The Kosher Roadtrip: Part 1
Updated: Jul 17
Join Rabbi Zalman Krems, Rabbinical Coordinator of KVH-Rabbinical Council of New England and Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger, as they discuss what the traveler on the go needs to know about keeping kosher while on the road, in a wide-ranging conversation covering many food products that a traveling Jew may encounter from fish to nuts.
Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger: Rabbi Krems, thank you for joining us.
Rabbi Zaman Krems: It is my pleasure.
Rabbi Hisiger: I am delighted to cover the topic of kashrus on the road because it is so prevalent. It is something that is relevant to traveling businessmen, people who go away for leisure and families on vacation. There are so many applications of this topic.
I’d like to start by mentioning that there was a very interesting video circulating recently. It seems that 100,000 or so Israelis traveled to the Sinai for vacation. In the video, we see a fellow named Mohammad who seems quite knowledgeable about kashrus. He is speaking as if he knows the ins and outs of the business and it is evident that someone taught him a few things. This video seems to bring out the point that when it comes to kashrus, you can’t just take someone’s word on it.
Rabbi Krems: There are a few videos like that going around. When people are traveling, they are out of their comfort zone. At home, they know what to look for as far as kashrus is concerned. They know their own bakery and grocery store. But once they leave home, they don’t know who they can trust and don’t have the information they need. Some people may sound knowledgeable, but they have nothing behind them. It is very common to find non-Jewish people who maybe once worked for a kosher caterer and now claim that they know all about kosher. This can lead to many problems.
Someone told me that he once was on a cruise ship where there was no hashgacha. There were some kosher chickens on board and a non-Jewish staff member said that it was okay to just double wrap them and put them in the treif oven. In truth, there is a way to do that properly and a way to mess it up. If one isn’t aware of the proper way, it could be a big problem. Therefore, even if someone is Jewish and frum, just because he says he knows about kashrus doesn’t mean the end result will be good.
Rabbi Hisiger: So how does one know if he can rely on someone and trust him regarding kashrus?
Rabbi Krems: There is a concept in halacha of “eid echad neeman b’issurim.” Normally, a Jew who is shomer Torah and mitzvos is trusted. But that person has to know what he’s talking about. Complicated situations can arise because many people don’t necessarily know and even if they do know something about kashrus in their comfort zone, once they leave their hometown or another large Jewish community, they don’t really know how to deal with it.
So, the real answer is, that before one travels, he must consult with someone who has information. A person can speak with his own Rov who can be in touch with kashrus professionals that are able to guide people in this area. If the person has contacts that he knows who are kashrus professionals, he can contact them himself.
Rabbi Hisiger: If someone goes to one of these programs in a hotel, for Pesach, Shabbos etc, what should he ask? How can he know that everything is kosher l’mehadrin?
Rabbi Krems: The first thing to do is to find a program with a reliable hashgacha – meaning one that is generally recommended and well known to be reputable and trusted. A telltale sign of potential problems is if the person giving the hashgacha doesn’t give a hechsher on anything else besides Pesach hotels. That’s a real red flag.
Rabbi Hisiger: How many Mashgichim should a Pesach program have?
Rabbi Krems: If there are only one or two, there’s no way they can be covering everything properly. For example, that isn’t enough to make sure everything is properly koshered. I heard about one place where they were just making everything “pagum” by pouring bleach everywhere. That is not the normative way of dealing with kashrus issues and not the proper way to do it.
Rabbi Hisiger: So, you’re saying that a person should make sure that the hashgacha is reputable and ask questions.
Rabbi Krems: You should definitely ask questions. That is the most beneficial thing for kashrus. Even if there is a reliable certification, you should speak to the Mashgiach. The balhabos of the program needs to know that people care about kashrus and aren’t only concerned about enjoying themselves.
Rabbi Hisiger: What if someone is on the road and is going into gas stations and hotel lounges. What issues could there be in buying food?
Rabbi Krems: Once something leaves its original packaging, it is no longer certified by the hechsher on the packaging. And some things – like coffee - never were in any packaging. For such things, you are now the Mashgiach. It is your responsibility to make sure it is acceptable.
People might say: “What could be wrong with plain juice?” But it could contain grape juice. In Starbucks, they have a product called “refreshers” which has a high percentage of grape juice. So, is Starbucks kosher? No. Some branches may be less problematic than others but, in general, it cannot be said that Starbucks is kosher.
If that Starbucks sells food, there will always be some form of cross contamination. People need to understand that kashrus is like allergens on steroids. If a person had a child with serious allergies, he would double and triple check every food item before bringing it into his home. He definitely would not eat in a restaurant before ensuring that everything was okay for his child. For some reason, people take a more relaxed approach when it comes to kashrus. There is no reason for that.
Rabbi Hisiger: That’s a very good analogy. If people had the attitude that they might be “allergic” to Starbucks products and there might be severe ramifications, they wouldn’t just assume everything is fine.
Rabbi Krems: If they serve food, it is a real restaurant. Most people would never walk into a non-kosher restaurant, even just to buy a drink. They should know that Starbucks that serve food are restaurants. Some Starbucks, however, are just coffee shops that sell only drinks and cold, packaged food. Those are not restaurants.
Rabbi Hisiger: So is there anything that one can buy in Starbucks without worry?
Rabbi Krems: It depends on the Starbucks. If they are just getting hot water from the tap and putting in a tea bag and the equipment isn’t used for anything else, it would not be a problem. Sometimes items are more acceptable and sometimes less. One should discuss the matter with his own Rov to obtain guidance on how to deal with that.
The same is true about gas stations. If they have hot items, it can potentially be a problem. If someone is not makpid on cholov Yisroel and wants to buy an ice cream, it wouldn’t be as big of a problem because everything is cold. But what if he wants toppings? He may see the label on the box, but who says the toppings came in that box.
If you are makpid on cholov Yisroel, the milk in a gas station may lose that status once the container is opened. There are gas stations all along Rte. 95 where they sell coffee and have cholov Yisroel milk in open containers. In a gas station or 7-11 one may assume the coffee is okay, but an unsealed container of milk may be a problem.
Some Poskim are lenient about this and say that if there are a whole bunch of cholov Yisroel milk bottles in the gas station, there is no concern that they’ll switch it for other milk, but others are machmir about this. One should speak to his personal Rov to obtain guidance on when it is appropriate to rely on the leniency. In my opinion, one definitely shouldn’t rely on it when he’s at home and the only question is if he can rely on it when is traveling and needs to stay awake.
Rabbi Hisiger: What about cold drinks like soda and Slurpees?
Rabbi Krems: You can drink them if you know what they are. When one is at home, he is familiar with what he does and doesn’t drink. Once he leaves his comfort zone, he doesn’t necessarily have the same familiarity with the items he is using – so, he has to verify what it is. One might think the orange juice he sees is freshly squeezed when in actuality it is made from a syrup that is bona fide non-kosher. Many of the Slurpees in 7-11 are on a list of approved drinks but one cannot assume that until he verifies. Just because one flavor in a machine is kosher doesn’t mean all the others are and different flavors can look very similar.
Pringles in the U.S. are known to be kosher but they aren’t in other countries. Some cereals in the U.S. are pareve but the exact same brand is dairy in other countries and completely treif in yet others. One has to do his research to make sure he knows what he is looking at.
Doing research on these things and making sure that you know that what you’re looking at is what you’re getting is key number 1. When you see a juice, how do you know what it is? Because “Mohammad”, as we said before, told you it’s Kosher? That doesn’t work. You see that it’s squeezed in front of you, the keilim are clean, everything is cold, and it’s pure orange juice, then that’s fine.