De Minimis Curat Deus?

There is a legal principle that you learn in law school called: de minimis.  It’s a shorthand of de minimis non curat lex.  Translated, it means, “the law does not concern itself with trifles.”  Essentially, the concept is that there are certain things so minor as to not be worth the time of the law/court.

Can we say the same thing about God?

The thought came up this morning when I was having a conversation about the train schedule home, and someone relayed a horror story about a friend of his having been stuck on a train when shabbat was about to start, who got off somewhere in Queens, and walked home.

I wondered aloud, not to be cheeky but with genuine curiosity, if there would be anything wrong (aside from marat ayin) in staying on the train, having already paid the fare, until it reached your destination, and walking home from there?  Nobody in my group had the requisite halachic training or authority to make a psak on the matter, so it was basically academic.

The main comparison was to an elevator.  There are those that have a problem with a Ma’alit Shabbat, because even though the elevator will run on its own, and there is no need to interact with it in any way, the added weight of the new passenger will cause the elevator to “work harder.”  Therefore, there is some cause and effect, and the rider would be mechalel shabbat.  (Note, I don’t particularly like this theory, and I follow those that hold from a Ma’alit Shabbat, but for the purposes of this writing, let’s assume that’s correct.)  The question was, then, could the same be said about the train?  Aside from the fact that the rider was already aboard the train when shabbat entered, and it would therefore be working no harder than it was before shabbat (due to his presense), even if that were still a problem (as his presence would be enough, regardless of when he boarded), would it really be a problem?  In a train of that size and weight, would the extra weight from that one person really cause the train to work harder?  We decided, probably not.

But then I got to thinking (and writing).  Almost certainly, if there was a difference, it would be imperceptible to humans.  There could be no way of actually knowing or measuring the net effect of that one person’s presence on the train.  But such limitations do not apply to God.  God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and his judgement is perfect.  God knows exactly, to the smallest unit of energy, exactly what the train expended with you on it, and what it would have expended with you off it (everything else being equal).  And if there is even the slightest deviation from one to the other, God would know it.  And if, as we assumed for the purposes of this argument, such was the deciding factor between chillul shabbat and not, then in God’s perfect judgment, the person who stays on the train would be mechalel shabbat.

Is that really the case?  “Lex” not withstanding, does God concern himself with trifles?  Does God, would God, really hold such a thing against a person?

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33 responses to “De Minimis Curat Deus?

  1. I sure hope He wouldn’t care…because I would totally stay on that train.

  2. Do you remember when people stopped drinking water because they discovered that it contained some microorganisms? Kinda the same nonsense. Guess what? People realized that you couldn’t live without drinking water, so they went back to drinking it and hoping that God didn’t care.

  3. That’s not true. Those people bought special filters that are required by the VAAD in every restaurant. In fact, a few weeks ago my brother was visiting my apartment, and I went to fill up my nephew’s bottle with some apple juice and then was about to dilute it with water from the sink and my brother stopped me, and acknowledged that it was because of the little crustaceans or whatever the heck is in there. I remember when the news came out but before the filters were available, people were using a t-shirt as a filter.

  4. First of all, that infuriatingly retarded. And I love your brother.

    Second, they’re still ingesting microorganisms – just smaller ones that can fit through the smaller filter. Somewhere along the line, there’s a de minimis line set. I guess God cares about tiny microorganisms but not teeny tiny microorganisms.

  5. i have a friend who has had to pull train tricks in order to get all the way home after shabbos started. some crazy stories.

  6. Second, they’re still ingesting microorganisms – just smaller ones that can fit through the smaller filter. Somewhere along the line, there’s a de minimis line set. I guess God cares about tiny microorganisms but not teeny tiny microorganisms.

    Update: my sister told me that my brother would not eat any food she made in Queens and brought to GN this shabbos – because she doesn’t have one of those filters in her KGH apartment. I’m not sure how the Rebbeim came up with a threshold of say 50 microns or so, but I’m sure there was some basis for it.

    In any event, my post was not meant to attempt to validate the arguments in favor of the filters, but rather to simply point out that quite a lot of people are still not drinking/using NYC water straight from an unfiltered faucet.

  7. Just to clarify, the filters were required by many rabbonim b/c they found that actual bugs (not microorganisms) got into the water supply and were occasionally found in ppl.s tap water. I know one Rabbi that has a few of these bugs in jars that ppl. have brought to him as examples of bugs that came out of their tap.

  8. Rob, the reason the bugs aren’t kosher (as far as I remember) is that they are so small, you eat the entire beriyah at once.

    The point that Adam is making (I think) is that this is faulty, first century science. The fact is, we injest entire orgasims all the time (bacteria in food, microorganisms, etc) and the reasoning behind the halachah is now faulty.

    The thing is, “bugs” are visible. If the water had bugs in it, Dan’s sister wouldn’t cook with it. But people go so far as to not consider a kitchen without a filter to be kosher. That’s ridiculous.

