Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Nisan 5759 - March 24, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Toil Behind the Symbol

By Yisroel Friedman

"The entire year, our devoted staff of mashgichim works endlessly," Rabbi Yekusiel Dershowitz told me at the end of the long conversation we had. It was very difficult to hold a peaceful conversation there. The telephone did not stop ringing, and there was a constant flow of people coming and going.

"The mashgichim know quite well that these food products are eaten by gedolei Torah. They realize that bnei Torah depend on them. This is a very weighty responsibility. They carry a large burden on their shoulders the entire year. On erev Pesach, everyone becomes more conscious, so it is not easier. Just the opposite. We do everything to ensure that the food that is placed on the table of kings -- our rabbonim -- is produced in the most mehudar way that is possible," Rabbi Dershowitz relates.

Rabbi Michoel Hoffman came to the office after a day supervising in the north. The Vaad Hakashrus recently sent him to China. I took the opportunity to get some of his impressions of the trip. I, like everyone else, only know the results -- the package and the symbol on it.

Wanting to catch a glimpse of the mechanics behind it, I "went" with HaRav Hoffman to the Chinese city, Shaman. The large city is an hour's flight north of Hong Kong, opposite Taiwan. The area is completely industrialized with smoke billowing from the chimneys, casting a gloomy pall that is not dispelled by breezes from the nearby sea. The city is in the midst of a development boom and has taken on a western hue.

There is a large canned vegetable plant that deals mainly with mushrooms and asparagus. Like most Chinese businesses, it is owned by the government. All export goes through a government company, but there is still fierce competition between businesses. Rabbi Hoffman was sent by

Shearis to supervise the production of kosher mushrooms.

What is the job of a mashgiach? What does he usually look out for?

You have to make sure that the mushrooms are fresh, straight from the field, and that nothing fell in or was added besides acetic acid or salt. In China, you have to be extra careful. People eat anything that moves. You have to be extremely alert to make sure that the shipment does not become unkosher.

The factory is housed in forty-year old buildings that look ancient, with mold growing on the walls. Hundreds of workers slave away daily. Guards, with their starched uniforms and sparkling rank and medals, stand stiffly at the factory gates. We began to comb the entire place, every corner, the storehouses. We searched everything, like we were looking for chometz. We didn't find any problems. In any case, the entire factory was kashered because of bishul akum.

In mushrooms?

Yes. There are some opinions that mushrooms must be cooked by a Jew. It is a machlokes whether one must kasher something a non-Jew cooked in. The Ra'oh holds that this is not necessary, because bishul akum is prohibited to prevent intermarriage and this would not happen from merely eating from a pot used by a non-Jew. At Shearis we are machmir like the Rashba who holds that one must kasher such a pot like all issurei derabonon.

When we came, we had to close down the plant for twenty-four hours, so the things would not be ben yomo, a utensil used within twenty-four hours. Then, we had to kasher everything, including the cooker, the area in which the salt solution is prepared, and the pipes.

How do you communicate with the locals?

The Chinese receive detailed instructions in English, and we also have a translator from the export company.

Does everything always go smoothly?

Rabbi Hoffman smiles lightly as he remembers how the Chinese tried to deceive them.

One night, we worked until one o'clock in the morning. When we left, we locked the factory. Work was supposed to begin at seven, so we arranged to be picked up from the hotel at six o'clock the next morning. When we got there, we realized that something was fishy. In the area that the finished products are packaged, the produce was still warm.

We checked the lists. In China, everything is written down and documented, and we knew the codes. We discovered a reason for concern: salt and lemon acid had been used during the night. The Chinese had opened the factory at night and closed it before we arrived in the morning.

According to the Ramo, however, it was not necessary to kasher everything all over. We Jews had lit the fire and it had not gone out yet. However, the factory was supposed to have been closed. We needed to contact the rabbonim of the Vaad Hakashrus to find out what to do.

Meanwhile, we spotted barrels of preserved mushrooms that had come from somewhere else. In China, this is a big problem, more so than anywhere else. It could have been made in the fields, next to the farmers' vessels. Who knows what they ate and what got into the produce?

