What is Bedikat Chametz?

Image: Compost Recycling Can, by Alexas Fotos. Pixabay.com

The night before Passover, there’s a traditional Jewish ceremony called Bedikat Chametz.

Bedikat Chametz means “checking of chametz” and it has to do with making a last check for all the chametz in the house. That’s the stuff we’ve been cleaning out for the last month – all the products of the five forbidden-for-Passover grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye. By the last night, there shouldn’t be any left, but the traditional thing is to save a bit back so that you can “find” it and destroy it. I have a half-package of fettuccini pasta waiting for bedikat chametz at my house. Now I’m waiting for sundown – traditionally, 40 minutes after sundown on the evening before Passover is the proper time for it.

Traditionally, you take it outside and burn it. I live in fire country in California, and even in the springtime, my neighbors would rightly call the fire department if I started a fire outside. So I put the last chametz in the compost can, which technically isn’t mine – it belongs to the city. I thereby move it off my property, outside my domain.

(An alternative: My friend and teacher Rabbi Stephen Einstein reminded me that for families with children, bedikat chametz can make an enduring Passover memory. If you have children, consider making the hunt for chametz a hunt for hidden chametz (pieces of bread, perhaps) through the house) then either burn them up or deal with their removal as safety demands. Some families even offer a finders prizes for chametz.)

Then I say the prayer for nullification of chametz:

All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

And once I’ve done that, any chametz left in my house is inedible trash.

We’re almost there: Countdown to Pesach!



Six Steps to Passover

todoPurim is over. It’s time to get ready for Passover! Here’s my to-do list:

1. Figure out where I’ll be for seder. – The Passover seder is an obligation. It’s also the primary Jewish learning experience in which we share a meal, a story, and insights on the story. I need to be at the table first night, and I want to be at the table second night, but I need to decide if I’m hosting a seder or if I will be a guest at someone else’s table or a community table. No matter which, I need to be proactive.

2. Get rid of my chametz! My mantra for chametz (food containing the 5 grains forbidden for Passover) is: Use it up, give it away, throw it out!  If you are new to Judaism, or new to keeping Passover, read my post, Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It will explain what chametz is and a gentle way to begin this observance. There is no need to make yourself or your family miserable, nor do you get “Jewish points” for doing so.

3. Clean my house.  The tradition says that I have to get rid of chametz, but if I do a good job of it, then I will clean my house in the process. Passover prep is my yearly reminder to get rid of the things I don’t need, to clean up old messes, and to get my house back in order.

4. Recycle my emergency supplies. I live in California on an earthquake fault, so I have a stash of food, flashlights, and batteries in various safe places around the house. This time of year, I get last year’s canned goods, etc and take them to the Food Bank. Then I go to a discount store and replace them. That way people in need get food and batteries before they go bad, and I renew my supplies. It isn’t part of the halakhah for Passover, but it’s a great time to do it (see #2 above.) This is part of my annual tzedakah budget.

5. Locate my Passover dishes and recipes. Not every Jew keeps double sets of everything. I have a couple of boxes of Passover-only things, and I supplant the rest with (compostable) paper plates and such. I learned the hard way one year not to leave this till the last moment, because maybe I remember exactly where it all is, and maybe I only imagine I know.

6. Buy Passover supplies. For some ritually observant Jews, this means a huge expensive trip to the kosher grocery. I don’t keep kosher, but I do keep Passover, and that means I’ll need matzo and other products that substitute for all the stuff I cleaned out. Don’t wait till the last moment to get your matzo! Some years it can be hard to find in the last week.

It’s a lot of work, especially on top of my regular work! Time to get cracking: the next time the moon is full, it will be Passover!

Ask The Rabbi: How are Sephardic rules for Passover different?


Regular reader and commenter temelevbarg wrote to ask, “Can you explain what is included in a Sephardic diet for Passover?”

Sephardic Judaism is the Jewish tradition handed down through the Jews of Sepharad, the Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal.) It includes specific interpretations of Jewish law, liturgical forms, and folk customs.   Other traditions of Judaism include the Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and the Mizrahi Jews (Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean.) While the majority of North American Jews today are descended from Ashkenazim and follow Ashkenazi customs, the first Jews to settle in North America were Sephardim.

For Passover, Sephardic Jews like all other Jews eliminate all chametz from their diets and their homes. This is based on Biblical commandments to observe Passover by refraining from eating or possessing chametz. (Exodus 12-13, Deuteronomy 16) Chametz is usually translated as “leavened bread.” The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud later defined it more narrowly as any product of wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats which might have become moistened. (The standard method of leavening in both the Biblical and talmudic periods involved the use of sourdough, wetting flour and allowing yeast from the air to grow in it.) The only bread allowed is kosher-for-Passover matzah, water and flour mixed and cooked so quickly that the leavening process has no chance to start.

Sephardic tradition differs from Ashkenazic tradition in that since the 13th century, some Ashkenazi authorities have prohibited the eating of kitniyot (rice, millet, and legumes) in addition to the prohibition of chametz.

