The Jewish Road Less Traveled

If you grew up in the sixties and seventies and beyond, you’re probably familiar with the opening lines of Star Trek:

Space: The final frontier
These are the voyages of the Starship, Enterprise
Its 5 year mission
To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life and new civilizations
To boldly go where no man has gone before

The Road Less Traveled
The Road Less Traveled

I wonder if the creators of the series were inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Many would interpret Robert Frost’s well-known poem as the essence of true Wanderlust, seeking out the unfamiliar in travel, instead of staying on the safe and well-beaten tourist routes.

For me, “The Road Less Traveled” is hard-wired into Jewish consciousness, from the time of our forefather Abraham. He was known as Abraham the IVRI, commonly translated as The Hebrew. But what IS a Hebrew? IVRI means “the other side”. While most of the world was theologically on one side (paganism), Abraham was on the other side (monotheism).

Being different then everyone else and going on a road less traveled is central to our reality, not only in belief but also in our day-to-day actions. The time when it is most noticeable, is during travel.

Wearing a Kippa for a man or a snood or wig for a woman isn’t that unique. Other religions cover their heads. It’s when you get into your packaged airline meal with the disposable dishware and all the Rabbinical stamps on the package, that you really feel how different you are.

I’ve been to a catering company that produces Glatt Kosher meals for First Class passengers. They really put in a tremendous amount of effort to make an awesome Glatt Kosher meal, both in quantity and quality. But no matter how you make it, the person eating the Kosher meal will feel different from the rest of the First Class passengers.

road less traveled |
First Class Kosher Meal

You’re sitting in the First Class section, with all the other privileged passengers, and just before you dig into your sumptuous (I hope) Kosher meal, there’s a Bracha (Blessing) to be said. You then open up all sorts of double wrapped packages with Hebrew symbols that don’t look at all like what everyone else is getting. Then again at the end of the meal, there’s Birkat HaMazon to say too. Even your Segal’s Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 wine at $71.99 a bottle looks bit different…

I can give countless examples of how different we seem to the rest of the world especially during travel; the places of worship we don’t enter, the bars we avoid, opposite gender relationships we’re careful with and our absolutely different behavior on Shabbat.

Yes, we are very different…and vive la différence !!

Life is a Journey – So Pack Light

Life is a Journey

For me, travel is a metaphor for Jewish Living.  Whether we’ve lived in ten cities and toured the African and Asian Continents coast to coast, or whether we’ve spent our entire life in one city or country, we are still on a journey. Not merely a journey with a small “j”, but rather a “Life Journey” – from “This World” to “The World to Come”, and as they say, “Life is a journey, not a destination”.

life is a journey so pack light - jewish traveling
Success (Life) is a Journey

Seeing Life as a Journey has significance even on the practical level, as one can see in the following story about the Chofetz Chaim:

The Chofetz Chaim lived a very simple and minimalistic lifestyle. Until he was quite old, the floor in his house wasn’t even tiled. The table was not much more than a wooden plank, and instead of chairs there were just some plain benches. Once, a rich Jew visited the revered tzaddik to receive his blessing. As he entered the simple dwelling, he glanced around and saw the plain furnishings. He was shocked to see this eminent and revered personage living under such impoverished circumstances.

“Rabbi,” he asked, “how can you live under such conditions? Where is the courtly furniture that befits a person of your stature?”

Smiling gently, the Chofetz Chaim responded by asking a question of his own: “Tell me, where are you staying during your visit here?”

“In the village inn, of course! Where else?”

“I don’t understand,” replied the Chofetz Chaim, “You are quite wealthy, and must be used to only the best. That inn has only some old broken-down benches. It must be very uncomfortable for you there. Why didn’t you bring all of your beautiful furnishings with you?”

“Bring them with me? That’s absurd. When a person is traveling, he can’t take along everything he owns. Most of his possessions remain at home. He understands that his journey is only temporary, and he lives much more simply.”

“That sounds very reasonable,” said the Chofetz Chaim – “and now you have the answer to your question. My time in this world is only temporary. I am only passing through on a journey to my ultimate destination. Therefore, I live very simply.”  (from the book “Trust Me” by Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff)

Of course the Chofetz Chaim was a Sage and a uniquely spiritual person and most of us would find it impossible to emulate his austere lifestyle. Nevertheless, I believe that at the very least one can travel with minimal luggage, even if one can’t live that way all year-long.

There are many practical benefits to packing light:

  • Security – Less to lose or get stolen.
  • Economy – no extra luggage fees, no porters and you can walk or take a bus instead of only taxis.
  • Mobility – Later check-in, earlier check-out.
  • Serenity – Less time to pack, less stress, less to sweat.
  • Spirituality – Less dependency on material possessions.

