Last month, as I searched in vain throughout central Florida for Coca-Cola products certified as kosher for Passover, I had an epiphany. The Torah prohibition against ownership or possession of leavened products during Passover is absolute and unequivocal. The Torah offers no compromise on that front. "No leavening shall be seen in all your border" and "leavening shall not be found in your houses." Those who transgress these commandments are subject to the harshest of punishments.
And yet, I cannot think of a house in my community that does not maintain cabinets full of chametz over the Passover holiday. The Torah commandments are no match for our little slices of scotch tape that ably protect our eyes from certain doom. What’s that? You accidentally left your yom tov candles in one of the firmly secured chametz-drawers? No worries. We sold the contraband to an unknown gentile who would promptly be arrested and prosecuted if he tried to recover his half-opened bottle of ketchup.
It isn’t that I do not trust the validity of the leniencies so scrupulously and zealously crafted over the generations. Quite the contrary, I follow them religiously. But, back to my bottle of Coke. It is prohibited because it contains corn syrup, a liquid derivative of corn, which is a form of legume proscribed in the 13th century out of fear that confusion caused by the similarity between corn and wheat might lead to the accidental consumption of chametz on Passover. The prohibition is now universally accepted by most Ashkenazic Jewry. Thanks to the Takana, you can also take corn, rice, mustard, beans, and peas off the seder menu.
Parenthetically, there is a trend today to develop Passover products that are virtually indistinguishable from their leavened counterparts. I have seen Passover pasta, rolls, vodka, and, yes, even bread. In the ‘1st century, it would seem, we are less concerned about confusing chametz and matzah. To keep things interesting, we actually keep the chametz in our homes, a mere cabinet away from their synthetic counterparts. Just as long as we don’t order any sushi.
So afraid have we become of kitniyot, we can no longer enjoy non-kitniyot derivates, like corn syrup, lest we come to violate the 14th-century prohibition. I even read an article that cautions followers of the Ari z’l (no relation) to avoid products containing aspartame, such as Diet Coke even if certified as kosher for Passover, because aspartame is manufactured through a product that is similar to a legume.
Thus, we cannot have legumes, legume derivatives, or even byproducts of legume derivatives. We zealously guard these customs, without leniency or deviation, and yet the Torah prohibition of chametz in our borders? Leaven in our homes? For that we found a convenient loophole to circumvent at least the spirit of the law, if not its letter.
The first mishnah of Pirkei avot commands us to create a "fence" around the Torah-laws to protect us from inadvertent violation. But do we have it backwards? Should we be lax regarding chametz in our homes but scrupulously avoid Diet Coke? Or are we simply following the age-old custom of picking and choosing our methods of observance to justify our own spirituality or lack thereof?
The answer eluded me, much like the kosher-for-Passover Coke. Giving up the search, I got back on line for Space Mountain, in adherence to the almost universally accepted ‘1st-century Ashkenazic custom of spending Passover at a resort or theme-park. Interestingly, Sephardim have accepted this stringency as well, which in about three centuries should become halacha.