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Dietary Rules for Passover: Some Guidelines

March, 1999

My wife says that the laws surrounding Pesach (Passover) are intended to tame the impulses of spring. Frankly it has never been obvious to me that any spring impulses I might have are any tamer after an encounter with the laws of Pesach. At least this much is clear; if you want a holiday which will make it obvious to you that something is really going on, a holiday which cannot escape your attention, then a traditional observance of Pesach is for you.

What I am going to try to offer is a kind of bare outline of traditional practice — if this year you would like to begin celebrating Passover in the traditional manner. You will choose whether you want to be more or less restrictive than my information suggests. The level of observance you wish to adopt will depend upon the sort of motivation you have and the kind of community or circle of friends in which you find yourself. You will be greatly helped by conversations with others who are also concerned about Passover observance, others who have more experience than you do.

The two classic dietary obligations of Passover are: 1. Eating matzah and 2. Not eating chametz. Eating matzah is the easy one. You go to the store and buy some. The taste is neither better nor worse than a rye-crisp. Not eating chametz, on the other hand, is a lot of work.

Our ancestors rushed out of Egypt without enough time for their bread to rise. To commemorate that experience we avoid anything which either directly or indirectly can be associated with the leavening of bread or the rising of bread yeasts. Chametz is the name of that stuff we are trying to avoid and we >avoid it with some rigor. We do not eat bread or derivative members of its family, like pasta or beer or Wheaties, grain products all, which can become or are chametz. Neither do we eat foods with even very small admixtures of chametz, such as might be found in processed foods. So that they don't have to go inspecting such matters for themselves, many people look for the lists that are published annually which tell which foods are certified as chametz free and are permissible for Passover. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not a chametz problem and may be eaten.

It is not only your food which must be free of chametz, but even your dishes, pots and pans. Since it is presumed that china and pottery absorb food stuff when they are used, it is customary to have an extra set of dishes for Passover, or if that is hard for you, get paper or plastic plates. Anyone who has tried to get the smell out of a plate that has had herring in it for a while, knows that the notion is not altogether silly.

Kashering (making kosher) is the process which permits you use your regular utensils for Passover by getting rid of any possible chametz. You can't kasher pottery or china. You can kasher metal or wood, which means that you don't have to have a new set of pots and pans for Passover. Some people would rather not bother with kashering and buy new ones anyway. But if you do kasher, the general rule is that you get rid of chametz the same way you got it. If your pot acquired chametz by cooking chametz food in it, you should kasher it by boiling it in a yet larger vessel or boil water in it to overflowing. You also boil flat ware.

The system gets still pickier. If the flatware or pot has joints where chametz can sneak in, you can't kasher it. If the object has lots of holes or spaces, like a grater, or a toaster, so that you are not likely to be able to clean it for chametz, you can't kasher it. Glass gets soaked for three days, changing the water daily. Stoves should be scrubbed out and brought to high temperature so as to let the burning process clean out anything you might have missed. (The cleaning cycle on a electric stove is particularly good for that.)

Kitchen sinks should be scrubbed and boiled out. Your refrigerator should be thoroughly cleaned. You will soon see that there are questions you haven't anticipated and you need someone local to give you advice. The person you pick >should be one whose standards are likely to make sense to you.

To the extent that they will buy into the project, try to involve your kids. They are usually great at polishing silverware. It needs to be kashered, if you are going to use it for Passover, but it needs to be polished if you want it to look nice, not because the holiday mandates polishing. Chametz is not dirt. I have l no idea why, but my own kids have always loved this particular task, even now that they are grown up.

You are supposed to get all chametz out of your kitchen but also out of the >rest of the house, so have your kids check their rooms for slightly used candy bars and pockets full of crumbs. Once the week of the holiday has started, you will want to send them with lunches appropriate to Pesach. If you plan it right they will look forward to the special foods they get to take along at this season. Yes, they can survive without peanut butter sandwiches.

In general, Pesach should not be a time of deprivation, either for you or your children, but it should be a time of change, when every thing is different so that you are forced to ask, why is this time different from all other times? Hopefully, that in turn will help you to think about the Exodus from Egypt and the meaning and importance of freedom.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "leavened," foods that are not kosher for Passover, such as bread and wheat-based products. It refers to products that are both made from one of five types of grain and have been combined with water and left to stand raw (rise) for longer than eighteen minutes. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

Rabbi Richard Israel z"l was the former executive director of Hillel of Greater Boston. He died in 2000.

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