Thursday, April 17, 2008

Troubled by Passover Minutia

It's just a couple days before Passover, and no time to have a crisis of faith.

Most people I know are too busy pouring pots-full of boiling water on their c
ounters, perhaps with towels on the floor below waiting for the overflow. They're taking blowtorches designed for creme brulee to their stovetops. They're boiling pans of water in their microwaves. They're taping pieces of tin foil on the grates inside their refrigerators, being sure to poke holes for air circulation. They're cutting pieces of thick plastic or aluminum and using lots of sticky shelf paper. And they're wrapping up all their cereal, flour, cookies, and just about all their regular food--and completing a contract selling it to a non-Jew.

Is this crazy, or what? Hours and hours taking a toothbrush to the grout. Sorting through toys for a stray stub of granola bar. Flipping through the pages of books, shaking them upside down combing for crumbs. This is indeed insanity. Is this really what God wants us to be doing? I thought learning Torah was the most important thing--or maybe praying, or doing kindnesses for others, or visiting someone alone and sick. No, for a week--or several--Jews are overcome with a fear of specks of leavened products.

And the job falls almost exclusively to women. Unless a guy lives alone, in which case he'll only attack this job if he's too poor to hire somebody else to do it, men have women to obsess about this. How many guys do you know who are diligent and compulsive about Pesach cleaning?

The bottom line for me is that--I will confess--my faith is shaken. Frankly, I am
of the privileged few who are spared this entire weirdness as I am hired as a staff person at a lovely and luxurious Passover hotel getaway, and I have no right to complain about the work that once again, I need not do.

Still, enough of my friends ARE doing it, and my memory of the process is fresh enough that I do wonder how any clever God would come up with this as something beneficial to His creations. A test of faith, you may say--God provides this so He can reward our loyalty and our effort. Then why threaten us with being "cut off" from our people, ie the end of our eternal souls--if we snatch a slice of pizza over Passover's eight days? Or if we sell all our chumetz except the bag of tortilla chips?

We're taught that the inflation of flour by yeast represents the puffiness of our egos--i.e. arrogance. Arrogance is one of the two characteristics--midos--that we're told to eliminate from our personalities. And here, for eight days, is a means to symbolically eliminate this puffiness, both spiritually, as we relive Jews' transition from earthly bondage to spiritual bondage to the only worthy master,
God--and physically by never taking any leavened products into our bodies.

This doesn't wash for me. (I'll skip the Urchatz pun). Why didn't God say we could eat non-leavened stuff like cookies? We can have cookies, but they have to be matza meal or potato starch based--I know, I know, you'll give me the stuff about flour having the potential to be leavened. But it's not about flour--or else we couldn't have matza, which is--flour and water. We know that the already-baked matza can't rise; it's had no more than 18 minutes to combine its ingredients. But the pre-baked cookies can't rise either.

All the permutations of this chumetz-restriction are so way out there as to make Jews look primitive and brainless. Gentiles who enter a Pesach-dik kitchen think we've gone to the moon. I don't really care what gentiles think; I want to do what God wants, and I trust He knows better than I do how to maximize my spiritual potential. But when you spend hundreds--usually THOUSANDS of dollars, and days, WEEKS of work to very indirectly and obliquely tamp down our
egos--well, first off, I don't think it works any better than less intrusive means, and it just plain doesn't make sense. I know that God MADE "sense;" if He made everything, He can do whatever He likes. Still the "fences" around avoiding chumetz, and the complexities of it, and the potential punishment for NOT doing it, or doing it incompletely--is just too bizarre.

Tell me where I'm wrong. And in the meantime, have a Pesach kasher v sameach--if you ever get THROUGH kashering.


  1. Don't ask, lady. Just come on over with a toothbrush.... there's still time before your morning flight!!! ;)

  2. Quite a lot to say here, so I shall do my best.

    First of all, the extreme to which people take Pesach cleaning nowadays is not necessarily warranted. People really go above and beyond what is required by halacha—covering toilet seats in aluminum foil is NOT NECESSARY. Even the lists of which shampoos and soaps are kosher l’Pesach are, according to many opinions, superfluous, as anything that isn’t and never could be fit for consumption by a dog does not have to be certified chametz-free. Nowadays, people have a tendency to go above and beyond the requirements of halacha in an effort to be really machmir, but the danger is that other, more important things—like sanity—can often be sacrificed for this zealotry.

    Secondly, back in the day, Pesach cleaning was a lot easier, merely because people had less stuff. If you lived in a house with three rooms and just a few possessions, cleaning everything you owned would not take all that long. The fact is that we are spoiled today—or blessed, take your pick—and so this level of bounty comes with a little more difficulty around Pesach time. I still think we’re getting the better end of the deal.

    Third, much as you (and everyone else) shudder at the thought of all the nitpicky cleaning, halacha is about the details. It is about taking every single bit of this mundane world and making it holy. By eliminating every crumb, going through every room of the house, we are, in a way, transforming everything we touch into a vessel of holiness. For more on this topic, see R. Soloveitchik’s “Halachic Man.” There, he describes beautifully how, for the halacha-driven Jew, every physical object is representative of all the halachot relating to it and thereby becomes more than just the sum of its parts. I can’t even come close to paraphrasing it, but it’s awesome, trust me.

    “But when you spend hundreds--usually THOUSANDS of dollars, and days, WEEKS of work to very indirectly and obliquely tamp down our egos--well, first off, I don't think it works any better than less intrusive means, and it just plain doesn't make sense.”

    This is the danger of ascribing reasons to mitzvot. The ego thing might be one nice explanation of why we don’t eat chametz, but it certainly isn’t the definitive or only reason for the prohibition. Halacha is not about knowing the reasons, it’s about fulfilling God’s commands simply because they are God’s commands, and fulfilling them as carefully as possible, down to the smallest detail.

    With all that said, if moshiach doesn’t come within the next day or so, enjoy the luxury of your no-scrub Pesach hotel freedom and have a chag kasher v’sameach!

  3. Mink, my suspicion is that you don't want me to bring a toothbrush so you have something chumetz-free for your teeth! But you don't HAVE grout!
    SJ,Your point seems to be, when Hashem says 'jump!' we answer 'how high?" No, we just jump, no questions asked!
    Have a fabulous and enlightening and relaxing chag!

  4. Actually, you had it right the first time: Hashem says 'jump', and we say 'How high? For how long? Which foot first? During what part of the day? Is a person with only one leg exempt? '

    The beauty of our system is man's involvement in it--Hashem gives us the basis, but it is up to our sages (and by extension, even us lowly plebians) to determine exactly how to implement it in this world.

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