It is said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This is certainly true in the world of kashrus, where the chain of command extends from the executive rabbi in the main office down to the mashgiach (kashrus supervisor) in the field. In many ways, the mashgiach plays the crucial role in kashrus as he is the one who guarantees that things are done right. In the next few paragraphs, I would like to give our readers a peek into the mashgiach and his work and some of the day-to-day challenges he faces—both personal and professional. Hopefully, we can shed a little light on this little-known (or-appreciated) area of kashrus.
The truth is, most of us involved in hashgocha never intended to end up where we are. We learned in yeshivos of one stripe or another and either had no particular direction in mind, or often thought of a completely different line of work. (I thought I was going to go into chinuch.) Then one day you get a call — “We’re supervising an affair on Wednesday (and have to kasher the kitchen beforehand). The regular “crew” will be on hand, but we need a few extra hands — and eyes. Our mashgiach, Moshe, suggested we call you. Can you help us out?”
You did a good job — and someone noticed. You picked up on something that someone overlooked — and they appreciated it. You go back to your yeshiva/kollel and a few weeks later the phone rings again, “You helped us out a few weeks ago at an affair. Our regular mashgiach in ________ (fill in the blank) just had a baby and we need someone to visit one of his factories. We will give you very clear instructions and make sure you know what to do. Can you help us out?” And so it goes. You find the work interesting, they find you to be a serious worker, and the factory owner mentioned, “The new rabbi you sent over was really a nice guy.” Next thing you know you have another offer and then another, until finally “The Offer” comes in — you’re offered a full time job in kashrus.
At this stage there is a serious decision to be made; continue learning or go out into “The Big World”. Each family has its own calculations to make before making their decision. Some will decide to stay in learning longer, or for as long as they can, others will decide that the offer has come at the right time for them.
Of course, one doesn’t become a kashrus professional overnight. Often you are paired with a more seasoned rabbi, learning the ropes as you go along. Practical kashrus, chemistry and psychology are all picked up on the way. Some will read chemistry books; some will take kashrus or chemistry classes; and some even pursue degrees in related sciences.
Once the decision is made, life takes on a new direction. Literally. If you’re lucky, the work is (relatively) local. If not, you will be on the road to here and there making sure that Jews far and wide are eating kosher. Friends often say to me, “You are so lucky. You get to travel around and see all the places we only see on posters.” I usually offer to trade places with them for three or four months, and gently tell them that they really have no clue what a mashgiach’s life on the road is all about.
Hopefully, you head out on Sunday (and not right after Havdalah on Motzo’ei Shabbos like I usually do), to get to your first stop on Monday morning. Usually, but not always, you daven shacharis in your hotel room (euphemistically called the Beis K’nesses Y’chidei S’gulo) and maybe eat something before heading out. Sometimes you have to daven in the factory or in some inconspicuous place en route. (Note: Davening on a plane in Malaysia or Turkey is not recommended…) When you finally get to your hotel at 8:00, 9:00, or 10:00 pm there are still reports to be filled out — reports which are duly read, understood and acted upon when needed, and filed for future reference.
In places where there is no kosher food available, other than some fruits and vegetables, whatever you packed in your suitcase is what there is. One week’s worth, two, whatever you can get in. Often, supper will be some sort of RTE (Ready-To-Eat) pre-packaged meal, or something prepared yesterday morning before you left. With a can of soda, a fruit or a handful of nuts, one can almost, but not quite, pretend to be having a real meal… Of course, you also have to prepare food for tomorrow as well. (What, tuna again?)
Did I mention that we also try to keep up with our learning as well? In addition to the weekly sedra, each rabbi has his own learning schedule; some do CHiTaS, other do Daf Yomi, halacha yomis, mishnayos, RaMBaM, etc.
With mobile phones and cheap rates, calling home is easy enough, and with the Internet available (another way the Internet can be used for good) in virtually every corner of the country, and in many other countries as well, you can even see the kids — and be seen by them as well. But let’s be honest, giving the kids a virtual bedtime hug and kiss can never replace the real thing… (Let’s not forget that time differences often keep you up even later.)
Others, like myself, spend a lot of time overseas, for two, sometimes three weeks at a time. Although there is often a kehillah or a Beit Chabad somewhere nearby, for frum yidden, Shabbos is family time. As nice as the Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin are, when it comes to Shabbos, you really want to be home. Believe me, few things are more depressing than spending a Shabbos (or two or three…) alone in a hotel in Turkey or India, or in the factory where you are doing hashgacha. (Been there, done that, too.)
We are always aware of the responsibility that rests on our shoulders. We are the eyes and ears of the rabbi or organization we represent. If we miss or misunderstand something, or are misled, countless numbers of Jews might eat questionable or even traif food, chas v’sholom. As Rav Avraham Shapira, zt”l, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel once told me, a mashgiach must be a bit of a scoundrel, that way he will know when other scoundrels are trying to fool him…
When a problem is found — problematic ingredients, or possibly catching the company lying — decisions must be made, often on the spot. In the first instance the mashgiach will phone his superior, known as an RC, Rabbinic Coordinator. (I have woken my RC up in the middle of the night. He didn’t like it, but he was happy I did.) But what if for some reason he’s unreachable? A decision to stop production can cost a company tens of thousand of dollars. This is a mashgiach’s worst nightmare. He must make a decision, and hope that he has siyata d’sh’maya when he makes it. Here is where being knowledgeable in the fifth section of the Shulchan Oruch — common sense is critical. A mashgiach needs to know what to say and when to say it. More importantly, he needs to know how to say it.
Not only are Yidden everywhere counting on us to do our jobs, in the eyes of those we work with, we represent not only our organizations, but, the Jewish People as well. A mashgiach who doesn’t behave with derech eretz and menchlichkeit can cause a tremendous chillul Hashem.
Unfortunately, a mashgiach’s work is not always appreciated. I hope these few lines have shed some light on this oft-maligned job, and those performing it, who are truly the first line of kashrus defense.