Chiltis – One Powerful Spice!

Chiltis has long been known as the sharpest of spices. In fact, the Talmud states that if a cow were to swallow a whole chiltis plant, it could be assumed that it would not live out the year. If one consumed it in an undiluted state, it could cause a gastrointestinal perforation (i.e. a ruptured bowel) and could literally burn a hole through the intestines.

The chiltis spice also raises a unique kosher concern. According to Jewish kosher law, one may purchase raw fruits and vegetables from the market, even if one were to suspect that a cold non-kosher knife was used to cut them; it would be sufficient to rinse them off. However, one is not permitted to purchase cut chiltis from the market unless one knows for certain that it was cut with a kosher knife.

Due to the herb’s extreme acidity and corrosiveness, it is assumed that once it has contact with a knife, even if the spice and knife are both cold, and even if the knife had not been used in many days, the blade would draw out (and absorb) the strong chiltis flavor. So, if a non-kosher knife were used to cut the chiltis, the spice would be rendered non-kosher. It is assumed that any spice that is equally strong as a chiltis would be included in this stringency.

The History of Chiltis

One of the earliest Talmudic commentators Rabbi Nathan Ben Yechiel of Rome (1035 – 1106) author of The Aruch (A dictionary of Talmudic terms) defines chiltis as asafoetida. According to asafoetida is a soft, brown, lumpy gum resin having a bitter, acrid taste and a pungent odor, obtained from the roots of several Near Eastern plants belonging to the genus ferula, of the parsley family. The Ferula family includes such common vegetables as carrots and giant fennel. Although the smell of asafoetida can be overpowering, it does not appear to have an exceptionally strong taste. If this is the correct definition, then almost every spice should be included in the category of chiltis.

One of the most famous Talmudic commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), universally known by the acronym “Rashi,” translates chiltis as laser. This would seemingly be referring to another herb in the Ferula family. There is a now extinct species of Ferula called laserpicium, also known as silphium. This was a plant that was used in Roman times as a seasoning and medicine. Apparently, it was a stronger, more expensive, version of asafoetida.

Historians assert that the spice became extinct about two thousand years ago, during the period of the writing of the Talmud. This was possibly due to over-farming. The herbs silphium and asafoetida had similar enough qualities that the ancient Romans often used the same word to describe both. This might explain the disagreement between Rashi and Aruch. They both might be referring to the same spice but using different names.

Because this spice has been extinct for roughly 2,000 years, it is hard to know exactly just how potent it was. However, it is certainly possible that silphium (laser), or some variation of this plant, had the very properties that were referred to in the Talmud.

Due in part to the doubt surrounding the true identity of the chiltis, kosher law requires that we relate to any very strong spicy flavor as having similar properties as the chiltis. The same oversight and restrictions that the Talmud required for chiltis are, therefore, applied to all strong spicy flavors. A spicy food may not be placed on a surface that did not undergo a kosherization, even if the surface is clean and ambient. For example, a mixer bowl that is used for sriracha would require kosherization even though the ingredients all remain cold. The same mixer however could be used to process cold tomato juice (not spicy), so long as it underwent a thorough cleaning.

There are additional stringencies that apply to spicy foods if a mistake in processing took place. For this reason, a kosher program that deals with spicy foods must be more cautious, as there is very little room for error. For this reason, a plant that introduces a spicy product line might see extensive changes to their kosher program, even though from a production vantage point there seems to be almost no change.

This category is not limited to only supremely spicy foods like hot salsa or sriracha sauce, but includes even much “milder” foods such as radishes and onions. Strong vinegar and spicy mustard are considered spicy foods as well. However, once vinegar is mixed with other ingredients and becomes diluted, such as is the case with most salad dressings, then it is no longer viewed as a strong spicy food

Rabbi Eli Gersten, OU rabbinic coordinator and recorder of OU policy, is a regular contributor to BTUS. His “Glucosamine, Is It Kosher or Not?” appeared in the Summer 2017 issue.

Rabbi Eli Gersten
Rabbi Eli Gersten serves as OU rabbinic coordinator and recorder of OU policy.