Israeli hotel rooms are among the more expensive in the world, according to various economic indexes. The first reason is that the cost of living in Israel is sky-high, and the hotels pay about the same for cottage cheese and electricity as everyone else. The second reason is that unlike hotels anywhere else, hotels have to be kosher. And being certified kosher is expensive.
Jews famously don’t eat pork or seafood, and don’t mix milk and meat. But kashrut is much more than that. Here is a small taste of what hotels have to do to keep that certificate.
1. Stick to the rules – all 168 of them
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which sets the standards on kashrut, has an 11-page document with 168 guidelines outlining what hotels need to do to keep hold of their kosher certification. For hotels with a stricter “Mehadrin” kashrut certification, there are, of course, further requirements. There are an additional seven pages regarding pastry chefs and baking, and extra stipulations for the Jewish holiday of Passover – but we’ll get to that later.
2. Hire a mashgiach
Hotels must have a full-time mashgiach, or inspector, on staff. In Eilat, for example, they make 9 to 10,000 shekels on average a month (around $2,500), according to the Eilat Hotels Association. Large hotels may need more than one inspector, and costs will multiply accordingly. Over the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, supervisors bring their families – who get free room and board – to ensure round-the-clock supervision.
3. Inspect, inspect, inspect
Green and leafy vegetables are the bane of a hotel’s existence. In order to comply with the kashrut prohibition on eating insects, only cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, artichoke, asparagus and leafy vegetables grown under rabbinic supervision can be chopped up and served to guests. Cabbages are subject to a four-rule procedure that includes “good lighting conditions” for inspection, and fennel must be taken apart, each layer soaped and studied individually.
The humble bug-prone fig is banned, in dry or fresh form, and hotels are required to purchase a machine for inspecting legumes.
There are, of course, many more elements to Jewish dietary law; the rules also cover wine, onion, garlic, dried and fresh fruits, fish, meat, eggs, rice and flour. Liver, for example, has 30 stipulations, all to itself.
At the 375-room Dan hotel in Eilat, the inspector helps out in the kitchen, checking legumes and dealing with the liver before the cooks do, says General Manager Lior Mucznik. Take eggs: inspectors must crack open each on and check it for blood spots, which are forbidden under halakha, or Jewish law. Hotels can get around this buy purchasing pre-checked and opened eggs, Mucznik says.
4. No non-Jews near the oven
Jewish dietary law prohibits bishul akum, or food prepared by a non-Jew. But customs differ on what this means.
Ashkenazis accept food prepared by a non-Jew so long as a Jew was involved in the cooking process, while for Sephardi, food cooked by a non-Jew can be eaten only if a Jew placed the dish to be cooked in the oven or on the stove.
What does this mean for hotels? There are eight rules on the issue, which the Rabbinate says is as key to kashrut as not eating pork.
One says that only the inspector or a Jewish worker who has written permission from the inspector or local rabbi can light a fire in the kitchen, that is, turn on the oven or stove. Hotels employing non-Jews must install systems that enable equipment to reach a certain temperature and stay there, so that non-Jews don’t affect the heat. Only Jews can turn on a steamer. Meanwhile, non-Jews can open and close regular oven doors, but when it comes to ovens that are turned on and off when the door opens or closes, that is out of the question.
5. Observe the Sabbath
Observing the Jewish Day of rest is a must for any kosher hotel. How strictly the 13 rules on Sabbath observance are enforced in practice depends on where you are in the country, however.
In the resort city Eilat you can swim in a hotel pool or hear music in the lobby on the day of rest, but good luck trying to take a dip in your hotel in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem.
If a hotel were to follow the Rabbinate’s rules to the letter of the law, it couldn’t accept any payments on Shabbat unless handled “discreetly” by a “gentile” at the cash register.
Also, from the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday evening until the end on Saturday night, the guidelines stipulate that guests can only be checked in an out discreetly, and by a non-Jew.
6. No idol worship (yes, that means Christmas tree)
The Rabbinate’s Sabbath rules also prohibit “marking a non-Jewish holiday toward the end of the civilian calendar year.” This means that, in theory, you shouldn’t even think about decking the halls with boughs of holly if you want to keep your certificate.
In the past, the Rabbinate has explained that this is because, “According to Jewish law, Jews may not be in a place where idol worship is taking place.” However, a spokesman assured Haaretz that, despite appearing in the guidelines, this rule is generally no longer enforced in practice.
7. Be extra (extra) careful around Passover
Passover is, far and away, the toughest time for hotels when it comes to keeping kosher.
This is a time when Jews remember the exodus from Egypt, and as it says in Exodus 12:14, “ For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel.”
For hotels, this means bringing on extra staff and inspectors to make sure not one crumb of chametz, or leaven, is hiding anywhere on the premises. They also have to pay the Rabbinate an extra fee of 236 shekels ($63) over the period for the kashrut certificate.
One significant expense is crockery. Kosher hotels have two sets of crockery to keep up with requirements for separating milk and meat on normal days. In addition, for the seven days of Passover, many hotels purchase two more sets to make sure dishes are untainted by chametz.
8. And don’t forget the annual fee
Aside from the inspector, hotels pay an annual fee for their kashrut stamp of approval. This costs 7,250 shekels (just under $2,000) a year for hotels with more than 250 rooms. Lior Avi, CEO of the Isrotel chain, says the company spends around $3 million shekels a year (some $800,000) on inspectors alone for their 17 hotels, not including the fee.