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Don't Miss the Boat:
Halachic Guidelines of Kosher Cruises
Rabbi Zvi Goldberg, Star-K Kashrus Administrator
Updated Winter 2012

Anyone having the opportunity to witness food preparation on a cruise ship can't help but be struck by the enormity of the task. Activity begins even before the first passenger comes aboard. Upon arrival of all the guests, food is available day and night. Needless to say, food is central to a cruise. "Kosher cruise" may simply imply that the food is kosher; other halachic issues may not have been addressed by the kosher certification agency. In this article, we will examine kashrus as well as other topics including tznius, davening and Shabbos.


KASHRUS

Providing kosher supervision on a cruise ship is not an easy task. "Mega-ships" carrying over 4,000 guests serve more than 12,000 meals per day! Food preparation occurs around-the-clock in multiple locations. Often a 'kosher cruise' means that an entrepreneur has booked a number of cabins aboard a large ship. In such an arrangement, kosher and non-kosher food will be prepared and served simultaneously.

The traveler must have confidence in the kashrus agency. In order to instill confidence, a reliable kashrus organization must address many issues.

What arrangements have been made to accommodate kosher food preparation? Is a kitchen dedicated to kosher food preparation, or has only a portion of a non-kosher kitchen been designated for kosher cooking? In most cases only a small percentage of the passengers are kosher, making a shared kosher and non-kosher situation more likely. This would be especially problematic. In some cases, kosher and non-kosher food is prepared on the same table with a makeshift barrier in-between. In such a situation, chefs may be preparing a pig on one side and kosher meat on the other, a scenario which compromises kashrus.1 

The kashrus agency must hire enough mashgichim to cover all areas of food preparation and dining, both of which may be spread throughout the ship. For example, the kitchen may be on one level, the bakery on another level and the dining room on yet a third level. Additionally, the meat, fish and general storage areas may also be on separate levels, necessitating a mashgiach to supervise those areas when needed.

Even with a sufficient number of mashgichim, oversight of the kosher food preparation is a formidable task indeed, particularly in a kitchen serving kosher and non-kosher. Since the ship’s kitchen is extremely busy, the kosher preparation area must be tightly monitored. Waiters run back and forth, some with kosher food or utensils and some with non-kosher food or utensils. At the same time, chefs may need more ingredients from the storerooms. And mashgichim must be constantly vigilant to ensure that waiters don’t take non-kosher food to the kosher passengers and that kosher utensils are returned to the kosher kitchen. Mix-ups or deliberate violations of kosher rules can and do occur.

The difficulty of preparing kosher food preparation is compounded by the fact that there is no way to replenish depleted supplies while out at sea.  This problem puts pressure on the ship’s staff, resulting in the possibility of serving non-kosher food or using non-kosher utensils in place of kosher.

Kosher and non-kosher kitchens may use a common steam boiler to heat large soup kettles. While the steam does not enter the soup, it surrounds the kettle, transferring heat into the soup. Furthermore, the steam may be recouped, returned to the boiler and then recirculated. Since some of the soup is non-kosher, this could lead to a transfer of non-kosher taam (flavor) into the kosher food, which could render the food non-kosher. To remedy this, a chemical is added to the water in the boiler giving it an unpleasant taste, thereby permitting use of the common boiler. However, our research shows that some cruise lines are reluctant to treat this water. They state that the water must remain potable in case a need arises while at sea and no fresh water is available. (A large ship can use over 200,000 gallons of water each day, brought on board at each port or produced from the seawater.)

The short turnaround time for a cruise ship presents a problem. Often a ship that docks in port in the morning will embark on another cruise by afternoon, giving the kosher agency insufficient time for the necessary kashering of utensils.

This problem can be resolved if the mashgiach meets the ship at its last stop prior to returning to home port, thereby allowing him to kasher while enroute. There is a report of a conscientious mashgiach who missed the boat (literally). In order to reach the ship, he was taken out to sea by pilot boat, climbed on board using a rope ladder, and then began his work.

Food preparation on Shabbos presents its own set of challenges. Before Shabbos, everything must be cooked. On Shabbos, the mashgichim must ensure that the staff follows the intricacies of the Shabbos laws of food preparation.

An option available onboard almost any ship, whether kosher or non-kosher, is pre-packaged kosher meals, similar to those served on airplanes.2 These may be heated in any oven, but must be served with the seals intact. These meals may not be heated on Shabbos, and must be opened according to halachic guidelines.3


TZNIUS

It cannot be emphasized enough that cruises present very serious tznius issues.4 Lack of modesty can be widespread, particularly when sailing to sunny destinations.

