The Catered Affair On Shabbos

OU Kosher Staff

Taking Responsibility

It goes without saying, but unfortunately needs repeating, that in preparing a catered kiddush, not only must someone be responsible to oversee the kashrus of the food, but someone must insure that the halachos of Shabbos are adhered to. Who will accept this responsibility? The baalei simcha are preoccupied with other things. The caterer often simply drops off food at the kiddush site before Shabbos and neither he nor a representative of his hashgacha may be present during the actual preparation of the kiddush on Shabbos. The Rav of the shul may be occupied with other shul-related issues – like davening, which usually occurs at exactly the same time that the kiddush is being prepared. So who is responsible?

In addition, someone who is sensitive to the many, many halachic questions which can arise while preparing food for Shabbos – especially under the makeshift circumstances of a catered kiddush – must be available to resolve these issues. Furthermore, if the people doing the food preparation work for the caterer, are they operating with a level of yiras shomayim to ask a shailah that may result in some of the food not being served? Although baalei simcha cannot always play the role of Mashgiach, they do have the responsibility of making sure that some designated person – himself, the caterer, the shul’s Rav or a mashgiach – is ensuring that food is being prepared without any chillul Shabbos.

Proper Planning

Once someone has been designated as the responsible party, the key to minimizing any problems that might arise on Shabbos is to plan ahead of time. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, plan to fail. Below is a list of some of the points that should be considered ahead of time. The list is not comprehensive by any means, and any specific question should be brought to the attention of a Rav, or Rav Hamachshir for a catered affair on Shabbos.

1. A firm time must be set, before which the food must arrive at the site of the affair. That time should not be shekiah! Food must arrive well in advance, at least an hour before Shabbos. There are many stories about caterer’s trips to, for example, the Catskills that end with the food arriving after Shabbos had begun. If that occurs, a sh’ailah must be asked as to whether the food may be used. To avoid such problems, caterers should distance themselves from any possible encroachment on the z’man when Shabbos begins.

2. If non-Jews are involved in the delivery of the food, it must arrive properly sealed, so as to avoid concerns of בשר שנתעלם מן העין – meat/food which was “hidden” from the eyes of a Jew. Similarly, if the shul has a janitor or other employee who is not Jewish, one must be careful that the food left in the shul is appropriately sealed. The refrigerator containing meat or fish should be locked, and non-Jewish employees shouldn’t have access to it.

3. Care must be taken to review the menu with the caterer before Shabbos. The caterer’s first, second and third objective is to satisfy the client. Even when he is himself Shomer Shabbos, the caterer is often distracted by this objective. Prime rib, with an option for rare, medium, or well done, simply cannot be an option for a Shabbos day meal, because there’s no way to produce such foods on Shabbos. Thus, the methods used for heating or reheating foods for Shabbos must be clearly delineated to the caterers. If there are liquids such as sauces and gravy served on Shabbos day, care must be taken to ensure that it is on the blech (or in a mechanism to be warmed) before Shabbos, and isn’t warmed up on Shabbos morning. [If the sidebar on warming food for Shabbos in printed with the article, make reference to it here] Similar care must be put into thinking of how the soup, cholent, meat, and kugel will be kept warm, especially if they are planning to serve the same dish on Friday night and Shabbos day. Additionally, precautions designed to prevent inadvertent chillul Shabbos – such as covering the knobs on an oven and removing slotted spoons from the kitchen – should be implemented.

4. One issue that constantly arises during Shabbos events is the need enough hot water to supply numerous cups of tea and coffee. In many commercial kitchens (e.g. hotels, catering halls, hospitals), hot water is produced in a “three-compartment automatically-filling urn”. In such an urn, each time one fills their cup with hot water, more cold water goes into the urn and gets cooked. In order to avoid this issue of bishul/cooking, the Mashgiach must turn off the automatic inlet valve, so that no new water will enter the urn. This solves the problem, but now that the urn isn’t automatically refilling, the caterer must be sure to bring and fill up enough urns before Shabbos, to accommodate the needs of all of his guests.

5. Another issue associated with tea is that tea bags are קלי הבישול, items that can be easily cooked, and therefore cannot even be put in a כלי שני, a second utensil (e.g. a cup of water drawn from the urn), on Shabbos. Therefore, most Kashrus organizations require a caterer to use instant tea and coffee. Tea essence is generally not allowed, because of a concern that the caterer will be tempted to make more if he runs out of essence. Additionally, many people are unaware that on Shabbos, lemons may only be squeezed into a solid, such as sugar, but not directly into the tea; to avoid such a concern, many hashgachas require that the caterer provide lemon juice, and not offer lemon wedges.

6. To avoid all types of potential melachos, many agencies require that before Shabbos all bottles of soda, wine, whiskey, and all packages of plastic and paper utensils, should be opened, and that the disposable tablecloths should be cut to size. Similarly, many hashgachas don’t allow the use of small packets of sugar and other sweeteners, because many guests will inadvertently rip letters when they open the packets.

7. In general, whatever a Jew cannot do on Shabbos, a non-Jew cannot do for him either. Thus, for example, part of planning the meals is to set the Shabbos clocks (timers) to insure that the lights go on automatically at the proper times.

Finally, a note to a host: if a Shabbos question arises and a caterer must ask a sh’ailah about whether a food can be served, don’t hold it against the caterer. Appreciate the caterer’s mesiras nefesh for bringing the question up in the first place, and let it stand in his credit.