NEW YORK - Two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, passersby in Monsey, New York were reminded of scenes before Pesach. Jews dressed in Hasidic garb and yeshiva students with long side curls stood around in their backyards immersing pots, pans and metal cooking utensils in steaming vats of boiling water. Instead of practicing their cantorial tunes and their shofar blowing in preparation for the upcoming high holidays, residents in this Hasidic city were busy last week making their pots and pans kosher as is customary on the eve of Pesach.

The kitchen utensils and dishes in thousands of Jewish homes in Monsey suddenly became treif - forbidden for use under kosher food laws - and had to be purified. According to the Jews of Monsey, the reason for the purification was bloodcurdling and exceeded their worst nightmares.

"The kashrut scandal of the century" is how a Yiddish ultra-Orthodox New York weekly defined the discovery that a purportedly ultra-Orthodox Jew, the owner of a butcher shop in Monsey, had been knowingly wholesaling treif chickens to his ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish clients.

"This is a tragedy that screams to the heavens," lamented the paper. "Thousands of Jews, Hasidim and hard-working people, rabbis and students, scholars and sages, pious men and women, mothers and innocent children have tainted their souls by eating carrion, and all because of the money-hungry butcher."

Monsey, the home of a proud, thriving and reputable ultra-Orthodox community and a Hasidic center does not know where to lay the blame.

The main study hall of the Belz Hasidic community held a special prayer assembly in light of "the terrible scandal uncovered in our city, that a kosher butcher store sold treif meat and caused thousands of the city's residents to sin to an unprecedented extent, may God have mercy on us."

"In a voice choked with tears," wrote an ultra-Orthodox newspaper of the assembly, "Dayan (adjudicator of Jewish law) Rabbi Bezalel Tuvia Wettenstein described this terrible incident, explained the halakhic ramifications stemming from the horrifying deception, and instructed the assembly regarding what should be done with the pots and dishes that were rendered unkosher."

The newspaper described the audience of Hasidim as "brokenhearted and grief-stricken, tearfully listening to their dayan's instructions."

Versions of the discovery

According to private conversations with rabbis and local businessmen, as well as fractured reports in the New York media, the owner of the Shevach butcher shop, an ultra-Orthodox resident of Monsey named Moshe Finkel, was discovered to be the culprit. A local businessman told Haaretz that the scandal was uncovered quite by accident.

A Jew who entered Finkel's shop was surprised to see the refrigerator shelves full on a day when he knew there was no delivery of chickens to the city. He told one of the local rabbis of his suspicions regarding the source of the chickens and a local investigation was opened. At first the shop owner tried to explain that he had received the chickens from a kosher slaughtering company in the United States. Then he claimed that they were kosher chickens he had bought from criminals who had hijacked a truck full of chickens. In the end he admitted that he had knowingly sold treif poultry.

Another story being circulated in Monsey is that the investigation began after a newly religious woman told her neighbor that she could taste the difference between kosher and treif chicken, and suspected that the chicken she had purchased from Finkel's butcher shop was treif.

The question troubling local rabbis is how long the butcher shop owner managed to deceive his ultra-Orthodox public and had sold them treif chickens. According to one estimate, he began only recently, while another version states that the deception began months ago.

Not a precedent

"The day the scandal was uncovered is the blackest day in the history of the Monsey community since its establishment long ago," declared Rabbi Menachem Meir Weissmandl in a newspaper interview.

Another source close to the story said that Finkel had been considered a respectable Jew by the community. Interviews with people involved in the kashrut field reveal that the Monsey case is not unprecedented. Less than a year ago, a butcher shop in New York City's Flatbush neighborhood was found to be selling regular kosher meat as "strictly kosher." After the discovery, the store's kosher certification was suspended and the store was closed.

There is also a known case of a Jew who operated two slaughterhouses, one kosher and the other non-kosher. He, too, was suspected of knowingly marketing non-kosher meat under a kosher label. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, known for its "U" inside an "O" symbol, said that the problem is that sometimes the temptation is too great. "Unkosher meat is cheaper and selling it as kosher can be a source of significant profits," said Elefant.

"I am not particularly surprised or agitated by the impure incident in Monsey," said Rabbi Shraga Schoenfeld, one of New York's most well-known and admired rabbis. "When there is no unconditional love between Jews there is also no love for animals. The lesson that should be learned from the events in Monsey is that ultra-Orthodox Jews should stop gossiping and slandering other ultra-Orthodox Jews who are not from their sect."

"Ultra-Orthodox Jews are more meticulous about what goes into their mouths than about what comes out," said another popular Orthodox New York rabbi. After the scandal, the Hatzolah emergency medical services organization in Monsey published a notice to all Hasidim and yeshiva students who "accepted upon themselves daily fasting until after Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)" as a spiritual repairing of the damage caused by eating treif. The notice warns all Monsey residents to fast or perform other acts of repentance only after consulting their rabbis.

Hatzolah also cautions heart patients and stresses that young people should not fast without parental consent and that "even healthy persons should consider that Yom Kippur is approaching," in that it, too, offers the opportunity to repent.