My favorite website for packing light is Doug Dyment‘s site called The entire site is devoted to learning how to travel with one carry-on bag only and according to very clearly defined packing-lists. That’s it. Nothing else.

I guess that an observant Jew would have a few more things to carry, like a Talis & Tefillin for men, Shabbat clothes, a wig or head-covering for woman, some Kosher food or utensils, a book of Torah study. Yet I’m sure that even with our EXTRA stuff, we can still fit it all into one bag (and certainly in LESS bags than we’re used to).

YouTube has many good videos on the OneBag system. I recommend looking up also “Round The World” or “RTW” packing for men or for woman (different packing needs of course). OneBag even suggests a few versatile types of bags with lots of pockets which support the OneBag system.

Here’s a short video about the Red Oxx Air Boss bag and an extremely efficient packing system:

Next time you travel, remember:

The lighter you travel, the more you can enjoy and experience your journey.

Kosher Bora Bora – Fantasy or Possibility?

Some people fantasize about Belgian chocolates and the latest Porsche 911 Turbo. Some crave a cottage with an Olympic-sized pool overlooking Lake Tahoe or maybe a month-long world cruise through the Caymen Islands.,_Bora_Bora,_French_Polynesia.jpg#mediaviewer/Ficheiro:Matira_Beach%2C_Bora_Bora%2C_French_Polynesia.jpg
Bora Bora Island

I’d like all the above, but I’d prefer….a month of quiet vacation on the beaches of Bora Bora. Blue skies, white sands, endless clear water, majestic palm trees…peace and quiet. Without my cell phone. No emails, no appointments, no prior commitments; just the gentle lapping of waves at my feet with the awesome view of the blue lagoon.

The thought of it puts me into a trance-like state of bliss.

Bora Bora By Samuel Etienne (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Bora Bora
Then logic kicks in and I remember….

  • I can’t afford the plane tickets.
  • I can’t afford the hotel fees.
  • I’ll have nothing Kosher to eat.
  • Most of the alcohol they drink while sitting in a beach chair with a platter of exotic fruit, isn’t Kosher either.
  • I won’t have a Minyan to pray at the local synagogue.
  • There isn’t a local synagogue on the island anyways.
  • I won’t be able to make Kiddush on Shabbos because the wine isn’t Kosher. Nor the Challah…
  • I can’t carry outside my hotel room on Shabbos because there isn’t an Eiruv around the town.
  • And besides, why in the world should a nice Jewish boy go to a place like Bora Bora? Don’t I know that most of the women don’t wear Sheitels and long sleeves on the island and the men don’t walk around with Tsitsis and probably aren’t Talmudic scholars either ??

So why Bora Bora?

Kosher Bora Bora
Four Seasons Hotel in Bora Bora

It’s in my soul. The island and surrounding are like Paradise. A very expensive bit of paradise. Anyone who isn’t well-heeled at the bank will end off with hell to pay on their credit card if they aren’t careful. So it’s a short-lived paradise at the very least, but nice indeed…

Although Bora Bora is out of my personal range, I’m still curious if one can manage there as an observant Jew (assuming of course that one keeps their gaze totally and absolutely on their own spouse and nobody else).

Kosher Solutions

I contacted a few of the hotels on Bora Bora to hear what they can offer in terms of Kosher food. One hotel said simply that due to their isolated location, they cannot give Kosher food as they don’t have someone to supervise the preparation nor do they have the utensils. OK, that’s not surprising.

Then I got a totally different response from the Head Chef of another hotel. The chef gave me 3 possible options.

  1. The hotel could provide brand new dishes and silverware along with new pots and pans. They have a Jewish employee who can light the fire and ovens to avoid Bishul Akum. Everything will be double wrapped in foil before putting in the oven. They’ll use only Kosher fish, vegetables and ingredients. All the cooking utensils will be hand washed and stored in a separate location.
  2. They can order frozen Kosher chickens from New York.
  3. With enough notice, they can order Glatt Kosher prepackaged meals.

To be honest I was very impressed. The chef even mentioned that as they don’t have a Mikvah on the island they won’t be able to immerse the new utensils (in fact as long as the utensils remain in the ownership of the hotel, they don’t need immersion in a Mikvah). One can see that he had a good basic understanding of the hotel Kashrut.

Just to be clear, I’m not giving the hotel a Kashrut certification on basis of what the chef wrote. There are many complex Kashrut issues involved that would need to be addressed and unless the guest in quite knowledgeable in hotel Kashrut, one can still trip up BIG.

So is Kosher Bora Bora just a fantasy or a possibility?

In my humble opinion, with an attitude like this chef, one has with whom to work with. There’s room for discussion and flexibility (on the side of the hotel of course), so I can imagine (in theory) that it would be possible to eat Kosher in Bora Bora.

