Preparing for Pesach: How Much Is Too Much?
Today is Shabbat Hachodesh, the Shabbos we announce the coming of the month of Pesach—Nisan. With the arrival of Pesach in just a little more than 2 weeks, the genius of the Jewish woman comes to the fore. It’s amazing how many things she can make out of matzah! Believe me when I tell you that when my grandfather grew up in Chodnov, a small village outside of Kiev, in the Ukraine, he was never served matzah pizza on Pesach!
Food tells us a lot about our people. Professor Dan Michman, of the Dept. of Jewish History at Bar Ilan University, analyzes the ingredients of 2 foods that Jews are distinctly associated with: kugel and cholent. Kugel is usually made with noodles, some oil, eggs, salt and sugar; cholent with barley, potatoes, beans, onions, oil, eggs and a little piece of meat thrown in. What do these recipes have in common? Their ingredients are representative of poverty—barely, noodles, flour, potatoes, eggs, scraps of meat. Indeed, even gefilte fish is made from fish that has been ground up—not filet. Not surprising for the vast majority of the European Jews were poor.
And perhaps the one Jewish food which, in its own way, was the most filling of all and the cheapest of all, was one that has become distinctly associated with Pesach. A few eggs, some matzah meal, a little salt and pepper and if you’re really fancy, add some schmaltz and you get—you guessed it— k’neydlach or matzah balls. A matzah ball is the Jewish people’s answer to a delayed time bomb! You eat one or 2, and then a little later it explodes in your stomach!
Interestingly enough, unlike other Jewish foods, the matzah ball seems to be entering the American mainstream. Recently, a matzah-ball-eating contest was held in New York City. Contestants had 5 minutes, 25 seconds to go for the maximum matzah ball count. 7 contenders challenged the past year’s champion, Oleg “The Russian” Zhornitsky, who won by consuming 16 ¼ matzoh balls! But this year that record was broken! The winner ate 21 matzah balls! His name is Eric Booker—an African-American!
While it might come as a surprise to many of you to learn that African-Americans are now eating matzah balls year round, a more surprising fact might be to hear that there are Jews who, on religious grounds, refuse to eat matzah balls on Pesach. To explain, let me teach you a Pesach word used in the frum world: gebroktz, literally, “broken.” What’s forbidden to eat on Pesach is chametz, which is defined in Jewish law as grain that comes in contact with water and is allowed to sit for more than 18 minutes, causing it to rise and become leaven. All of our matzah products, therefore, are made of flour and water that finished baking less than 18 minutes after the flour was mixed with water.
But there are some Jews who fear that perhaps some of the flour in the matzah didn’t actually get baked and so if they put this matzah or matzah meal into water, it may become leavened. And so, on Pesach, they don’t eat any matzah product that comes in contact with water. Do you know what that means? It means no matzah brei, no matzah latkes, and no matzah balls! This rule is followed by almost every Chassid and black-hat Jew.
Now what would you call such people—people who go to such an extreme—concerned about a possibility that even the Code of Jewish Law makes no reference to? Well, let me tell you how the Chofetz Chaim—perhaps the 20th century’s greatest codifier of Jewish law—refers to them in his classic work, The Mishnah Berurah. He calls them anshey maaseh, “people who are judicious and meticulous.” He refers to them in a most positive light, but then he goes on to say that there really isn’t a basis in our day for their concern. In days gone by when matzot were made very thick, then there was a possibility of some unbaked flour in it. But now that our matzah is so thin there really is no cause for concern. And then he advices: D’achzukey isura lo m’chazkinan, “Let’s not create prohibitions that are not there.”
Does that mean that those who are so meticulous are doing the wrong thing? No. As another Halachik authority, the Shaarei Teshuva puts it, “Both have their intentions for the sake of heaven, except those who don’t eat gebroktz are being meticulous in their concern for the matzah turning into chametz and those who do eat gebroktz are being meticulous about the mitzvah of enjoying the holiday.”
