It’s not about the peanut oil

It’s not about the peanut oil

Pesach – Passover – is less than three weeks away and the annual frenetic rush is on to get everything done on time that needs to be done. For those of us who observe the festival in traditional ways, that means engaging in the rigorous cleaning required (the nature of which varies depending on halachic decisors and regional conventions); converting kitchens for Pesach use; removing all foods that are not kosher for Pesach and purchasing foods that are.

Preparing for Pesach is hard work, and very expensive (too expensive, but that is an issue for another column). There is a psychological component at work, as well, because too many of us fret over the minutiae of seemingly ever-changing and ever more restrictive Pesach rules and regulations, fearful of making the slightest unintentional infraction.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day For those who do not observe Pesach in traditional ways, these same rules and regulations are “proof positive” that Judaism has little relevance in the modern world.

Such people are misguided and misinformed. Pesach needs to be observed and properly so, although the definition of “properly” depends on the authoritative source doing the defining (a Sephardi decisor, for example, has a completely different notion of “properly” in a Pesach context than an Ashkenazi posek).

Unfortunately, those of us who observe Pesach traditionally are just as misguided and misinformed, precisely because we are so wrapped up in the halachic minutiae that it only reinforces our own distorted views of Judaism.

Pesach is about our birth as a nation, not our birth as a religion. We are Ahm Yisrael – “the Nation Israel” – which means that ours is a national identity, not a religious one. Our national identity does carry with it a religious component, but only because it comes with a sense of purpose, a sense of mission. We believe that mission derives directly from God. It is “religious” in nature, in the sense that we are supposed to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

In the Torah portion last week (Shemini), the notion was expressed several times that we need to be holy because God is holy. The notion will be given its most comprehensive expression this year on the Shabbat immediately following Pesach, when the Torah portion will begin with the opening words of Leviticus 19: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.'”

Take a couple of minutes to read this chapter; it will be very instructive. As you will quickly realize, this is God’s blueprint for how a person lives a holy life. Note especially that holiness is not achieved by how many sets of dishes we have or whether we allow rice at the seder table, or the like. There is some ritual in this chapter, to be sure, but it is mixed in and subsumed by laws of behavior.

Reverence for parents is followed by Shabbat observance (which in any case is more behavior-oriented than ritual-infused); is followed by a ban on idol worship; is followed by rules about a particular sacrifice; is followed by laws about what we owe to the poor and the stranger; is followed by a rule against misusing God’s Name to deceive; is followed by a prohibition against fraud; and so on.

Put in contemporary terms, this chapter has nothing to say about whether peanut oil is kosher for Pesach, but it has a lot to say about mistreating counter clerks.

Where does a counter clerk fit in here, you ask?

Assume the clerk gives you too much change. Verses 19:11 and 13 state, “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another…. You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”

If you keep that money, you are stealing from the store and you are robbing the clerk, because most stores, at least, make the clerks pay for whatever should be in the register but is not there. This also means that you are withholding a laborer’s wages unnecessarily.

There are other ways that this can be applied. For example, let us assume that you receive a letter in the mail and the postage stamp was not canceled. Can you use that stamp on a letter of your own? Why not? After all, in this case, no one gets hurt, not even the clerk.

That question was asked of a contemporary posek by the name of Rabbi Menashe Klein (a/k/a the Ungvarer Rebbe; see his Mishnah Halachot 6.288). Here is how he ruled:

“In our case, if someone sent a letter, [after] placing a stamp on it, the stamp represents the price for the delivery of the letter and the sender received the value for his stamp. The fact that the stamp was not canceled was due to the negligence of the postal employee….Therefore, he must tear up the stamp and may not use it.”

Why? Because otherwise you make the negligent clerk inadvertently complicit in a crime.

The law of the land is the law – dina d’machulta dina. That is a halachic principle. According to the law of the land, one must pay a fee in order to mail a letter. The fee is payable by postage stamp. If the letter is delivered but the stamp is not canceled, then the fee may or may not have been paid and the law may or may not have been broken. If you tear up or otherwise discard the stamp so that it is unusable, all is well. If, on the other hand, you use the stamp, then the fee was not paid and the original culprit was the negligent clerk, because his or her action facilitated the crime. The fact that you took advantage of someone else’s carelessness ended up harming that person – even if that clerk will never know it.

That is the kind of halachic minutiae that truly defines Judaism – going so far as to dance on the head of a pin, if necessary, to make us aware of how our actions affect other people. There is nothing ancient or outdated or silly about it.

Pesach needs to celebrated and properly so, but not because its observance is an end in itself, for it is not. Pesach needs to be observed because observing it is a reminder of our true task: to live holy lives.

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