I didn’t really go into it with the chef, but assume that whichever option one takes, it’ll cost something. But once you’re paying $1000 a night per guest, what’s another few bucks to eat Kosher? And you’ll probably get a bottle of Kosher wine for Kiddush thrown in for good measure…

Prayers at 30,000 ft.

Prayers in the Sky

I’ve always wondered about prayer services on a plane. It’s more common on EL AL flights and occasionally on other airlines too, on flights to and from Israel, when there are a lot of religious Jews on board.

mile high prayers. Praying in the airport. Before boarding their flight to New York for the annual CTeen Shabbaton, a group of teens accompanied by Rabbi Moshe Cohen put on Tefillin in Manchester airport.
Jewish Pride at Manchester Airport

Sometime after dawn, one or two guys with initiative will go from seat to seat to collect a Minyan (a quorum of ten men) for morning prayers. They’ll all gather near the back of the plane, often next to the bathroom, and over the noise of the engines do a “turbo-version” of morning prayers. Most wear a Kipa, black, white and anything in between and there will always be a few non-Kipa wearing traditional Jews, who join in for the experience. Usually someone who needs to say Kaddish will lead the services.

Uplifting Prayers

On one hand, it’s an uplifting experience. Sort of a like a spiritual mile-high-club. It’s uncomfortable and noisy, but they feel closer to God, literally and spiritually. They’re up there in the heavens with Talis & Tefillin, struggling to keep balance in a very narrow space with occasional air-pocket jumps in the clouds. It’s a shared experience with Jews from the four corners of the Earth. Right after prayers are completed, you can see the smile on their faces. They’ve done their duty and obligation to the Almighty. Now they are allowed to eat breakfast without qualms and without worrying they might forget to put on Tefillin that day.

Safety and Security Concerns

On the other hand, there’s a down-side too. The stewardesses, who at best are non¬observant Jews, have to struggle to get through the crowd of praying men, to give out the meals and snacks. Anyone including pregnant women and mothers with little kids has difficulty getting to the bathroom at the back. When the prayers reach the Shmoneh Esrei (the standing and silent main section), and one needs to stand still without moving their feet till the end of that section (around 5 minutes long), it’s nearly impossible to get through.

Some stewardesses and passengers take it in good spirits. It part of being a Jew or maybe an expression of the First Amendment allowing free expression of religion. But you often see a flash of irritation on their faces. Free expression of religion should be in your own space on your own time and not at the expense of the freedom of movement of somebody else.

On rare occasions the passengers don’t see it as an irritation but as a threat to public security. Check out the story about the Flying Imams Incident for an extreme example. It can happen to a Jew just as well. See the story in the Daily Mail about an Orthodox Jew – Passengers’ terror as United Airlines flight makes emergency landing after passenger ‘starts PRAYING in the aisle’.

So I wonder. Is it worth while disturbing other people’s peace of mind just so I can connect with God? Does He want me to talk to Him while disturbing others? Maybe God will be just as happy if I pray at my seat without a Minyan and not bother people?

In fact many very senior Rabbi’s support saying one’s prayers in their seat on the plane in order not to disturb the other passengers. Among the Sages supporting this position are the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Ohrbach O.B.M.

In summary:

  • If humanly possible find a quiet spot in the airport far from the crowds to pray before or after the flight. In some airports like Frankfurt there are even special prayer rooms.

    mile high prayers. Frankfurt Airport Prayer Rooms
    Frankfurt Airport Prayer Rooms
  • If there is no time to pray at the airport or you will miss the Halachic Time for prayer, then it is best to pray at your seat on the flight.
  • If you do decide to join the public prayer on board, then be exceptionally careful not to disturb others, even at the expense of stopping in the middle. In any case if the flight attendants tell the passengers to return to their seats, do so immediately.

May your “heavenly” prayers be answered !!


Halacha Sources: (Hebrew)

תפילה בגובהי מרומים | אליהו בירנבוים

בתגובה ל”תפילה בגובהי מרומים”

Halacha Sources: (English)

Davening on Airplanes

FDA Approved Bugs aren’t Kosher

FDA Approved Bugs in Food

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, there is a certain level of “defects” in food which are “acceptable” for human use, since they present no health hazard. The FDA allows maggots, thrips, insect fragments, “foreign matter”, mold, rodent hairs, and insect and mammalian feces in your food, as long as they don’t pass a “Food Defect Action Level”. I guess this is because according to the FDA, it is economically impractical to produce food that is completely free of all naturally occurring defects.

The Maggots in Your Mushrooms

To give you an example what is “acceptable” to the FDA:

  • Canned Apricots – 2% insects
  • Berries – 10 or more whole insects per 500 grams
  • Ground Paprika – 75 insect fragments per 25 grams
  • Ground Cinnamon – 400 or more insect fragments per 50 gram
  • Macaroni and Noodle Products – 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams
  • Peanut Butter – 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams

You get the point? If you want the entire detailed list see the FDA Defect Levels Handbook.

