Passover Cleaning: The Eleventh Plague

Growing up in a modern orthodox home, I always considered Pesach (Passover for everyone else) to be my favorite holiday. This undoubtedly had to do with the Seder, which was a special family time (particularly when my brother drank all four glasses of wine), as well as the extended vacation from school. In hindsight, another reason why I loved Pesach stemmed from a contrast effect between the holiday itself and the insanity of Pesach cleaning in the preceding weeks.

For the uninitiated, Pesach celebrates the Jewish exodus from Egypt after being enslaved for hundreds of years. Back in the days of yore, the irascible God of the Jews wrought ten plagues on the Egyptians, finally softening Pharaoh to the point where he released them from enslavement. The Jews seized the moment and left in such a hurry that there was no time for the bread to rise. In retrospect, this hasty departure may have been a grave miscalculation.

The swift exodus from Egypt culminated in a Torah commandment “seven days ye shall eat unleavened bread. This commandment may seem fairly innocuous and perhaps even whimsical; it might be fun to eat crunchy flat bread for a week. Had the Torah stopped there, future generations might have blithely celebrated the path to freedom. Alas, the stakes were raised in Deuteronomy with an additional stipulation that “for seven days no chametz shall be seen with you in all your territory”. Chametz is Hebrew for leavened food, and as far as I can see, its etymological root must translate as “the molecular building blocks of all solid objects”.

Don’t believe me? Here is a brief, not-even-close to exhaustive list of things that require special rabbinic oversight in order to use on Pesach: apple sauce, spray deodorant, horseradish, ice cream, powdered rubber gloves, beef jerky, milk, matzo (yeah, just because it’s unleavened bread doesn’t mean it is kosher for Pesach), olive oil, some brands of paper plates, Trader Joe’s sea salt, flavored seltzer water, lipstick, toothpaste, and even bottled water used to be on that list (though in an unexpected yet inscrutable wave of sanity, that law seems to now be relaxed). Nothing says leaven like powdered rubber gloves. Thank God the Jews had time to use the restroom before leaving Egypt because who knows what would have transpired otherwise.

I could never lay claim to being a Bible scholar, but having grown up a layman, it seemed to me that God was just sending the Jews a clear message to stay away from bread altogether for seven days in order to commemorate the end of our enslavement. Unfortunately, this commonsense interpretation was eschewed by Jewish scholars in favor of viewing chametz as a sort of leavened Ebola virus. Consequently, Pesach cleaning was never really so much of a spring-cleaning as it was a transformation of our home into a decontamination chamber. At some point during our annual Pesach cleaning, my mother must have given serious consideration to just razing the house to the ground and starting anew. I know I did.

The chore of Pesach cleaning involves far more than just removing items from one’s household. Pesach cleaning entails the incineration of any molecules that might potentially exist, even in theory, in one’s kitchen. For example, the oven needs to be scrubbed clean and then heated to a temperature approaching the Fukushima nuclear disaster for about forty minutes. The countertops need to be scoured and then covered. My mother would wrap them in tinfoil, such that our kitchen resembled an homage to Doctor Who. Metal kitchen utensils and silverware could be cleansed by submerging them in boiling water and subsequently interrogating them regarding their contact with chametz during the year (ok, I may have made up the latter stipulation). Naturally, some utensils cannot be made kosher for Pesach at all, including dishwashers, toaster ovens and even Keurig coffee machines.

In response to the burden of ridding the house of chametz, we stored a complete shadow kitchen in our basement. Every year we would transport sets of chametz-free utensils, silverware and dishes to use for precisely eight days. (I should note that Jews outside of Israel tack on an extra day to the holiday beyond the commanded seven days because we enjoy suffering. Eat matzo for seven days straight and you’ll understand why that eighth day is so challenging. If you don’t like matzo then just consume a Big Gulp filled with immodium for a similar effect.)

For the chametz that we just couldn’t get rid of, the rabbi of our town would sell it to a non-Jew prior to the holiday. This person would literally own all of our community’s leavened objects. At the end of the holiday, we would wait patiently by the phone until we received word that it was bought back and that we could now use it again. I cannot imagine what that goy must have thought about this process. These are but a small subset of the laws governing Pesach preparations. Far more extensive guides are available online, such as the downloadable 126-page pdf file from Star-K. In their own words, that represents an “abridged web edition”.

The conclusion of Pesach cleaning involved one of the traditions that I miss the most from my youth. The night before the first Seder, my father would lead us in a search of the house for stray chametz. Naturally, there was none to be found (for heaven’s sake, we had just cleaned for a month). So we would carefully hide bread for my father to find. In a dramatic, anachronistic touch, this inspection was conducted by candle-light and a large feather was used to guide offending elements into a bag that would later be burned. For me, this final act of Pesach cleaning felt like a personal emancipation, and marked the transition between my own enslavement to the anticipation for the upcoming holiday.

Having abandoned the religious trappings of my youth, the sense of nostalgia this time of year always surprises me. It is, of course, not the cleaning nor the impractical laws that I miss, but the warm bond of family and community that permeated every step in the process. Happy holidays to all.

About the Author
Dan is an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Unviersity. He also blogs on the Huffington Post and PsychologyToday.
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