With promises of the perfect blend of luxury and learning, piety and pleasure, Pesach hotels pledge to provide an unforgettable week of opulent indulgence. But what goes into those delicious kosher-for-Pesach meals, and what questions do you need to ask to ensure that you enjoy a true chag kosher v’sameiach?
Who is providing the kosher supervision?
Kashrus today is a highly complex field, and not every ben Torah, even if he has semichah and yiras Shamayim, is qualified to oversee a major kosher commercial enterprise. This is especially true on Pesach, when even the minutest trace of chometz is forbidden, and there is no room for error. It is crucial that the kitchen of a Pesach hotel be overseen by a reputable rabbi or organization with extensive experience in the field.
The first thing the consumer must know is that the rav whose name appears on the ad may not be present at the program, so find out who will actually oversee the kashrus. Similarly, it is important to learn about the operators of the program. Do they prioritize kashrus, or are they looking only at the bottom line? The owner’s yiras Shamayim plays a crucial role in the kashrus of a Pesach program
Is the food being prepared by the hotel staff by or an outside catering company?
Many programs bring an established kosher caterer to the hotel but still rely on hotel staff to one degree or another in the preparation of the food. It is important to find out whose staff is taking the lead, because even if the kitchen has been kashered and mashgichim are in place, experience has shown that the possibility of bishul akum and other mishaps is significantly higher when in-house staff (who are not as familiar with kashrus and certainly not with the detailed halachos of Pesach) are doing the work. To expect a kosher caterer to supply the entire staff down to busboys and waiters is not practical, but ideally, the bulk of the team should be regular employees of the kosher caterer.
How many mashgichim will be on staff, and who are they?
The kitchens in a large Pesach program are busy 24 hours a day, starting with breakfast prep at 5 a.m. and ending with late-night dishwashing. This necessitates at least two shifts of mashgichim in each kitchen including overnight supervisors. Considering the various points in and out of the kitchen that require hashgachah, it is reasonable to expect that a Pesach hotel will have at least 20 mashgichim. (No, that is not a typo.)
Every bed given to a mashgiach is a bed the operator cannot fill with a paying customer, and that creates an incentive for the operator to hire unmarried yeshivah students to serve as mashgichim, since they can share rooms. While these young men can fulfill certain duties, it is crucial that the lead supervisor of each shift be a professional year-round mashgiach. Ask who hires the mashgichim, and what qualifications they have.
How long before Pesach did the kosher program take control of the hotel?
Many caterers begin preparing food for Pesach months in advance in their kosher-for-Pesach commissaries hundreds of miles away from the hotel where it will be served. Even so, it is optimal that the hotel kitchen be vacated about a week before Pesach to give the mashgichim time to get everything scrubbed and kashered in time for the chefs to do their on-site cooking before Pesach.
Is there on-site nonkosher food service during Pesach? How far away is it, and how is it being kept apart?
In some hotels, a single kitchen is divided between a Pesach program and nonkosher catering. This is a disaster waiting to happen, and it is probable — not just possible — that mix-ups will occur.
A step up from that is a single facility with separate kitchens, one of which is converted to kosher-for-Pesach service while the other continues to function as usual. This still leaves an open door for problems. Even if nonkosher service is provided in a different building on the same campus, a reliable supervising agency would station a mashgiach in the nonkosher kitchen to avoid accidental “borrowing.” (In industry lingo, we call the practice of appointing a mashgiach to supervise the nonkosher kitchen “reverse kashrus.”)
In addition, when there is nonkosher food service in the same facility as kosher (or kosher for Pesach) food service, there is a possibility that the same cooking steam will be shared by both the kosher and treif kitchens. Depending on the layout of the facility and the steam system, this can happen even if the two kitchens are in separate buildings.
Even in the best-case scenario where the entire facility is turned over to the Pesach program, there is the issue of what food is being served to the non-Jewish hotel staff. I have seen this issue resolved by giving the workers vouchers to a nonkosher restaurant (in a halachically acceptable way), or by bringing in an outside caterer to provide workers with meals from a food truck parked near picnic tables, or by operating a small employee kitchen with on-site reverse-kashrus mashgichim ensuring that their treif or nonkosher food does not enter the hotel.
