Passover is around the corner and I was wondering how much of the pre-Passover madness is really necessary. Must we really Spring Clean like the Good Housekeeping ladies, or is getting rid of bread and cookies enough? And as to the products in the stores - my goodness!! I feel a little bit like the holiday has become a corporate festival, commercialized like Christmas. Is there an answer to the madness??
I certainly appreciate your question but I would like to answer it with two components-the technical and the spiritual. Yes, from a halachik sense, you should seize the day and rid your home of all chametz because in the Torah, Exodus 12:15-20 we are forbidden from eating chametz (leaven) during the festival. As Rabbi Isaac Klein explains in A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, this refers initially to food prepared from 5 species of grain(wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye that has been allowed to leaven) and the Ashkenazic Rabbis added rice, millet, corn, and legumes. This rule against leaven applies not only to consumption but to enjoying benefit and possession. Therefore, we have the process of bedikat chametz (the search for leaven) bitul chametz (the nullification of the leaven) and biyur chametz (the burning of the leaven). Additionally, the Rabbis have instituted legal mechanism that would not require you to waste all of your food by giving permission for them to sell it on your behalf. This is called Mechirat Chametz (the selling of the leaven). I suggest calling a local rabbi before Passover to do this. If you would like specific guidance in to how to prepare your home for Passover you can check out the Pesah guide on the following link:http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/
But additionally important, is to make sure that the holiday doesn’t become so focused on the details as you describe above where you feel like a slave rather than celebrating freedom! So, can you find ways to make the preparation meaningful and fun? If you have children in the home, can the search for chametz feel like a scavenger hunt? Part of preparing for Passover and celebrating Passover is about the ability to create meaningful Jewish memories. Looking at the specific rituals that way, might make things more fun. But of course, Passover shouldn’t only be for kids and I believe that you can look at the idea of cleaning our homes, beyond just getting rid of bread and cookies, as ways of getting rid of the spiritual chametz in our lives. This is important because we are half way through the Jewish year (if we think in terms of Rosh Hashanah) so it is a good time to spiritual check in about what we need and what we think we need. Additionally, in preparing for Pesach, it is important that we find ways to reflect on the important questions that arise from the celebration of Passover, such as the meaning of freedom, allowing all who are hungry to come and eat, and welcoming the stranger because we were once strangers.
Preparing for Passover can help elevate us to enjoy and contemplate these important questions. But if we only prepare without taking time to think, then we might have fulfilled the mandate for the madness, but we didn’t fulfill the ultimate commandment which is to feel as if we too came out of Egypt. May you have a chag kasher v'sameach-a happy and a kosher Passover.
I would like to answer this important question on two levels – first a more (halachic) answer, and then perhaps a more “spiritual” answer.
A Halachic Approach
To answer your question directly, I will just give a short answer, and direct you to where you may do some additional reading (If you have time )
In brief, no Virginia, Pesach cleaning and spring cleaning are not the same thing – in fact you are right that much of the anxiety that is associated with Pesach comes from unnecessary effort being expounded for this.
What is required is to rid one’s home of Chametz, not dirt.(Chametz is sort of defined as leavened substances, but the precise definition is complicated, and probably beyond the scope of this article.) This is so because there are two basic prohibitions in regard to Chametz, which are noted in the Torah in several places, e.g. Exodus 12:19-20:
Not to eat Chametz for the Pesach Holiday
Not to have Chametz in one’s possession during the Pesach Holiday.
In regard to #1, the Halacha is very stringent, and one may not eat even a minute amount of Chametz on Pesach. For this reason, it is very important to get rid of all Chametz food, and to clean all surfaces that might touch food eaten on Pesach, which might contaminate Pesach food with Chametz.
In regard to #2, owning Chametz, the Halacha is less stringent.There, the requirement is that one not own chametz that is significant, i.e. it is about 30 grams or more. It does not apply to little crumbs and small amounts under the piano, etc.
The problem, as I see it, is that people sometimes feel that they need to clean their entire homes the way that it is necessary to clean a kitchen. And that leads to unneeded headaches and exhaustion.
I will leave it at that , in terms of the Halacha.For more reading there are many good resources available online. One comprehensive, but easy to read treatment, is Passover Cleaning Made Easy , and it can be found at aish.com
As for the second part of your question, I tend to agree with you that Pesach has, in fact, become too commercialized. What used to be a holiday dedicated to returning to the simple, plain, unadulterated flour and water, and some vegetables, meat and simple recipes, has become a major industry in the food business. I think that part of the reason for this is that for some people, Passover is one of the only times that they are punctilious about Kashrut, and the food vendors cater to those who are afraid that they will be in for deprivation. Be that as it may, no one forces you to buy any of that stuff, and each person has to decide for themselves how much to indulge in Kosher for Passover foods.
This leads me to the “spiritual” insight that I wanted to share with you.
Passover is a most unusual holiday.On the one hand, it is far and away the most burdensome and expensive festival -- just ask any Jewish Mother!The cleaning, the cooking, the special shopping, and the Pesach dishes - you could just plotz!
On the other hand, Pesach is the holiday that is the most adhered to, even by those who conduct live far from an observant lifestyle. Statistics show that almost 92% of Jewish households intentionally purchase at least some "Kosher for Passover" products.Jews who do not even attend services on the High Holidays almost always make it their business to attend at least some type of Seder.True, some of the more “modern seders” are quite untraditional, but nevertheless they are a Seder.
