Latest update: March 3rd, 2013
Those of you who feel the way I do will immediately relate to this: I hate having to listen to pedantic women discuss their Pesach cleaning before Tu B’Shevat is even a blip on the horizon.
Believe me, it’s not because I’m the type who enjoys leaving everything to the last minute, it’s just that I fear too much of the blather will contaminate me as well with pre-Pesach hysteria.
That being the case, I was floored to find Rabbi Yishai Sacket, rav of the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem, already organizing Pesach preparations nearly two months ago. He was quick to assure me that any responsible hotel catering to a religious clientele must begin Pesach preparations months in advance.
“Come” he said, inviting me backstage to see what Pesach looks like behind the scenes. He quickly crossed the lobby, leaving me tripping over myself in an effort to keep up with him, and led me down a back staircase in a remote corner of the hotel complex.
I felt the drop in temperature as soon as we left the warmth of the lobby behind us. At the bottom of the stairs we faced a large, bolted, heavy metal door. Once that door was opened I was greeted by a whole different world – the world of Pesach.
Hugging myself in an effort to stay warm, I looked at, but didn’t dare touch, the hundreds of shelves tightly packed with plates, bowls, tea cups, glasses, wine goblets, chopping boards, cutlery, pots, kitchen equipment and appliances. You name it, it was there, highchairs and all, lined up, waiting, and ready to go.
“Welcome to our Pesach storeroom,” Rabbi Sacket announced triumphantly, throwing his hands into the air. And it certainly was an impressive sight. But I was cold, so – after making sure to double-lock the door – we left.
On the way back up the stairs I noticed the potted plants in the corners being tended to by gardeners. I began to realize just how much effort and thought goes into creating this perfect ambiance.
In fact, I couldn’t help but think of all the guests who come and go as they please while not for a minute giving any thought to the myriad of details that go into running an establishment like this. And that’s just on an ordinary weekday. Surely there is far more involved in creating the perfect Shabbos, and even more so Pesach, experience.
In that regard, my meeting with Rabbi Sacket proved to be a real eye opener. He gave me an inside view of some of the complications facing Shabbos observers in an increasingly complex technological world.
* * * * *
“First,” he said, “when staying in a hotel, wherever possible ask to be placed on one of the lower floors. Nobody wants to be stuck on the thirty-fifth floor of a hotel that has only one or, worse still, no Shabbos elevator.
“That, however, is a relatively small issue facing today’s hotel-goers when you consider the large-scale usage of magnetic door cards instead of keys. Apart from the numerous halachic complications involved in the mere swiping of the card, in some hotels simply inserting the card in the card terminal or laying it in a specially designed base will activate the lights, heating, or air conditioners (depending on the season) inside the room.
“Likewise, many hotel rooms are fitted with motion detectors that serve the dual purpose of not only activating the appliances but also alerting workers of the room’s occupancy in case of an emergency.
“While theoretically it is possible to deactivate these detectors and sensors, not every hotel in Israel and certainly not those elsewhere are prepared to do so, even temporarily and even for a single room. So what do you do if the hotel will not give you an old-fashioned key to open your door and it will not deactivate the sensors? Simple: you stay in your room the entire Shabbos. Rest assured you won’t be the first to do so and most probably not the last. I too have done it.
“I have to mention that in some hotels you can’t even venture out onto the porch for fear that the air-conditioning inside the room will switch itself off. As for the bathroom, just opening the door may active the light and in some places, the toilet, air vent, and sink too.”
I asked Rabbi Sacket about potential kashrut problems in a hotel. He took a deep breath.
“There are so many intricate laws that the kitchen staff in a religious hotel has to be taught,” he said. “For a start, all hotels under the auspices of the rabbinate of Yerushalayim have a strict set of laws they must adhere to with regard to Shabbos. They may not place cooked food on a bed of lettuce or similar fresh greens, nor may they garnish such dishes with fresh herbs or the like. This is to avoid the prohibition of bishul – cooking on Shabbos. And the kitchen workers have to be taught not to use slotted spoons or similar sifting utensils because of the prohibition of borer, separating one item from another,
“And of course, as sometimes happens, when we run short of food the cook has to be taught that only fully cooked food can be placed in the heating cabinets. In addition the kitchen staff must know that coffee has to be made differently and oy vavoy if the housekeeping personnel decide to put a load of laundry in the washing machine.”
I remarked that the list of prohibitions was probably endless. “Well….almost,” Rabbi Sacket responded.
“In hotels without sufficient supervision, workers will often sort the cutlery for the day meal immediately after the night meal, which is forbidden; they might lay the tables for Sunday while it is still Shabbos, which is also forbidden; and they might soak their cutlery in boiling water and rub them with towels to polish them, which likewise is forbidden, under the prohibition of s’chita – squeezing.”
But, Rabbi Sacket took pains to emphasize, kashrut is only one aspect of running a hotel according to halacha.
“The bottom line is that a kosher hotel has to offer far more than kosher food; it has to provide a fully kosher service. Religious Jews can’t have it any other way. They cannot be expected to vacate their rooms on Shabbos afternoon, in advance of the Saturday night newcomers, and they cannot be expected to wait an inordinate amount of time for the one and only Shabbos elevator to make an appearance.