Furthermore, separate swimming arrangements would be required. Women would require a discrete, secluded pool in which to swim.5


DAVENING

A cruise generally will include at least one day - a Monday, Thursday or Shabbos - when the Torah is read. Therefore, it is necessary to have a Sefer Torah onboard and an honorable, secure place to house it.6

On Friday night, the tefilah of Magen Avos is not said when davening in a room which does not normally function as a shul, such as a temporary minyan in one's home. Onboard a ship, a room may be designated for davening, but may serve other purposes as well. Therefore, Magen Avos would not be said. However, if a specific room is dedicated as a shul for the duration of the cruise and the Sefer Torah is kept in that room, then Magen Avos would be recited.7

After an ocean cruise is completed, Birchas Hagomel must be recited. This bracha is customarily recited in shul after receiving an aliyah, preferably within three days upon disembarking.8


SHABBOS

Setting sail before Shabbos9

Chazal decreed that it is forbidden to undertake a journey by sea within three days of Shabbos.10 Although the commentators do not agree on the reasoning behind the decree, the halacha is based on two primary concerns: Firstly, a person may get seasick and be unable to enjoy Shabbos. Sailing three days before Shabbos allows time for a person to adjust to the motion of the sea. Secondly, storms and other nautical hazards present an element of danger for sea travelers, and a seafarer will probably have to violate Shabbos to save his life. This chilul Shabbos is actually permissible, as is all chilul Shabbos in any life-threatening situation. Nevertheless, one may not board a ship prior to Shabbos since he knowingly places himself in a situation where chilul Shabbos is a possibility, thereby giving the impression that he is not concerned. Since Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday are called acharai Shabbos (lit. after Shabbos), they are connected to the previous Shabbos, and the passenger need not concern himself with the coming Shabbos.11 Therefore, at the beginning of the week, one can place himself in a situation which may necessitate a chilul Shabbos such as this.

These concerns may seem negligible today, but once Chazal have established a decree, we have no right to abolish it. Moreover, some travelers do get seasick onboard cruise ships. Although ships may not toss in the sea, the high waves and constant motion often may wreak havoc on one's equilibrium.12

It should be noted that restrictions which apply to Shabbos are also applicable to Yom Tov. For example, if Yom Tov is on Wednesday, the three day prohibition would apply to the beginning of the week as well, restricting one's voyages for that week.

There are however, two lenient factors to keep in mind. Firstly, according to the Vilna Gaon,13 the 'three days' are Thursday, Friday and Shabbos. Wednesday was not included in the decree, permitting one to embark on a journey on Wednesday.14 Secondly, according to all opinions, one is permitted to embark any weekday if the ship docks before Shabbos and remains in port during that Shabbos.15


Passenger Majority

Our assumption has been that one is permitted to embark on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday.16 This is true when the majority of the ship's passengers are non-Jewish. However, if the majority are Jewish, embarking even at the beginning of the week may be a problem. Pri Migadim17 points out that according to all opinions, when a Jew needs or desires to travel specifically on Shabbos, there is a problem of amirah l'akum, a non-Jew performing melacha for a Jew. Amira l'akum is prohibited irrespective of departure day. On a cruise with a specific itinerary, the Jew may very well want to travel on Shabbos in order to enjoy the full schedule of ports-of-call. This, therefore, may be forbidden and a Rav should be consulted.18


Electronics

Electronic cabin door locks and electric eye automatic door opening mechanisms have become commonplace on cruise ships. Guests may leave keys at the front desk before Shabbos and on Shabbos may ask non-Jewish staff members to open their door.19 When walking about the ship, it is preferable to use manual doors. If this is not possible, one could wait until a non-Jew opens the door with his movement and walk together with him through the doorway. However, due to the difficulty in coordinating one's movement together with that of another person, it is likely that the Jew will unwittingly activate the door. Therefore, one should avoid travel on a ship where he will constantly face the challenge of getting through the door at the same time as a non-Jew.

Ships may be equipped with sinks and toilets controlled by an electric eye. We suggest that one avoid travel on a ship that cannot offer a different system.


Techum

Chazal forbade a person from traveling more than 2,000 amos (approx. 7/10 mile) on Shabbos.20 However, at sea this restriction does not apply.21 Nevertheless, if one is aboard a ship sailing at sunset on Friday and subsequently docks at a port on Shabbos, the 2,000 amos begin at the port. It is difficult for most people to measure this distance precisely; they risk violating the techum if they get off the ship. Moreover, consider the challenge a passenger faces when a world-renowned tourist attraction is outside the techum in a vacation spot he may never again visit! Because of the potential Shabbos violations, it would not be wise for a kosher cruise to dock on Shabbos itself.


Security

Security is another important Shabbos concern. Today, cruise ships, like airports, have metal detectors for boarding passengers. One who returns to his ship after a Shabbos stroll may set off alarms or lights at the metal detector. Since one must show his ticket and/or passport upon returning to the ship, these must be carried off the ship, causing a Shabbos violation. Even if the city were to have an eruv, it is unlikely to include the port. Lastly, the ticket may be mukzta and forbidden to carry.


