I took the job as mashgiach of La Pizzeria—a tiny eatery on a busy Brooklyn avenue—more out of necessity than a desire to oversee the comings and goings of the place. My wife and I had just been blessed with our second child, and after trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, I hoped that a steady income from a reputable hashgachah company would provide financial stability as our family grew.
I was assigned to the pizza shop, and I met the owner on my first day on the job. He was young, just a little bit older than I was, clean-shaven and bare-headed.
“Hi,” I said, stretching out my hand to pump his. “I’m Rabbi Michoel Halon. Nice to meet you.”
“Josh Pelled. Welcome to the shop.”
I glanced around, squinting in the dim lighting at the rows of wooden tables and the narrow, empty space behind the counter. Besides the two of us, the place was empty.
“So I suppose I’ll meet the other employees some other time,” I said.
Josh’s eyes flicked away. “It’s actually just the two of us for now. I’m the owner as well as the chef, and you’ll help at the front with the orders.”
As Josh showed me around the tiny kitchen, I wondered what had brought this secular young man to a religious neighborhood to start up a fast-food eatery on his own. Josh gave me a bit of background.
“I wanted to combine my culinary skills with a business opportunity, and I heard this neighborhood is a prime location for the food industry. In order to attract the local religious crowd, I knew I would need a rabbi here. I don’t know any of the rules or anything, but as we work together I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two.”
Business was painfully slow.
One day the store got a call from a local boys’ school inquiring about the price for over 40 pizza pies, to be delivered for lunch on a once-a-week basis. Josh named a price, and the school wanted to go ahead with the deal. This was a surprising breakthrough for the floundering shop, and I could see that Josh was excited about it.
The school representative asked to speak with the mashgiach, and after discussing the hashgachah of our place, I saw we had a problem. The school had a policy to only provide foods with yashan flour, and we did not use certified yashan flour.
I explained the situation to Josh, and he listened to me with furrowed brows.
“I don’t understand,” he asked. “What exactly is yashan?”
It was difficult to explain that it is forbidden to eat wheat harvested after a certain date in the calendar because of the bringing of the Korban Omer in the times of the Beis Hamikdash; it would certainly sound strange to him. It was even harder to explain why some people in the same Orthodox community are lenient about this practice while others are stringent.
As I fumbled through an explanation, Josh frowned. “I don’t understand—is it kosher or not?”
I tried again. “Both are kosher. It’s just that—”
“You know what? It doesn’t really matter. It sounds complicated. Where can I buy yashan flour?”
“In any kosher supermarket,” I said. “But it will cost you a lot more than regular flour.”
I could see the disappointment in his face. It wouldn’t be worth it for him to invest in expensive flour when he was trying to keep his costs and prices down.
I felt bad for Josh, who was hoping the school would be his first big breakthrough. I decided to do my own research and see if there was some way to make the deal work.
After investigating the wheat industry, I discovered a certain brand of flour that was not certified as yashan, but the wheat was harvested over a year before the flour reached grocery shelves. The date of harvest was inscribed on every sack, and many poskim hold that as long as the dates are specified, the flour is considered yashan.
I called the representative of the boys’ school and asked if using this particular brand of flour would be all right with them. They agreed, and I told Josh that if he switched to this brand, we could go ahead with the deal.
He was thrilled, but he wanted to understand. “Can you explain this… thing about the flour again?”
I told Josh about the era of the Beis Hamikdash and the various korbanos that were brought then. I also explained that there are some commandments that can only be fulfilled when we have the Beis Hamikdash, and there are some that can only be fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael.
It was a typical, quiet afternoon in the shop, and we had the time to talk at length. Josh was in a good mood. He had scored the deal he wanted, and he was grateful to me for the time I had invested in making it work.
“This is pretty fascinating to me,” he said after a while. “I hope you don’t mind answering my questions.”
“Not at all,” I assured him.
Josh looked down at the counter and then met my eye. “My father is from Israel,” he said with a small self-deprecating laugh. “You’d think I would know some of this stuff.”