“And so I urge anyone planning to stay in a non-mehadrin establishment to discuss these details with the booking agent or the hotel’s mashgiach. Generally speaking, if the mashgiach appears to be trustworthy and knowledgeable or if he is acting as representative of a serious kashrut body, you can usually rely on the fact that he is true to his word.”
One great concern, Rabbi Sacket adds, involves the hotel grounds themselves.
“Is there is an eruv, and if there is, when was it last checked? Can you carry outdoors? How far can you go? What do you do about babies or infants who can’t walk? Please note that an eruv that is not checked regularly cannot be relied on, which may mean that a man cannot leave the building or his lodge wearing a wristwatch or even a tissue in his pocket.
* * * * *
If preparing and maintaining a hotel for Shabbos is such an immense challenge, imagine what Pesach preparation and maintenance must entail.
There are no shortcuts – but then, when erev Pesach comes around and the guests are streaming into the lobby, there is no one prouder than Rabbi Sacket, who’s invested a tremendous amount of energy into making sure that everything is mehadrin min hamehadrin.
“They see me and they know they have someone to rely on, and that makes it all worthwhile. But of course my job is not over until Pesach is over. There are so many things to think about. For example, have you ever thought to check the source of the flowers that grace your table? Well I need to. What if they have wheat kernels in their packaging, God forbid?”
While most of the responsibility for Pesach rests with Rabbi Sacket, Yaakov Sha’ari, Ramada’s general manager, is far from bored.
“I try to get to know all my guests personally and greet them by name as they come and go,” Sha’ari told me. “And while it might seem incongruous that I myself am not part of the Orthodox community, it is my job to see that everyone performs according to the directives of Rabbi Sacket and I am proud of my success.”
Halacha aside, these days he is busy tasting. “No,” he said, “there is nothing to be jealous of, unless of course you fancy tasting tens of kasher l’Pesach pareve deserts.”
Deciding on the menu is a big part of the Pesach preparations and Sha’ari acknowledged that trying to suit everyone’s taste buds can be quite a challenge.
“Israelis are used to having their food prepared one way and foreigners another. We try to accommodate everyone. It’s not easy. And then of course everyone has his or her own idea of how a kasher l’Pesach kitchen has to look and smell. If yours at home has a pungent aroma of wine or meat then you expect ours to be three times as pungent. Naturally we try to accommodate everyone because at the end of the day it is in our best interest that our guests are happy and that they have an enjoyable stay.”
* * * * *
Sha’ari ended our meeting with a powerful story.
First, you have to realize he has seen it all. His lobby has been the venue of dozens of shidduchim in the making and equally as many being completed. He’s heard and witnessed the mazel tovs, l’chaims, the backslapping and shaking of hands. On many occasions he has brought out wine and cake to complete the celebration.
He has catered a bris for triplets born after twenty years of marriage and a wedding of converts whose families flew in from China. And yet the following story moved him as no other.
It was erev Pesach. Most of the guests had already arrived and were settling down in their rooms. The staff was busy with last-minute preparations, the tables had long been laid and the waiters, already in their uniforms, were bustling to and fro between the kitchen and dining rooms. There was a glass missing on one table, a high chair needed at another, a couple more napkins needed to be folded, and a crib was being assembled.
Sha’ari was in his element, overseeing the goings on, when he was approached by a distinguished looking middle-aged man.
“We only landed about two hours ago,” the man said, “and I’m still a little woozy from the flight. Is there any way I could have an extra-large drinking glass at my table?”
“What does extra large mean?” asked Sha’ari. “Exactly how big?”
“About half a meter [approximately one and a half feet] high,” the man answered.
“It is for my cup for Eliyahu HaNavi’, the man explained.
“Eliyahu HaNavi? Why, he’ll get drunk on that amount,” Sha’ari said in jest.
“That is exactly what I want,” the guest assured Sha’ari an all seriousness. Promising to do his best, Sha’ari went into the kitchen to see what they had.
Eventually, after some brainstorming, they came up with a large crystal vase that they scrubbed clean and then had toiveled.
Sha’ari picked up the story: “I called up to the gentleman’s room to report my findings, and though the vase was somewhat less than the proposed height it was still large enough to suit his needs. He thanked me profusely.
“I have to say, his strange behavior earned him more than his fair share of bemused looks that night. I myself watched open-mouthed as he poured bottle after bottle of wine into the vase until it was full to the brim.
“The rest of Pesach passed uneventfully and the incident was all but forgotten when months later I received a letter. It was from my unusual guest who first and foremost thanked me for my hospitality and geniality and then proceeded to explain his bizarre behavior.
“Apparently, one of his children back home was in deep trouble. The situation was such that there was nothing anybody could do to help. Heartbroken, the father decided the Seder night was an opportune time to ask Eliyahu HaNavi to beseech Hashem for divine mercy. And so he decided that perhaps a little extra wine would go a long way…”
Sha’ari paused, a twinkle in his eye. “Do you know what he wrote? ‘Thank God I am delighted to be able to say that since Pesach last year the problems have all been solved.’ ”
On my way out Sha’ari showed me the beis medrash, the place where the guests gather together in prayer, unity and song. No matter where we might be holding on our calendar or in our Pesach preparations, there is one prayer in our hearts:
Please God, let this year be the year we no longer have to say “Next year in Jerusalem.” This time, let it be this year for all of us.
About the Author: Sarah Pachter lives in Israel and writes for a number of publications. She is the author of the book "Supermom? (Who? Me?)"
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