A more thorough search revealed sacks of monosodium glutamate and sacks of an unidentifiable vitamin hidden in the solutions room, locked in a drawer. I immediately took a can and went down to the filling section. I filled it with solution and sealed it.

"We are taking this to Israel," I told the production manager through the translator. "If we find anything in here besides salt or lemon acid, we will disqualify the entire production."

Within a short time, the director, his assistant, the production manager and the operations manager arrived. A lively conversation in Chinese ensued. Usually, the Chinese keep a straight face and it is impossible to read anything on their faces. This time they were unable to hide their confusion. And then the apologies came.

"We wanted to improve the taste," the translator explained. "We wanted to provide Israel a higher quality product."

The production was, obviously, disqualified.

In Shearis Yisroel, we are makpid on bishul Yisroel in mushrooms even though most poskim hold that this is not necessary, because mushrooms can also be eaten raw. Since people in Israel do not know that mushrooms can be eaten raw, we take the more stringent view, Rabbi Hoffman relates.

Today there is twenty-four hour supervision in the mushroom factory, he adds. For the past two years , merchandise was brought from a different, privately owned company in the Pajuan district that has a more western manner of business.

And why aren't there Pesach'dik mushrooms?

Until two years ago, the main mushroom production was in Holland. Then everything was moved to China due to the discrepancy in price.

The Holland method of growing mushrooms is as follows: Wheat is cooked for about a half an hour, sealed tightly and then it undergoes sterilization. A small stick, like an ice cream stick, containing mushroom spores is placed into the package.

After a few weeks, everything turns white, covered with mushrooms. This wheat-with-mushrooms is scattered on a nutritional base made of natural and organic fertilizer. Within a few weeks, a crop of mushrooms grows.

We do not know the Chinese method, but the Dutch method needs a psak from the rabbonim to be used on Pesach. Since there is no demand for Pesach'dik mushrooms, there is not a clear psak on the issue.


Greece. Salonika used to be a major Jewish city. Eighty thousand Jews lived there; most were sent to Auschwitz. The porters were all Jewish, and the port was closed on Shabbos. A man who appeared to be Jewish approached me, Rabbi Hoffman relates. "Shalom aleichem," he said.

He was a shochet who lived in Athens, the country's capital, and came to Salonika to shecht. I was not able to verify what he told me, Rabbi Hoffman said. According to him, the Jewish community of Salonika is very wealthy.

According to Greek law, if a man dies and does not leave an heir, his property belongs to the government. A special law grants the property of those who perished in Auschwitz to the local Jewish community. The Jewish community owns the entire center of the city, and the property is maintained by rent money. The money is not used to rebuild a vibrant Jewish community. Assimilation is rampant. They have to pay people to come to shul to have a minyan. Last year, we were the ones who completed the minyan. It is very painful to see a Jewish community dwindling away.

The synagogue is magnificent, with eastern architecture. The worshipers descend from survivors of the Spanish expulsion, and their siddur is translated into Ladino. The names of the city's synagogues as well as the year of each kehilla's establishment is carved into the stone walls.

One kehilla was established in 1492, the year of the Spanish expulsion, another in 1498, the year of the Portuguese expulsion. One kehilla dates back to the Second Temple era. Forty synagogues flourished before World War II. Everything was destroyed. Only painful memories remain, with no hope for the future.

We came to Salonika to supervise the production of kosher lePesach peaches. The factory, which is an hour away from the city, operates only forty-five days of the year. The rest of the time is spent doing maintenance and marketing. The first run is under our supervision.

Why, you ask? Because it is not necessary to add acetic acid to the first crop of fruit; it contains enough natural acid. There is a kashrus problem with acetic acid for Pesach, unless one brings it from Israel like we have done in the past. This year that was not necessary. Of course, we still had to kasher the entire plant.

What has to be taken care of when supervising peaches?

One has to make sure that only sugar is added to the peaches. Sometimes they use a certain kind of glucose (iso-glucose) that is derived from kitniyos, and one of the additives may be chometz'dik. One must seal the tanks with a special kashrus seal, so nothing will pass from one tank to another. The factory is modern; everything is automatic. We have to check all the pipes and learn the engineering to understand where a problem might arise. It is a big responsibility, and it is not always easy.


