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Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5781

Ask the Rabbi: Throwing Out Leftovers

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: It pains me to throw out leftovers. Often, after a few days, it is clear that no one will eat any more (although they are still edible), and my family wants me to throw them out. We asked a rabbi, who told us to put them in a bag before throwing into the garbage. My family thought this was strange. Must that be done? 


Answer: First we will discuss bal tashchit, the prohibition to destroy things that should be used. The classical formulation (Rambam, Melachim 6:10) is of a destructive action, but cases of wasting a usable resource, e.g., throwing out a salvageable cup of wine (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 170:22) are included. But the halacha, even regarding the most severe case of bal tashchit, cutting down fruit trees, is very balanced and practical – certain things are just not worthwhile to keep (see Bava Kama 91b; Living the Halachic Process VI, G-13).

It is inappropriate and arguably forbidden to make ridiculous amounts of food and throw out the leftovers at meal’s end. However, making a little extra on purpose (appropriate for a mother or hostess) and sometimes having more leftovers than expected so that you do not succeed in finishing it, is not wasteful or forbidden. (Feeling compelled to finish to the point of eating unhealthily is certainly misguided.) Norms in society or segments therein and circumstances likely impact on what is considered illegitimately wasteful. Therefore while some view it is bal tashchit for a caterer to throw out large amounts of food at the end of an affair (Shevet Halevi IV:225), we agree with the approach that when there is no reasonably easy alternative (we encourage positive planning), it is not forbidden (Etz Hasadeh 35:(14) in the name of Rav Elyashiv).

 It is standard practice to protect “foods” with kedusha before placing them in a garbage. Examples include: teruma (see Derech Emunah, Terumot 2:(399)); hafrashat challa (see Minchat Yitzchak IV:13; kedushat shvi’it (see Yalkut Yosef, Shvi’it 15:13). Regular foods do not have “kedusha.” K’zayit-sized pieces of bread do not have kedusha per se, but their “higher status” makes it forbidden to “disgrace it” even if it does not cause “damage,” which does not apply to other foods (Berachot 50b).

Some claim that throwing food in the garbage is doing something active to make it unfit to eat, and therefore one should not do so even if he will clearly anyway not be eating it or giving to another. In some ways, it is more stringent than teruma or challa, where we have an interest in prompt disposal to prevent someone from mistakenly eating it. Here it is possible to wait for it to deteriorate until it is inedible. (Indeed, Mishneh Halachot 15:64 says that putting food in a bag is not enough because the bag will not hold up in the garbage truck.) But this is not the minhag.

Etz Hasadeh (35:(13)) cites a few contemporary poskim who require or recommend putting the food in a bag before throwing it into the garbage. But this too would be a new stringent practice, representing a big jump from arrangements to avoid marginal bizuy, which in the past were reserved for holy objects. It is best if we can provide logic and precedent to support the very broad minhag to throw leftovers directly into a garbage. The main idea is that normal practices of civilized people are not a disgrace. For example, while it is a disgrace to rub food on the skin instead of eating it, when it is normal (e.g., olive oil), it is permitted (Be’ur Halacha to 171:1). It is not that the need overcomes the problem, but that the fact that it is normal precludes its being disgraceful (ibid.). Also, we do put bags in our kitchen garbages, and the contents are mainly leftover food and used disposables, which are removed before decomposing occurs. Therefore, when there are not unseemly things inside, it is quite redundant (and a waste of non-biodegradable bags) to put each set of leftovers in a separate bag.

You, however, received a p’sak with a basis (even though we view it as overly machmir), and you are bound by it (Rama, Yoreh Deah 242:31).


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