Since the very creation of the luxury Pesach program, rabbis have been railing against them for their excess, extravagance, and the forfeiting of many of the traditions involved in preparing and experiencing Pesach. Ironically, many of those same rabbis have later eaten their words, and accepted invitations to serve as scholars-in-residence, bringing their families to the very type of five-star experience they had long condemned.
But there is a more fundamental reason not to rail against such programs: there is nothing fundamentally wrong with them. True, kashrus can be complicated at these programs, and yes, not all of the environments and activities at every program are appropriate for yom tov, or ever. But these are not intrinsic or inherent deficiencies and just mean that one must choose the program carefully.
Thank God, there are many large Jewish families that, for practical reasons, simply cannot experience a yom tov together if they are not at a program. In addition, there are those who are unable to make Pesach for themselves, don’t have family to go to, and rely on a program in order to experience a proper Pesach. And then there are those who can simply afford to experience the luxury of a Pesach program and, given that they are often equally generous with their support of charitable and communal institutions, why shouldn’t they?
But there is a caveat. There is no Jewish holiday and no Jewish experience that more divides the “haves” from the “have-nots” than Pesach. The contrast between those experiencing Pesach with endless menu options, midnight BBQ’s, quinoa sushi stations, and round-the-clock tea rooms and those who literally don’t know how they will buy matzah or wine, let alone meat, is startling and staggering.
As a community rabbi, I am exposed to both extremes. When arranging for the sale of chametz, I like to ask what people’s Pesach plans are. Often I find myself meeting with someone who, with joy and excitement on his face and great anticipation in his voice, will describe the latest exotic location of the program he is attending this year or the newest amenity or entertainment being offered. Moments later, someone will answer the same question with a tear in his eye and worry on his face, and say, I have no idea how I am going to afford matzah and wine this year because I am barely covering my bills day-to-day without these added expenses.
The Rambam writes (Hilchos Yom Tov 6:18):
“When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather in simchas kreiso, the rejoicing of his gut.”
Though the Rambam is speaking of every holiday, there is a special practice of providing for others specifically before Pesach. The Rama (O.C. 429:1) quotes from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Bava Basra 1:4), which states that residents of a city should give wheat or flour for matzah to those in their city in need. This is known as kimcha d’pischa, flour for Pesach, or maos chittim, money for wheat.
And yet, even with the widespread practice of giving to maos chittim, there remain far too many who struggle to keep up with the exorbitant cost of making even a basic, no-frills Pesach (a topic for another time), and are left having to cut back and sacrifice in other areas just to get through what should be a joyous holiday season.
And herein lies the caveat. There is nothing wrong with enjoying and indulging in the luxuries a Pesach program provides, or with making a beautiful, elegant Pesach at home, for that matter, so long as everyone from your community can afford to have the basic necessities. There is no set amount mandated for maos chittim, but I humbly submit the following proposal:
Just as with tzedaka, where we are instructed to give a percentage of our income, so too our maos chittim should be calculated based on how much we spend on ourselves for Pesach. If all of those who attend Pesach programs gave proportionally to maos chittim, we could ensure that all members of our communities have what they need for Pesach without having to compromise or make trade-offs with other basic necessities. And in the spirit of Pesach, v’chol hamarbeh, harei zeh m’shubach — anyone who can and does give more is certainly worthy of praise.
True, many Pesach programs run fundraisers over yom tov for all kinds of worthwhile causes, but only a fraction of people participate, and it is too late to help serve this particular need. It is instructive that the practice of giving to maos chittim is quoted in the context of the law that mandates that we begin preparations 30 days before Pesach. Not knowing how one will afford to make Pesach for their family brings incredible anxiety, stress, and worry that compound an already difficult situation. The sooner they can be provided for and have the security that their family will indeed enjoy the amenities of Pesach, the less they will worry and fear.
A woman once approached the Beis HaLevi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk, a few days before Pesach, with a strange question. She wanted to know whether one could use milk instead of wine for the four cups of the Seder. The Rav asked her if she was ill, to which she replied that she was perfectly healthy. He then responded by giving her a large sum of money. After she left, the Rebbetzin asked her husband why he had given the woman so much money, when wine costs much less. He responded, “If she is asking about drinking milk at the seder, it is obvious that she has no meat for Pesach, so I gave her enough to buy both wine and meat for the entire holiday.”
When we sit down for our beautiful, bountiful seder with our loved ones, our simchas yom tov (holiday joy) should be enhanced by the knowledge that we have done what we can to ensure that none of our brothers and sisters is sitting down to a bare table where real tears substitute for salt water.
We are already within 30 days of Pesach. Whether you are going to a Pesach program or making Pesach at home, please don’t wait to make sure that everyone can enjoy Pesach. When you are deciding how much to give, please consider what you are spending on your own Pesach for fine wines, delicious meats, and pounds of handmade shmurah matzah, and give commensurately to ensure a beautiful Pesach for all.