Dateline

The International Date Line is, by convention, 180 degrees from Greenwich, England. At noon on Monday on the Eastern side of the dateline it is noon on Tuesday on the Western side. While halacha also recognizes the need for a dateline, the majority of poskim do not accept the International Dateline as the halachic dateline.22 Issues related to the International Dateline are extremely complex. We present several examples here to suggest questions to pose to one's Rav. It may be prudent to avoid these issues by foregoing such cruises.

As an illustration, let us look at Alaska, a popular cruise destination. According to Rav Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky, author of the Gesher Hachaim, the dateline is 144.8°W, exactly 180° from Jerusalem. A cruise to Juneau would not present a problem. However, according to Rav Tucazinsky's opinion, if the cruise sails westward towards Valdez, Anchorage, Kodiak or the Aleutian Islands, the dateline has been crossed (at a line that corresponds approximately to Valdez). Rav Heinemann, shlit"a, holds that in deference to Rav Tucazinsky's opinion, one should observe dinei deoraisa (prohibitions of the Torah) on Friday, since Rav Tucazinsky considers it as Shabbos. Therefore, actions such as writing or turning on lights are prohibited. However, since Rav Tucazinsky's opinion is a minority one, Rabbinic prohibitions, such as shopping or handling muktzah, are permissible on that day. Furthermore, using a shinui, unusual manner, to perform a Biblically proscribed violation of Shabbos or doing so through the action of a non-Jew, would be permitted on Friday. Shabbos would be kept as usual on Saturday.

Furthermore, according to some poskim, mainland Alaska, even west of 144.8°, follows the date of Canada and the U.S. In other words, the dateline does not cut through the land mass of Alaska. (If it were to cut through, then a situation conceivably could arise where two people might be standing next to each other, and one would be observing Shabbos and the other not.) Rather, the dateline follows the coast of Western Alaska, down and around its peninsula, and up towards Valdez. At the 144.8° longitude line, the dateline cuts straight down into the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. A person who crossed this dateline while at sea on Friday would be sailing into Shabbos. If he then disembarks in Western Alaska, he is now relieved of Shabbos obligations, since, according to these opinions, it is Friday on land.

Generally, around-the-world cruises also present dateline concerns. For instance, one such cruise travels westward from the U.S. to China. On this cruise, all the possible halachic datelines are crossed. One would have to carefully track the ship in order to determine what he is permitted to do in each part of the world. What locals call Friday or Sunday in some places may actually be Shabbos.

Dateline determination also affects issues such as Yom Tov, ta'anis, tefilah, tefillin, and sefiras ha'omer.


Kabolas Shabbos

Although Shabbos can be accepted early on Friday, it cannot be more than 1¼ hours before sunset, plag hamincha. (These hours are halachic hours, which depend on the length of the day.) When on land, one can simply verify the time in a Jewish calendar, or make a calculation based on latitude and longitude. However, when on the ocean this is not so simple. Let us consider a cruise which travels southbound at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, July 11th from Sitka, Alaska, and arrives at its home port in Vancouver, BC, on Sunday at 7:00 a.m. There is quite a difference between sunset in Sitka and sunset in Vancouver, as the sunset in Sitka is approximately 90 minutes after sunset in Vancouver.

This situation is problematic because it is difficult to know exactly where the ship will be at any given moment. For security reasons, cruise lines are reluctant to release this data to passengers. Therefore, in our example, one might use plag hamincha in Sitka (8:02 p.m.) in order to calculate when Shabbos can be accepted. On the southbound trip, the plag hamincha would be earlier, so one can be assured that the earliest time for accepting Shabbos had passed. An alternative would be to ask the captain what time the sun will set on Friday. In order to allow for a margin of error, Shabbos should be accepted no earlier than 75 minutes prior to that time. (On Shabbos, the captain again should be asked for the time of sunset. Shabbos would end 90 minutes after sunset, allowing for a margin of error.23) These suggestions cannot necessarily be applied at other times of the year or in other geographic locations.24


Eruv Chazteiros

An Eruv Chazteiros might be needed to permit ship passengers to carry. One should check with his Rav before embarking.25


Ocean travel clearly has evolved from a necessity to a luxury. One who desires such a vacation must verify that every aspect of the trip will conform to the standards of halacha and yiras shamayim.


1 Eyewitness report by a mashgiach.

2 In the absence of mashgichim, it is not an option to ask the kitchen staff to prepare fresh meals (e.g. salmon and potato, even double wrapped) or hard-boiled eggs. One reason is that the food would be prohibited due to Bishul Akum. A more detailed explanation is beyond the scope of this article.

