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Taking Extreme Steps To Banish Hametz Misses Point of Pesach

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.

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