In the days leading up to Pesach, as Rabbi David Polsky, the man behind the OU Kosher Consumer Hotline, enters his office, the phones are already ringing.
Two weeks before Pesach, Rabbi David Polsky averages over 500 calls each day. “It’s a busy [read: frantic] time,” the man behind the OU Kosher Consumer Hotline says. As Rabbi Polsky enters his office, the phones are already ringing. Quickly pulling his headset over his ears, he cheerfully greets each caller with: “OU Kosher; how can I help you?”
“Jews all over the world are preparing to abstain from owning, ingesting or benefiting from chametz [leavened products], and questions come up,” says Rabbi Polsky. Lots of questions– some typical, some atypical and others, well, interesting.
“I’m the voice of OU Kosher,” says Rabbi Polsky, who received his semichah from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and has been manning the hotline for the past six years.
The callers are from across the Jewish spectrum. Many people who don’t necessarily keep kosher the rest of the year make a point to do so on Pesach. “They want to get it right, so they seek the OU’s advice,” says Rabbi Polsky.
While Pesach is certainly its busiest time, the hotline operates throughout the year. “It’s impossible to predict when the hotline will be busy,” he says. “Mondays or after holiday weekends are usually busier, and for some reason Wednesday afternoons. It really depends on whether there’s a major issue that everyone wants to know about.”
The most recent issue that sent a flood of calls to the hotline was the OU certification of the Tootsie Roll. Rabbi Polsky made sure to remind callers that the Tootsie Roll is dairy.
Rabbi Polsky, who is in his early thirties, is never surprised by the questions he receives around Pesach time. “I get calls from people wanting to know if the following are kosher for Pesach: chewing tobacco [“the OU does not have any information”], cigars [same] and play dough [chametz],” he says. “A vegetarian once called, asking what he could use on his Seder plate in place of a shank bone.”
A caller with limited knowledge of Judaism wanted to know why wine and pickles are permitted on Pesach since they are fermented foods and the Bible clearly states that fermented foods are prohibited. “I explained that the rabbis of the Talmud understood that the prohibition pertains only to the fermentation of the five grains,” says Rabbi Polsky. “She still wasn’t convinced.”
The week before Pesach, Rabbi Polsky stays at the office until 10 PM each night, making sure to return every phone message. He even comes to work on erev Pesach to accommodate the inevitable last-minute queries, fielding questions until three o’clock in the afternoon. Except for the cleaning crew, Rabbi Polsky is the only person at OU headquarters on erev Pesach. “Well, someone has to do it,” he says.
“I’m the voice of OU Kosher,” says Rabbi Polsky, who has been manning the hotline for the past six years.
“Representing the OU is an important and a pleasurable aspect of my job,” he says. “I like the fact that I am able to help people, knowing I am making a difference in their lives.” Rabbi Polsky also finds himself advising callers on how to exercise moderation. “Unfortunately, many people are misinformed,” he says. “I receive numerous calls about the kosherfor- Passover status of many commonly used non-food items such as soap, shampoo or laundry detergent. I explain that according to Jewish law, such items are not considered food and do not have to be certified kosher for Passover.”
One caller asked him about using a particular medicine over the holiday. Since the medicine was for a potentially life threatening illness, Rabbi Polsky informed him that it was actually mandatory for him to take his pills, regardless of what they contain. (However, even in cases where the illness is not life-threatening, many medicines can be taken on Pesach. This is because halachah does not consider prescription-strength, non-chewable pills without a flavored coating akin to food).
Many of the same pre-Pesach questions come up year after year. The most frequently asked questions are whether the following items are permitted without special Pesach supervision: frozen salmon (permitted if OU-certified and contains only fish, water and salt); raw meat and poultry (permitted if OU-certified with no additives); coffee (regular [not decaffeinated] unflavored, ground coffee is permitted if OU-certified); medications/vitamins (depends); extra virgin olive oil (permitted if OU-certified); spring water (permitted even without OU-certification); paper plates (permitted even without OU-certification); quinoa (matter of debate); baby formula (depends); and milk (permitted without OU-certification if purchased before Pesach). “I’ve answered some of these Pesach- related questions maybe a thousand times,” he says.
Even after the Seders have passed, the Pesach calls keep coming. “People want to know if they can purchase certain OU products in Jewish-owned establishments that didn’t sell their chametz products.”
Rabbi Polsky admits that his natural affinity for people, penchant for halachah and surplus of patience come in handy at the OU Kosher Consumer Hotline all year round, but especially in the spring. But, no matter what the day or season, he definitely means it when he says: “OU Kosher; how can I help you?” So, if you’ve got a kashrut-related question, give the experts a call at 212.613.8241.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.