Pesach Hotels: A Second Look

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My pre-Pesach column “Five-Star Pesach” generated, as expected, a larger than usual number of responses. The issue is a hot-button one for many.

One friend wrote that going away to a hotel allowed him to spend most of his week in the beis medrash, a luxury he would not have had at home, where he would have been the program director for his young children. A number of women described Pesach in a hotel as an opportunity to savor the Chag, rather than feel like slaves shackled to the stove preparing festive meals for their families and guests for eight days. .

Another husband told me how his wife used to present the classical symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder in the weeks leading up to Pesach, which typically left shalom bayis in short supply as they limped into the Chag. Now the family still cleans for Pesach and does bedikas chametz, before heading for a nearby hotel, but they do so without all the bitterness attached.

To all who wrote to explain why the hotel experience helped their ruchnios experience of the Chag, I can only say, “I was not talking about you.” As I already acknowledged, there are plenty of reasons why a family might decide not to stay home for the Chag.

Others wrote that anyone who thinks the greatest problem facing American Jewry is Pesach in hotels is loony. Taken literally, that is correct. What I presume the rabbi I quoted meant is that the external performance of mitzvos, without any inner connection to the mitzvah itself or the One Who commanded it, is the central problem. Too often we view adherence to a checklist of mitzvos as the price we pay for living in an Orthodox community that we find comfortable, rather than a means of connecting to the Ribbono shel Olam.

Extravagant Pesach vacations are only a glaring illustration of the disease. But the lack of inner feeling for the mitzvah is felt in many other areas — the teaching of tznius primarily as a set of restrictions, the hyper-competitive nature of our educational systems, which sometimes does little to encourage ahavas haTorah, the inability to really talk to Hashem in davening. (But these are big subjects for another day.)

MOST CORRESPONDENTS RESPONDED FAVORABLY to the column, which may only reflect that most of us cannot afford a yearly week with the whole family in a hotel. I was happy to hear from one communal rav that I strengthened his decision — or rather his wife’s decision — not to accept an invitation to be a “scholar-in-residence” over Pesach. And if I reminded those who are going away that they will also be missing something: Dayeinu.

Just before the Chag, I asked an older couple I was visiting whether they would be going to one of their children or a hotel for Pesach. The wife looked at me in horror. “I pray that I will always be able to make the Seder in my own home,” she replied. “My children remember the month from Purim to Pesach as the happiest of the year. The family worked together, and then we would take breaks and sit around talking.” Even today, all twelve children and the almost 90 grandchildren take their turns helping with the Pesach cleaning.

But if truth be told, I was more bothered by some of the words of support than the criticisms. A few people offered the insight that the money spent of Pesach vacations would be more than enough to allow our schools to pay rebbeim and teachers a decent salary and on time.

I agree that families who spend a fortune on Pesach vacations should not then seek tuition deductions. But it is naïve to think that if people cut back on Pesach expenses they would give more tzedakah. The opposite is more likely.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, was once asked by a certain gvir whether he should make a simple wedding or the kind that would be generally expected from those in his socio-economic class. The man was perfectly sincere in his question, and eager to do whatever Rabbi Hutner advised. Nevertheless, Rabbi Hutner told him to make a gvirish wedding. When his talmidim wondered at this, he explained, “If he is tight with himself, he will be tight with others as well.”

Some professed to find something ironic in the fact that the same magazine that published my piece also advertises for Pesach hotels. But there is no irony or contradiction. If anything, it is to the credit of our publisher that he did not hesitate to publish a piece that might have offended some major advertisers. For one thing, I do not speak for Mishpacha. Nor do the advertisements. It is naïve to think that readers view advertisers as if they had the full imprimatur of the Vaad HaRuchani.

A few years back, a respected Torah journal refused to run a second time an advertisement for a treadmill that showed a man learning the daf while jogging, after many readers complained that the image demeaned Torah learning. So there are limits. But, in general, we should not expect (hopefully) profit-making businesses to screen out ads that are not contrary to halacha.

Nor do I find problematic advertisements for products beyond the means of most readers. Those ads keep down the price of the magazine. Rather than pretending that there are not those whose standard of living is much higher than our own it is incumbent upon us to learn and teach our children that opulence brings few of life’s real pleasures.

But most disturbing to me was the suggestion of one reader that “the rabbis” should just place a ban on Pesach hotels. No, no, no – a hundred times no. Once we recognize that there are perfectly valid reasons for some people to go to hotels no ban is possible. The rabbis would soon find themselves not only dealing with Pesach shaylos and selling chametz, but with Vaadim L’Inyanei Hotels.

