Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Sorry, Sherlock, but it’s anything but ‘Elementary’

When it comes to motives for murder, this one from the CBS series “Elementary” takes the steak. (Cake is the wrong word here.)

A scientific genius created a commercially viable (reasonably priced) in vitro meat — meat grown in a test tube — that the Food and Drug Administration was going to classify as real meat. This made the scientist’s boss unhappy. He wanted the FDA to classify the product as a “meat substitute,” so his company could get around halachic and sharia issues, thereby allowing him to tap into the lucrative pareve and halal markets. He had the research altered, then murdered the scientist to keep the truth from coming out.

Seriously, classifying a meat product as pareve was the motive for murder — and it took Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. Holmes even gathered what the script called “the leading experts” among rabbis and imams, and had them debate the issues involved around his dining room table. The rabbis and imams then conspired with Holmes to bring the murderer to justice.

In vitro meat that also is reasonably priced has been in the works for several years. In 2013, a scientist in the Netherlands actually unveiled a hamburger produced from lab-grown meat. That burger, however, cost $350,000. The price is around $10 today, meaning the commercial viability of lab-grown meat is just around the corner.

It may be an Israeli corner, at that.

An Israeli company, SuperMeat, recently launched an internet campaign to raise money to complete research and produce its not-so-faux chicken product, which is made from the stem cells of a chicken. It took SuperMeat only eight days to raise all the money it needed, but it will be about five years before the product hits supermarket shelves.

Will it be pareve? Will it even be kosher?

Those questions have been debated ever since the $350,000 hamburger.

The debate is not exactly new, however. There are two instances in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin where the matter is discussed and ruled upon — sort of. In the first instance, a midrash is cited that had heaven’s ministering angels roasting meat for the First Human, despite the fact that God had decreed that all creatures had to be vegetarians. It was permitted, the midrash stated, because this was “meat that fell from heaven” (literally from heaven, not just from the sky).

Asked an anonymous questioner: “Is there really meat that falls from heaven?”

Yes, came the answer, because meat that fell from heaven saved the life of Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta, who had been beset upon by ravenous lions. When the sage asked his colleagues whether the meat could be eaten, they ruled, “No unclean thing falls from heaven.” The meat was kosher.

Asked Rabbi Zera, “but what if what fell for him looked like a donkey,” which is unclean? Snapped Rabbi Abbahu (after throwing an insult at him), “They already said to him nothing unclean falls from heaven.” (See BT Sanhedrin 59b.)

The second discussion is found in BT Sanhedrin 65b. There we are told that two sages, Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaya, “created for themselves a third-grown calf” (whatever that is) using an incantation from the “Sefer Y’tzirah,” the mystical “Book of Creation” supposedly written by Abraham, “and they ate it,” even though it was neither halachically slaughtered or examined.

The 19th century commentator Rabbi Meir Leibush, the Malbim, even suggested Abraham himself used the technique to serve milk and meat to his guests at the same meal (see Genesis 18; Abraham supposedly observed Torah law even before it was given, according to Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14).

However you slice it, the Malbim was saying the meat was kosher, and because it was not produced in a natural way, it also was pareve.

The late 19th century decisor Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen of Vilna (the Cheshek Shlomo) went further, arguing the milk produced by a conjured calf also is pareve.

That brings us to in vitro meat: Is it meat meat, or is it pareve meat? Is it even permitted meat?

There is no easy answer to any of these questions, and the many others that arise from these.

Let us take the last one first: Is it even permitted meat?

In vitro meat requires the live cells of the animal it seeks to replicate. If the cells are considered “limbs,” and if the animal they came from remained alive, the cells and anything they produce may be prohibited as an ever min hachai, a limb from a living animal. (The prohibition derives from Genesis 9:3.)

If, on the other hand, the live cells were removed from a freshly killed animal, was the animal killed in a halachically acceptable manner, and did it undergo the required post-mortem examination to determine whether it was kosher? Does it even matter?

Most authorities, so far, dismiss the living limb question — it is a stretch to call a cell a limb — but there is divided opinion regarding whether the freshly killed animal must be ritually slaughtered and examined, or whether the donating animal even has to be kosher.

That leads to whether the in vitro product is meat meat, or is it pareve meat?

Part of the answer depends on the “face” you put on the question. There is a halachic concept known as panim chadashot, or “new face.” If something has been so altered from its original state that it no longer is considered the same thing, it has a “new face” and subject to different rules. (Think pareve gelatin produced from the collagen taken from the crushed bones of cows, or even non-kosher ones, as was once the case; or the Flavr-Savr tomato, which is produced using pig cells.)

After all the issues are resolved (assuming that is possible), one issue remains: marat ayin (what the eye can see). Jewish law forbids engaging in technically acceptable behavior if it appears that Jewish law is being violated. Putting a piece of American cheese on an in vitro hamburger is classic marat ayin.

So, Sherlock, that motive for murder is not so clear-cut after all. It definitely is not “Elementary.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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