Passover Prep for Beginners

Image: Feather duster and cleaners by stevepb.

Four years ago I wrote a piece about Passover preparation called “Begin in Egypt.” It was, I think, one of my best ever for this website, because it addressed the situation of beginners when preparing for Passover. I repost it today, because I still think it’s my best on the subject:

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Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt

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 the Pesah 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.

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 there is some way to 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.

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 “CHOMETZ  There 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.

What is Gefilte Fish?

Image: A platter of gefilte fish, topped with carrot slices. Photo by ovedc. Copyright via CC-BYSA 3.0.

If you live in a community with mostly Ashkenazi Jews, at holiday time you are likely to see a lot of traditional Ashkenazi foods. Gefilte fish is perhaps the most mysterious to those who didn’t grow up eating it.

“Gefilte” (geh-FILL-teh) is not a species of fish. The word is Yiddish for “filled.” Gefilte fish is a fish loaf: boned, minced white fish mixed with matzo crumbs, chopped onions and root vegetables, eggs and seasonings. (Think “meat loaf” only with fish.) Then it is formed into balls and the balls are poached either in water or more usually in fish stock.

Gefilte fish is served cold, often with horseradish and a carrot or egg garnish.

As with many Ashkenazi foods, gefilte fish developed in response to regional food availability and ritual requirements. Fish is an especially flexible menu item in a kosher diet, because it is parve, that is, it can be eaten with either flesh or dairy. Moreover, mixing the fish with crumbs of matzo or bread crumbs stretches the expensive protein.

However, fish is tricky on Shabbat, since boning it is viewed by many traditional sources to be a violation of the Sabbath. (Sorting or picking one thing out from another is called borer and is one of the 39 forbidden classes of activity.) Therefore the bones must be removed before Shabbat! Gefilte fish work nicely for this, since the boning happens before Shabbat, and the dish is eaten cold – one less thing to keep hot for the Sabbath meal.

Advice for Beginners: Horseradish helps!

Where is God in Megillat Esther?

Image: A masked person. Photo by madeinitaly.

The name of God appears nowhere in the text of the Book of Esther [Megillat Esther.] What are we to make of this? Is Purim a godless holiday?

There are a number of ways to read this absence. Chapter 9 of the scroll says that the story was copied onto scrolls and sent far and wide to be read by the Jews. Perhaps the writer (traditionally, Esther herself) felt that it was better not to put scrolls with holy words into general circulation where they could be desecrated. So she chose to omit the name of God, in order to protect the holy Name.

However, modern scholars are fairly certain that Esther is a novella, a fiction, not a history. It has a number of assertions about the Persian court that any Jew of the time would recognize as fake. It is more likely a parable about life in Diaspora.

If that is the case, then the absence of God’s name perhaps has a more deliberate meaning. Jews in Diaspora do not live in Jewish space. The Jews of Megillat Esther live in Persia, under the rule of a Persian king and his court, and as the story illustrates, powerful men can turn on them at any time.

When this happens to Jewish communities, it is natural to ask, “Where is God?” And the Book of Esther directs us to ask that question: where is God, when our enemies slander and betray us, when they imprison and kill us for no good reason other than hatred?

We cannot “see” God in the Esther text. God is apparently missing, and in the context of this story, that poses a theological question: Where is God?

Esther and Mordecai do not have the luxury of waiting for God to appear. They do not have the luxury of miracles. This is not a Red Sea moment, when the waters pass and we all walk to safety. Rather it is like so many other moments in Jewish history, when God seems to be somewhere else, and it is up to good men and women to improvise salvation. Esther married a non-Jew, and Mordecai was the architect of the massacre in Chapter 9. We can disapprove of them if we wish, but once Haman turned on them, they had very few alternatives.

Where is God in the text? We can say, “Thank God!” that Esther was queen, married to the heathen Ahasuerus. We can say, “Thank God!” that Mordecai saw a solution to the problem of the king’s ring and seal. God IS in the text, in the courage and ingenuity of Esther and Mordecai!

Where is God? God resides, as always, in the hearts and hands of good men and women.

Enjoy your Purim!

 

 

 

Home Safety is a Mitzvah

Image: Life preserver hanging on a wall. Photo by tookapic.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. -Deuteronomy 22:8

We often think of spirituality as a high and lofty subject, but Jewish spirituality can be a gritty pursuit. At its best, it permeates our daily lives, for the mitzvot [commandments] often address very practical matters.

The commandment above is one of my favorites. It addresses the question of home safety: put a railing on your roof so that no one will fall off. The rabbis extended this to include the principle of all home safety matters: if I have a loose stair, or an unlighted entry, or a tricky throw rug, the Torah commands me to fix it, lest someone be injured.

I’m engaged with this mitzvah right now, because I’ve begun my Passover preparations. Every year at this time I check my “earthquake supplies” (really, emergency supplies) to make sure that I can take care of myself, my family and my two elderly neighbors should a big earthquake hit or some other disaster complicate life in the Bay Area.

I do this as part of my Passover prep because it’s very convenient time to do it. One of the things I do is cart last year’s canned tuna and peanut butter to the Food Bank. It’s all still good, and someone will benefit, but when/if there’s trouble, I won’t be stuck eating ten year old peanut butter for a month. I promptly sell the renewed supplies to my non-Jewish son, who is the official owner of my emergency stash, so I can still observe a kosher Passover.

Silly? Nope. I have vivid memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which was not “The Big One” but was certainly the Bad Enough One which wrecked our home and disrupted our lives for more than a year. The next big quake may very well cut me off from water and food for an extended period, so I prepare.

