Taking Extreme Steps To Banish Hametz Misses Point of Pesach

Editor's Notebook


By Jane Eisner

Published April 09, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Our definition of hametz is expanding.

The pun is intentional. But here’s my point: Many Jews go to ridiculous extremes to redefine and root out hametz for Passover, losing sight of the simplicity and subtlety of this extraordinary holiday.

Hametz is narrowly defined as leavened bread, and Jews are not supposed to own, eat or benefit from it during Passover. That much is specified in the Torah, along with the direct admonition to remove all hametz from one’s home.

Naturally, centuries of rulings from rabbis — none of whom I’m sure had to clean their own kitchens or prepare a Seder meal — have added layer upon layer of restriction, expectation and interpretation. This is especially true among Ashkenazi Jews for whom the rice, corn, lentils, beans (and depending on who you ask, peanuts) known as kitniyot are also not to be consumed.

In strictly observant communities, this leads to the sort of extreme cleaning recounted by my colleague Frimet Goldberger, who writes of the laborious, exhausting marathon of scrubbing that Hasidic women and girls are required to do before the holiday can begin. Just learning that she spent her childhood washing the walls of her home from floor to ceiling made me grateful for the modest tasks I was assigned before our family Seders. Chopping apples for haroset pales in comparison.

Even for the less obsessive, the extreme banishment of hametz has led to an industry of processed foods meant to replicate, with far less taste and at a far higher price, the foods that we may or may not even eat the other weeks of the year. Really, how did the Jews survive for all these centuries without kosher-for-Passover wasabi sauce?

And then there are the Jews who expand the definition of hametz well beyond food to include behaviors and attitudes that they find objectionable or imprisoning. I understand the rationale of one Manhattan synagogue to banish email for all the days of Passover so that its members can “taste freedom.” I can even appreciate the impulse to unplug from the technology that seems to dominate our lives.

But many of us don’t have the professional luxury of going device-free for eight days, nor do we want to forego the benefits of electronic communication — the email from a faraway friend, the random text message from a child. More to the point, exiling email turns hametz into something objectionable, treyf, even sinister. But hametz isn’t so much a thing as a process. We still consume flour on Passover — it’s in matzo, after all. It’s just flour that has not been allowed to rise for more than 18 minutes.

It’s not the ingredients that make a product hametz so much as the conditions under which it is produced. I’m reminded of a wonderful section of the Moss Haggadah, which on one page shows a person shoveling bricks into a hot oven — an obvious metaphor for slavery.

But on the next page, that same person is putting a similarly shaped object into an oven, only it’s bread to be baked, and the person is doing so freely.

We don’t need to go to extremes to banish the hametz from our lives during Passover. The line between slavery and freedom for many of us is far more subtle.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.