The Vaad Hakashrus of Shearis Yisroel sent Rabbi Shmuel Ganzler to Spain to supervise olive oil production. He traveled from Madrid to Cordoba by train. The Rambam's synagogue is in the Jewish area, "Lajudria."

The municipality placed a statue of the Rambam in a stone- paved square. There is no Jewish community. The synagogue has become a museum. The Jews who built this magnificent house of Hashem, who wrote pesukim on its walls, are no longer there.

The car from Cordoba passes through a picturesque scene of high cliffs and peaceful lakes. Thousands of square kilometers of olive trees, standing like soldiers in line, lie on either side of the train tracks. In the heart of the scenery, a few scattered villages contain olive presses. The farmers come by truck or tractor, bringing loads of fresh olives.

There are no orla problems here in chutz la'aretz, so supervision can begin as soon as the olives arrive. Anything brought in sacks is immediately set aside in case the sacks once contained flour. We take this precaution even though the olives undergo a thorough cleansing process.

The technological process is perhaps difficult for the reader, but it is important to understand what Rabbi Ganzler's alertness prevented.

The sorting machine that separates leaves and branches from the fruit does its job. After being washed, the fruit goes into a tank that is also used for weighing. In the middle of the conveyor, a tool turns around and takes a handful of olives for quality control. The conveyor leads to large tanks above the grinder.

After all the parts, including the pits and tanks, are cleaned, the production process begins. There are huge, three story mixers. Everything is heated to thirty-eight degrees Celsius on the first floor. Then, the oil goes down one floor and, with added water, goes to the separation machine which separates the oil from the water and pulp. The oil enters a centrifuge that shakes it and removes any remaining water. The water and pulp goes to another room. The pulp is moistened again and pressed again. By the way, the second pressing is not done in Israel.

After the second pressing, the remaining seeds are dried. These seeds are used as fuel for the heating system, another way to save energy. This produces the highest quality olive oil, known as crushed oil -- shemen kosis.

"Pure olive oil" (shemen zayis zach) is a completely different process. It is heated to 350 degrees, which removes all taste and smell, and gives it a clear color, like soy oil. Five to ten percent crushed oil is added to give it some color and smell.

Crushed oil is made from high quality olives that have low acid levels. Pure olive oil is made from lower quality, highly acidic olives, because the process "destroys" everything anyhow. In Shearis Yisroel, we insist on using high quality olives for pure olive oil also. This detail is very important to know, because the manufacturers feel that it is unnecessary. And so, an opportunity for deception arises.

The oil press. Everything is under complete supervision. The kashrus seals were already in place to prevent oil from flowing from one adjacent tank to another. Everything was in order. Sterilized and steam-cleaned tanks brought the oil to Madrid for bottling. The oil was put in the large tanks, the pipes were closed, the kashrus seals were in place. There were other tanks of oil for other purposes. We had to seal them tightly, so nothing should get mixed up.

Suddenly, Rabbi Ganzler relates, I saw a table dirtied with some kind of substance with a plastic bottle on top. Red lights flashed. I then knew that they must have added coloring to the olive oil, instead of crushed oil. The department manager denied this.

I took a small bottle and filled it with the coloring in front of his eyes. During the break, while everyone went to eat, I conducted a complete search of the factory. In a hidden corner, I found a table with a hidden compartment underneath. In it was a large quantity of the material. I quickly took a picture and put everything back in place.

During the bottling process, I saw the oil's color. It was dark. I asked the manager why there was no container for crushed oil to add coloring. He evaded the question. "Everything is O.K.," was all he would volunteer.

After three hours, I calculated the number of bottles and multiplied them by their contents. This quantity should have been missing from the tanks. But when I examined the tanks, I saw that there was extra oil. The tanks held oil from another source!

A complete search revealed the source of the problem. The factory owners had managed to open a faucet slightly in spite of the kashrus seal, and introduced unsupervised crushed oil to add coloring. The unidentified material had not been used. The manager denied charges, but was unable to explain the discrepancy in the quantity of oil.