3 It is interesting to note that the Tzitz Eliezer (10:35) was asked about a ship where the only place to keep food was under the beds. In a novel p’sak, he writes that food left under a bed on a ship is permitted.

4 See Shulchan Aruch E.H. 21:1

5 Cabin arrangements must also be checked since beds must be configured according to Jewish Law. On one cruise liner, the beds were bolted down and could not be moved.

6 In certain cases, a Sefer Torah may not be kept in one’s cabin. See Shulchan Aruch O.C. 240:6.

7 Mishna Berura 268:24

8 Shulchan Aruch O.C. 219 and B.H (1). On Chanuka, one must light candles on the ship. For discussion of this issue, see Maharsham 4:146, Aruch Hashulchan 677:5, and Tzitz Eleizer 15:29.

9 For a full discussion of this issue, see article by this author in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, published by RJJ School, Fall 1999, pg 39.

10 Shabbos 19a

11 The concept of acharai Shabbos is also the source for another well-known halacha - namely, that one who did not make havdalah on Moztai Shabbos can do so through Tuesday.

12 “During every seven-day sailing, the Oasis medical staff dispenses about 2,000 to 3,000 meclizine, a drug that treats sea sickness” (Wall Street Journal Online March 3, 2010.).  “But we still hear plenty of reports from passengers who say they get seasick fairly regularly.” (www.usatoday.com)

13 In a novel comment, Tzror Hamor (Parshas Noach 7:13) writes that Noach entered his ark on Wednesday due to the halachic concern we are discussing. This is consistent with the Vilna Gaon’s ruling.

14 If one follows the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, then in the case of a voyage before Yom Tov it follows logically that the first day of Yom Tov is included in the ‘three days’. If Yom Tov is on Wednesday, then one would still be permitted to depart on Sunday.

15 Another issue is - if the ship first departed at the beginning of the week, would subsequent departures from ports-of-call be considered new departures which would be forbidden (since they are within three days of Shabbos) or would they be a continuation of the original trip which would be permitted? It is the opinion of Rav Heinemann, shlit”a, that they would be considered part of the original trip.

16 Wednesday is also permitted according to the Vilna Gaon cited above.

17 M.Z. end of 248. However, see Shevsas Hayam (pg. 44), by the author of the Tzitz Eliezer.

18 One can argue that since cruise ships typically follow a regular schedule, it is most likely they would embark even with only a minority of non-Jewish passengers, in order to avoid canceling the entire cruise. Therefore, the melacha would be performed regardless, and the Jewish passengers would not be viewed as having the crew performing melacha exclusively for them.

Furthermore, there is one innovation which might allow one to embark at the beginning of the week, even with a majority of Jews. This is the auto-pilot. This technology allows ships to set their course and travel on Shabbos without intervention. Often, auto-pilot is activated when sailing a straight course between two points in the open sea. (Per communication by the author with officers aboard the m/s Radisson Navigator and the m/s RCI Sovereign of the Seas.) Therefore, any piloting performed by the crew is not considered as an act done specifically for the Jewish passengers. Rather, it is al da'as atzman, for the non-Jews benefit. The possibility of a ship's operation without melacha would lead us to view all melacha performed by the non-Jews as for their own purposes, not for fulfilling the needs of the Jewish passengers. However, the scope of the auto-pilot leniency is limited. Whenever a human pilot is needed, e.g. to negotiate narrow straits, when in congested areas, or docking in port, the auto-pilot cannot be used. This leniency, therefore, requires careful consideration before practical application. (It should be noted that the crew must listen to the radio and plot the course on a map while on autopilot. For various halachic reasons, these actions would not affect the issue under discussion.)

19 As this is a sh’vus d’shvus b’makom mitzvah. (Activating the lock mechanism is an issur d’rabonon. The mitzvah is Oneg Shabbos, to get a siddur, etc. One should not ask the non-Jew to open the door for minor reasons. Although illuminating the LED light could be a d’oraisa, it is a psik reisha which is permitted through a non-Jew. See M.B. 253:99)

20 Generally, people who live in large cities are able to walk much more than 2,000 amos as long as they are still within the halachic boundaries of the city. The 2,000 amos restriction begins at the edge of the city.

21 There is no prohibition of Techum when higher than 10 tefachim off the ground, as it is a different reshus.

22 For a full discussion of the dateline in halacha, see "A Traveler's Guide to the International Dateline".

23 Bear in mind that this itinerary passes from Alaska Time to Pacific Time (one hour ahead).

24 A GPS device and a computer program to calculate davening times may be useful while onboard.

25 This question hinges on a dispute between the Igros Moshe(O.C. 1:141) who permits carrying without an eruv chatzeros in a hotel, and the Dvar Avraham (3:30) who takes a strict approach.



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