret, which is about a 1/3 of a beitza. What is unclear is whether the edible food from which the waste is separated must be this quantity or if the entire mixture can be this quantity in order for the melakha to have been violated. The Minchat Chinukh claims that the food itself must be this quantity for borer to be violated; the mass of the waste does not contribute to this shiur. Consistent with his earlier statement, the Yeshuot Ya'akov claims that the entire mixture can add up to this minimum quantity. Even if a large mass of waste is separated from a small trace of food, the borer violation has taken place. If borer is an act of waste removal from “food,” the resulting food must be of a minimum quantity. However, the Yeshuot Ya’akov consistently views the prohibition as an act of separation; the melakha is executed upon the entire bundle. If this bundle comprises the requisite shiur, the melakha has been violated.

            This description of borer as an act of separating two species would affect an interesting leniency of borer. The gemara concludes that selecting the edible product from the waste is permissible (provided two additional conditions apply – it is for immediate use and it is not performed with an instrument, but by hand). If borer is defined as removing waste, this leniency is logical. By selecting the food proper (under the two additional conditions), no act of waste removal has been perpetrated. If, however, borer prohibits any selection and separation (even between two different types of edible foods, as noted above), why is separating food from waste permitted? Evidently, a new logic must be proffered to explain this permissibility.

            The Ramban explains that selecting food from waste is not an act of separation, but rather a form of eating. When people eat, they necessarily separate foodstuffs. Any separation that occurs as part of that experience is permitted, since it is integrated into eating. (This allowance will be examined in a future shiur.) This alternate logic is necessary if borer is defined as selection. If borer is defined as waste removal, however, the selection of food from waste can be justified even if it is not part of the eating process.