More important, the bans would be widely ignored. Chassidic rebbes can enunciate and enforce sumptuary laws on their own communities because their authority is unquestioned. But outside those courts lies an Orthodox world of infinite variegation, in which no figure commands universal authority. Our rabbonim are wise enough to know that commands that are widely ignored only serve to lower the esteem of Torah.

Bans are not chinuch, as we have written. Indeed they often make true chinuch more difficult by focusing attention and discussion on the propriety of the ban rather than the underlying issues of avodas Hashem. As always our true, far more difficult task is not to rely on bans but to instill an understanding of Pesach so deep and uplifting that Cancun cannot compare.

This article appeared in this week’s Mishpacha.

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18 Responses

  1. L Oberstein says:

    At the hotel I attended, the mashgiach made the waiters throw out hot dogs they had warmed up Shabbos afternoon for the Children’s Dinner.
    The biggest problem was that dinner was not served motzoei shabbos, the 8th night of Pesach, until 10:30 because they had to roast the duck and the prime rib after Shabbos. This delay upset the guests. “Oy, the Yiddishe tzores”.
    It seems the main iisue nowadays is to have “non gebrochts” , as if that were the ikar of Hilchos Pesach.
    What I enjoyed was meeting many very people from all over the world who had life stories that were very interesting. I could stay home but then I would have to say goodbye to my wife as she would go to the hotel .
    One thing I did put my foot down , I did not fly my Seminary daughter to Orlando from Israel. This year she had a new experience, cleaning and cooking for her married sister who just had a baby.

  2. MosheF says:

    A few observations
    1.Having been a Mashgiach at a hotel for Pesach 20 years ago (when I was young and stupid) I can tell you that general Kashrus issues as well as Bishul b’Shabbos are a major issue,much more than Chometz problems.Which is why I never did it again.
    2.My observation after this experience was that the only thing missing was wheels on the chairs so that people shouldn’t have to get up to go from the dining room to the tea room and back.
    3.Someone recently told me about a family that is well off but did not go away,rather they hired help to come to their home for the sedarim and seudos.Which seems to be a way to Yotzei L’fi Kol Hadeios
    4.A quick perusal of the list of scholars-in residence at hotels seems to indicate that some major Rabbanim as well as Mashpi’im on the American scene don’t see much of a problem.

    If you teach them(and feed them) they will come

  3. Dr. E says:

    As we have seen time and time again, bans are not the way to go. I am a bit uncomfortable with any suggestions of “banning” by Rabbanim, Askanim, or John Q. Public. We don’t need to legislate common sense or good taste. The only things that should be banned are child abuse, unethical behavior and Chillul Hashem.

    What should be obvious by now to everyone is that family situations are different, Pesach hotel programs are different, not to mention that not all of those who attend a given hotel derive the same experience when doing so. Each person and family has to make its own cheshbon of what makes sense for them–financially, spiritually, and socially. A hotel Pesach is what one makes of it and a home Pesach is what one makes of that. To paint with a broad brush and say that one cannot have a meaningful Pesach experience in a hotel is disengenuous. (Some of this sentiment may in fact be based on sour grapes or jealously for not being able to do so.) To say that every staying-home experience will be more meaningful than at a hotel is silly. I personally stay home, but do not fault or disparage anyone who goes away. I would expect the same treatment from those who go away towards me.

  4. Ari says:

    Ori –

    Anecdotally, my understanding is that it can make better economic sense for an Israeli chareidi to solicit American dollars than to hold down a job that requires basic skills. As you know, chareidim will generally not avail themselves of secular education, and will therefore offer little marketable skills to prospective employers.

    And, of course, manual or repetitive labor is perceived as more demeaning socially than soliciting charity. So, if it were a choice between becoming a clerk, or collecting money in support of a catered wedding for hundreds of people or a full-time learning program, the choice is “clear.”

  5. Moishe Potemkin says:

    This was a well-written follow-up to a well-written initial piece. I do have one comment, though.

    What I presume the rabbi I quoted meant is that the external performance of mitzvos, without any inner connection to the mitzvah itself or the One Who commanded it, is the central problem.

    Perhaps what turned out (in the inference, not the implication) to be an inaccurate generalization of Pesach hotel guests applies more broadly as well. Rather than searching for the “greatest problem facing American Jewry,” I would submit that what is seen as a shallow connection to mitzvos actually represents diverse people in diverse circumstances, generally doing their individual best.

