Planning Your Simcha; The Agony or Ecstasy

Published Summer 2007

The joy, the planning, the anticipation, the expense — there is a lot that goes into a Yiddishe simcha. Be it a chasuna, Bar Mitzvah, or bris, every significant life cycle event is extra special and the baalei simcha want to ensure that their guests have a good time.  Central to that goal is a delicious seudas mitzvah.  Endless hours of planning are spent making sure everything is perfect, from the decor to the menu.  Is the same effort expended regarding the kashrus level of the event? If the simcha is being catered, does the caterer have reliable kosher certification?  As catering costs have risen, consumers have opted to cater their own simchas.  This article will attempt to address some key issues that one should consider when catering an event. 

The Kiddush

Pre-planning your kiddush is the best strategy to guarantee that the simcha will encounter a minimum amount of glitches.  If the kiddush is being held in a shul, inquire about their guidelines. Some shuls have their own kiddush committee; others will allow you to prepare the kiddush yourself.  Even if you cater it yourself, there aremany details that need review.  For instance, which certifications does the shul permit?  Does the shul require that all baked goods be pas Yisroel and/or yoshon?  Can you purchase boxed bakery goods from the supermarket, or must the baked goods come from a Shomer Shabbos bakery?  Furthermore, cakes are often decorated with pictures or lettering that one may not cut on Shabbos.  If rolls are served, are they Mezonos rolls or real bread?  If they are real bread, is there a washing station?  If the kiddush is dairy, do the dairy products have to be Cholov Yisroel or will Cholov Stam products fit the bill? 

If the kiddush bakery products have to be yoshon, the baal simcha should realize that yoshon does not just include breads, cakes and cookies.  Products such as jarred gefilte fish, licorice, pretzels, noodle kugels and even potato kugels that may have flour in their ingredients must also be yoshon.

What is the shul’s policy regarding prepared food that is brought in to the shul from a take-out store?  Does the store need to be under hashgacha, and if so which hashgachos would be acceptable?  Another issue to keep in mind is how the food is packaged when it comes into the shul.  Meat and fish items require two simanim (seals) when they leave the store; cheese, dairy, and bakery goods require only one siman.  Is someone responsible for checking that the items coming into the shul have a reliable kosher hechsher and are properly sealed?

Additionally, one should ask about the shul’s policy regarding home baked items; sometimes there are outstanding home bakers who bake beautiful simcha cakes.  Does the shul’s policy require kosher supervision for these cakes?  And if neighbors are bringing home baked products, some of the guests may expect a few of these goodies to be yoshon.  It would be a good idea to place small signs indicating which items are yoshon

If potato chips and pretzels are being purchased, do they have to be bishul Yisroel and/or pas Yisroel?  It goes without saying that someone needs to be responsible for opening all unopened cans, bags, boxes and bottles before Shabbos

Candies are often brought into the shul by the baal simcha.  If the kiddush is fleishig, the candies will need to be pareve; but if the kiddush is milchig, should the candies be cholov Yisroel?

What is the shul’s policy concerning wines and liquor?  Does all wine need to be mevushal?  Do all the liqueurs have reliable kosher supervision? 

The cholent and other hot items will be dealt with in the Sheva Brochos section below.  As one can clearly see, it is more than the color coordination and table decoration that contributes to a successful kiddush.

The Shalom Zachor

Mazel Tov!  It’s a boy, and he was born on Friday morning.  Everyone is rushing and hurrying to get the shalom zachor ready.  Quick!  Get the beer and the arbes (chickpeas).  Wow!  That cherry wheat flavored beer sure looks good! So does that can of chickpeas. Hold on a second.  Did you realize that flavored beers need reliable kosher certification?  If your guests only use yoshon products, were you aware that beer (which is produced from malted barley) may be chodosh after the end of December? With the exception of water and plain seltzer, all beverages require reliable kosher certification.  Do not make the mistake of assuming that a flavored alcoholic beverage is just a little lemon juice mixed in the beer; those flavors can also come from Eretz Yisroel.  Glycerin is often used as a blending agent in these flavored beverages.  Regular beer and ales are generally acceptable; those coming from the Far East, however, should be avoided.

