By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Most people make a number of purchases for Pesach, and this year many people are suddenly making Pesach for the first time. In light of the COVID-19 virus, what should be done in terms of immersing those food-prep items, dishes, and silverware that require tevillah? The keilim immersion pools may be infected with the virus, and have, therefore, been closed.

The General Mitzvah

The Torah (Bamidbar 31:23) tells us of the obligation to immerse metal utensils whose origin is of non-Jewish ownership or manufacture. The vessels must be immersed in a mikveh, sea, lake, or river. The mitzvah is called tevilas keilim. It’s discussed in a Mishnah in Tractate Avodah Zara (page 75b).

Biblical Or Rabbinic?

There is a question as to whether the requirement, in general, to immerse dishes is biblical or rabbinic. The issue is whether or not the verses quoted in the Talmud are to be understood literally or whether they constitute something called an asmachta, a biblical allusion to a future rabbinic enactment.

Some Rishonim (such as the Rambam) understand it as a rabbinic requirement. Others (the Ritva) believe that when the Gemara utilizes the phrase “And we need this verse, because otherwise we might have thought, etc.” it cannot be an asmachta.

The Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh De’ah (120:9 and 14) implies that it is Biblical while in Orech Chaim (323:7) the implication is that it is rabbinic.

The Biur Halachah explores the possibility of the author of the Shulchan Aruch having changed his mind and subsequently being of the opinion that it is biblically forbidden. There are three practical halachic differences as to whether it is biblical or rabbinic.

The first is when a doubt arises.

The second is a situation where a child was the one who dipped the vessel; he is believed if the obligation is only rabbinic but not where the obligation is from the Torah.

The third is in a situation like ours, when it is very difficult to do tevilah and we need to decide upon another option.

There are essentially three options on the table.

  • One can sell the items to a gentile
  • One can declare the items ownerless in front of two or three people
  • One can immerse the vessels in the ocean

What follows is an analysis of each.

Selling the item to a gentile or physically giving it to him is one option when immersing it is impossible. This is discussed in Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 120:16. The problem is that there is great debate among the Rishonim whether this option works when the gentile is not physically picking up the item. Even a document or an exchange of funds is not universally accepted by the Rishonim. It is for this reason that rabbis who sell chametz employ some six different methods of conducting the transaction.

Declaring the item ownerless can be a problem, because when one handles it later, it could be that he or she will inadvertently acquire it, and it would require tevilah again. The Mishnah Berurah 446:10 states regarding chametz that is found over Pesach that since one is burning it anyway, one may handle it by hand if it is for a short period of time. It is a good idea, however, to say out loud that one is not acquiring the chametz. This is based on a responsum of the Rivash (401, regarding the acquisition of chametz by hand) cited in Shulchan Aruch 446:1. Why is this so? Because a person’s hand acquires items for him even if he does not have in mind that he is acquiring it. Perhaps one can stipulate at the outset that one has no intention of ever acquiring it, but such stipulations are debatable.

The third option, which may be the best, is to get some sort of weighted basket with a cover that can be immersed in the ocean and be completely submerged. If this is not possible, then this author heard from one of the gedolei ha’dor that the first two options seem to be equally good. We must also take into account the possibility that the obligation is rabbinic and we do have a pandemic on our hands.

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

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