  6. Orthonomics says:

    The parents should most certainly be the “program director[s]” for their children on Pesach and all year round. I was highly disturbed by advertising of “Baby Clubs” at Pesach. I will chalk my discomfort for “Kid Clubs” catering to the pre-school to pre-teen crowd to my own meshugasim. But, babies have a need to know and trust their care. Drs Brazelton and Greenspan have a section on this in a book called the “Irreducible Needs of Children” which looks at the need for long term caregivers (preferably parents, but if not people who will be in the lives of a baby and pre-schooler for the long run of things). Dropping babies off in care with unknown caregivers, even for the sake of shiurim, is very disconcerting in my opinion.

  7. Q says:

    Pesach programs are not about celebrating Yetzias Mitsrayim or spiritual liberation, but the quality of the buffet and entertainment. Many Pesach programs offer 24×7 food service of every type of Pesach food available. The core message is communal self-debasement and decadence via engorgement of the body. We have become Romans at the Pesach vomitorium. Endless food, endless waste. At these program tons of good food is thrown out just because it is more convenient to dispose of it!

    We are three generations removed from the Holocaust, the ultimate starvation of the body and spirit perpetrated by reshaim. In the extreme opposite, we’re now doing it to ourselves! Shame on us!

    For those with the means, how about you make a Kiddush Hashem by celebrating Pesach at home with a hired personal chef and cleanup crew and go on a couple of private luxury vacations another time during the year?

  8. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > This is a troubling line. So is the friend here saying he was glad that being in a hotel allowed him not to spend time with his young children?

    There is a balance on Yom Tov between spending time with one’s family and spoending time learning. Too much in either direction is not good. I think the meaning of the line about children meant that while his kids could be off meeting new friends and enjoying Yom Tov with their peers he could learn without worrying that every 30 seconds there would be an interruption. Later he could join his children and enjoy them that much more. Surely an excellent compromise.

    I’d also like to point out that it’s the MalachHaMovies that’s being nasty, not me.

  9. Ori says:

    MalachHamovies: Why don’t you speak out against an evil system that’s killing the poor charedei man and forcing him in his prime years to spending 1/2 of each and every year collecting overseas

    Ori: Why is begging for money that much more lucrative than working?

  10. Jewboy says:

    “One friend wrote that going away to a hotel allowed him to spend most of his week in the beis medrash, a luxury he would not have had at home, where he would have been the program director for his young children.”

    This is a troubling line. So is the friend here saying he was glad that being in a hotel allowed him not to spend time with his young children?
    Pesach and other holidays should be a time one tries to spend more times with his kids. Especially in today’s world where parents have many obligations, it’s vastly important from a chinuch perspective to spend enough time with one’s kids. If I understood this line correctly, it’s another negative aspect of Pesach hotel.

  11. MalachHamovies says:

    Jonathan,

    Why don’t you write about the real financial hell that the charedeim go through in Israel. Due to my financial status i can choose weather or not to go to a hotel for peasch. Yet, tens of thousands of charedei families are FORCED to marry off their children in sheer opulance. For example, why does the chasan and kalla’s family have to go into major debt when marrying off a child ? Why the exchange of useless idiotic expensive gifts – (unless you are very wealthy) between the chasan and kalla (paid by the parents of course) ? Where does living btzimsum and avoiding gashmius come in over here ?? Why don’t you speak out against an evil system that’s killing the poor charedei man and forcing him in his prime years to spending 1/2 of each and every year collecting overseas ???

    Why don’t the rabbonim (and yourself) speak about this travesty ??

    I have seen more tears from meshulachim who raise money (and go heavily into debt) for hachnass kalla then from people who went away for peasach.

  12. LOberstein says:

    Let me clarify. I know that Jonathan did not suggest a ban on hotels, but I did see letters in Mishpacha suggesting it.The fact that my son in law felt as he did shows that sometimes just mentioning an idea is enough to give the impression that it is a possibility. It is the law of unintended consequences.
    As far as Kashrus is concerned, most of our holy ancestors did not “mish” on Pesach. My zaide was so frum that he wouldn’t eat corn out of a can the whole year. My mother had to cook the fresh corn and then cut it off the cobb for him. I cannot generalize about all hotels, that is why we trust kashrus organizations. The job of mashgiach in a Pesach hotel is very difficult,especially when a frum boy has to have a truncated seder late at night because he was watching the food preparation while everyone else had their seder. But, there were such “servants” in the time of the Mishna and halacha dealt with it.
    As far as vacations in general, Pesach is a very hard yom tov for the women. If you have the money, going to a hotel is a way for the extended family with several generations to enjoy liesure and celebrate together. Such families also can afford to have a private seder in a separate room and do it at their pace. People who can afford it do travel all over the world and sometimes they compromise their kashrus standards, going to a kosher program avoids that challenge.