Why do I tell you this today? Not encourage you to eat gebroktz or not to. You should follow your family traditions. And besides, if I told you that this Pesach matzah balls and matzah latkes and matzah brei have to go, you might look at me and think the time has come for me to go! No, I tell you all this because I find the words of the Chofetz Chaim that we “not make prohibitions that are not there” and the words of the Shaarei Teshuva about the mitzvah of enjoying the festival, speaks to many other Pesach issues.
Every year I read of more new books and more new rabbinic proclamations that only make Pesach more difficult to observe—heaping prohibitions on the Jewish people that needn’t be there. In recent years I’ve received booklets listing medicines that do or do not have chametz. I went online to “google.com” and did a search for Passover medications and found 721,000 listings. What you might not know from these books and web cites is what the Chicago Rabbinic Council teaches: “All prescription medications for serious illness, ordered by your doctor, should be taken on Passover without regard for the components of the medication.”
That’s Jewish law! If it is not “food fit for a dog” nor is it eaten in the “normal manner of eating”—like pills that are swallowed and not chewed—it’s permissible. Of course, if you can get your meds without chametz, that’s even better! Cough syrups do create a problem if it has alcohol, but not toothpaste. Most of the major brands have no chametz, and besides, toothpaste is only a problem if you intend to purposely swallow it.
I have seen “Kosher for Pesach” rabbinic certification on everything from fabric softeners to paper towels and napkins, to room air fresheners and baby wipes...and it’s all a farce! Rabbinic certification on aluminum foil? One of my teachers described the process of how aluminum foil is made. He pointed out that the raw product is poured through flaming hot rollers, and he went on to say that the rollers are so hot that if you put a pig through them it would come out kosher l’Pesach!
Then there are those lists that tell you which cosmetics are acceptable on Pesach. I personally feel that cosmetics that contain chametz shouldn’t be used on Pesach—especially if you can find other substitutes. If you see “wheat germ” or barley in the ingredients, you shouldn’t use it. But other authorities maintain that, “if you can’t eat it, you can use it!” After all, it’s their wife they have to look at for 8 days! And as for those lists that tell you which perfumes are acceptable and which aren’t because they have alcohol in them, most perfumes contain SD 40 alcohol that is not made from grain. Some authorities say that all perfumes are ok on Pesach because they’re not edible.
All these lists and books and rabbinic pronouncements are part of a pattern that has made it more difficult for American Jewish consumers to celebrate Passover. Every year the standards get raised to higher, more difficult levels. Don’t buy lettuce or broccoli unless it comes in sealed bags that show that there are no bugs! Your wine cup isn’t big enough to fulfill the mitzvah of the 4 cups! My son Josh tells the story of attending a Seder when he was a student in yeshiva in Israel. One of the guests complained that volume of the wine cup of the host was too small to fulfill the mitzvah according to a certain rabbinic authority. The host calmly smiled and informed his guest that he was the great-grandson of that rabbinic authority and this was his cup!
The Shulchan Aruch teaches: Chayav adam l’hiyot sameach v’tov leyv b’moed, “A person is obligated to be happy and feel good on the festival.” The Mishna Berura adds, V’hu mitzvah asey min hatorah...gam b’nashim, “This is a positive commandment from the Torah, also for women.” The fact of the matter is Pesach is referred to as Z’mam Cheyruteynu, “The time of our freedom.” Not our slavery! We should do everything we can to prevent us from feeling enslaved by all the minutiae of Pesach and make its observance easier, not harder.
And so, if you are a Jew who does not eat gebroktz on Pesach...more power to you! But don’t mess with my matzoh balls! By the way I prefer the harder cannon ball matzah balls to the fluffy ones. You can be strict about gebroktz and I’m going to be strict about enjoying the festival!
Pesach is right around the corner. To the men I say, “Help your women in the preparations for Pesach. Be equal partners in the mitzvah.”Let’s enjoy it and feel good about it together. Each Pesach brings with it new prohibitions and new products. Let this Pesach bring with it a new attitude— an attitude of women and men joining together preparing and conducting the Seder. In so doing, we can look forward to fulfillment of our festival prayer: “Bestow upon us, O Lrd our Gd, the blessings of your festival for light and for peace, for gladness and for joy.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis