Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Yet More On Copepods

from the copepod department.

The following exchange is in this week's Jewish Press:
The Debate Over Copepods (Cont`d.)

David Berger`s Oct. 22 op-ed article, "On the Prohibition of Water: An Appeal to Poskim," reflects the views of one who is only casually familiar with copepods. Fortunately, there are scientists called copepodologists who dedicate their entire careers to the study of these fascinating creatures. They have graciously spent tens of hours relaying their knowledge of these animals, and the information they have provided dispels many of the points raised by Professor Berger.

One issue raised was whether "learned and pious" Jews throughout the ages have unknowingly consumed copepods in any significant amount. The likely answer to this question is no. Wells do not contain planktonic (open water) copepods. Fast moving rivers also are copepod-free. And even when bucket after bucket of water is hauled up from a lake (or reservoir), copepods typically do not appear. This is due to several factors, including built-in escape mechanisms and diurnal migration (copepods tend to sink to lower waters by day, and surface only at night).

New York City’s infestation problem is a unique modern-day phenomenon. Two pipes, each eighteen feet of diameter, suck a million gallons of water per minute out of Kensico reservoir. These pipes are positioned sixty feet below the surface level of the water. Since there is no filtration in the New York City system, we are, in effect, drinking water from the very center of the lake — an area infested with copepods. It is the modern-day method of water delivery that creates a new, modern-day infestation problem.

The second point, which states that the visibility of copepods is "not identical, but it is very close" to that of microscopic organisms, is inaccurate. Copepods are significantly larger (adults are typically from 0.8-1.4 mm long, not counting antennae and “tails”). Also, their unusual movement makes them easily visible. They move in rapid bursts, called “hops” by the scientists. The hops occur about once every second, and momentarily accelerate the copepod to a velocity of 80 mm/s. In between hops is a sinking phase, during which the copepod remains passive. These bursts of movement make live copepods easily visible to the unaided eye. The copepodologists have found written descriptions of copepods as far back as Aristotle.

In New York City tap water, the copepods are difficult to see (unless isolated) because all of the copepods that show up in tap water are dead, killed by the chlorine treatment and the rigorous journey through the distribution system.

Occasionally, a lake will become overpopulated by copepods, which then will turn up in hand-drawn water. A review of the halachic literature shows that there was a great awareness of a potential bug problem with water. This is reflected in the significant amount of material on the topic, in the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 84:1-3), and poskim (summarized in Darchei Teshuvah ad loc.). Even in Hilchos Shabbos, a method of filtering water from bugs on Shabbos is casually discussed (O.C. 319:16).

There is an interesting way to prove that even very small water creatures, in the copepod size range, are an issue in halacha. R` Yeruchim (quoted by Beis Yosef 84 and all later codifiers) prohibits bugs that infest vinegar. Well, there is one creature that survives (and indeed thrives) in the extreme conditions of acidity found in vinegar. This is the nematode Turbatrix aceti, commonly know as the vinegar eel. This extremely thin worm-like creature is similar in size range to the copepods.

The question of whether New York City water is permitted without filtration is indeed a serious one, due to the severity of the issur of tolaim on one hand, and the basic necessity of water on the other. It is also a complicated issue, with many factors weighing in to the ultimate decision. It nevertheless is a halachic issue, and should be left to the poskim to debate and decide. We encourage every individual to follow the guidance of his particular rav and posek on this issue.

Yaakov Lach

(Via E-Mail)

Editor’s Note: The writer does volunteer work for the Brooklyn-based Vaad L`kashrus Hamayim, which is dedicated to facilitating the availability of effective and affordable filtration for those who wish to filter their water. The organization’s hotline number is (718) 907-6498. The Vaad wishes to thank the Orthodox Union for sharing its scientific research into copepods.

Dr. Berger Responds: I am grateful for Mr. Lach`s observations about copepods in lakes. My article did note that the "percentage of these creatures in New York City tap water [may be] higher than the percentage in a bucket of water drawn from the upper level of a lake," but I assumed that the likelihood of their presence in lake water was somewhat greater than Mr. Lach indicates.

The key point of my article, however, does not stand in conflict with the data presented by Mr. Lach and in fact assumed the validity of those data. The piece began by citing a ruling "affirm[ing] that once copepods can be seen as moving entities in the city`s reservoirs, they remain prohibited even when they are not discernible in tap water." Thus, when I wrote that "the situation here is not identical [to that of genuinely microscopic organisms], but it is very close," I was saying that although — unlike microscopic organisms — copepods can be seen with the naked eye in some circumstances, they are — like microscopic organisms — generally not visible in a glass of New York City water.

“The proposition before us,” I wrote, “is that the Torah prohibits drinking a glass of perfectly clear water in which no one has ever observed a forbidden substance” — and which, of course, may contain no copepods at all. I then underscored the point by noting that a stellar array of gedolei Yisrael drank this water for generations without in fact noticing anything. (I should add that some observers report that after appropriate training they can see copepods — generally as mere dots — in a halachically relevant percentage of cases, while others assert that they cannot.)

I am in full agreement with Mr. Lach`s concluding paragraph.

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