Passover Prep: We Begin in Egypt

Seven years ago I wrote a piece about Passover preparation titled “Begin in Egypt.” It addressed the situation of beginners when preparing for Passover. I repost it today, because it is my best shot on a subject that rolls around every year.

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [


Pirkei Avot 2:16

It is very tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers, and we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  But to any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice about almost everything is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey! If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  What can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by thePesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing) is a product that is made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) that have been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that may have been wet at one time.

In short, anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it (on purpose or by accident, no matter) is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot] because those things often behave like the forbidden grains. Sephardic Jews do not get rid of those things; Ashkenazim do.

If you are not sure which standard you follow, ask your community (the Jews with whom you spend the most time) what they do, and do that. The point is that you want to be able to eat in each other’s homes.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of what I call “big chometz.”  Set aside all thechometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

Another possibility is to buy a package of paper plates. This is less wasteful if you compost them instead of putting them in the landfill after use. During Passover, I use more disposable products than at other times of the year, but I try to use them responsibly, and seek out those which are already made of recycled products if possible.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down. Dust everywhere. Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZThere are Jews who observe Passover by refraining from eating chometz, and who may or may not be meticulous about cleaning out their houses, but who take other understandings ofchometz very seriously.  To learn more, consider these articles on the web:

7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, our ability to observe the mitzvah will change.Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  

It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.

Pirkei Avot 2:16

Advertisements

Why 2 Months of Adar?

Image: The Gezer Calendar, a 10th c. BCE Jewish calendar (from approximately the time of Solomon.) via Wikimedia, some rights reserved.

If you have been looking at a Jewish calendar for this year, you may have noticed something odd. This year, 5779, has TWO months of Adar.

The Jewish calendar requires a bit of adjustment every few years to keep the seasons aligned with our lunar calendar. The most obvious form of adjustment are the years when we adjust by adding a month to the calendar. This year is one of those years.

When we add a month, we add a month of Adar, and instead of giving it a new name, we call it Adar I, or Adar Aleph. The regular month of Adar is Adar II, or Adar Bet.

My first question when I learned this was, “Do we get two Purims?” Alas, or maybe fortunately, we do not celebrate Purim twice. The holiday of Purim will be celebrated in Adar Bet, at sundown on March 20, 2019 this year.

However, Adar itself has special qualities, as this passage from the Talmud teaches:

Rav Yehuda, son of Rav Shmuel bar Sheilat, said in the name of Rav: Just as when Av begins one decreases rejoicing, so too when the month of Adar begins, one increases rejoicing.

B. Ta’anit 29a

Adar is traditionally understood to be a lucky, happy month. So in a leap year like this one, our joy is doubled. Thus, on Tuesday I shall wish everyone a happy Rosh Chodesh (new month) of Adar I, to be followed next month by another happy month of Adar II.

Happy Adars!

Bal Tashkeit: Do Not Destroy

Image: Red apples on the branch (Pixel2013/Pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a special respect for trees. A passage in Deuteronomy starts a discussion that will go on for centuries:

(19) When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? 

(20) Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

Deuteronomy 20: 19-20

This passage appears in a long discussion of the rules of war. Even in the heat of battle, fruit-bearing trees must not be disturbed. Why is this? We get a clue in verse 20: we may destroy trees that do not yield food. The fruit-bearing trees provide life for human beings, animals, and birds. To destroy them is to lay waste to the earth, because life on earth is interconnected.

This prohibition is inconvenient in all-out war. One is tempted to say, “But the other side has destroyed trees! We must teach them a lesson!” Or even, “These are really our trees, so we can destroy them!” And surely some military strategists argued for a work-around: what if we kill the trees but by some other means than cutting them down? The Sages have a fast answer for that:

6) “You shall not cut down its tree by wielding an axe against it”: This tells me only of iron (i.e., an axe blade). Whence do I derive (the same for destroying it by) diverting a water course from it? From “You shall not destroy its tree” — in any manner.

Sifrei Devarim 203:6-10

What if the tree is in the way of a farmer who is trying to plow? May he destroy a fruit tree? Again, the answer is quite firm:

Ravina objects to this: And let the tanna also enumerate one who chops down beautiful fruit trees in the course of plowing, and its prohibition is from here: “For you may eat of it, and you shall not chop it down”(Deuteronomy 13:18).

BT Makkot 22a

Some of the objections to the destruction of fruit trees are quite poetic:


When people cut down the wood of the tree which yields fruit, its cry goes from one end of the world to the other, and the voice is inaudible.


Pirke de R. Eliezer 34:4

Of course, there are times and places where it is necessary to destroy a tree, even a fruit tree. Maimonides gives us a succinct description of that in the Mishnah Torah:

Fruit-bearing trees must not be cut down outside of the city43 nor do we block their irrigation water causing the trees to dry up, as it says, “do not destroy her trees” (Deut. 20:19). Anyone who cuts down a tree receives lashes. This is not only at times of a siege, but anyone at anytime who chops down a fruit-bearing tree by for destructive purposes receives stripes. The tree may be cut down if it is damaging other trees or it is damaging another’s field, or because the tree is more valuable for its wood than its fruit. The Torah only forbids wanton destruction.

Mishneh Torah, Kings & Wars 6:8

Maimonides zeros in on the principle that the Sages derived from the discussion of fruit trees: “The Torah only forbids wanton destruction.” Thus from a Torah discussion of the rules of war, we learn the rules of peace as well: we are commanded to preserve this world, and not to engage in wanton destruction.