If you need a clearer picture, check this out:

The Jewish Position on Bugs in Food

On the other hand…Jewish Law and Tradition finds the FDA regulation totally unacceptable to our lifestyle. According to the Torah, we must not eat even one bug (never mind the amounts approved by FDA). In fact the prohibition of consuming one little bug is more severe than eating a slice of pork or bacon (“Of course we keep Kosher, we would never allow pork in our home”).

In a  home where Kashrut is observed, products like rice, beans and leafy vegetables, must be inspected for infestation. As I mentioned in a earlier post (What is Kosher to Eat Anywhere – Part 2), these foods are Kosher anywhere in the world, but you will need to make sure they don’t contain bugs.

Guide to Checking Lettuce for Bugs

For a quick course in bug checking for lettuce, see this video from Star-K Kosher:

Enjoy !

Just give me a cup of coffee !

Just a cup of coffee

Just give me a cup of coffee !
A cup of Coffee

When doing long distant traveling in Israel or overseas, one of the first things on my mind is where I can get a cup of coffee. If I’m really busy, I can cope without it for a long time, but if I didn’t get my cup in the morning, it’ll be on my mind all day. It has to be resolved, even if it means drinking it at 1 o’clock in the morning before brushing my teeth for bed.

You can serve me a 5 course dinner, with Coke, tea, chocolate mousse and Belgian chocolate for dessert, but all the caffeine in these products don’t “hit the spot” like real coffee. I even know a few Israelis who whenever they do Reserve Duty in the IDF, take with a “Coffee Kit” including a little Primus Stove to cook it. Just in case…

Which brings us to the million dollar question, may one buy a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s or any other non-Kosher restaurant or coffee shop?

To answer the question, these are the issues which need to be addressed:

  • The ingredients
  • Chalav Stam (non-supervised milk)
  • The coffee pot
  • The coffee cup
  • Bishul Akum (Cooking by a non-Jew)
  • Maris Ayin (what will people think)
  • Starbucks

The Ingredients

Coffee and sugar are considered ingredients that do not need  special Kosher supervision and you may get them anywhere. The only emphasis is that the coffee must be non flavored. Extra flavorings can contain non-Kosher components.

Chalav Stam (non-supervised milk)

During Talmudic times the Rabbi’s decreed that milk must be supervised by a Jew during the milking process to make sure that only cow’s milk (or milk from any other Kosher species) was in the container and not the milk from a non-Kosher mammal (like a pig, camel etc.). During the modern age when there is governmental supervision on the dairy farms, there are some senior Rabbi’s (including the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) who permitted using non-supervised milk, since there was a government seal of approval that the milk was only cow’s.

Not all Rabbi’s agree with this leniency, and in particular in Israel, where one can buy supervised milk with great ease.

If your tradition is to follow the lenient opinion about non-supervised milk (like Rabbi Feinstein’s), then you can have milk with your coffee. If your tradition is to be more strict about milk, then enjoy it black…

The Coffee Pot

Coffee is usually cooked in a specific pot or percolator which isn’t used for anything else except for coffee. The exception to this rule are some vending machines which use common pipes for many liquid products including those which aren’t Kosher (soups, for example). One should get the coffee where it was prepared in a coffee pot and not in a vending machine (unless the vending machine serves coffee only).

The Coffee Cup

It is best to ask for a disposable Styrofoam cup to avoid any issues of drinking from a cup which was washed in a dishwasher with non-Kosher food.

In case there are no disposable cups (a 5-star restaurant???), then ask for glass and not ceramic. There are some traditions which give a Halachic ruling that glass doesn’t absorb flavors and as such remains Parve, so in case of emergencies or on the road (a cup of coffee is nearly an emergency, isn’t it?), you may use glass.

Bishul Akum

Bishul Akum (cooking by a non-Jew) was forbidden in Talmudic times to prevent socializing with non-Jews which might lead to intermarriage.

There are two exceptions to this decree:

  1. A food that can be eaten raw may be cooked by a non-Jew (because the cooking does not really improve the food and because it isn’t considered an important food and one would not invite someone to his home to eat such foods)
  2. The prohibition is limited to foods which are served on a king’s table (oleh al shulchan melachim) and go with bread or as an appetizer. Only these types of foods are served at social gatherings and only then is there the concern for intermarriage.

There are many details involved in these two rules, so I advice discussing them with a competent Rabbi when the issue comes up. I prefer to keep it simple here, because we are involved only with a cup of coffee…

Bottom line, there is some discussion among the Rabbi’s whether coffee comes under the category of Bishul Akum or not. The custom is to permit coffee, since the majority of the liquid is just water (and water is drunk “raw”).