If you don’t live in earthquake country, you still need to be ready for emergencies. Should something bad happen in your neighborhood, can you lay hands on these things?

  • Clean (probably bottled) water (1 gallon per day per person)
  • Nutritious food (high in protein and/or calories)
  • Can opener
  • Flashlight, with extra batteries
  • Battery-operated or crank radio
  • First aid kit
  • Prescription meds
  • Emergency blanket or wrap
  • Shoes
  • Copies of essential personal documents (whatever you’d want to have if the house burned down, God forbid)
  • Chargers for electronics like your cell phone
  • Phone numbers and contact information
  • Copies of passports and driver’s licenses
  • Cash in small bills (ATMs may not be working)
  • Baby supplies (if needed)
  • Pet supplies (if needed)

I also have a roll of duct tape, a multi-tool knife, a bottle of detergent, a whistle, my ham radios, spare eyeglasses and a spare bottle of propane.

There are also things I don’t keep around, because they decrease the safety of anyone in my house: guns and cans of gasoline top that list.

I hope that we’ll never need this stuff. I hope you will never need your emergency supplies, either. But if you need a push to update your kit, now you’ve got it: it’s a mitzvah!

 

 

Purim’s Coming!

Image: Three Jews celebrating Purim: a Cubs fan, a very silly rabbi, and a cowboy. Photo by Linda Burnett.

At last! Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet arrives at sundown on Wednesday, March 9!

In a leap year, Adar Aleph is the “added in” month, so we have to wait a little longer for Purim. Purim this year (2016) will begin at sundown on Wednesday, March 23, aka 14 Adar Bet, 5776.

Two weeks is not too early to begin planning for Purim. Mitzvot require planning! Some things to do–  follow the links for more information on each mitzvah:

  1. Plan our tzedakah to feed the poor. (A Purim mitzvah)
  2. Plan our mishloach manot, gifts of food for friends, aka Purim goody bags.
  3. Plan our festive meal (yes, another Purim mitzvah!)
  4. Plan where we will hear the megillah [Scroll of Esther] If you want to hear the whole scroll chanted, it is wise to phone ahead. Some synagogues have only a Purim shpiel.
  5. Plan costumes for yourself and your family! (Not a mitzvah, but still fun.)

Also, while officially we don’t begin preparation for Passover until after Purim, in reality many Jews begin the Passover prep before they put on their masks. If you want to start thinking about that process, I recommend taking a look at Cleaning for Passover: Begin in EgyptIt’s a guide especially for those who have never kept Passover before, or who find the prospect of cleaning for Passover overwhelming.

Shake off those winter blues, and get ready: Purim’s coming!

Thoughts on Presidents Day

Image: Presidents Day Sale announcement. Art by vectorshots.

Today is President’s Day in the United States. The holiday came into being in 1968, when President Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 into being. Before that, we celebrated President Lincoln’s  birthday on February 12 and President Washington’s birthday on February 22.

According to President Johnson:

This will mean a great deal to our families and our children. It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities.– Statement by the President Upon Signing the Uniform Holiday Bill, June 28, 1968.

Moving holidays to Monday meant that instead of holidays that broke up the work week, we had long weekends for President’s Day, for Veteran’s Day, and for Memorial Day.

I was once engaged as a High Holy Day leader by a congregation that wanted to move Rosh Hashanah to a Friday night, to make it less disruptive of their work week. They were upset with me when I refused to accommodate their wishes. The principle is firm: we don’t move the High Holy Days for our convenience, because they are more important than our convenience. Even when the 9/11 attacks fell during the Days of Awe, we did not put off Yom Kippur until an easier time. In fact for many of us, the Yom Kippur services marked a key step in mourning the attacks and coming to terms with the fact that our world had changed forever.

Sometimes things in the Jewish calendar do move, but usually that has to do with a conflict with other calendar items. For instance, this year we have two months of Adar. We do that so that Passover and next Rosh Hashanah will stay in their proper seasons. If we did not adjust, then our lunar calendar would send the spring and fall holy days spiraling around the year.

For very small congregations served by student rabbis or rabbis on a once-a-month schedule, it can be very difficult to keep holy days in their proper place. Still, most small congregations I know keep the major holidays faithfully and do the best they can with the minor ones.

I don’t know how Presidents Washington and Lincoln would have felt about us combining their birthdays into one holiday. Likely they would have agreed with President Johnson that it would be better for business. However,  I notice that it has taken the emphasis off of the men themselves and made it more of a “holiday weekend” for vacations and sales. The same is true, maybe more so, for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, both of which originally marked solemn days in our country’s history. Those days have largely lost their significance as days of solemnity and gratitude unless your family has members who have been in the military.

With that in mind, I don’t see myself accepting any requests to celebrate Jewish holy days at more convenient times. The holy days’ very inconvenience is part of our experience, reminding us that yes, indeed, some things are more important than work, or even play.

 

Jews & Valentines: What to do?

Image: My homemade “What’s a Jew to Do?” Valentine card (Photo by R. Ruth Adar)

Valentine’s Day is here, and there’s nothing Jewish about it. If you want to know about the Jewish holiday of love, read A Jewish Valentine’s Day?

That said, I am all in favor of a day that reminds us to tell our loved ones “I love you.” Truth is, we should be doing that every day.

I see the pain Feb 14 gives some of my single friends, and the widows, and those whose marriages are suffering.  I wonder about the kindness of a day devoted to expressions of romantic love, a day that winds up excluding all but the already happy.

I celebrate the day by telling my beloved that I love her (as I do every day) and sending a donation to Shalom Bayit, an organization working against domestic violence in my home town.

Down with pain, up with love! I think that’s an idea we can all support.