  9. … And also, there’s always a next step. As technology increases our level of perception to things, we find more things to be assur. So that means we’re probably doing things today that 100 years from now won’t be allowed. I find it unlikely that water was ever banned prior to the modern age.

  10. Dan,
    Does this mean I can’t eat food your sister makes?

  11. and that water was as clean/pure as it is today, making the whole idea even sillier.

    when youre more concerned with whether or not you actually have water, you tend not to get too caught up in whether or not there are micro-organisms in the water that you have.

  12. I mean, let me go back a second. I don’t want to fully endorse Noyam’s comment, because I don’t like to say things like halacha is “faulty” or somehow invalid because it’s rooted in”first century science.” So I don’t want to use the “bugs” argument to undermine halachic reasoning or suggest that something is outdated. So I’m not completely committed to Noyam’s argument.

    What I do want to say is that I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that something that was perfectly kosher in the first century is now non-kosher today. Does that mean that all those people before us ate treif? (Beshogeg, of course.) I don’t think it does. I think it means that it was kosher back then, it’s kosher now (absent some obvious, new kind of contamination), and we should stop searching for reasons to make more things assur. It doesn’t make you a better Jew, it just makes you a chasid shoteh when you apply unnecessary stringencies. It strikes me as incredibly inconsistent to say that as our technology evolves, so too does our halacha. I can understand applying halacha to new problems as created by technology – such as the shabbos elevator, or the train, or electricity in general – but I can’t accept that technology would alter the outcome of a halachic question that’s literally as old as the Torah itself; namely, whether or not water is kosher. In the first century, they didn’t use a microscope to find any bugs, and, even if they had found them, I guarantee you they found a reason to consider it kosher.

  13. I agree with Mike completely

  14. Yeah, I mean, to go back to Mike’s point, think how silly this whole thing is! When they were drinking brown water out of a well dug in the earth, do you think they were checking for bugs?

  15. What’s next? Giving every cow a blood test and a CT scan?

  16. What I do want to say is that I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that something that was perfectly kosher in the first century is now non-kosher today.

    I don’t see why this is such a problem. The water was deemed perfectly kosher back then because nobody knew about the bugs. Now we know about the bugs and many Rebbeim are saying there’s a problem – not even such a big problem for that matter (I mean how much could these filters possibly cost?).

    I also just want to point out that there is only a problem with NYC water – LI water is fine. At least that’s my understanding…

    If, as Adam foresees, we do find out sometime in the future that the currently acceptable filters are not good enough, and need to be replaced with better ones, why is that a problem?

    Full disclosure – I live in NYC and don’t use a special filter.

  17. It’s a problem for a few reasons. First, Where do you stop? Seriously, should the truly frum person require extra testing for all his beef to make sure it was not a ba’al moom? The technology is available, so why not?

    Second, if we don’t believe that technology and the evolving ideas in the world impact our halacha — that, after all, is the ideology of Conservative Judaism — then why can we use technology to change halacha for the tougher? Fair is fair. Kosher is kosher. Either it was kosher then and it’s kosher now, or it was not kosher then and they were all over be’shogeg and it’s not kosher now either. Again, we are not talking about applying halacha to technology; the issue is applying technology to change the outcome of halachic questions that have long ago been settled.

  18. Third, let’s take for granted, for argument’s sake, that there will definitely be a more precise filter invented one day that keeps out smaller microorganisms. If we can foresee that one day people will look back at our water systems and say that the water wasn’t kosher (an idea that still sounds absurd to me), then shouldn’t we refrain from drinking water today?

  19. Um, I’m just reasonably certain that the original train rider would have been allowed to stay on halachically except *perhaps* for ma’aras ayin.

  20. This has nothing to do w/ technology and its facilitating the finding of bugs. We’re talking about ppl. finding (and I believe the water company confirming) that large bugs get into the tap water in NYC and come out of ppl.s spouts. I don’t know the reasons for the halacha but it is definitely impermissable to eat bugs al pi halacha. If you think the reasons for this are antiquated discuss it w/ a posek but that has nothing to do with the filters. You certainly wouldn’t eat a bug as part of your regular meal and assume it’s kosher. I live in LI (where you should have a filter anyway b/c the water is not great) and don’t have a filter and didn’t have one when I lived in NYC but if you believe that you could be eating bugs you probably should get a filter. Not to say that I agree w/ Dan’s sister that she can’t eat food cooked in a non-filtered house but I wouldn’t discredit ppl. who think it is proper to get one if they truly believe they could have bugs in their food/drink.