Maris Ayin

Maris Ayin means “What will people think when they see me in a non-Kosher restaurant?”. The concern is that another person might mistakenly think that I’m ordering a non-Kosher product or meal.

One should completely avoid sitting down at all in a regular non-Kosher restaurant, as it looks like you are eating there. On the other hand ordering coffee at a rest stop, coffee-house or convenience store is permissible as long as you take the coffee outside of the premises to drink.


Last but not least for devotees of Starbucks coffee, while doing research for this post I discovered an entire website devoted to the Kosher status of Starbucks. I do not take any responsibility for the contents of that site, but you can find everything you want to know there. Kosher Starbucks

For those interested in more information about the Kosher status of coffee, I suggest the following links:

Enjoy your coffee !!

Stuck in the Terminal on Shabbat

Mehran Karimi Nasseri arrived in Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle

Steven Spielberg's The Terminal (2004) starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The Terminal (2004)

Airport in Paris on 26 August 1988 and remained there at the terminal until July 2006. Nasseri had come from Iran and had lost all his documents in transit, so he could neither go back home nor enter France. He was stuck in the airport, for 17 years. During his long stay at Terminal One, Nasseri had his luggage at his side and spent his time reading, writing in his diary, or studying economics. He received food and newspapers from employees of the airport.the-terminal-poster-1

Nasseri’s story was later the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 2004 comedy-drama film, “The Terminal“.

It occurred to me that what makes an airport terminal unique is that it is neither “here” nor “there” (or as they say in Yiddish “Nisht ahin, nisht aher”). You have already detached from your point of departure, but until you exit the terminal at your destination, you haven’t really arrived either. One can call it a state of limbo.

In my humble opinion, every normal weekly Shabbat is a similar state of limbo too. One has detached from the previous week and cannot do any productive work, and at the same time one cannot do any preparation for the following week. On Shabbat you unwind from last week and can only anticipate the next work-week without getting involved in it.

So with a bit of literary license, Shabbat, is like …”The Terminal”.

All this is fine and dandy on a normal Shabbat, after we spend most of Friday (and some of Thursday), shopping, cooking, cleaning, showering, dressing up and whatever else needed to be ready for the Spiritual Terminal. Everything is finished, the candles are lit and whoever wants to go to the Synagogue has gone. Ahhh….now I can relax.

But what do you do when you see the sun setting on Friday eve from the window of the plane, and the sun seems to be descending much faster than you are…? There’s no way you’ll get to your destination on time. What now???

Here are a few tips:

Avoid flying on Friday

I know this sounds like an “I told you so” statement, but the best way to avoid getting stuck in the terminal on Shabbat is to avoid flying on Friday, like the plague. Seasoned travelers know that even the most efficient airlines will sometimes mess up. Call it Force majeure aka Act of God.

Be Prepared

Follow the Scout Motto and “Be Prepared” for emergencies when you absolutely have to fly on Friday. Take in your carry on luggage the minimum needs for Shabbat if you get stuck. The following items are recommended:

  • A pair of tea-lights for lighting candles (in case you make it to the terminal with a few minutes to spare and can light them in a “smoking permitted” area.
  • 4 rolls (1 roll for each of the 3 Shabbat meals, using a double roll for the blessing) or a box of Matzo.
  • A plastic bottle of grape juice or wine with a minimum size of 270 cc (a little over 9 oz) for twice Kiddush and Havdalah after Shabbat. If you don’t have grape juice or wine you can use any Kosher liqueur or beer.
  • A cup with a minimum size of 86 cc (3 oz).
  • Matches (for lighting the Shabbat candles and as a Havdalah candle.
  • A small amount of cloves (for Havdalah).
  • A Siddur for Shabbat.
  • A Talit (for men)
  • Some prepackaged food which be eaten cold

Disembarking from the plane on Shabbat

If your plane lands after nightfall, then you are permitted to disembark from the plane and enter the terminal. Assuming the shuttle which takes the passengers from the plane, has a not-Jewish driver, you can get on the vehicle with everyone else.

Leaving the airport

If the airport is located within the city, you may leave the airport on foot and walk anywhere in the city, (or until the nearest Jewish area where you can stay for Shabbat). If you have valuable items with you which are not permitted to be handled on Shabbat (Muktzah), you cannot take them with you when you exit the airport.

Remaining in the terminal

If the airport is located outside the city, one must stay in the airport till Shabbat ends. If one has valuable items which are not permitted to be handled on Shabbat (muktzah), but which cannot be left in safekeeping, one is permitted to keep them and walk around with them in the airport.

Electronic doors

If the doors between halls at the terminal are activated by electronic sensors, then one should wait until a non-Jew passes through and activates them for his own use, and then follow in their footsteps.

