Every so often the OU kashrus hotline desk is asked whether sake that is not kosher certified is nonetheless acceptable. For the uninitiated, sake (pronounced “saw-key”) is rice beer. It originated in Japan, and most sake is still made there.
Usually, the answer to questions about the acceptability of uncertified products hinges on whether we can assume the ingredients used to make the product are kosher and the utensils, or equipment, used in its production are dedicated to that product. In the case of sake, however, there is an additional consideration: whether it is subject to bishul akum.
Bishul akum is a prohibition created by Chazal that, when respected, prevents intermarriage. It applies to a food that is both inedible raw as well as prepared in such a way that it would be appropriate to serve a king (in contemporary terms, whether it would be served in a dignified setting such as a state dinner). Rice meets both of these criteria. Would sake also be subject to the prohibition?
Tosefos (Avodah Zorah, 31b) notes that Chazal did not consider beer, which is made from barley and which was considered appropriate for a king’s table, subject to the issur of bishul akum. Tosefos explains that since the beracha on beer is shehakol, the barley is secondary to the water. Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 113, 22) further explains that this reasoning applies to beer because there is a fundamental, or substantive, change to the barley during the process of production from barley to beer.
The same reasoning, he argues, applies to coffee; a coffee bean is not eaten raw, and coffee is served in dignified settings. Nevertheless, it is not subject to the issur of bishul akum because coffee is secondary to water, which is manifest by the beracha of shehakol (see also Pri Chadash, 112, 17).
The beracha on sake is also shehakol. However, there is a fundamental difference between sake production and beer or coffee. During sake production the main ingredient is made edible before it is made into a beverage.
The process begins with specially cultivated rice, which is then polished, or milled (it looks a bit smaller than the rice grains we are familiar with). The rice is steamed. (picture 1 here) It is then delivered to a tank where koji, a fermenting agent from bran, is added. Water too is added, and the rice is stored for several weeks, a process that converts the rice starch to sugar, which in turn becomes alcohol. Rice particles are filtered out of the mixture, and the product, after pasteurization, is translucent and golden (picture 2).
Already at the initial stage, when the rice is steamed, the rice is subject to the issur of bishul akum. Does the process of rendering it into a beverage afterwards undo the issur?
Rav Schachter, shlita, concludes that this process does not undo the issur.
Nevertheless, there are other points to consider when evaluating the bishul akum status of sake. Some poskim rule that bishul akum is never brought about by steaming. As the teshuva makes clear, the OU does not rely on this leniency – by itself. Another leniency cited by poskim is that bishul akum does not apply when the factory machinery used to produce a product is unlike any that one would encounter in a domestic situation, which is where the original issur of bishul akum was formulated. Traditional Japanese sake manufacturers often use domestic-like pots (often just in a larger size) as the picture above indicates. Therefore this leniency should not be assumed to apply.
Further, there is more water than rice in the final product. Shach Y.D. 113, 21 rules that bishul akum is batel b’rov. However, bitel b’rov may not apply when the issur is the main ingredient in the taruvos, is avidah l’taimah, or the ingredient that gives the food chashivus (importance).
Finally, what, indeed, do we say about the ingredients and equipment used to make sake? If sake is unflavored, we can assume the ingredients are kosher. However, some sake manufacturers store and pasteurize their product on equipment that also processes non-kosher wine.
As Rav Schachter makes clear in his teshuva, we should not assume that all sake in the marketplace is kosher.