General Topics

Passover or Passout?


Moses had trouble understanding Rebbi Akivah who lived about a thousand years later (according to the Talmud). How much more so,  if he were alive today, would he have absolutely no idea how we could have taken a simple festival of liberation and freedom and turned it into the complex conglomeration of rituals and procedures we observe today? As he might be just as amazed at all those Jews spending so much money carting their families off to incredibly expensive resort hotels or cruises to avoid going through the whole procedure. 

Pesach is a law unto itself. Any Chametz, however minute, is not allowed, to be seen, possessed, let alone consumed. Nevertheless, there comes a point where the law is extended to such a degree that it becomes almost absurd. Like worrying about microscopic ingredients or creatures in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Refinements that were once considered the realm of the mystics and saints have become the minimum. If anything indicates a severe case of religious neurosis this must be it. We have raised the bar so high that most God-fearing Jews no longer want to take advantage of the many leniencies and let-outs that abound within Jewish law for fear of losing their place in the world to come let alone their own societies. And “the bread of poverty” has become “the bread of the rich.”

The Talmud tells us only to go looking where there is a serious chance there might be some leavened stuff lying around. But we go one better, even if there’s absolutely no chance any crumbs ever surviving because nowadays, we electric-wash and dish-wash, we sweep, we hoover, disinfect and debug. We fear that some crumbs of leavened bread might have snuck into the solid glazed dishes, stainless steel cutlery, and our granite countertops. We need to replace the lot for Passover. We relentlessly boil, burn, scald, and soak, whatever we can do to purge any food remnant thing still attached despite repeated dishwasher hot rinses in detergent-flavored liquid that would kill any trace of the edible desperately clinging to the crevices of the finest silver cutlery, crockery, and kitchenware. Not only, but we are worried that somehow leavened foodstuffs have found their way into aluminum foil, bottled water, toilet paper, plastic wrap, paper towels, teabags, coffee, milk, olive oil, salt, sugar, and honey. And even after all that, on the night before Pesach, we take a candle and a feather to go looking for any leftovers! 

For reasons known only to conspiracy theorists, the Ashkenazim are not allowed to eat pulses, beans, corn, peanuts, etc all known as kitniyot because they might be confused with or mixed with grains of corn or drenched in whisky. Nowadays lettuces, artichokes, strawberries, and broccoli are not allowed (unless supervised and more expensive) because they are infested with microscopic bugs so there’s no way you can be trusted to clean them properly. 

Furthermore, somewhere in the last century the extremely remote danger of uncooked matzah becoming mixed with liquids and rising, we created a new refinement called Gebroks (mixing little pieces in water). What once only a Chasidic minority bothered about this, now the whole world has to be careful about. And Chabad Chasidim go even further and eat their matzah into paper bags to ensure nothing falls on the floor and into a puddle. Might one not think this is a trifle obsessive?

We do not eat leavened, fluffy bread, the luxury food of the Upper Classes in ancient Egypt. Instead, matzah is the bread of the enslaved poor or the afflicted. One can understand the idea. Egypt was a rich, self-indulgent, heartless society even if it was technologically advanced. To escape from its decadence, violence, prejudice, and corruption, the Israelite slaves were asked to leave town, eschew luxury, to start from the basics by eating unleavened bread to remind themselves of their Spartan diet and how one can, indeed, survive on less. 

The idea is wonderful. To remember slavery. To try to rise above it and value freedom. But then along comes religion and imposes a whole slew of rules, regulations, and restrictions including spring cleaning. Despite all this Pesach, after Yom Kipur, is the most celebrated Jewish festival. Doesn’t that tell us something? That all good things require effort? And isn’t that how our people have survived by being loyal to the past while moving into the future? 

But there is another aspect that worries me. Increasingly, Judaism is becoming the preserve of the upwardly mobile and rich. Anyhow, keeping Kosher is really expensive (unless you are vegan). The gulf between the wealthy and those struggling is getting wider all the time both in Israel and in the Diaspora. But specifically, observing Pesach nowadays is a serious economic strain for many Jews. I realize that inflation has affected everyone. But now a box of  Shemura Matzah, the Rolls Royce of Matzot costs $50 for maybe eight crackers! And double that if a holy rabbi assisted in the baking.

On the other hand, the Sephardi Rabbinate is very good at being lenient and supportive. They always had to deal with a much poorer but pious clientele and looked for ways to make being Jewish cheaper and easier for the masses. It is worthwhile going to the many Sephardi rabbi’s websites to see an alternative authoritative list of what you can have without supervision at a normal price. And the OU Kosher website also offers a range of unsupervised and cheaper items readily available in your local supermarket.  And if laymen and women knew more about the laws themselves, they could make informed decisions and realize why half the Kosher Le Pesach products do not need to be!

I do not object at all to those who are happier to be excessively strict. I too am far more obsessively neurotic on Pesach than at any other time during my religious year. And most of us spend a heck of a lot more each year on far less worthy expenses. It is just that if you don’t want to or cannot afford to you should not be made to feel any lesser for it.

Perhaps all of this is good for us. A once-a-year purge. An experience of excessive zeal because usually we like to take the easy way out. And It’s good for our homes, our hygiene, and our spirits. It reminds us of spring, a new season, new life, and we can still pretend that we are free.

Pesach is a mystical occasion, not just a ritual obstacle course. The whole of mysticism, you might say, and all our emotions are the most non-rational phenomena in the universe. Yet clearly it works for a lot of people. We do enjoy it in the end. It is not masochism. It is doing things to be different, to assert other values, cultural and religious, to get together to celebrate. And nothing worth having comes without effort.