    While I can’t stand many of the new chumras that seem to pop up at every turn and think many are ridiculous (and often not based in halacha at all), it is not fair to say that if something was done a certain way 100 years ago, it is OK to do it that way now. Halacha is constantly evolving as is our own knowledge. Halacha, therefore, must adapt to our current knowledge/technology. BTW, this should apply lekulah too. If we now know based on current knowledge that there is no basis for a certain halacha our poskim should be strong enough to modify lekulah. I think the frustration amongst many (and I have discussed this w/ Noyam in the past) is that it rarely goes lekulah. I just don’t think the filter issue is the one to pick in terms of chumras that are out of control b/c I think it makes sense as opposed to w/ holding a hashgacha from a food establishment b/c it has computers w/ internet access as happened in one local neighborhood recently. That’s what we call ridiculous.

  21. [I]f we don’t believe that technology and the evolving ideas in the world impact our halacha — that, after all, is the ideology of Conservative Judaism — then why can we use technology to change halacha for the tougher?

    Technology isn’t impacting our halacha here. The bugs were never kosher – we just didn’t know about them until now.

    [L]et’s take for granted, for argument’s sake, that there will definitely be a more precise filter invented one day that keeps out smaller microorganisms. If we can foresee that one day people will look back at our water systems and say that the water wasn’t kosher (an idea that still sounds absurd to me), then shouldn’t we refrain from drinking water today?

    Look, I don’t know how small these things have to be for there to be no problem. So just because a better filter may be invented doesn’t mean that one is necessary. I do think it would be silly to refrain from drinking acceptable water today that may at some point be deemed unacceptable in the future. That would seem to be an unnecessary restriction based on a hunch.

  22. Assume the bugs aren’t noticeable to the naked eye. What then?

  23. Adam,

    I don’t know but that’s not what we’re talking about in this instance. These are real bugs the kind you should now be familiar with living in Manhattan.

  24. Who’s actually drinking water with visible bugs in it? Either you’re spilling out the glass and taking your chance with the next pull from the spout, or fishing it out (or switching to bottled water forever).

    Either way, no filter is really necessary.

  25. Assume the bugs aren’t noticeable to the naked eye. What then?

    I’d ask a rabbi, but I don’t think it’s as simple as whether or not they can be seen.

    Btw, here’s an OU fact sheet on water that I admittedly haven’t had a chance to fully read:
    http://oukosher.org/index.php/articles/single/2346/

  26. Who’s actually drinking water with visible bugs in it? Either you’re spilling out the glass and taking your chance with the next pull from the spout, or fishing it out (or switching to bottled water forever).

    Either way, no filter is really necessary.

    Unless, that is, we are required to use modern technology to detect bugs and microorganisms that otherwise would not have been seen. Which leads to my next question: Why aren’t we using modern technology for every other area of kashrus? My example, slightly sarcastic, is doing simple blood tests on cows to find evidence of disease that would render the cow a baal moom.

  27. Who’s actually drinking water with visible bugs in it? Either you’re spilling out the glass and taking your chance with the next pull from the spout, or fishing it out (or switching to bottled water forever).

    The article seems to indicate that the copepods are very tough to see (even to the trained eye), for a few reasons. So I really don’t think it has much to do with visibility.

  28. BTW, just to be clear on my POV – I’m no huge proponent of running out to buy a filter and have never done so myself. I just think there are some legitimate points to this halachik concern and that there are certainly issues with kashrus today that bug me (pun intended) a lot more. This past weekend a store owner told me that his mashgiach told him he can only have his TV turned to CNN/Fox news and that if he turns it to other channels (even when the store is closed to the public) he will lose his hashgacha (now that is sick in the head) . Like I said earlier, I find it horrific that a kashrus organization will not give a hashgacha on a store that has internet access for its customers when that kashrus organization itself has a web site (how backwards is that?).

  29. Why doesn’t he get another hechsher? WTF is the matter with these people? He is a mashgiach Kashrut, not a mashgiach ruchanie, just do your F*#$ing job!

  30. In most instances, no other legitimate hashgacha will come into a neighborhood that has a universally recognized vaad.

  31. Sucks. He should pull a Brach’s!

  32. There was a whole, rational discussion on this a few years ago in the Journal of Moden Contemporary Halacha (or whatever it’s called). They seemed to believe that a filter wasn’t necessary but the article was long, my ADD was strong, and shul was ending so I kinda skimmed through the end parts.

    I think that you aren’t actually eating the bug. I think the internal parts of the bug are seperated from the exo-skeleton (is that a word or something I know from Spiderman?) that can be seen. Something about the treatment/processing of the water and the fact that the journey from the Catskills to NYC is so arduous that it isn’t necessary to worry about the bug since you aren’t really consuming the bug.

    In other words, I guess I don’t really know what I’m talking about. But since I’ve taken two minutes to write this, I’m gonna hit the submit button.

  33. But, seriously, I think Adam mentioned this earlier and I think it’s an important point: everything we eat is covered in microscopic bugs/living organisms that are invisible to the naked eye. We know this, don’t we? (I’m not much of a science person.)

    If you are going to draw a black-and-white line between bugs being OK or not OK, don’t you have to concede that you really shouldn’t be eating nearly everything out there?

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