Is water kosher in New York City?
Rabbis render conflicting and paradoxical rulings on whether the water is drinkable if not filtered.
By Joseph Berger
NEW YORK -- When rabbis in Brooklyn spotted a tiny crustacean in the tap water last spring, the ensuing debate about whether the city's water was unkosher seemed like an amusing dispute in an exacting Jewish enclave.
But the discovery has changed the lives of tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews across the city. Plumbers in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens have been summoned to install filters -- some costing more than $1,000 -- and dozens of restaurants have signs in their windows trumpeting that they filter. An entirely new standard is being set for what constitutes a kosher kitchen.
The issue has created a Talmudic tempest, allowing rabbis to render conflicting and paradoxical rulings on whether the water is drinkable if not filtered.
The distinctions rendered for various situations have been super-fine, with clashing judgments on whether unfiltered water can be used to cook, wash dishes or brush teeth, and whether filtering water on the Sabbath violates an obscure prohibition.
The creature, a copepod, is found in water all over the world and is harmless.
But it is a distant cousin of shrimp and lobster, shellfish whose consumption violates the biblical prohibition against eating water-borne creatures that lack fins and scales.
The prohibition refers only to species that can be seen with the unaided eye -- so the question of whether the copepod is visible is central. Some are nearly invisible, while others can be a millimeter and a half in length, and seen as white specks.
The tumult is confined largely to New York because it is one of the few cities that is exempt from federal filtering requirements. Boston and Seattle are exempt, but they have nothing like the city's numbers of Orthodox.
In New York City, there are 331,200 Orthodox Jews, a third of the Jewish population, according to a 2002 study done for UJA-Federation of New York.