OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

Passover 2024

Pesach is personal

The Jewish holiday involves a kaleidoscope of customs. But why so strict?

Passover seder plate. Credit: tomertu/Shutterstock.
Passover seder plate. Credit: tomertu/Shutterstock.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Passover is less than two weeks away, and it’s always interesting to see the many holiday customs that are observed by different communities. They are as different as we are. While the basic observances are pretty much universal, everybody seems to have their own unique way of celebrating. Each family has distinct traditions and customs handed down from generation to generation—not only Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Chassidic or Lithuanian, but every individual family. Whether it’s how to find the afikomen or our favorite seder songs, we all seem to have definite views on how things ought to be done.

Sometimes, our personal Passover practices can be rather outlandish. Take the woman who does not actually keep kosher year-round but during Pesach, she “changes over.” This isn’t logical, but who am I to be dismissive of a Jew’s desire to connect to God and keep a mitzvah? I can only hope that she will “change over” permanently and keep kosher for the rest of the year as well.

Historically, most families were stricter on Pesach than the rest of the year. The most religiously observant people underwent stringencies they never observed at other times. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., we never ate out during the eight days of the holiday. Not even at the homes of our most religious friends or people we ate with on Shabbat or Yom Tov. Why not? I suppose it was because every family has its own restrictions on Pesach. This one does this and the other does that. This fellow won’t eat this product and the other doesn’t touch that vegetable. We all respected each other’s right to be extreme or meshuggah frum on Pesach.

But why?

There are two reasons behind this special scrupulousness on Pesach. One is practical; the other is halachic and somewhat technical.

Practically speaking, we need to be stricter and take additional precautions on Passover because foods that are perfectly kosher during the rest of the year are for this one week strictly forbidden. Bread and biscuits, chocolate cake and challah, pizza and pasta, wafers and whisky may be 100% kosher and deliciously edible every week of the year, but during this one week, they become absolutely treif. We could easily make an innocent mistake and take a bite of any of these foods if available and within easy reach. So, we make sure that the house is thoroughly cleaned and that all chametz is locked away. Thus, no innocent mistakes can be made.

Then there is the halachic reason. You may have heard of the concept of bittul or “nullification.” This is a principle of kashrut that holds there are times when, for example, a small amount of milk becomes mixed into a larger amount of meat. The milk will be overwhelmed and “nullified” by the meat, and usually, the forbidden mixture may still be kosher. I hasten to add that these issues must be addressed by a qualified rabbi only.

Say you are preparing your Shabbat meal, and your domestic chef slips on a banana peel and accidentally spills her milk tea into your pot of chicken soup. Do not throw out the soup! Call your rabbi. Depending on the circumstances, he may be able to help save your Friday-night dinner from disaster.

You know the story of Tevye der Milchiger? He was the milkman in the shtetl. Well, one day, the unthinkable happened. The caterer was preparing a wedding feast, and one of his workers slipped on the proverbial banana peel and his milk tea went flying into a vat of meat. Can you imagine the calamity if there were no dinner for the hundreds of hungry wedding guests? The rabbi of the shtetl was called in to deal with this most serious halachic question—a very grave shaaloh indeed.

The wise old rabbi called Tevye into his private study. He closed the door tightly and whispered into the milkman’s ear: “Tevye, tell me the truth, how much water do you pour into your milk?”

“Rebbe, you would accuse me of cheating my customers?!”

“Tevye, it’s just me and you here behind closed doors. Please, it’s very important that I know. How much water?”

“Rebbe, efsher ah bissel, ‘maybe only a little bit.’”

“Tevye, I beg of you, your secret is safe with me. Please tell me the truth. How much water do you normally add to your milk?”

What can I tell you? By the time the rabbi extracted the whole truth from Tevye, he was satisfied that the meat for the wedding was not only strictly kosher but that Tevye’s milk was probably pareve!

Still, during Passover, the kashrut concept of bittul does not apply. Chametz is such a strict prohibition that it can never be overwhelmed, no matter how big the pot may be. Even an infinitesimal amount of chametz will render the biggest pot of Passover food absolutely forbidden.

Thus, we must be as stringent as possible to keep even the smallest piece of chametz far and away from us and our families. Hence, our extreme strictness on Pesach.

Some people ask why we need so many kosher-for-Passover products today when in the good old days, we never had all those options, and it was just fine. Others insist on every convenience over Pesach to make it more enjoyable. Still others will go to a beautiful hotel—in Israel or some exotic destination—where every luxury is laid on and it is truly their “Festival of Freedom.”

To each our own. Whether it is our unique childhood memories of fathers or zaydes conducting a traditional seder, or the seder songs of our youth that still play on our soul strings, the dedication to Passover is alive in Jewish hearts. Thus it should be for the festival that celebrates the very birth of our nation.

While it may be our national birthday and the very beginning of Jewish peoplehood, Pesach is also a very personal Yom Tov. We each celebrate it in our own ways and styles, with our own special memories and even our own curious idiosyncrasies as well.

I wish all my readers a chag kasher v’sameach!

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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