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First Things First

She furrows her brow and looks at him, “That one’s okay? I thought it has to have an OU-P, no?”


fter lunch on the second day of Pesach, my sister-in-law and I are schmoozing in the kitchen as we put the food away and my husband takes coffee orders.

“Do you have Sanka?” asks my sister-in-law.

“No,” he says, “I bought the decaf Nescafé.”

“Right, with the Chasam Sofer hashgachah. It’s Swiss Water, not a bad decaf,” she says.

My husband reaches in the pantry for the jar of decaf. He holds it out to her. “Nescafé Clásico,” he says. “OU.”

She furrows her brow and looks at him, “That one’s okay? I thought it has to have an OU-P, no?” She takes the jar from him and studies it closely.

My stomach drops, and I am suddenly very hot. My palms begin to sweat.

My sister-in-law quietly studies the label, while my husband abandons coffee-making and reaches for the popular Pesach kashrus guide written by a local kashrus authority.

“For regular coffee, OU is usually fine,” my sister-in-law says, “but for decaf, with the whole chemical process… I don’t know.”

She puts down the jar and watches my husband peruse the guide, then take the book back to the dining room table, where the rest of our family is awaiting dessert.

Right. I’m supposed to serve dessert. What was for dessert? I open the trays of Hungarian brownies. I slice my apple pie. My sister-in-law is saying something about the decaffeination process, but I’m not listening. I’ve been drinking that coffee since Erev Pesach, enjoyed big cups with milk in the mornings, and smaller cups with almond milk after the meals.

And it might be chometz.

Ever since high school, I’ve been a coffee drinker. (Blame it on my parents, who had big cups of black coffee after dinner and zero sleep issues.) I loved the taste, and it came in handy when cramming for finals, and later, after sleepless nights with newborns.

There have been times I’ve stopped; once, when nursing, I went off and stayed off for three years. But mostly, for the past 30 years, coffee and I have had a deep, meaningful relationship.

Last year, as part of a diet plan, I abandoned my dear friend. (The diet guru claimed it wreaked havoc on the metabolism.) After a grueling first week, I felt amazing. I drank herbal tea with lemon and honey and stayed off coffee for four months. I loved not relying on coffee to function, and felt less edgy.

Then, on vacation that summer, I had a cup of decaf at a friend’s house. It was so good! And this was perfect — I could have my coffee, but none of the side effects.

Well, almost. Coffee is typically decaffeinated using chemical solvents, usually ethyl acetate or methylene chloride. Although these names sound a bit scary, both are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and only one part per million is said to remain on the beans. Still, word on the street is that it’s healthier to avoid chemically processed decaf and go for a “cleaner” decaffeination process. The Swiss Water process is supposed to be the most natural and best tasting and is 99.9 percent caffeine-free. The second-best option is produced from the carbon dioxide (CO2) process, which yields coffee around 97 percent caffeine free.

I came back from vacation and stocked up on a great Swiss
Water decaf and an equally good instant version for Shabbos. Slowly, coffee and I rekindled our relationship. Though the decaf has a miniscule amount of caffeine, I still felt like I “needed” my morning coffee. I continued to have the first cup soon after waking, before davening.

When the meal is over, I try to rest, but can’t stop thinking about what it means to have ingested chometz on Pesach. How do you do teshuvah for eating chometz? What was I thinking anyway, when I saw the jar with the just the OU? Why didn’t I spend the 30 seconds to ponder the hechsher, before putting it in my clean, newly covered Pesach cabinet?

All the work I’ve done — cleaning, shopping, cooking, serving, clearing — everything suddenly seems like a big joke. You thought you were being so careful. Ha! You messed up royally!!

When I daven Minchah, I tell Hashem how sorry I am, how I can’t believe this happened. I spend the rest of the afternoon sulking on the couch, saying Tehillim, and waiting for Yom Tov to end so we can ask the rabbi.

But we can’t reach him that night. And it turns out we have two sh’eilos. The regular instant Nescafé we’d bought is also not listed in the book.

The next morning, I wander out of my room, bleary-eyed, to find a fresh jar of Nescafé Decaf, with a special Pesach certification, sitting beside the urn.

No, thanks, I think.

An hour or so later, I find my husband at the table with “the book,” and a serious look on his face. He has not been able to reach the kashrus authority and hasn’t yet asked our posek. He explains that the issue is the chemical used in the decaffeination process. It’s unlikely it’s actual chometz, he says. He even called the company, but the person he spoke to wouldn’t tell him what chemical was used, as it’s protected information.

All we know for sure is the book says decaf coffee needs a hechsher for Pesach.

When everyone is home for breakfast and the boys learn about the possible issue with the regular coffee, one son asks point-blank: If we are so careful with making sure the house is perfectly clean for Pesach, why do we buy products that don’t have a hechsher for Pesach?

We explain that many things with just an OU are fine for Pesach (like the maple syrup we’d bought, for example) and are significantly cheaper than their Pesach-certified counterparts.

Still, his point is well-taken. We may be saving a few dollars, but my son tells us what we already know: Many people keep the chumra of only buying products with a KLP hechsher.

After breakfast, we pack up for our Chol Hamoed trip, an overnight by the ocean a couple of hours away. In the car, my husband turns off the music and clears his throat. He looks haggard; I wonder if he slept at all last night.

“I want to ask everyone for mechilah,” he says. “I’m so sorry, please be moichel me for not being more careful and checking.”

“I also should have checked,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

Everyone mutters, “We’re moichel,” and a bit of strain releases from my husband’s face.

Even though I don’t know if I’ve ingested chometz, I feel the tiniest bit better. We made a mistake, but there is teshuvah. I don’t want to berate myself anymore.

“From now on,” my husband says, “We’re only going to buy products with a Pesach hashgachah.”

He turns the music back on, and we settle in for the two-hour drive. I take a deep breath and sit back in the passenger seat, letting the wind blow on my face. I see my husband has done teshuvah, complete with a kabbalah l’asid.

What will be mine?

The next morning, after my husband and sons return from minyan to the hotel, my husband asks me if he can make me a cup of coffee.

“No, thanks,” I say, heading back up to our room to daven.

I daven Shacharis without my coffee and hold out for an hour or so after I’m done.

And that’s when I decide how I will rectify this mistake.

As part of my teshuvah the day before, I told Hashem I wasn’t sure if I’d ever drink coffee again. And it wasn’t just because of this incident.

Over the years, I’ve noticed how I linger over my coffee in the mornings. My davening gets pushed off, sometimes for more than a little while. What I told myself I needed to prepare for davening had become the thing that keeps me from davening. Without coffee, most mornings I would probably even say Shema before the zeman.

I don’t want coffee to be the first thing I run to in the mornings; I want it to be my siddur.

It’s Sefiras Ha’omer, a time when many people take on something new, and often those efforts meet with success. I decide that during the days of Sefirah, I won’t have my coffee until after I daven. I don’t tell anyone, not my husband nor my children.

After the initial adjustment, I find it easier to talk to Hashem before I get distracted by tending to my body. It’s just me and Hashem and our relationship, which takes priority over anything else.

After Sefirah, I keep it up. It’s now two years since I haven’t had coffee before davening. Not once.

Oh, you’re wondering if the decaf was chometz? It wasn’t, but our posek couldn’t determine if it was kosher l’Pesach. The regular Nescafé with the OU was fine.

This year, I might ask my sister-in-law to bring along the Sanka.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 890)

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