  13. Garnel Ironheart says:

    An excellent follow-up to the original, obviously contentious article.

    I would like to think that Torah is complex enough that it cannot be applied with a “one size fits all” attitude to all observant Jews. After all, there were 13 tribes that left Egypt, each with its own approach. The Torah tells us that each brought an identical dedication gift to the newly minted Mishkan yet the Midrash on that chapter notes that the motivation behind each gift was unique to each tribe.
    Some could not imagine having a seder anywhere other than home. Others have different priorities that lead to going to a hotel (the food was great, by the way!) In both cases, however, the motivations are identical – a desire to maximize the Pesach and Seder experiences in order to feel a connection to the Ribbono Shel Olam who took us out of Mitzrayim, just like the 12 “identical” gifts brought by the princes of the tribes.

    If I sometimes sound strident in my criticism in this forum, it could be because I fear that variety, the idea that God can be approached through Torah in different fashions as long as sincere fear of Heaven and learning of Torah are the foundation of one’s attitude, is being lost to people who increasingly believe that we should all look like the products of an assembly line. “The glory of the King is in the multitude of the people” after all.

  14. jonathan rosenblum says:

    Your son-in-laws comments are extremely puzzling. First, I wrote that one reader had suggested that the rabbonim should just institute a ban. I never suggested that anyone rabbis were considering the idea. Second, the claim that vacationing on Pesach is a shmirah for kashrus observance is puzzling. Many writers on the subject of Pesach hotels — Michael Kaiser in the Jewish Observer a few years back; Rabbi Yitzchok Mitnik in a letter in the upcoming issue of Mishpacha; and many rabbonim privately — have noted the vast number of difficulties involved in changing over an entire kitchen and supervising so many staff members to meet not only the requirements of kashrus but of Pesach about which Klal Yisrael has always been particularly stringent.

  15. David Alt says:

    My son assisted Kashruth supervision a recent Western state Pesach retreat, in order to enjoy the facilities for the week. He will never go to one of these again due to kashruth concerns. He ate matzoha and veggies all week. The chief kashruth supervisor was a very frum looking but very young “Rabbi” who looked for friendship from the largely Hispanic kitchen staff. They had no awe or respect of him. My son also notes a conflict of interest: Kashruth supervisors are not imposed by an outside authority, but chosen and hired by the business people who will lose money if kashruth lapses are discovered. So customers should be as interested in the business owners’ character as that of the staff, rabbinic or otherwise.

  16. joel rich says:

    R’JRo writes “As always our true, far more difficult task is not to rely on bans but to instill an understanding of Pesach so deep and uplifting that Cancun cannot compare.”
    ==============================

    Agree-Interesting is which cases bans have been used and which not and the underlying theory(ies) of bans that one would extrapolate from the empirical data.

    KT

  17. Mark says:

    LOberstein,

    “The thought that Rabbis would ever even consider banning pesach hotels just boggles my mind. Does Jonathan Rosenblum (or the Gedolei ha-Dor) think people should never go on vacation during the year?”

    Read again – he never said the rabbis considered this or that he thinks it’s a good idea. Some folks who wrote into Mishpachah suggested it, not JR, nor the rabbis.

  18. LOberstein says:

    These are the comments of one of my sons in law:

    I agree with some of his sentiments, particularly the anecdote about the large family, but I also don’t think that the only reason a person should go away for Pesach is that they might end up learning in a beis ha-medrash. The thought that Rabbis would ever even consider banning pesach hotels just boggles my mind. Does Jonathan Rosenblum (or the Gedolei ha-Dor) think people should never go on vacation during the year? Don’t they realize that by encouraging people to spend their money on Pesach, there is a much stronger heeding of the Kashrus laws. People who normally go away during the year often face challening kashrus situations in which they either compromise their standards or simply suffer. Penina and I went away to Puerto Rico, and we ate canned Tuna fish for Shabbat inside our hotel rooms. We could only get inside the rooms by having a guard open the doors for us with our electronic key, which according to some may be a problem of Amira Le-akum. Food is not the end all and be all of life, but it is nice to not have to think about it. Pesach hotels bring people from many different communities together and people forge friendships that they never would have had otherwise. Families get to spend time together, whereas many who spend Peasch at home would work the entire Pesach – like I did.