In the days before Passover, which begins today at sundown, the phone never stops ringing at Baltimore's kosher command center.
The learned rabbis and staff of Pikesville's Star-K Kosher Certification field phone calls from the concerned and curious, from Baltimore and around the nation, about how to make their homes and businesses kosher for the Passover holiday.
The conversations sometimes sound like a game of stump-the-rabbi, as observant Jews go about the task of ridding their homes of any trace of "chometz," the five grains proscribed for the eight-day holiday because they leaven when they come into contact with water: wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt.
"People are very, very conscientious, meticulous," said Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, one of six rabbis on the Star-K staff. "They ask questions into minutiae. But they feel strongly about religion and tradition, and try to take it very seriously."
During the rest of the year, Star-K is one of the nation's four large kosher certification firms. It supervises the production and ingredients of products manufactured by nearly 650 companies worldwide.
But in the days and weeks before Passover, the Star-K phone system becomes a kosher hot line, as people have questions about whether particular products contain even a trace amount of chometz, which observant Jews may not consume, possess or derive any benefit from during Passover.
Many calls are from panicked consumers facing Passover dilemmas. For example, someone might be preparing food for the Passover Seder "and a 3-year-old comes in, had a piece of cookie and it gets into the pot," said Rabbi Dovid Heber. "Now what do I do?"
Answer: The rabbi would weigh several factors to make a determination, including whether the cookie was chometz; whether it fell in before Passover; and how much fell in. "Worst-case scenario, not only would you not be able to eat the food, but you might have to re-kasher [make kosher] the pot," he said. "It's hard to tell someone they just messed up their Seder meal."
Although Jewish law forbids ownership or derivation of benefit from chometz during Passover, to avoid financial hardship Jews are allowed to sell it to a non-Jew, usually arranged through a rabbi, and then buy it back after the holiday. Each year, Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer of Shearith Israel Congregation helps out a man "who has vending machines at quite a few locations. He has to stock the machines because he can't leave them empty during Passover," Hopfer said. "So he's in a quandary."
With Hopfer's help, the vending machine owner sells them during Passover to a non-Jewish man, who gets a week's worth of profits for his trouble.
At Star-K, each of the rabbis has an area of expertise.
Rosen, who is an expert in ovens, takes a call from a Silver Spring woman concerned about kashering her newly purchased appliance.
She is particularly anxious about making sure the vents are properly clean.
"You say you just bought it?" Rosen asks. "I wouldn't worry about that until next year."
The woman tells him that her rabbi recommended she set the oven on broil for an hour to kasher it, and Rosen agrees. Rosen, who grew up in the Washington area, thinks he knows which rabbi made the recommendation.
"Different rabbis have different kasherization approaches," he explains.
No sooner does he hang up the phone than a secretary shouts from the outer office, "A woman with a milk question on line one!"
"'Tis the season," he sighs, as he picks up the receiver and punches the line.
The woman, from Miami, is concerned that the milk she buys might contain chometz in its additives. "You need to read the ingredients if you're buying fortified milk," Rosen said.
The milk question is a perfect illustration of the complexity of ferreting out chometz. Fortified milk can contain carrageenan, a seaweed extract used to thicken the milk that uses dextrose as a carrier, and that dextrose could be made from wheat, which is chometz.
There are hundreds of products that can contain chometz, including cosmetics, shampoos, and medicines. Heber, the expert on pharmaceuticals, keeps a Physician's Desk Reference, the ultimate guide to prescription drugs, on his desk.
Even pet food that might contain chometz is a concern. "Is a dog bound by the laws of Passover? Of course not," Heber said. "But when you feed a dog, you feel good about it, you're fulfilling your responsibility to feed your dog, so you're deriving a benefit from it."
Products that are kosher for Passover carry a designation, usually a "P" or a "KFP." But it isn't just Jews who look for the Passover seal of approval. For example, most soft drink companies converted years ago from using cane sugar to the more economical corn syrup. But because corn is a legume, which by tradition is avoided during the holidayby Jews of Ashkenazic, or central or eastern European, background, many beverage companies use the original cane-sugar syrup for their products that will be sold during Passover in markets with large Jewish populations.
This, apparently, is a boon for fans of the original Coca-Cola.
"People who are purists can taste the difference, and they look for it," said Avrom Pollak, Star-K president. "They stock up for the year."