Another difference is in the seder menu. Sephardic seder menus often include lamb, in memory of the original Passover sacrifice (pesach). Just as First and Second Temple era families roasted the lamb and ate it while telling the Exodus story to their children, Sephardic families eat lamb at the seder. By contrast, in Ashkenazi tradition one does not serve lamb at the seder out of an awareness that the Temple is no longer standing, so there can be no pesach sacrifice.

So when someone asks if you keep Passover by Ashkenazi or Sephardic rules, they are usually asking if you do or do not eat rice during Passover. It’s also possible that they are inquiring about the menu for seder.

Thanks for a great question! (For more depth on these matters, follow the links in this article.)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-oxymoron/9647972522 Some rights reserved.

Clean or Dirty? Check Your Context! #BlogExodus



Once upon a time, I was a potter. I spent all day, every day, covered in clay. My coveralls were coated with clay. My fingernails had semi-permanent deposits of clay. My account books (this was in ancient times, before personal computers) had little daubs of clay punctuating the neat double-entry accounting. I had clay in my eyebrows, for crying out loud. But I did not feel a bit dirty, because it was CLAY!

In the pottery, the whole dirt/not dirt thing was flipped on its head. Clay was not dirt. Clay might get dirty, contaminated by some stray item (a bit of plaster, or my lunch) that fell in the slurry bucket, but clay was not dirt.  In the home where I grew up, a bucket of clay was a bucket of dirt. In the studio, the same bucket of clay was a precious raw material that had cost good money or hard effort. Dirt, on the other hand, was stuff that was out of place or out of control, or both. Bits of plaster were especially dirty, since they could cause a pot to explode in the kiln. However, plaster that stayed where it was supposed to be, in a drying cast, was a good and valuable thing.

I learned, in the pottery, that what is “clean” depends on context. It is a designation that depends on the rules of the context I am in at the moment.

The experience of running a pottery was a perfect setup for Jewish thinking about “cleanliness.”  Whether it is ritual cleanness (“tahor”) or ritual uncleanness (“tamei”) or cleaning for Passover, it’s all about context. All the grain products in my house have a use-by date of 13 Nisan, the day before Passover, because after that date, it all becomes dirt.

Tonight we are going to have pasta for dinner, while that pasta is still clean – on 14 Nisan, it will become CHAMETZ, and it shouldn’t be in the house (DIRT!). One way to get rid of it is to eat it up before Passover. Another is to give it away. A third possibility is to compost it. A fourth possibility is to destroy it or sell it. Whatever I do with it, it must be gone before Passover.

This goes for all grain products: anything made of wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. Chametz includes liquids like beer and whiskey, foods like pasta and cookies, even the processed foods I keep for convenience in the cabinet. It all has to go, because after 13 Nisan, it’s essentially dirt. The stuff I normally see as dirt also has to go, because it might have chametz in it: dustbunnies, dust, crumbs, the shmutz on the tile backsplash behind the stove, all of it. This is the original deep spring cleaning: get rid of all the chametz! Get rid of the dirt!

Right now, my house is full of chametz, perfectly harmless at the moment. I have a week to get rid of all of it before it turns to dirt. Pardon me while I go CLEAN!

Want to join in? We’re sharing #BlogExodus for the next 2 weeks. All you have to do is use the hashtag and there are suggested prompts on the graphic above (feel free to grab it). Maybe you just want to post on your Facebook or Twitter about these topics…or maybe you want to try #Exodusgram, posting photos related to these themes? I am late to the party but I’ll be posting my #blogExodus posts here from now till Passover. Many thanks to the clever rabbi who started this pre-Passover celebration of words and images, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On and Off the Bima.

Mop Bucket Enlightenment? – Yes, Really!


We’re deep into a season for spiritual growth. Jewish households worldwide are in a frenzy of cleaning. Other Jewish households are guiltily thinking they should be in a frenzy of cleaning. This raises the question, “Where is the spiritual benefit in all this mundane activity?

Passover is an experiential holiday: if you are not a “text person,” this is the holiday for you! Every step of the way, we are offered multi-sensory experiences for learning truths about life and Judaism: tastes, smells, textures, sights, and sounds.

During the seder, we hold up the maror, the bitter herb, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. We say, “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” The bitter taste of horseradish is one way to taste that experience.

Cleaning for Passover is another. We feel the mop handle in our hands, and hear the vacuum cleaner. It isn’t fun to do the whole house at once, to search out every possible crumb. If every member of a household pitches in on Passover prep, cleaning and cleaning in our “free” time, shlepping goods to the food drive, digging out the boxes of Passover dishes, boxing up things that shouldn’t be used during Passover, vacuuming everywhere, we get a little taste of manual labor, no matter how sedentary our day jobs. It’s hard work that we are commanded to do: a taste (just a taste) of servanthood. Our sore muscles will read us the Haggadah, if we do it right.

We are seeking out every crumb of stale, puffed-up junk in our lives: not just the cookie crumbs in the toddler’s pockets, but the old grudges in our hearts and the stale notions in our heads. (Trust me, these things smell.)  The mindless work of cleaning offers us undistracted time to reflect on what stinks, if we are brave enough to take it.