The Terminal Shabbat – in conclusion

As much as you try to prepare for any eventuality in life, sometimes you might find yourself in uncomfortable and very challenging situations, like being stuck at the airport. Not for 17 years like Nasseri and not even 9 months like in the movie. Just for one Shabbat.

If it happens, it can still be an inspiring spiritual experience. An opportunity to test one’s resolve in keeping the Shabbat a Holy  Day even without all the resources one is used to. No Shabbat table and no synagogue, yet it can be  a Shabbat when one is aware of their Jewish Identity every waking moment of the 24-hour day in the terminal.

We prefer that it doesn’t happen. But if it does…make the most of it. You’ll never forget the experience !!

Keeping Kosher at the Tsukiji Fish Market

The Tsukiji Fish Market

Have you ever visited the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan?

Kosher Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo
Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

I haven’t either, but it’s the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. I came across it while reading “KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL
Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain, and it certainly gave me some (fish) food for thought….

To get some perspective on the place – it houses 900 wholesale dealers, over 60,000 workers, 400 types of fish weighing 700,000 tons,  and the stuff is valued at over 5.9 BILLION DOLLARS !!!

Tsukiji Fresh Tuna Auction - Kosher Tsukiji fish market
Tsukiji Fresh Tuna Auction

That’s a lot of fish…even more than they served at a fancy Jewish wedding with the huge baked salmon centerpiece on the smorgasbord… 🙂

So lets say you are in Japan and get an invitation to tour the famous fish market to watch the tuna auctions (they generally allow only wholesalers). You want to buy a succulent slab of the best fresh tuna in the Far East and broil it on a BBQ in the garden of your hotel. Can you or can’t you buy the tuna at the market (pardon the pun…)? Can you ask the seller to clean, slice or filet the fish? After all, among the 400 types of seafood sold there, a large part are not for the Kosher palate…maybe one can’t buy Kosher fish in a non-Kosher store?

This question brings me to the basic premise of our blog. Keeping a Kosher lifestyle far from home and away from a Jewish community doesn’t mean you need to go hungry. You can get plenty of products to fill your dietary needs without any Kosher certification. You can get proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables from a vast selection of the local markets without seeing even one little Kosher symbol on the product (with some basic ground-rules of course).

Fins and Scales

Take fish from Tsukiji for example. What makes a fish Kosher? According to our tradition any fish with Fins and Scales is Kosher and you can buy it anywhere in the world. Fish with Fins but not Scales in non-Kosher. Fish with Scales is guaranteed to have also Fins (even if the fins were removed and you don’t see them at the store). This restriction still allows you a huge selection to choose from. To get an idea see Rabbi Eidlitz’s list of Kosher and non-Kosher Fish. I haven’t even heard of many of the Kosher types, never mind eating them…

What kind of scales?

The principal types of scales are the cycloid scales of salmon and carp, the ctenoid scales of perch, the placoid scales of sharks and rays, the ganoid scales of sturgeons and gars. Only ctenoid and cycloid scales are valid according to the Torah. Gandoid and placoid are not. The scales must be true scales that can be removed without damaging the skin of the fish. Bony tubercles and plate or thorn-like scales that can be removed only by removing part of the skin are not considered scales in this context.  (if you’re interested in scaling the topic further, see Wikipedia – Fish Scale).


Seafood such as shellfish, prawns, shellfish, crabs, octopus, lobster, and shrimp aren’t Kosher. Neither are mammals (such as whales and dolphins).


Only the eggs of kosher fish, such as salmon roe or caviar, are allowed. Russian Beluga caviar comes from the sturgeon which has scales but of the Gandoid type, which aren’t Kosher.

Cutting and cleaning fish

Although fish with fins and scales are 100% Kosher, care must be taken whether buying fresh, whole fish, filleted, or frozen, because of the possibility of substitution by non-kosher fish or of contamination by remnants of non-kosher fish from knives and cutting boards. This is correct even for fish which has not been processed beyond cutting and cleaning. Concerning fish filet, it is necessary to personally see the scales on the fish, or at least the indentations in the skin where the scales were before they were removed. One cannot rely only on the word of the seller that it’s a Kosher species of fish.

This brings me down memory lane, when I lived for some time in Western Europe. There weren’t very many Kosher food establishments in the area, so I bought fresh fish at the local market. I was very concerned that the fish monger would clean and slice my Kosher fish with a knife he used minutes before on some octopus or lobster, so I arrived at the market carrying my knife from home.

Since I had no idea what was needed I bought this little $10 vegetable knife and asked him to clean and cut my fish with it “for religious reasons”. He roared with laughter and trying to explain in broken English that he was used to  much better equipment and if I expected this extra service I’d have to invest some more money on a knife.