Furthermore, Pesach has been observed in the darkest times of Jewish history, and under the most frightful conditions.In her important book, "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust", Prof. Yaffa Eliach writes movingly of the concentration camp scene in which starving inmates accompanying the Rebbe of Bluzhov gave up their pitiful rations for weeks, and placed themselves in incredible danger by asking the Nazis for permission to have an oven, all for the chance to bake matzos and have a semblance of a Seder on Pesach eve.
What is it about this holiday that engenders such steadfast loyalty?What deep reservoir within us is touched by this holiday – what is it that draws us to it with such force?
The Talmud (Shabbat 130a) states that any Mitzvah that the Jewish people observed at great personal sacrifice -- for which we exhibited נפשמסירות-- will always remain with us.As an example, the Talmud cites Brit Milah, or circumcision.One can, in fact, see this borne out by the facts even today.Even if no mohel is used, regardless of whether it is done as a simple medical procedure, or a celebratory religious event, virtually all Jews make sure that their male children are circumcised.The difficulty that accompanies this mitzvah, the pain of the child and of the parents, the willingness to undergo adversity for their strong convictions - these have combined to create a collective national iron-will about this issue that is only rarely disputed.
The original Pesach offering as well, required great personal sacrifice of the about to be released slaves.Right under the noses of their cruel Egyptian taskmasters, the Jews had to muster up the courage to take the sheep, revered as having divine qualities by those tyrants (Perhaps they could not imagine how one could be physical and at the same time so calm and peaceful), and inform their tormenters that they were going slaughter these very same sheep for their own G-d.What a tremendous act of courage and bravery this was for them!Clearly, when the Hagadah compares the "blood of Milah" to the "blood of Pesach" it intends to link these two national symbols of sacrifice through which we, as a people, proved our readiness to undertake our historic and eternal role as a Light to the Nations, all inherent difficulties notwithstanding.
We are living in very difficult times for our people. We are facing a frightful spiritual holocaust, in which so many of our children are being lost to us as Jews.We all know that "continuity" has become the buzzword of choice for all major organizations attempting to grapple with these problems.What, in fact, will promote "continuity"?How can we assure that our heritage and traditions will pass on to succeeding generations?
The answer can be found in the Talmud's comment regarding Pesach and Milah.If we want something to stay with us, to remain as our precious possession that will never be taken away, we must be willing to sacrifice our most precious resources of time, money, and effort, nay, even give our lives for it.If we make it clear first to ourselves, and then to our children, that our Judaism and our Jewishness are the most sacred treasures that we possess, we will instill in ourselves and in them the resolve to do what it takes to make sure that it is never lost.
Sacrifice, strength, and determination.It is these that we learn from our collective experience.Thus, and only thus will we be able to lead the way for coming generations until the time of Moshiach, speedily in our days.
Passover preparations are very, very challenging. And, I am not speaking about the cleaning out of the hametz – the stuff with leaven in it. I am speaking about painting. Yes, painting.
Every year in my home, we find ourselves painting something just before Pesach. I really can’t explain it. Somehow, after the snow melts and the grass begins to turn green, my wife and I have this compulsion to paint. That usually involves several trips to Home Depot and, before we lay out the Pesach Seder table, we lay out the drop cloths.
But what does all this have to do with your question?
Your question is about traditions and law. Jewish law responded to this verse from the Torah: Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel (Exodus 12:15) and from it (and other similar verses) created that hilchot Pesach – the laws of Passover that deal with what is and is not acceptable to eat or even have in your homes and businesses during Pesach. Of course the laws also deal with the Pascal Sacrifice – a non-issue these days – and issues of ritual purity, etc., surrounding the Festival.
As a result of the development of Jewish law, indeed, we are supposed to clear our homes of any hametz. This is not the usual “Spring cleaning” to which you refer. This is ‘Jewish cleaning.’ It is not meant to get rid of the accumulated stuff from the past year, but rather to prepare for the Festival.
Our Festival is one of community, not just individuality. By cleaning the home of hametz we ourselves are participating in a living mitzvah of identification with generations of Jews, past, present, and future. It is not simply a tradition to clean out the hametz – it is a way of responding to who we are as a people. By cleaning out, by doing the work, and by being a part of this glorious Jewish enterprise, we can enter the holiday as if we ourselves departed Egypt.
The commercialization you speak of is nothing new. If something can be kosher for Passover, someone will make it and sell it. It differs from the other religious/secular holidays in that the kosher for Pesach food is not for gift-giving and there are no cute jingles to make us by matzah or gefilte fish! Rather, this time of the year and all of its traditions is an opportunity for each of us participate in a communal liberation. (As a side note, I must say that some kosher for Pesach food is quite good while some – especially the breakfast fare is not!).
Do you have to “Spring Clean like the Good Housekeeping ladies’? The Good Housekeeping men and women are cleaning their closets and throwing out their old clothes and broken TVs – usually to make way for new stuff. When we do our ‘Jewish cleaning,’ we are doing it for totally different purpose. Secular Spring cleaning is for spacial purposes; Jewish cleaning is for spiritual purposes.
You will, naturally, create your own traditions about your Jewish cleaning. Somehow, in my home, along with the ridding and burning of the hametz, we end up painting a room! Some people change their dishes, some get rid of their rice, some sell their hametz, some burn it, some put it in the garage and sell the garage until after the holiday (really!). But whatever you do, you are preparing for our people’s night of our lives – the liberation from Egypt. But that liberation is not complete. Getting ready for Pesach, even more than the Seder itself, focuses our minds and spirits on things outside ourselves. And that is often a very, very good thing.
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