Coffee originated in the Ethiopian highlands and then spread east to the Arabian peninsula. But it was not until around the 15th century that roasted coffee beans, and the beverage made out of them, became popular.

In those days, coffee was not brewed at home but rather in coffeehouses, which were springing up everywhere. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and had become popular across the continent as well as in the New World.

Jews, too, became very involved in the coffee trade. In fact, according to some historians, coffee was first introduced in England by a Jew named Jacob, who opened a coffeehouse in Oxford in 1650.1 This drink was so strongly associated with the Jewish people that the chief rabbi of Egypt, Rabbi Avraham ben Dovid Yitzchaki (1661–1729), referred to it as the “Jewish beverage.”2

Paralleling the spread and popularity of coffee, many fascinating halachic questions arose regarding this beverage. The following are just some of the halachic issues concerning coffee.

Cooked By Jews

The very first recorded responsum addressing coffee seems to be from Rabbi David ibn Zimra (the Radbaz, c.1479–1589), the leading rabbi in Egypt and later in Safed, Israel.

There is a halachic principle that Jews may only eat food cooked by fellow Jews, known as bishul Yisrael. Now, this does not apply to foods that are either ordinarily eaten raw or are inferior and not “fit to be served at a king's table.”

Thus, the question was asked: Is coffee a royal beverage and therefore only kosher if cooked by a Jew?

The Radbaz started off his responsum3 by explaining that he researched coffee and came to the conclusion that it was indeed served at the tables of kings and ministers and never consumed raw.

Nevertheless, he ultimately ruled that there was no concern of bishul Yisrael concerning coffee. This issue was further discussed by rabbis of subsequent generations and most concurred with his ruling. One of the main reasons given is that coffee mostly consists of water and is not a food.4 There are, however, some who are strict and refrain from drinking coffee brewed by a non-Jew.5

This leads us to another question regarding coffee.

What Blessing Is Said?

Generally, if one cooks fruits or vegetables in a liquid, the blessing on the liquid would be the same as the blessing made over the fruit or vegetable. Since coffee beans grow on a tree, the question arose whether one should make the blessing of Ha’etz before coffee, just as one would do before enjoying a tree fruit.

In the final analysis, however, the blessing over coffee is Shehakol. One reason for this is that the above-mentioned rule only applies when the fruit is cooked with the intent of consuming it together with the liquid, such as a fruit compote.

In this case, however, the beverage is never enjoyed together with the coffee beans and therefore becomes a separate item with a separate blessing.6

After-Blessing Following a Hot Drink

Although we recite a blessing before eating or drinking any amount, when it comes to making an after-blessing (berachah acharonah), one must eat or drink a specific quantity in a specific time frame. Now, when it comes to food, this is generally not too difficult since the time frame is to eat food equal to the size of an olive in about 3-4 minutes (this time frame is known as bichdei achilat peras). However, according to many, the time frame for beverages is to drink a revi’it (approx. 3 oz.) in the time it takes to normally drink that amount of liquid (30 seconds or even less). As such, this rule would pose a difficulty when it comes to hot beverages such as coffee, which are usually sipped slowly.7

Indeed, there are some who rule that if you just sipped the hot beverage and didn’t consume it in the very short time frame, you would not make an after-blessing.8 Others suggest leaving the last three ounces of coffee in your cup and, once it’s cooled off a bit, drinking it in one shot.9

However, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi10 rules that in terms of making an after-blessing, liquids have the same time frame as solid foods (bichdei achilat peras). So as long as you drank the required amount in that time frame, you would still make a blessing after sipping your coffee.

Coffee With Non-Jews

As coffee and coffeehouses became popular, another concern arose.

As a rule, the rabbis forbid drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages in places frequented by non-Jews (such as in their bars or homes) due to the concern that this can lead to intermarriage.

Does this enactment apply to a common coffeehouse as well?

Ultimately, many authorities are lenient for multiple reasons, including the argument that the enactment only applies to intoxicants.11 However, they caution that a pious person should take care not to frequent non-Jewish coffeehouses, at least not regularly.12

Making Coffee on Shabbat

With the advent of home-brewed coffee, the issue arose as to whether coffee may be brewed on Shabbat.

It is clear that grinding beans and cooking are forbidden. Generally speaking, once water has been poured from the urn into a second vessel and from there into a third vessel, it has cooled to the point where it is not hot enough to cook.

As such, when using instant coffee, one should pour hot water from the urn (which has been on since before Shabbat began) into a dry cup, and from there into a second dry cup, where it is mixed with the coffee (and milk and sweetener).13

When using the pour-over method, one would do the same: Pour the water into a dry cup, and from that cup, pour the water over the grinds.

French presses, timers and other methods of coffee making are beyond the scope of this article.

Kashrut of Coffee

Plain, black, unflavored coffee is essentially kosher as long as one can ascertain that no milk, creamer or flavor was added. Additionally, the utensils used to make the coffee cannot have been used to make other non-kosher foods or beverages.

(Interestingly, this issue is addressed in the very first responsum about coffee cited earlier. The conclusion was that the pots used to roast and make the coffee were used exclusively for coffee and posed no concern, but much has changed since then.)

Coffee on Passover

Since it is the custom of Ashkenazi Jewry to avoid the consumption of kitniyot (certain beans and legumes) on Passover, the question arose as to whether coffee falls under this category.

Some halachic authorities mistakenly thought that coffee beans were actual beans. In fact, coffee beans are the seeds of a cherry-like fruit, and there isn’t an issue of kitniyot.14

Nevertheless, there were some who were strict and would only drink coffee that had been ground before the holiday. They feared that since coffee is referred to as a “bean,” people would assume that bona fide beans are permitted on Passover.15

According to all, coffee enjoyed on Passover must be free of chametz. This is particularly an issue with regard to decaffeinated coffee, which is often processed with ethyl acetate, which can be derived from chametz. Thus, decaf coffee must bear a kosher-for-Passover certification in order to be used on Passover.