The Mashgichim in the Field

December 17, 2008

Keeping kosher has never been easy before as it is today. Not only can we walk down supermarket aisles and purchase whatever we need, there are even choices. Companies recognizing the value of kosher certification as a marketing tool pursue kosher certification as a means of expanding their sales. From basic staples to snack foods and everything in between, there are a plethora of kosher certified foods and many choices for us to consider. However, the expansion of the kosher market across the U.S. and around the world has made kosher supervision much more challenging. Kosher agencies and Rabbonim Hamachshirim supervise thousands of plants internationally, including those in the far reaches of the world.

In the fast-food age when everything seems to always come easy, we tend to take things for granted. This is also true with kosher certified food. Much of the toil and effort to ensure that food is kosher can be overlooked. Mashgichim in the field, whose efforts and contributions may be missed by the general public, are true unsung heroes. Receiving very little public recognition they tirelessly and selflessly serve the tzibur to guarantee that the food we eat meets the appropriate kashrus standards. Let’s briefly examine the challenges and sacrifices of a mashgiach, so we may gain an appreciation of their fine work.

Most people know that very often kosher certified food is manufactured at a plant that also handles non-kosher, where a mashgiach must come to the plant to kasher beforehand and supervise a special run of kosher food. But did you know that companies will frequently require scheduling a kashering during an off-hour, which can be as early as 3 or 4am? Or that the special run following might include a double shift and can last as long as 16 hours? What about the date? Sometimes companies may request (or demand) that a production overlap with a day that is less than convenient, like erev Pesach.

Imagine the following scenario: A mashgiach is requested to supervise a fish expedition that involves the skinning of fish on a large boat for further processing later on shore. The processing on the ship requires hashgacha temidis and will last three weeks, ending during part of the week before Rosh Hashanah. The mashgiach will have relatively modest, but comfortable accommodations during the expedition. However, depending on the region and time of year, weather conditions may be brutal and for three weeks he might need to wear special clothing for protection. The mashgiach’s schedule while supervising the expedition will follow the boat’s, which means a grueling day on his feet. Moreover, for three weeks he will be the only Jew on the ship. The mashgiach will be apart from his family and will miss spending three Shabbosim with them. Furthermore, for three weeks the mashgiach will miss tefillah betzibur, and saying selichos before Rosh Hashanah with a minyan.

In general, the above depiction is a bit extreme, but it is not impossible. Mashgichim go to great lengths to travel the globe and ensure that there is no doubt that food they take responsibility for on behalf of an agency or Rav Hamachshir is kosher. The level of mesirus nefesh exhibited by these kashrus field soldiers can be unparallel.

Extraordinary levels of mesirus nefesh are not only limited to kosher supervision abroad, but include domestic plants as well. On a regular basis, mashgichim may drive several hours before reaching their final destination, the factory. Their route may necessitate that they regularly spend days at a time away from home, and sometimes can be away from Sunday morning to early Friday afternoon. If a special production will occur over several days and the mashgiach’s home is not within driving distance, some plants provide an office with a bed, or the mashgiach will stay at a nearby hotel. Mashgichim will travel with packaged food or with pots and pans and cook by themselves.

Factories are also not a safe environment. Special safety rules must be adhered to at a plant in order to reduce the likelihood of an unfortunate accident. However, accidents regrettably do occur and factory workers, and sometimes even mashgichim, get injured.

Let us also not overlook the hard work and dedication of foodservice mashgichim, who supervise restaurants and caterers. Working as a mashgiach in a foodservice environment can be a labor intensive task. The mashgiach will be on his feet for hours at a time and must keep a watchful eye out for anything out of the ordinary. He will review each and every ingredient that is used, and may be at odds with a chef or restaurant owner if an unacceptable ingredient source is delivered by mistake, or if the vegetables he has checked are infested and cannot be cleaned. Bedikas tolaim of vegetables at any restaurant or catered affair, which often service a high volume of people, requires high levels of meticulousness and patience. Restaurants can be open until late at night, and the mashgiach must be there when they close to make sure that everything is properly sealed and locked away.

A catered affair often includes kashering a kitchen, which translates into hours of time and hundreds of utensils. While a chasunah may end at 10:30 or 11pm, a mashgiach may still be at the hall until the wee hours of the morning until the crew is finished cleaning up from the affair and everything is properly put away. Let’s not forget the Pesach program at the hotel that turns over for yom tov. Mashgichim will be at the hotel days in advance to make sure that the kitchen is kashered properly and ready for hundreds of guests. Food is constantly served during these programs, so while everyone is enjoying the program, the mashgichim have gone mecheirus le’avdus until Pesach is over.

We sometimes lose track of the fact that nothing comes easy. While it may appear simple to shop kosher and keeping a kosher home has become much more simplified in the United States and other communities, the work and labor by mashgichim on behalf of the tzibur is extraordinary. We should salute these heroes of klal Yisroel, whose mission is to protect us from ma’achalos asuros and timtum halev.

Rabbi Bistricer is a Rabbinic Coordinator at the Orthodox Union, and specializes in many areas of kashrus.