Coffee – The Grind and the Gemara
I confess that we in the Becher home are coffee fanatics. We only buy recently roasted beans, grind them in a ceramic grinder, make pour-over coffee using only non-bleached paper filters and do not pollute the coffee with sugar or chas v’shalom, artificial sweeteners and other toxic waste. We recently acquired a cold brew coffee tower, which drips cold water through ground coffee for six hours and produces one of the smoothest, most delicious coffees I have ever tasted. Learning Torah on my front porch in the morning, while drinking a good coffee, is a tremendously pleasurable experience. All the more so, because during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has replaced my regular commute in brutal NJ-NY traffic over the George Washington Bridge to Yeshiva University.
The coffee tower got me thinking about the experience of learning Torah and the different ways that it is done. Letting the Torah slowly drip through our mind and soul by studying something in depth, slowly and carefully, like the cold-brew, produces a deep experience with long-lasting effects. Learning Daf Yomi, or daily Mishnayos or Halacha, is a faster more intense fix, which provides a boost similar to a double espresso, made with Ethiopian organic coffee beans.
If I absolutely do not have the time for the full caffeine immersion and am rushing out to give a shiur, I will, on occasion grab a cup of coffee made in compostable, paper K-cups. The equivalent Torah experience is listening to a five minute Dvar Torah podcast, or reading a parsha sheet in shul. Without doubt, very helpful, keeps one awake, but not quite the full experience that the soul really needs.
In 1991 while on reserve duty, miluim, in the IDF, I was stationed at a base in Dotan. Before going to my shift doing guard duty, the officer in charge, Dudu, said to me, “Becher, don’t touch the field telephone in the guard tower, it is only for life and death emergencies!” I acknowledged the command and went out to my 2am to 6am shift. At about 4am, when all was completely quiet, and I was scanning the area outside of the fence, the “life and death phone” rang loudly almost causing me to fall off the tower in shock. With shaking hands I picked up the phone not knowing what to expect. It was Dudu on the phone. “Rotzeh kafe?” “Want coffee?” he asked. “Seriously?” I was thinking, “This is the life and death emergency?” Of course, I said yes, and Dudu brought me a cup of “botz,” “mud”, strong Turkish coffee, heavily sweetened with sugar and flavored with cardamom. It was greatly appreciated, very effective in keeping me awake, and possibly could be considered an authentic emergency.
One Shavuos at a Gateways Seminar I gave a shiur on Coffee Kehilchasa, (appropriate for Shavuos all-night learning) in which I surveyed the halachic literature regarding coffee. I discussed exotic coffees and their kashrus, such as Kopi Luwak coffee; in which the beans are partially digested by a small mammal in Indonesia before being harvested and roasted. I believe that their status is the subject of a debate between the Rambam and the Rashba about a gemara in Bechoros 7a, and I don’t recommend buying the beans. We also discussed the obligation to toivel a coffee grinder (Yes, but without a brocho – Pischei Teshuva, Yoreh Deah 120, #8); hand-grinding coffee beans on Yom Tov (No – Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 504, #9); coffee on Shabbos (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:74:18); Bishulei Nochrim (Shut Maharsham, 2:262); Brachos before and after, etc., etc., etc.
My favorite story about coffee appears in a responsum of Rav Yaakov Emden (Shut Sheilas Yaavetz 2:142). Rav Emden was visiting London on business and went to a coffee shop. Someone saw him there and informed a local Rabbi who wrote a letter of rebuke and a request for clarification to Rav Yaakov for drinking coffee in a non-Jewish establishment. The writer felt that this was prohibited for numerous reasons, not the least, due to various kashrus problems with the coffee and the milk. Rav Yaakov Emden proves at great length that the coffee was completely permitted in his opinion (he also discusses chocolate), but admits that he probably should not have drank in the coffee house because of the impact on others who would see a prominent Rabbi at a non-kosher establishment. He goes on to thank the Rabbi for his letter and encourages him to continue corresponding, but to leave out the “exaggerated and fanciful titles of praise.” As the Mishna states (Avos 5:22), “Turn it over and turn it over, because everything is in it” – even coffee!