To his credit he still cleaned, fileted and cut the fish with my tiny blade, muttering and shaking his head the whole time. I guess he had respect for other faiths. Next time I came with a $150 professional knife and never had a problem getting my fish prepared with it.

BTW if you ever get stuck without a Kosher knife at the fish market you should ask the fish monger to thoroughly wash the knife and board that he will use to slice and fillet the fish and then at home you should wash the area that was cut and scrape it off with a knife to remove any non-kosher residue.

Processed fish

Fish which has been processed in any way by smoking, pickling, cooking, frying or baking needs strict Kosher supervision, both because of the extra ingredients and processing equipment and because of who is doing the cooking.

Bottom line, with a little effort and awareness you can enjoy a delicious meal of the finest fish from the Tsukiji market…as long as you cook it in your own kitchen of course.

If Jason Bourne was Jewish

I feel like Jason BourneWhat if Jason Bourne was really called “Joshua Bornstein”?

I’ve haven’t yet met a Joshua Bornstein. (I haven’t yet met a Jason Bourne either….but the former is more likely to happen then the later). So any connection to a real person of that name is pure coincidence.

I like toying with the idea of becoming a Jason Bourne. A Jewish one though. The Jewish one will be non-violent and an outstanding up-keeper of the Law. But an absolute whiz on disappearing and going off-the-grid. The though of making a complete break from the past and starting again afresh with a new name, new passport, new location and new life has its appeal. You can dispose of all your errors, your overdraft, your strange relatives and weird neighbors. It even sounds like real fun at first glance (until I remember that Jason B. has no spouse, no kids, no family, no home and no real friends either).

There’s a whole sub-genre of literature which has popped up over the years on how to disappear. I’ve read a book by the former British SAS soldier, Barry Davies. It’s called ” Soldier of Fortune Guide to How to Disappear and Never Be Found”. It’s a fascinating book, and a bit worrisome. He deals with many aspects of disappearing including the WHY’s of disappearing, acquiring documents, planning the escape, cover stories before you leave, places to go and survival skills for living off-the-grid.

So what about a Jewish Jason Bourne? Is there any difference between disappearing as a Jason or as a Joshua? Does a Jew have any distinct links to his previous identity which make it more complex to disappear?

I’ll start first with the WHY. There are some good and valid reasons for a Jew to want to disappear from their past identity. One can have witnessed a major crime and be given a new identity under the US Witness Protection Program. One can be a victim of abuse and violence and need to disappear to save their life or the lives of their children. In cases such as these the Torah allows and even encourages a person to do anything to protect their life including transgressing all the Jewish Laws and Traditions (with 3 notable exceptions – Murder, Sexual crimes and Idolatry). Changing your name and identity goes without saying.

In cases when it’s not for security reasons but rather to start over again with a new life in a new location for convenience, then changing one’s identity, or more specifically one’s Jewish name and identity, is more problematic.

It’s very common to have 2 names, a Jewish name which you get at birth (or circumcision) and a secular name which you use for most of your life. For some people having a name like Mordechai or Bracha makes them less comfortable when dealing the broad world than names like Morton and Beth. I can understand that. Nevertheless when they get an Aliya to the Torah on the Sabbath or when the Rabbi fills in their marriage document (Ketuba), the Jewish name comes into play.

Lets say one decided on a new identity. Changing your secular name has very little religious ramification. But in order to make a complete break from the past you’ll need to change your Jewish name too. And if your father had an uncommon Jewish name you’ll need to change that too so that if you get an Aliya on Shabbat you won’t be identified by an old neighbor who decided to visit Malaysia on his vacation and just happened to pop into the local synagogue to say Kaddish. If you’re a Kohen or Levi you’ll have to skip that fact too when you get called up to the Torah.

BTW On the topic of deleting the fact you’re a Kohen, it reminds me of a real case. I knew a guy who’s last name was Cohen and he’d be called up first to the Torah as a Kohen. One day he discovered that his grandfather wasn’t a Kohen but had been adopted during wartime into a Kohen family. This guy was the first in 2 generations to become religious so the issue of Priestly status wasn’t discussed till then. When he discovered to his shock that he wasn’t really a Kohen, he could no longer get 1st Aliya and couldn’t do the Priestly blessing anymore. Very uncomfortable social experience…

So lets say you change your Jewish name to fit with the new identity and somehow you manage in the synagogue with the new name, nevertheless when you want to get married, you’ll have a problem. If the Rabbi writes in your marriage document your new Jewish name and that’s the name you’ve gone by for some time, it might be (and I emphasize might) “De facto” alright. The bigger problem is presenting a false Jewish name for your father. That will probably invalidate your marriage document because it isn’t his name at all.