This kind of cleaning is humbling. We see our slavery to bad habits, whether they are eating habits or housekeeping habits. We must notice our clutter. We must notice everything, because we have to look for chametz in it!

Now perhaps you are not a person who cleans for Passover. But I encourage you to do at least a little, because it is a uniquely Jewish spiritual task. If you are thinking, “but I just can’t!” try reading Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It’s a beginner’s approach to the spiritual journey of Passover.

If we do this, when we reach the 14th of Nisan, we’ll be ready for a fresh beginning, ready to walk out into a life renewed, unburdened by chametz. Then, indeed, we can celebrate!

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Preparing for Passover: Six Ways to Prepare

(Photo credit: pucci.it)

Traditionally, Jews spend the month after Purim preparing for Passover. A lot of the holiday is in the preparation: the seder and the week that follows are the fruit of what we’ve put in the month before. I thought it might be helpful to look at the various ways we prepare for Passover.  If this is your first year observing Passover, don’t try to do everything at once. Choose one or two, and get all that you can out of them.


1. HOUSE CLEANING. Yes, literal house cleaning! For more on this, and a sane way to approach it in the spirit of learning something (as opposed to merely making yourself exhausted and crazy) here’s an article I wrote last year. One of the things about the physical cleaning is that you can pursue it while you think about some of the more brain-intensive possibilities below.


2. PONDERING A PERSONAL PASSOVER. Passover is the festival of telling the story about “deliverance from Egypt.” If you are truly to experience deliverance, it helps to notice from what you need deliverance. Spend some time, between now and Passover, thinking about your own personal Egypt(s). The name for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim,” which also means “a narrow place, a tight spot.” Questions to ask myself: Where in my life am I stuck? To what am I a slave? In what parts of my life am I Pharaoh? Do I depend on the slavery of others? What would freedom look like, in any of these cases? What would freedom cost? What is freedom worth?


3. PLANNING FOR SEDER.  Notice that I don’t say “planning A seder.” I covered that last year in the post, “Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success.”  The question is, what am I going to do about attending seder this year? Participation at seder is not optional: Jews are supposed to be at a seder the first night of Passover (in some understandings, the first two nights of Passover.) This does NOT mean that each of us have to host a seder, however. Now is the time to make seder plans, to touch base with the family with whom you always have seder (are we observing together this year?) or to make your own  list of guests, or to find out what’s available to you.  If you are reading this and thinking, “But I don’t know anyone!” then you need to get busy. Phone your synagogue and tell them that you need a seder invitation (yes, this is perfectly OK, if you belong to a synagogue.) OR phone almost any local Jewish organization and ask them to point you to a seder you can attend for a fee. If this makes you feel incredibly anxious, watch for upcoming posts on this blog about being a seder novice with “nowhere to go.” I’m going to write about it.


4. PLANNING FOR THE WEEK. When I was first learning about Passover, I got so excited about the cleaning and the meal, I forgot that Passover goes on for a whole week.  Plan what you will eat during that time: lots of matzah? Special recipes? Or use the time to “renew your diet” by moving away from processed foods and spending a week eating fresh fruits and vegetables? If you are going to buy special products for Passover, now is the time to buy them (and to find them in the store.)


5. PONDERING CHAMETZ. Another thing to think about, as Passover approaches, is chametz. It’s what we clean out of the house (see the link in #1 above.) Technically speaking, chametz is any product of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt) that may have gotten wet. (What? you say, I thought it had something to do with leaven? And the answer to that, is that in Bible times, leaven was all by sourdough method: if grain got wet, sometimes it got infected with yeast and swelled.) In pondering chametz, the questions are: what in my life is crummy? What has gotten swelled up, out of proportion? What is stale? And now that I’ve identified those things, what am I going to do about them?


6. TZEDAKAH. Tzedakah is the Jewish term for charitable giving, which we are commanded to do. At Passover, the story reminds me of slaves and refugees, both of which the present world has in miserable quantity. This is a great time to give tzedakah to relieve their suffering. This, too, takes planning!


So, enjoy your planning! Get all the “juice” out of this fruitful time of the Jewish year!


Am I a Slave?


To whom or what am I a slave?

The question is on my mind as I clean for Passover.  The evidence lies before me, in trails of crumbs.

There is chometz by the computer.  What is a slave, if not someone who cannot rise from her task long enough to eat a meal?  Is that addiction to work, or addiction to mindless wandering on the Internet?  Addiction to netflix or addiction to facebook?  Make a note and find out.

There is chometz in the car.  Again, I could not stop to eat like a civilized free person?

My addictions/slaveries are writ large on the kitchen shelves:  I buy processed food for “convenience” but the question is, does it nourish?  Some does, some does not.  A free person would have the time to find out.  That is, if she were truly free from her addiction to the tastes of processing:  sugar, salt, and who knows what unearthly thing from the likes of ADM.

Then there is the source of all this bounty I am pondering:  where did my food come from this year?  Did I enslave anyone, or benefit from their slavery?  Did the crunch in my salad come cheap because someone else was in chains?

Passover is about the passage from slavery to freedom.  The question is, Will I make that passage to genuine freedom?  And whom shall I bring with me?

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to find some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.