Ask the Expert: Who’s in the Kitchen?

What does a mashgiach do?

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Question: What’s the name of the rabbi who blesses the food in a kosher restaurant?
–Jason, Seattle

the expertAnswer: Actually, Jason, in Judaism we never bless food, even though sometimes that might be what it looks like we’re doing. Though we do say blessings before and after eating, we are actually blessing God for allowing us to experience good, sustaining food–not blessing the foodstuff itself.

Okay, so now that we’ve got that covered, I have another bubble to burst for you–the rabbi at a kosher restaurant is not there to say any kind of blessing, and he’s not always a rabbi. He’s called a mashgiach, which means supervisor or overseer, and he’s present in the kitchen of a kosher establishment to ensure that everything that goes on there is, well, kosher.

In America, as in most Western countries, if you want to open a restaurant or start a company that makes some kind of food product, you need to have various government officials come check out the facility where you make and package the food. They’re looking at a few different things: What are you putting in your food? Is the food safe to eat? Are you being honest about what ingredients are in your product? Are your workers safe? Is the facility sanitary? All of this comes down to a desire to protect consumers from sickness, and a secondary desire to ensure that the workers in the facility are also safe.

Observant Jews believe that eating non-kosher food is spiritually unsafe. It won’t give you the kind of food poisoning that will leave you throwing up for days, but it could “damage” your soul. The observant Jewish community also harbors a deep respect for Jewish law, and a desire to honor the obligation to uphold Jewish legal standards about kashrut. So, just like governments have set up departments that are responsible for ensuring food safety, observant Jewish communities have set up organizations that take responsibility for ensuring that food in kosher restaurants really is kosher.

What does this mean, on a practical level? I asked Rabbi Dov Schreier, Director of Food Service and Rabbinic Coordinator at the Orthodox Union (the largest organization that does hashgacha, or supervision, of kosher restaurants and food products), what a mashgiach actually does. He said, “A mashgiach’s job is to check all the products, check all the vegetables… and monitor everything that comes in and out of the kitchen.” Basically, he’s checking for anything that might deem the food unkosher. That could be an unkosher ingredient, such as lard, or gelatin, or a bug that hasn’t been washed off of a piece of lettuce.

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