Seven Things You Didn't Know Israeli Hotels Have to Do to Stay Kosher Over Passover

For seven days, kosher hotels must stay completely free of the chametz, or leaven, that Judaism prohibits on the holiday. How do they do it?

Courtesy of the Inbal Hotel

Being certified kosher is no mean feat for Israeli hotels most of the year, but around Passover, the going really gets tough. Hotels that want to retain their kosher certification from Israel's Chief Rabbinate, like religious Jews who want to stay on God's good side, must adhere to the commandment about what thou shalt not eat on the Festival of Freedom and Edible Cardboard: "Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; howbeit the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel" (Exodus 12:15).

In other words, kosher hotels must not only serve matza on Passover to commemorate the speed with which the Israelites fled Egypt — no waiting around for the bread to rise — but must also eliminate any trace of chametz, or leaven: bread, pasta, crackers, basically any food product (other than matza) made out of wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt or their derivatives that has fermented. And since Ashkenazi Jews have a tradition of not eating kitniyot — grains and legumes including rice, beans, peas and corn — those are out the window too. Here are just some of thing Israel’s Chief Rabbinate requires hotels to do to retain their kosher certification:

1. First thing's first: Stick to (all) the rules

The Rabbinate’s website has eight separate documents containing guidelines for the holiday, in addition to its regular stipulations for keeping kosher. These focus on making kitchens kosher, or kashering them, making sure there is not a single crumb of chametz on the premises and baking matza. Hotels must be ready by April 2 this year — Thursday, the day before Passover eve — in order to pass muster. According to the Rabbinate, most hotels spend four to five months preparing for the seven days of Passover. You can expect bread rolls for breakfast again on April 12, after the holiday has ended.

2. Pay up to stay kosher

Daniel Bar

Year-round, hotels must have a full-time mashgiah, or kashrut inspector, on staff, to make sure that they are following the Rabbinate’s guidelines by the letter, and this costs money. In Eilat, for example, inspectors make 9,000 shekels to 10,000 shekels on average a month (around $2,500), according to the Eilat Hotels Association. Larger establishments sometimes need more than one inspector, and over Shabbat and Jewish holidays, supervisors bring their families — who get free room and board — to ensure round-the-clock supervision. Hotels also pay an annual fee to the Rabbinate for their certificate, shelling out 7,250 shekels a year for hotels with more than 250 rooms. Over Passover, hotels pay an extra 236 shekels for a holiday certificate.

3. Start from scratch

Picture a big hotel kitchen, the kind of kitchen that feeds hundreds of guests a day. Now imagine trying to make sure that every corner of that kitchen is crumb-free. “Kashering the kitchen is like opening a hotel kitchen from scratch,” a representative of the 555-room David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv told Haaretz in an email. The first things the hotel starts with are the pastry kitchen and butchery. These are cleaned a week in advance, a process that includes deep cleaning, getting new dishes, utensils, work stations and appliances that are kosher for Passover (more on that below) and getting the kashrut supervisor to make sure it’s all up to par. Two days before Passover, the main kitchen is cleaned, and the restaurants and clubs in the hotel are cleaned over 12 hours the night before Passover starts. The hotel takes on extra cleaning staff to help with the Herculean task.

4. Plastic forks in bed

Every utensil, dish, appliance or work surface that can be kashered must be thoroughly scrubbed, with all dirt, grease and rust removed, and then left for 24 hours before being made kosher. The main kashering methods are heating appliances until they reach a high temperature and boiling them in water. The instructions are detailed and complex; the list of equipment required for kashering is 28 items long. In addition, the Rabbinate advises dining establishments to cover all work surfaces and fridge shelves throughout the holiday. Room service is also affected: There can be no dishes in hotel rooms or offices in the week preceding Passover, and over the holiday, only disposable plates and cutlery are to be used for bringing guests breakfast in bed. The whole process is so complicated that the Rabbinate advises businesses to bring in experts instead of doing it themselves.

5. Double the stock

Kosher hotels have two sets of crockery to keep up with requirements for separating milk and meat throughout the year. To save themselves the headache of kashering those dishes for Passover, many hotels purchase two more sets to make sure the dishes are untainted by chametz. The hotels must also have Passover alternatives for (or do without) any food-related items that can’t be made kosher for Passover, like dishes with plastic or wood in them, and all dishes for cake-baking, chopping boards, baskets and (if needed) toasters. Some hotels stock up on double the equipment, explains Rabbinate spokesman Daniel Bar. The Dan Accadia Hotel in Herzliya, for example, keeps its Passover equipment in storage all year, under lock and key, he says.  

6. Still got chametz? Sell it

Aside from cleaning like crazy to get rid of chametz, Jewish law permits Jews to sell their leaven to non-Jews. The same goes for kosher hotels. After writing a bill of sale for the chametz, a kosher establishment can leave the chametz on their premises because they are technically no longer owners of the chametz. Every year one non-Jew, Jabar Hussein of the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Jerusalem, symbolically purchases chametz for the whole of Israel. Hotels that want to sell him their chametz fill out a form, which is passed on to the Rabbinate via their kashrut inspector. On Thursday, says Bar, there will be an official Rabbinate ceremony to “hand over” the country’s chametz. Any items a hotel sells to a non-Jew for the holiday must be stored somewhere marked for chametz, out of harm’s way until Passover ends.

7. Reinvent the menu

The prohibition on chametz and the Ashkenazi tradition of not eating kitniyot mean that a hotel has to completely rethink its menu over Passover. At the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, this process begins two to three months in advance for all the hotel’s restaurants, the hotel said in an email. This includes designing the menu and the ensuing tasting sessions to make sure everything is just so, as well as buying kosher-for-Passover ingredients. This year's holiday menu includes “exotic” kneidlach soup, and deli fare like a corned beef sandwich — but on unleavened bread, of course.

Bonus: And just for fun, how stores protect the innocent

If you have ever visited a kosher Israeli supermarket over Passover, you will have noticed the shelves adorned in plastic, shielding customers from the temptations of food that isn’t kosher for the holiday. The Rabbinate publishes guidelines for stores, too, specifying the kind of material that should cover these shelves, along with other stipulations. For instance, stores must block bar codes of non-kosher items from April 3 this year, to ensure that no chametz is sold on the premises. Store staff are not allowed to bring a packed lunch to work, in case it contains chametz. Perhaps most important of all, stores must refrain from putting Passover-friendly and Passover-unfriendly items next to each other on the shelf, to avoid “tripping up innocent customers who are not likely to read the fine print.” Selling non-kosher items on the Internet is also forbidden over the holiday.