While the manager was on the telephone, I ran downstairs. I saw that they had pumped seven tons of oil out of our tanks, in an attempt to hide the fraud.

Meanwhile, twenty-five thousand bottles had been filled. The entire production was disqualified. Apologies and entreaties did not help. New stickers were placed on the bottles and they were sent to an Arab country for sale. That year, there was no pure olive oil with a Shearis Yisroel hechsher. There was only crushed oil, shemen kosis lemehadrin.

Was this year any easier?

Yes, he said with a satisfied smile on his lips. This year we went to Barcelona.

That Jewish community numbers about one thousand. The local synagogue, which recently underwent a two million dollar renovation, is used all week, three times a day. There is a local rov. Shiurim are given, and the youth have become interested in Judaism. The mikveh taharo is active. There is something encouraging in the scene. In the other places we saw Judaism disappearing, but here enjoyed the sight of renewal.

We did not have much time to linger, time was short. We traveled to the nearby city, Targa, site of the Burches factory, manufacturer of pure olive oil for this Pesach. The factory is modern, everything is electronic. The place was built under the guidance of an international kashrus organization. Everything went smoothly.

Everyone sees the finished product bearing the kashrus symbol on the supermarkets' shelves. Shearis is trying to expand the number of products under its supervision, to benefit bnei Torah. It is not an easy task, behind the scenes. We all enjoy the success. Rabbi Dov Brecher can speak about them at length.

Rabbi Brecher, are there also disappointments?

Yes. There is a small village one hundred and fifty kilometers from Budapest, Hungary. On the way, we passed picturesque villages and wide lakes. When we arrived to supervise the production of cherries for Pesach, we found that the exporter had given us inaccurate information. The exporter had not done his "homework."

We began to comb the entire factory. We could see that the factory had once been under Communist jurisdiction. The factory was privatized, however, due to the many economic changes Hungary had undergone. But the vestiges of the past caused a big kashrus problem.

There is a large group of factories on the site, with one steam factory that supplies steam to all the factories, in a separate building. The steam pipe was used jointly for many factories, holding water that had absorbed things (beli'os) from other companies.

As soon as we arrived, we realized something was wrong. We only found pipes, but not the boiler. We followed the pipes to the steam factory, and went down to the cellar. A strong smell of wine greeted us.

"Where is this smell from?" I asked the factory owner.

"There is a winery two hundred and fifty meters away," he explained.

He did not understand the ramifications of that statement. A winery owned by non-Jews! Traces of yayin nesech, wine touched by a non-Jew, were in the steam that was used by the cherry factory. I explained the halachic problems to the factory's workers. That year, there were obviously no kosher for Pesach canned cherries with a Shearis Yisroel hechsher.

I was unable to interview the rest of the mashgichim in the office, due to a lack of time. When the clock struck twelve, another day was gone.

"The time is short," Rabbi Yekusiel Dershowitz told me. "And there is still a lot of work. It's not only Pesach. Even now, we have to make sure that there is no chometz that was not sold for Pesach. Let them go to sleep," he practically begged me. "Believe me, they need it. They have a lot of work to do." His voice was full of love and concern.

Shearis Yisroel. A quick glimpse in the world of mehadrin kashrus for bnei Torah. So everyone should know and appreciate how much effort is invested. How much time, how much lost sleep, how much sweat and toil, how much responsibility is hidden behind the symbol on the package.

Pesachdik Mushrooms

The article discusses whether mushrooms grown on beds of one of the five types of grains are kosher for Pesach.

Until now, there was no demand for mushrooms on Pesach, and as a result, suppliers were not called upon to deal with the problem.

However, in response to their inquiry, Maran HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv instructed the Department for Land-Related Laws of the Jerusalem Rabbinate not to grant kosher lePesach certification for mushrooms which were grown on beds of the five grains. However, he said that there is no problem with these mushrooms after Pesach.

In light of this, we began to look for alternatives, and bisiyato diShmaya, we have succeeded. As a result, mushrooms grown on beds of seeds which are not from the five grains will be available this year. These mushrooms are kosher lemehadrin for Pesach.

With Torah greetings,

Shlomo Shmuelevitz

Jerusalem Rabbinate


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