Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 22 November 2014 / 29 Heshvan 5775

Finding the Filched Fowl

by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenblatt
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Mr. Checker works as a mashgiach. It is his job to supervise kosher establishments, to make sure that they are keeping the Jewish dietary laws. As well as keeping an eye on food preparation, he has to pay attention to food deliveries, and notice who comes in and out of the kitchens, to make sure there’s nothing untoward going on. It’s hard work, and not very well paid. But the only real qualifications required are that the person be an observant and trustworthy Jew, who can be relied upon to ensure that kosher standards are maintained. A mashgiach also doesn’t even have to be physically present all the time. The Talmud explains that periodic checks are sufficient, as long as the people working at the establishment can’t predict when he’ll turn up, and are afraid of financial or other penalties for being caught cutting ‘kosher’ corners.

One day, when Mr. Checker is particularly down in the dumps about his financial situation, wondering where his next rental payment is going to come from, he receives a helping hand from Heaven — a call from a certain Mr. Marrioff whose daughter is getting married the following month. “Mr. Checker,” he says, “of course we are having the wedding at a kosher hall, but the in-laws-to-be and I would like to employ you as a private mashgiach to keep an eye on things and make sure that everything is up to the highest kosher standards. After all, we want the banquet to be fantastic in every way. We will need you there from when the food starts arriving at 6 pm, until when the party is over at midnight. We will pay you $300 for those 6 hours — $50 an hour — which I’m sure you’ll agree is very generous.” Needless to say, Mr. Checker agrees on the spot, filled with gratitude.

The big day finally arrives. Amidst all the festooning of both venue and participants, Mr. Checker presents himself five minutes early, ready to safeguard the kosher whims of his reverent employers, with his mind firmly on the $300 prize because his financial situation has meanwhile become even more dire.

The marriage ceremony goes off without any issues to speak of and the happy couple sits down at the head table with family and friends in close attendance to enjoy the meal, thankful and secure in the blissful knowledge that the custom at weddings in Jerusalem is not to have any speeches! The food begins to arrive and all the guests are happy to dig in. After the first round of energetic dancing, the main course is brought to the tables: “Butterflied Poulet Dijon on a Bed of Sorrel en chiffonade, with Aubergine Caviar” reads the far-too-pretentious menu, but no one is particularly put out by not understanding what it means because the cuisine is truly superb (as it should be given how much Pierre les Couqe, the French chef, charges for his endeavors). But then the unthinkable happens! The bride’s father Mr. Marioff, upon making the rounds and schmoozing with the feasting guests, notices that two tables are bare of food. In a panic, he rushes into the kitchen, scouring the scene for the missing food. But it is nowhere to be found, seemingly vanished into thin air, and the unimpressed guests remain with whopping hunger pangs.

After the wedding, the hall manager, a Mr. Evan Trunner, gets wind of proceedings and suggests that they examine the secret closed-circuit camera footage of the happenings in the kitchen to determine the fate of the fowl. The contents of the surveillance footage leave all present dumbfounded. Before their very eyes, on the HD screen, they watch in shock as, at precisely 9 pm, Mr. Checker helps himself to a box of chicken breasts and loads them into his car! They confront him and he breaks down: “I know I have committed a grave sin, but my family doesn’t have any food and I just figured one box wouldn’t be missed!” He returns the chicken, but needless to say, Mr. Marioff is livid. Mr. Checker apologies profusely and begs forgiveness, but to no avail. “Just leave, now!” roars Mr. Marioff. “Okay,” says Mr. Checker, “as soon as you’ve paid me I’ll be on my way and you won’t hear from me again.” “Pay you?!” cries Mr. Marioff incredulously. “You are a thief! Hardly a trustworthy mashgiach! You don’t deserve a penny!” But, as you have no doubt already guessed, it’s not quite that simple.

“I admit stealing at 9pm, but up until then I hadn’t stolen anything. I was a kosher and proper mashgiach. So I deserve to be paid $150 for the first half of the night!” claims Mr. Checker. “I had a chezkat kashrut!”

What did he mean by this? The phrase “chezkat kashrut” refers to the principle in Jewish Law that a person is accorded a presumption of trustworthiness up until a time when he does something to forfeit that presumption. It’s a little like “innocent until proven guilty”, but in a temporal sense. Given that he enjoyed this state of trustworthiness, we may not assume that he became untrustworthy until we have evidence. And even once we have that evidence, it cannot affect his status at the time before he did anything. That is, in our case, even though we have evidence that Mr. Checker stole, that was only at 9 pm. This cannot tell us anything about pre-9pm Mr. Checker, who was still accorded the “trustworthy” status. Seemingly, then, he would be justified in claiming the $150.

This case was brought before one of the most respected rabbis in recent times, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, although obviously the names of the people concerned were a little different. His ruling was not what one might have expected. He awarded Mr. Checker not $150, but the full $300. His reasoning: Even after 9 pm, when Mr. Checker had lost his trustworthy status, the staff in the kitchen had no idea of his crime. Thus, his presence in the kitchen between 9 pm and midnight was an effective deterrent to anyone who might have been contemplating any stealthy chicanery. The purpose of a mashgiach had been served and he deserved to be paid in full.

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