Begin in Egypt: Preparing for Passover

Image: A waist down view of a man in an apron and blue jeans holding cleaning supplies. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock.)

Six years ago I wrote a piece about Passover preparation called “Begin in Egypt.” 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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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.
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Purim, Passover, Packing!

Image: These two little guys “helped” me pack for home in May of 2003. 

The staff at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion have a saying: “Purim, Passover, Packing!” What they mean by that is that the velocity of the school year increases beginning with Purim. Assignments and tests loomed on the horizon for Year-In-Israel students as soon as we’d finished our hamantaschen. When Passover arrived we had a week out of class to catch our breath, then we hurried to hand in assignments, take final tests, and pack for the long trip back to the United States.

I still have dreams about that stretch of time between Passover and June.

I experience it again, every year, because as soon as Purim is done, I begin preparing for Passover. That’s an involved process, and you can read about it elsewhere in this blog at Passover Prep for Beginners.

When do you start your Passover preparations? How do you begin?

Ready, Set, Sukkot!

For years and years, I intended to build a sukkah in which to celebrate Sukkot, but when the holiday came around, I was somehow caught by surprise. It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch on to the fact that I needed to do some Sukkot preparation during Elul, as well as the preparation for the High Holy Days.

The two sets of preparation are not mutually exclusive. Preparation for the High Holy Days is mostly a private matter for anyone who is not on a synagogue staff.  We examine our hearts, we go back through the previous year, we make amends. It can be hard emotional work. Preparation for Sukkot is a matter of mechanics:

  1. Do I have the stuff to build the sukkah?
  2. Do I know where all of it is?
  3. Do I need to repair or replace anything?
  4. Do I want to add anything? New decorations? Lights?

After the first year, it’s really not a big deal, but it has to be done, because sukkah building should begin, ideally, immediately after Yom Kippur. I have learned that most of it dovetails quite easily with preparations for the High Holy Days; while I am checking through supplies, I make my mental lists.

This year I’m still looking for my sukkah walls, but I have found the rug and the furniture. I’ve ordered a new bamboo mat for schach, and I got some new twinkly lights. Prep done, if I can just find those walls…!

So this is my reminder to you, dear readers, that if you are planning to build a sukkah this year, it’s time to figure out where you put the sukkah supplies from last year. If you don’t plan to build a sukkah, I also have a suggestion: as you make your lists of people with whom you need to have important conversations, make a list of people with whom to sit and enjoy during Sukkot. If you can’t sit in a kosher sukkah, sit in an almost-kosher sukkah. If you have no access to any kind of sukkah, think where you might share a cup of tea or coffee (or chocolate!) with those friends, one by one.

Sukkot, too, is part of our renewal at the beginning of the year. Don’t wait to prepare – have your plans ready. Beyond the solemn self-examination of the High Holy Days awaits the joy of Sukkot!

Purim to Passover = Preparation

Passover will arrive when the moon is full again.
Passover will arrive when the moon is full again.

Purim is over! Put away the masks and take an aspirin if necessary: it’s time to prepare for Passover!

Passover in 2015 begins at sundown on Friday, April 3. That’s the “first night” or “first seder.”

Note: In this blog, I assume that my main audience are beginners: people who did not for whatever reason get a Jewish education as children and who are looking to engage with Jewish life as adults. If you are looking for directions for keeping a frum house for Pesach this blog is not for you. However, if you are not sure what “frum” and “Pesach” are, you are in the right place (and you can click the links to find out what those words mean.)

1. WHERE WILL YOU BE FOR SEDER? Traditionally, Jews attend at least one Passover seder every year during which we tell the story of the Exodus and make it fresh again. So, if you do not yet have plans for attending a seder, it’s time to seek one out. If this will be your first seder, do not try to host it. Check with your rabbi or synagogue office: who has a place at the table for you? If you have a mentor  or Jewish friends, you can ask them, too. There may be a communal seder you can join for a fee, but be aware: tickets sell out, so call early! If you will be a guest at the seder table, here is an article about that. If this is not your first Passover, and you are going to host your first seder, here is an article for you.

2. GET RID OF YOUR CHAMETZ! Cleaning for Passover is the main way we prepare for the holiday, and it is a part of the experience of the season. We have to get rid of all our chametz. Chametz is any product with wheat, oats, spelt, barley, or rye that might at some point have gotten wet and swelled. We deal with the “might have gotten wet” part by just getting rid of all products containing those five grains. For instructions on cleaning for Passover, read Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.

3. SHOP FOR MATZAH: One of the names for Passover is Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of Matzah. We eat matzah during Passover. If you don’t particularly like matzah, you can fulfill the obligation by eating it at the seder, but if you want to have some at home, it’s a good idea to grab a box before they sell out. You can learn more in this article: Passover Shopping Tips.

Some readers may be thinking, gee, party planning, housekeeping, and shopping: is this any way to prepare for a holy festival? Passover is the quintessential Jewish holiday, because the spiritual part is hidden within seemingly mundane tasks. Over the four weeks between now and Passover, I’m going to use this blog to uncover some of the spiritual growth possibilities hidden in those to-do lists.

In the meantime, trust the process! Prepare for Passover! And let’s see where we are when the moon is full again.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Klearchos Kapoutsis