What does Pesach really stand for nowadays? Hypocrisy and zealotry, on the one hand, and a great threat to the future of Judaism on the other.
Freedom no longer has anything to do with Pesach. Rather, we have become slaves to a rabbinic proclivity to ignore with conscious abandon the Torah’s repeated injunctions neither to stray off God’s path to the right or to the left nor to add to His law or subtract from it. To live a halachic lifestyle in any form — Orthodox, Conservative, chasidic, haredi — means living behind fences surrounded by fences surrounded by myriad other fences that obscure yet other fences.
Our desire to escape these unnecessary accretions has led, among other things, to the creation of a faux chametz world for eight days a year (nine this year, practically speaking, because Pesach is immediately preceded by a Shabbat) that makes a mockery of Pesach, of God’s Torah and commandments, and of halacha.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. The process of cleaning the home and getting the various appliances, cookware, and the like ready for Pesach is a daunting one, to be sure. It is also a necessary one. Pesach is different. Freedom comes with a price. Does it have to be so daunting, however? And must those who are poor be forced to go to great expense to accommodate manmade stringencies?
A look at the different ways Ashkenazic and Sephardi authorities approach this area of Pesach law is instructive.
According to Ashkenazic authorities, including the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism (this is not an anti-Orthodox rant), the smooth surfaces of many electric ranges are not eligible for kashering for Pesach, which makes them unusable. Yet according to decisions by several prominent Sephardi rabbis — including former Israeli Chief Rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and Ovadia Yosef — glass tops only need a thorough scrubbing and porcelain tops need boiling water poured on them.
Again, according to Ashkenazic authorities, including Conservative ones, there is no way to kasher metal baking utensils. According to Sephardi guidelines, however, cleaning them thoroughly and then placing them in an oven set at the highest temperature for an hour will do the trick.
The Sephardi authorities also allow the kashering of Teflon-coated frying pans and the like; Ashkenazic authorities do not.
The Sephardi decisions also allow the kashering of wood, plastic, and rubber items, such as spatulas and mixing spoons. If these items were used with hot foods, they can be kashered by the process known as hagalah (essentially, immersion in boiling water). If such items were used only for cold foods, merely a thorough washing will suffice.
I am not saying that Sephardi rabbis are correct and Ashkenazic rabbis are not, or that Sephardi authorities do not accrete; they do. I also am not suggesting in any way that Sephardi authorities are any less diligent or devoted to halacha, or that their interpretations are in any way flawed. This is a hubristic view that Ashkenazic authorities have held since the early days of Ashkenaz, but it is not what I believe and it is not rooted in any reality.
Rather, I am trying to demonstrate that, in fact, many of the "rules" that govern how we get ready for Pesach are merely fences that may no longer be needed. Both the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi rabbis start with the same basic halacha. They differ only because of stringencies added over time, not because the basic law is different for each.
Food is an even more expensive area that has been fenced in, so to speak. Readers of this column already know my opinion regarding Pesach foods. First, there is the kitniyot issue — kitniyot being legumes, suspected legumes, wannabe legumes, legumes that are not legumes, and the derivatives of each.
Why must a person pay through the nose, as it were, to avoid such foods? Because Ashkenazic authorities imposed a ban on pure kitniyot somewhere around 900 years ago and rabbis have been adding to the ban ever since.
Then there are the misconstrued foods. "Corn" is a forbidden food on Pesach, but not corn as we know it today. That corn is a wholly American original that only made it across the pond when Christopher Columbus sailed back to Europe. Until then, it had never been seen in Europe, or Asia (where we come from), or Africa (which is where Egypt is). Oats, by the way, may also fall into this category.
Because of the kitniyot ban and its many accretions, and the misconstrued foods, people mortgage their homes (or, at least, fear they may have to) to buy faux chametz treats for their children when a jar of popping corn or peanut butter would do just fine. They spend an absurd amount on a jar of fake mustard when the real thing tastes a lot better and costs a lot less.
As for people who cannot afford all of these Pesach goodies, they are left with a diet of potatoes and onions (at least until someone decides to add these to the kitniyot list; after all, there is such a thing as potato bread).
Then there is the whole faux chametz line of foods that fed off the kitniyot ban — from matzoh-based SpaghettiOs to fake Cheerios to Pesach bagels to heaven only knows what someone is cooking up right now. These products are designed to make Pesach look and taste like every other day of the year — exactly what Pesach is not supposed to look and taste like.
In addition to the high cost and the excessive labor, how does one make sense of some of these fences to a marginal Jew looking for any excuse not to observe Jewish laws and traditions?
It is hard to persuade someone that keeping kosher is important and as valid today as it ever was when, say, they look at a bottle of reformulated kosher-for-Pesach Coca-Cola, compare the price to a regular bottle, ask what the difference is, and are told that it is the corn syrup — a product derived from a food that no Jew had ever seen before the dawn of the 16th century.
We are losing people because they believe Judaism is filled with fairy tales and foolishness. The Pesach fences only prove their point, not ours.
The fences need to start coming down. We need to get back to concentrating on the true meaning of Pesach, not on accreted minutiae that distort that meaning or obscure it entirely.