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Halachic Guide to Chinese Food on 12/25: Everything You Need to Know for This Shabbat

Some areas of halacha are more well-known than others. That’s just how it is. There are those topics that rabbanim teach and reteach so you’ll never forget them. For instance, nobody ever gets confused about whether or not an etrog is kosher if the pitom falls off.

Then there are other halachic topics that are barely ever mentioned. When one of those comes up, everyone kind of looks at each other, scratches their heads, and you get a lot of “I definitely heard this in a shiur once, but I think I fell asleep…”

Well, the halachot of eating Chinese food on December 25 is certainly in the latter category. You may know some of the halachot involved, but in case you don’t, this can be a refresher of sorts.

Why eat Chinese food on December 25?

Long story short, Jews had become frequent customers at both the movies and Chinese restaurants in early 20th century New York City. Sometime in the 1930s, everybody figured out that both of those two great pastimes could be merged together on Christmas when everybody was off from work with nothing to do and the only things open were movie theaters (minimal workers needed) and Chinese restaurants (they weren’t celebrating either).

When should Chinese food be eaten?

Most poskim hold that you must eat the Chinese food between chatzot and shkiah during the day on the 25th of December. Some poskim are more meikel, as a minhag has developed to consume Chinese food at night on the 24th instead.

This minhag was likely developed because the movie aspect of the day never became halachically required due to there being no similar halachot involving movies on other days. (What kind of heimishe Yid goes to movies anyway?) However, Chinese food became mandatory as it was just one more food/holiday halacha to add to the virtually endless list that already existed.

That being said, daytime is generally held to be l’chatchila, while the night before (certainly only after tzeit hakochavim) is b’dieved.

Who is required to eat Chinese food?

This is an interesting topic because of the principle that women are exempt from mitzvot aseh shehazman grama (timebound positive commandments). Does this apply here?

While there are different opinions on this issue, it is generally accepted that women are obligated due to similar reasoning behind their obligations on Pesach, Chanukah and Purim. In those cases, af hen hayu b’oto ha’nes (they indeed were part of the miracle) applies. Basically, even though there was no miracle that allowed Jews to eat Chinese on Christmas, women were sufficiently involved in the formative narrative of this mitzvah and they are therefore obliged to keep it.

Where should Chinese food be eaten?

The origin of this mitzvah stems from physically being present in a Chinese restaurant. This is not required today for many reasons.

First of all, there simply aren’t enough kosher Chinese restaurants to accommodate what is now a rather large American Jewish population. The logistics would be a nightmare. Also, in the years since the inception of the original obligation, a higher percentage of Chinese restaurants in modern-day America are takeout only. Not using these establishments as options would put an even greater strain on the system. Lastly, many Jews (tragically) live in communities without a Chinese restaurant at all. These unlucky members of the tribe will have to make their own Chinese food at home, or worse, buy one of those frozen lo mein boxes.

All of these make it necessary to allow for the food to be consumed in the home. However, one notable thing that is not permitted is inviting extended family over to eat Chinese food together. While it is possible that in the past this was done at the restaurants of the day, these days we are more machmir on not making this an issue of chukat hagoyim (imitating gentiles).

In other words, if you have your extended family over on Christmas, it doesn’t matter if you are eating Chinese food; you’re in danger of actually celebrating the goyishe yontif.

What constitutes Chinese food for the purpose of the mitzvah?

Over the years, some good questions have been asked on this topic.

For instance, since the origin has to do with eating at a Chinese restaurant, does anything at all purchased from a Chinese restaurant fulfill the obligation? Almost every single (American Jewish) Chinese restaurant has French fries. Many have sushi. What about Asian fusion dishes? Could you simply drink a can of soda purchased from a Chinese restaurant?

First of all, all poskim agree that it must be actual food and that a person must consume a kezayit in volume. (The machloket about what constitutes a kezayit is beyond the realm of this article.)

While the rest of the questions above are good she’elot, poskim generally hold that the food must be either purchased from a Chinese restaurant or recognizably Chinese, but ideally both. If your food is in one category but not the other, the accepted practice is to eat a fortune cookie (the symbol of American Chinese restaurants) in order to rule out a safek of any kind.

So if you’re on a diet, sushi would be fine (b’dieved) as long as it was purchased from a Chinese restaurant and not a specifically sushi establishment, as long as you also ate a fortune cookie.

One last question that usually comes up on this topic is about the authenticity of American (and kosher) Chinese food. In this case, all poskim agree that anything that would be universally described in America as Chinese food would count. Therefore, a person who ate either authentic or Americanized Chinese food would be yotzei the mitzvah.

How should Chinese food be eaten?

Chopsticks are not required. Our ancestors didn’t use them a hundred years ago, so you don’t need to use them now. Also, come on. Stop trying so hard. Forks are easier. In this case, minhag avoteinu is literally b’yadenu.

So, what about this year when Christmas falls on Shabbat?

First it should be noted that this clears up a question that is most controversial: whether or not you must wash and say Shir Hama’alot before bentching, as fulfilling this mitzvah would make your meal a seudat mitzvah. Usually, the recommendation is to ask your local Orthodox rabbi if your family does not have a strong mesorah as to if you should avoid washing to dodge the predicament (certainly not difficult given standard Chinese fare), or if you are required to wash.

(Some poskim will bring down hilchot Chanukah with sufganiyot and latkes in which you also have a mitzvah to eat but are not required to wash. However, others disagree given that you would be saying Shir Hama’alot anyway as it’s Chanukah regardless.)

Shabbat certainly makes fulfilling the obligation more difficult, yet it does not displace the mitzvah to another day. One must still fulfill the mitzvah of the day, with the added leniency of being allowed to be yotzei at Kiddush on Shabbat morning (before chatzot) if Chinese food is present.

If the only Chinese food that one has for the mitzvah includes a sauce, it is permissible to heat it before Shabbat and serve it Friday night instead of waiting until lunch the next day. This is because though cold Chinese food is certainly edible, most would prefer to eat it hot, and we hold that the mitzvah should be pleasant (deracheha darchei noam).

(A more difficult scenario than this year was last year when Christmas fell out on a fast day, Asara B’Tevet. In that case, to make sure to be mikayim the mitzvah, the recommendation is to eat some Chinese food before the fast on Christmas Eve after tzeit hakochavim. Next occurrence: 2031.)

By Nati Burnside


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