Pesach. Passover. Ugh. I guess the best place to start here is with a little bit of explanation. I would imagine that the vast majority of people think of two things when they hear the word “Passover”:
2. Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
That’s in no particular order, but let’s be real, Charlton Heston is probably #1.
Anyway, in case you are unfamiliar with the basic gist of the holiday, Passover celebrates when God freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt.
Charlton Heston Moses approaches Pharaoh and demands that he release the Jewish people. When Pharaoh refuses, God unleashes the ten plagues on Egypt, the most horrible of which being the death of the firstborn son. The Jews paint lamb blood on the doorposts of their homes and are “passed over” by this plague. Afterward, Pharaoh allows the Jews to leave, so they grab their unleavened bread and get the heck out of there. Pharaoh, though, has a change of heart, and sends his army after the Jews to bring them back. God performs another miracle and parts the sea so that the Jews can pass, but releases the waters once they are through, crushing the pursuing Egyptian army beneath the waves.
To commemorate this amazing story, the Torah commands that we do a number of things. Do not eat bread with leavening for the entirety of the holiday, which can be either 7 or 8 days, an explanation for which can be found here. Retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. Have a festive meal where you drink at least 4 cups of wine while relating the exodus story. Wow, this sounds great, right?
Well, maybe half wrong. Once you make it to Passover, things are usually fine. It’s the month-long lead up to and preparations for Passover that’s the problem. People reading this might still be confused about what the big deal is here, so let’s go to the Torah for a starting point. Exodus Chapter 12 discusses the ins and outs of the holiday of Passover and Exodus 12:19 has this to say:
For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land.
“Ahhh,” you might be saying, “the cleaning.” Yes, the cleaning. We must clean our entire houses to make sure that there is no leaven or things that contain leavening anywhere in the house. Here is a picture from our house this year during the Passover cleaning process:
Oh. Buddy. But let me take you one level deeper. What is “leaven”? What exactly needs to be removed to fulfill this mitzvah (commandment)? And here is where things spiral out of control.
Ever eaten a cookie on your living room couch? Of course you have. Ever dropped a crumb from a cookie somewhere on the couch? Sure, “that’s how the cookie crumbles.” Is it possible that a crumb got down there under one of your couch cushions or under your couch? Quite possibly. Well that crumb is leaven. Think about that for a second. I can see your eyes widening now as you contemplate how intense a Passover house cleaning has to be. No sweeping around the furniture – you better pull out anything and everything to make sure you are not missing any of those crumbs! And friends, I’m just getting started.
Besides for cleaning our houses, Jews also begin the process of using up all the food stuffs in their homes that are forbidden on Passover and that they have accumulated during the year. This involves taking a survey of the pantry, freezer, and fridge to see what needs to get eaten and devising creative meals that can hopefully hit multiple birds with one stone. And there is ALWAYS something where you are left wondering, “How did I get so much of XYZ this year?!” It’s usually breadcrumbs. But seriously, where do I get all these breadcrumbs???
And just before you start thinking, “Well you only have to remove leavening, which is only bread and bread-related products – that shouldn’t be so hard,” I’m going to stop you. What is considered unacceptable to have in your house during Passover depends largely on your level of observance, which can vary greatly, and can also depend on if you are an Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jew (more on that difference can be found here).
If you are a Jew who is committed to the full-house scrub down, though, you are most likely going to do your best to make sure that anything in your house, other than fresh fruits and veggies, is certified by a rabbinical authority as “Kosher for Passover.” Canned tomato sauce – generally kosher? Yes. Kosher for Passover?
Yeah, because it has no leaven. Not unless the can has a kosher for Passover certification. What about things like rice or beans? If it has a kosher for Passover certification! If you are an Ashkenazi Jew, these are not kosher for Passover because they are what is called kitniyot, and to be 100% honest, it is complicated to explain why they are not eaten. However, a full discussion on that topic can be found here and a full list of what is considered kitniyot can be found here. Yeah, the list is pretty long.
Still with me? Ok. So, besides cleaning the house and using up our Passover-forbidden food, we’ve got to shop for that lovely “Kosher for Passover” certified food. I think this is the one area in the Passover process that I can just laugh at because, to be brutally honest, it is just so clear how ridiculous it is. My kosher for Passover olive oil is no different than my regular kosher olive oil, but I’m still buying it anyway. Because what if it was exposed to chametz (leaven) during its life?!?! (cue duh, duh, duh music) I am also shopping for kosher for Passover products weeks in advance because I don’t want to get stuck with the industrial size tub of mayo, which is always the only one left if you don’t hit the store early. Or how about the products that just feel like they are flying in the face of the spirit of Passover?
(Jason informs me these are horrendous.)
Fried chicken-esque coating.
Yes, our dirty little secret is out – you can even have cake during Passover, it’s just not as good as regular cake you eat during the year (unless you put in more oil than the recipe calls for, but you didn’t hear that from me).
Next up is your cooking and eating ware. Because your regular dishes, pots, pans, utensils, and basically anything you have used in the kitchen in the past year has likely come in contact with chametz, you cannot use these during Passover. Many people have a completely new kitchen set that they use only during Passover and store someplace during the rest of the year. Not only do your cooking and eating ware come into contact with chametz throughout the year, but so do your countertops and all the surfaces in your kitchen (including the fridge and stove top). Frequently, people will first clean these surfaces and then set out to cover them with some kind of barrier, such as aluminum foil. You think I’m kidding, right? Just Google “Passover aluminum foil.” It won’t disappoint.
You’re probably asking, “For the love of God, Joey, what else is there??” And if you are asking that question, then I think I’ve made my point. The main reason Passover — a time when we should be focused about celebrating our freedom from the people and things that enslave us — is a nightmare is the bureaucratic red tape that we have created and enslave ourselves with to ensure the “proper observance” of the holiday. The irony is truly humorous. But you know what? This is not unique to Passover, and it is not unique even to Jews. You moms out there who thought it might be a good idea to check out Pinterest for some cute Easter ideas and are now overwhelmed know what I’m talking about. How many times do we, as human beings, get caught up in the details, stress ourselves out, and totally miss the big picture? If we are being honest with ourselves, the answer is frequently. When we get to the point of frustration in holiday prep or even just in life where we are ready to pull our hair out or scream, may we all have the clarity to realize we are at DefCon Level Meltdown and take a moment to just breathe. Wishing everyone a chag Pesach sameach and a Happy Easter.
P.S. There is more after the foiling of the kitchen. Next year, friends. Got to keep you in suspense.