How are the dishwasher and other complex equipment being kashered?
While some utensils (such as pots and flatware) are easy enough to kasher, dishwashers and other equipment require experts who specialize in the field.
Some of the dishwasher-related challenges include making sure to open the trap below the dishwasher, replacing the screens that cannot be cleaned, and spiking the temperature of the water in the dishwasher to make it hot enough to perform hagalah. This is something that most regular mashgichim, and certainly amateurs, just cannot do properly. (On the subject of dishwashers, some kosher hotel programs and most cruises have only one dishwasher, which they use for both meat and milk, running an empty load to kasher it in between, which is far from ideal.)
Another toughie is the fan on the convection oven, which gets full of nonkosher filth and must be removed and cleaned thoroughly before kashering.
It is not practical to kasher deep fryers for Pesach, so it is best that the caterer bring his own kosher-for-Pesach deep fryers.
What is the hashgachah’s policy regarding tola’im (insects)?
A significant component of the gourmet spread people expect at hotels is fresh produce, including leafy greens and strawberries, which must be cleaned and checked for bugs. This process is a major operation and generally requires a dedicated mashgiach whose primary expertise is in this field. Relying solely on purchased triple-washed lettuce or cleaning with salt water or vinegar is not sufficient. The proper procedure is to wash the produce with kosher veggie wash (or dish soap) and water, and strain the wash water through a thrip cloth, which is then checked against a light box for tiny insects.
What is the arrangement for drinking glasses and wine?
Most caterers do not bring their own drinking glasses. Instead they use the hotel’s tumblers with the expectation that they will be used only with cold drinks. These (nonkosher) glasses may not be used for spirits or hot drinks, nor may they be washed in hot water together with kosher-for-Pesach dishes. It is proper that these dishes be washed in a dedicated dishwasher, separate from all other utensils, and that mashgichim be stationed by all dishwashers to prevent mix-ups.
In terms of wine, even if the program serves only mevushal, when people bring their own non-mevushal wine into the program, they are inviting inevitable instances of stam yeinam, which affects everyone else as well. Find out what the policy is regarding wine, and be sure to adhere to it yourself.
Does this hotel conform to my personal halachic standards?
Most programs today serve chalav Yisrael, pas Yisrael, and glatt kosher meat, and many of them are particular not to serve gebrochts. Yet one should never assume anything; be sure to ask in advance. This is especially true if you have chumras that are not widely kept, such as following the Beis Yosef regarding bishul Yisrael or not wishing to eat from dishes that had come into contact with gebrochts (which is not feasible in a commercial setting).
Another good question to ask is how the rav hamachshir deals with one of the most problematic issues of all: the issue of hachanah (preparing on Yom Tov for the following day).
Other sticky issues include refilling hot-water urns on Shabbos, bishul akum in convection ovens when a non-Jewish chef closes the oven, and ensuring that the halachos of Shabbos and Yom Tov are properly observed.
Who is taking responsibility for halachic issues outside of the kitchen?
Some common questions: Is the swimming pool situated in a place that can be properly obscured for tzniyus purposes? Who is responsible for constructing and maintaining the eiruv? What arrangement is being made for elevators? Are electronic eyes and keycards disabled? Is the entertainment and atmosphere consistent with your hashkafah? In many cases, the mashgiach’s role is limited to supervising the food, and he is not involved in these crucial halachic matters. Furthermore, the presence of a prominent rav or speaker at a hotel does not stand as an endorsement of the atmosphere or the entertainment available at the program.
Some of the issues raised above are complex, so I encourage people who are considering spending Pesach at a hotel to consult their own rav for guidance in choosing a suitable program and even ask him to help make inquiries as necessary.
Once you’ve obtained the fullest picture possible, pick your Pesach program with care, ensuring that your Pesach is pleasurable for both body and soul.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 751. Rabbi Sholem Fishbane — a musmach of Rabbi Yitzchak Kolitz, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem; Telshe Yeshiva, Chicago; Mirrer Yeshiva; and Reb Zalman Nechamia Goldberg — is the director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc) as well as the executive director of the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), an umbrella group of major kosher-certifying agencies.
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