In addition, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that one’s Jewish name is the essence of their soul. In Hebrew the word “soul” is Neshama (נשמה) and the word “name” is Shem (שם). The Hebrew letters from Shem are the 2 middle letters of Neshama, hinting that your name is your core essence. The Rabbi’s are very hesitant about changing one’s Jewish name without a very valid reason. It’s like re-engineering your spiritual DNA. Who knows what the end results will be…

So if you decide one day to do a Jason Bourne to ensure the safety and security of yourself and family, then I wish you well and much success in your new life. But if you go off-the-grid just because you want to make a fresh start in life, then when you go to pick up your new Venezuelan passport with your new name, I strongly suggest you keep up your original Jewish identity. It makes things simpler and spiritually healthier in the long run.

My Father’s 3 Jewish Travel Laws

My late father wasn’t a big traveler. He did a lot of local driving and occasionally flew overseas, but he had his own three Jewish Travel Laws that he stuck to at all costs.

  1. He always took his Tefillin with him when he traveled out-of-town.
  2. On Fridays he always arrived at his driving destination with plenty of time to spare before Shabbat.
  3. He never flew on Friday.

Take your Tefillin with you out-of-town

For many years I followed his lead and was careful to have my Tefillin with me when going out-of-town. If I slept over it was obvious, but sticking to it even when I’d return home the same night was a different matter.

At some point I decided to let go of this tradition. To my defense I must claim that the reality I live in is quite different from my father’s. He lived, worked, connected with friends and family all in the same city. Going out-of-town was a big thing. So even if he knew he’d return the same evening, but who could tell if something unexpected would come up forcing him to stay overnight. Staying in a different town meant he needed his Tefillin in the morning. He would never rely upon borrowing a pair of Tefillin in the local synagogue. Even if he was told they were a good pair.

I agree with him on that point and don’t like borrowing Tefillin unless absolutely necessary, with no other options. And even then only if I trusted the owner to own a good quality strictly “Kosher” set.

But I don’t take my Tefillin with me when going out-of-town unless I plan to sleep over. In my world I travel out-of-town on a daily basis (and sometimes more than once a day). My work, most of my family, friends and acquaintances, shopping and recreation are all out-of-town. Even if I fly locally in the morning and return in the late afternoon, I leave my Tefillin at home. Taking my Tefillin with when I go out-of-town would mean carrying them with me every day, always, wherever I go. It would mean needing a place to store them respectfully when I go to a public bathroom. Very very inconvenient and I think it is the correct decision. It’s a different and more complex world today then in my father’s time.

Arrive early on Friday

Like my father I’m very worried about traveling on Friday. I like to leave early and arrive early. I constantly nag my kids about it and they say “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright”. But I worry. Maybe they will have a flat tire on the way. Maybe the car will overheat. Maybe there will be a pile-up on the highway. Maybe there will be a police roadblock. Maybe…worst case scenarios….

Even though most of these things don’t happen but sometimes they do. Like you hear about the big accident near the Catskills which forced religious families to walk for miles or transgress the Shabbat because they had little kids or elderly parents. You hear about the family that got stuck and had to spend Shabbat in a non-Jewish home without any resources. So I leave early and get to my destination ASAP.

Avoid flying on Fridays

This one was a big no-no for my father and I learned the hard way how right he was when I transgressed this rule once (and hopefully for the last time).

I had flown with my family overseas for two weeks. We had left in the middle of the week with plenty of time before Shabbat. It wasn’t a vacation trip. No fun and games. Very little touring. It was an important trip for us.  Getting back home as soon as possible was also important and when we discovered that the only way we could be home for Shabbat was by flying on Thursday night and arriving on Friday, we decided to take it. I hadn’t forgotten my father’s principles and it was with much worry and concern when we made the decision to arrive on Friday (never mind taking off on Friday). There weren’t any alternatives at the moment.

The flight went well and we landed on Friday morning on time and got home by 10-11 AM.

All’s well that ends well? Not exactly…

We had been up for 24 hours and hadn’t slept on the plane. I didn’t feel comfortable saying morning prayers with my Tefillin on the flight (it wasn’t EL AL) and intended to pray the moment we arrived at home. As they say, “Man plans and God laughs”, the moment I arrived through the door I got a call to an urgent meeting which kept me till noon. Got home again and literally conked out on the bed with my clothes on, while the rest of the family was snoring deeply.

A few minutes before nightfall we woke in a panic. There was barely enough time to get the food on the fire for Shabbat and light candles. We made it by a hairbreadth of violating the Shabbat. Never mind showering or such.

Then it hit me. I hadn’t said morning prayers. Nor afternoon prayers. Worst of all I hadn’t put on Tefillin that day. The only time in my life that I had missed it. Hopefully the last time…

Lesson learned. Flying isn’t good on Fridays….

Connecting Travel & Jewish Living

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