When I read in the news about Israelis destroying the olive trees belonging to Palestinians, all I can think is, “Who taught Torah to these people?” Of all the ways they might fight with the Palestinians, why choose this particular one? Olive trees normally live to a great age. They give fruit to eat, and oil for many purposes. If this is not “wanton destruction,” then what is?

I do not have an easy answer to the situation in the West Bank. I have friends on all sides of that particular argument. But I know one part of this is very simple: we are commanded not to destroy fruit trees.

Ancient olive trees. Photo by Dimitri Laudin/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.

Thoughts for the 2nd Night of Chanukah

Image: Menorah with 2 candles and shamash lit. (innareznick/shutterstock)

The first night of Chanukah is always a bit chaotic at my home. We’re all excited about the holiday, but we can’t find the matches, oops, did we buy candles? and where IS the electric menorah we put in the front window?…

And I look up the blessings and make sure that the tunes are in my mind. One verse of Maoz Tzur and I’ve got it…

Sometimes I wonder if the real reason the sage Hillel said, “Light the candles so the light increases night after night” was that he suspected that some of us would burn the house down if we lit all the candles the first night! However, that’s not what the Talmud says.

The Sages taught in a baraitaThe basic mitzva of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person, the head of the household, for himself and his household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights…

The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade. Therefore, if the objective is to have the number of lights correspond to the number of days, there is no alternative to increasing their number with the passing of each day. – Shabbat 21a

The second night, I am calmer.  I know where everything is, I’ve been humming the blessings ever since last night, and even the food tastes better, because the novelty of the first night is behind us. 

I appreciate a holiday that goes on long enough for me to really settle in to it and get to know it. Tonight is the 2nd night. There’s much to contemplate: the tiny spectacle of two little candles against the dark, the continuing miracle of Jewish existence, and the wonder that every year, we push back on the darkness and it does, indeed, recede. 

Chanukah sameach! Happy Chanukah!

What is Sigd?

Image: Ethiopian Jewish Women celebrate Sigd in Jerusalem. (Photo: Yehudit Garinkol)

Sigd is the name of the only Jewish holiday in the month of Cheshvan. It is celebrated by Ethiopian Jews on the 29th of Cheshvan. The word “sigd” (ሰግድ) means “prostration” in Amharic, an Ethiopian language.

50 days after the solemnity of Yom Kippur, on the 29th of Cheshvan, Ethiopian Jews celebrate the festival of Sigd [“Prostration”.]  This year (2018) it will be celebrated beginning at sundown on November 6, ending at sundown on December 7.

The holiday celebrates the renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. On the larger Jewish calendar, it echoes the Biblical holiday of Shavuot, which falls 50 days after Passover.

The text to which the holiday is based in two passages in the book of Nehemiah, which recounts the events of the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon:

On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding.

He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching.

Ezra the scribe stood upon a wooden tower made for the purpose, and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah at his right, and at his left Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, Meshullam.

Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up.

Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands upraised. Then they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the LORD with their faces to the ground. – Nehemiah 8:2-6

and then, in the next month, and the next chapter of the book:

On the twenty-fourth day of this month, the Israelites assembled, fasting, in sackcloth, and with earth upon them.

Those of the stock of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

Standing in their places, they read from the scroll of the Teaching of the LORD their God for one-fourth of the day, and for another fourth they confessed and prostrated themselves before the LORD their God. – Nehemiah 9:1-3

As Shai Afsai wrote for the CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly:

Those two ancient Jerusalem assemblies, on Rosh Hashanah and on the twenty-fourth of Tishre, are the Sigd’s blueprint. Reading, translating, and expounding upon portions of the Bible, as well as the lifting of hands in prayer, and prostration, are features of the day. And as on that twenty-fourth of Tishre gathering, the Sigd also involves fasting and a communal confessing of sins, as well as re-acceptance of the Torah.

Back in Ethiopia, during their long exile, the Jewish community gathered on mountaintops to pray and hear words of Torah. Nowadays Ethiopian Jews in Israel gather at the Tayelet, a large plaza which overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem, to recall their years of exile and to celebrate their reunion with the Jews of the world in Israel. They welcome Jews of all backgrounds to the celebration.

They campaigned for many years for the inclusion of Sigd as an official Jewish holiday in Israel; that quest was successful in 2008.

For photographs of the celebration in 2017, see this Times of Israel article by David Sedly,

While I am not aware of American Jewish celebrations of Sigd (please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong!) this seems to me to be a wonderful opportunity for celebrating the Torah here as well. What if our religious schools took this holiday as an opportunity for learning about the diversity of Jewish ethnicities and expressions in the world?

The Fall Holidays of 5779: How were yours?

Image: Israeli Rabbi Stacey Blank blows the shofar. (Photo: Rabbi Stacey Blank)

So how has your Fall cycle of holidays gone this year?

We began back in August with the month of Elul, thinking upon our relationships and our own behavior, mending what we could.

Then with Selichot, things got serious: we said penitential prayers, the tunes changed, the clergy and the Torahs wore white.

When Rosh Hashanah came with all its pagentry, a combination of awe and celebration, we welcomed the New Year and hoped for a good year to come.

The Ten Days of Awe sped past, with so much to do and so little time to do it.

And soon it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – how was that for you?

Now we are almost at the end of Sukkot. The weather is beginning to chill even as our hearts warm. It’s good to spend time with friends and family, good to be grateful.

As the ancient cycle turned this year, the world intruded again and again with upsetting news at home and abroad. A giant earthquake and tsunami wracked Indonesia; a different kind of earthquake rocked Washington, D.C.

As the final festivities of the fall cycle approach (Shimini Atzeret  Simchat Torah, anyone?) where are you? What about you has changed? What has gotten better? Any reflections to share with us here in the comments?