As for the chickpeas, these are one of the leading items likely to be generated in a canning facility that also produces canned meat products.  It is therefore very important to purchase canned chickpeas with a reliable kosher certification.

The Sheva Brochos

Sheva Brachos are festive events in the Jewish life cycle, and Shabbos Sheva Brachos can be a grand undertaking.  As the cost of having a caterer has become excessive for some, baalei  simcha have opted to cater the event themselves and buy prepared foods from reliably certified food vendors.  In the trade, when food is purchased from the caterer or from the take-out store, it is referred to as a food service event as opposed to a fully catered simcha.  It is critical that the baal simcha understands what his responsibilities are for this particular Shabbos event. 

When the caterer delivers the food items, or when the food items are picked up from the store or commissary, it is imperative that the food be properly sealed—especially meat and fish.  Once the seals are broken, the hashgacha’s responsibility ends.  It is the baal simcha’s responsibility to check all food items as they enter his/her home or social hall to determine if the products have proper kosher identification.

The baal simcha must also assure that the kashrus status of the food continues.  He is responsible for ensuring that an observant Jew watches the meat, chicken and fish items to avoid problems of “bosor shenisalaim minhoayin”. This problem often arises when non-Jewish help is hired to prepare the meal and is not supervised in the social hall where the event is being prepared. 

If there is non-Jewish or non-observant help cooking the meal, all fires must be turned on by an observant Jew to avoid problems of bishul akum (food being cooked by an aino Yehudi).  It is very important to realize that fires are often turned on and off during the course of the preparation.

Since the baal simcha is preoccupied with the event and cannot be in the kitchen, he should designate a person to be responsible for igniting all cooking and heating equipment.  Since no cooking can take place on Shabbos itself, all foods must be fully cooked prior to Shabbos.  Many rabbinic laws were instituted to prevent transgressing Torah prohibitions, with two major ordinances to prevent cooking on Shabbos. “Shehiya” is leaving uncooked food on a cooking surface before Shabbos, in a place where it is possible for the fire to be adjusted to hasten or improve the cooking.  To prevent this, the rabbis decreed that the food should be edible before Shabbos, or that the fire and controls be covered with a blech in order to avoid any problems of adjusting the fire. It is the custom that all foods – both main and side dishes –  should be cooked before Shabbos.  In addition, the stovetop should be covered with a blech and the knobs should be covered.

Everyone loves hot potato kugel.  The second prohibition enacted to ensure that there is no cooking on Shabbos entails returning cold food to the stove or oven.  This prohibition is called “Chazara”.  There are strict guidelines that must be followed when returning cooked items to the oven.  These apply even if the stovetop is covered with a blech, and even if the food that one wants to put onto the blech is fully cooked and still hot.  It is very important to review the laws of chazara with your rav to avoid any problems on Shabbos day.

It is also important to use water urns that do not introduce fresh water, and to have all water urns turned on and tea essence made before Shabbos.  If sugar is being served in packets, all packets should be opened before Shabbos.  All sealed food containers should also be opened before Shabbos.

 One should also be cautious about salads and vegetables, which have to be checked before Shabbos to make sure they are insect-free.  Often salads, platters and trifles are made on Shabbos and involve cutting and separating peels, pits and seeds from the fruits or vegetables. Separating these items incorrectly may cause one to violate the prohibition of “borer”, separating the bad from the good.  These laws can become quite complicated in food preparation.  Therefore, it is advisable to check with one’s rav to review these rules.

All bakery items should be checked for their pas Yisroel and yoshon status.  Wine and liqueur have to be checked for proper hechsharim and, if necessary, the wine or grape juice should be mevushal.

 The baal simcha is responsible for his/her chinaware, flatware, utensils, heating equipment, and display pieces.  Any questions regarding the previous use of these utensils should be addressed prior to their use.

 Last but not least, the guests should be clearly aware that a simcha being held in a hall or a shul is not under any official kosher certification.  As you can see, a little planning can go a long way to ensure that your simcha will be freilach and geshmack with minimum aggravation.  Once you have catered your own simcha, you will have a different appreciation for the words Mazal Tov—you’ve made it through the self-catering experience!  Yasher Koach!