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Pesach and the Challenge of the Mitzvah to Eat

During my first year of college, I returned to campus during Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of the Passover holiday, to attend class. The kosher dining service had Kosher for Passover meals available for students and while during the rest of the year those on the kosher meal plan were mainly observant students, Passover saw many more students of varying Jewish backgrounds using the service. I distinctly remember walking through one of the underground tunnels overhearing Jewish students who may have not actively participated in Jewish life before, have a very passionate argument of whether or not peanut butter was kosher for Passover. I also overheard — “There is just so much to eat” and the opposite as well — “There is nothing to eat!”

My college experience echoed what many studies over the years have found: Most Jews, if they are going to celebrate any Jewish holiday, it will be Passover and if they are going to observe any ritual, it will be the Passover Seder. The Haggadah is the most printed Jewish book; more than any other Jewish book (prayer books, Holiday Machzor, Chumashim) combined. And the arguments over the food will continue for generations.

Pesach, perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday, has requirements to
eat certain things, at certain times and with certain amounts. And of course, there is the overall prohibition to not eat certain things, especially anything that is or contains chametz or leavening. These two essential prongs of the holiday—commandments, mitzvot, to eat and mitzvot not to eat- provide very real challenges to those who are struggling to eat, have disordered eating or have medical conditions such as gluten allergies that would make eating those required foods and abstaining from others very difficult.

Let’s first look at the prohibition not to eat chametz during the entire Passover holiday. If one violates this prohibition, they are liable for the most serious of spiritual punishments, Karet, excisions of one’s soul from the Jewish people. As it states in Exodus Chapter 12: 15:
שִׁבְעַ֤ת יָמִים֙ מַצּ֣וֹת תֹּאכֵ֔לוּ אַ֚ךְ בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֔וֹן תַּשְׁבִּ֥יתוּ שְּׂאֹ֖ר מִבָּתֵּיכֶ֑ם כִּ֣י ׀ כׇּל־אֹכֵ֣ל חָמֵ֗ץ וְנִכְרְתָ֞ה הַנֶּ֤פֶשׁ הַהִוא֙ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מִיּ֥וֹם הָרִאשֹׁ֖ן עַד־י֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִעִֽי׃
‘Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.’

Given that severity, permitting someone to eat chametz would only be when someone’s life would truly be in danger by not eating chametz. For someone with the life threatening disorder of anorexia, where any change in an eating plan could precipitate an emergency, eating chametz can be allowed as it would clearly fall under the Pikuach Nefesh– the obligation to save a life- rubric.

While not all suffering from eating disorders are at such heightened risk, there are still challenges with not only not eating chametz but also with the primarily Ashkenazi custom of not eating products with kitniyot, legumes. It is important to remember that kitniyot are not chametz.There is no spiritual punishment when consuming them during Pesach. Foods containing kitniyot do not require special utensils and can be cooked, served and eaten on your Pesach dishes. If kitniyot are part of one’s healthy eating plan and integral to recovery, they can be eaten. As more people have adopted a vegan regimen, many are including kitniyot to ensure proper nutrition is maintained during the holiday.

Additionally, those who have a specific allergy to wheat have a specific challenge fulfilling the mitzvah to eat matzah at the Seder. In the past couple of years, availability of gluten free matzah, that according to some authorities may be used to fulfill one’s matzah obligation during the Seder, has increased. It is important to remember that the obligation to eat this matzah (which according to some is not the tastiest) is only during the Seder.

The specific rituals of the Seder itself might be particularly triggering for those with disordered eating as the rigid requirements may complicate one’s recovery. At the Seder there are certain foods that need to be eaten and drunk, specifically matzah and the four cups of wine. The amounts of those specific items are regulated by halakhah—one must eat a k’zayit, an olive bulk of matzah, and each cup of wine must be at least 3.3 ounces. They also must be eaten and drunk within a set time frame.

Over the years, there seems to be a greater emphasis on getting these measurements exactly right to the point where you can now buy placements that illustrate these amounts. For someone who might be recovering from restrictive eating practices, such a device may very well trigger restrictive eating once again. I try to keep in mind what a Rav once told me. “You know what a k’zayit of matzah is?” he asked. “It’s when you take some matzah and fill your mouth with it.”

Pesach is a joyous holiday and laws regarding its observance are meant to have us experience the true meaning of Gd freeing us from slavery. As we note at the end of the Magid section of the Haggadah :
בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם…
‘In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they had left Egypt…’

Disordered eating and other health conditions can be like literal prisons. The conditions can often feel like slavery. Jewish law and practice has within it a way to ensure that on Pesach, all —no matter the condition- כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל- who are famished can come and eat and experience true freedom.

I am indebted to Rav Yoni Rosensweig and Maaglei Nefesh’s handbook, ‘Mental Health and Pesach’,

Thank you to Sarah Osborne for leading A Mitzvah to Eat and providing editorial assistance for this piece.

For more information on the intersection of eating and Jewish practice please visit
www.amitzvahtoeat.org, on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/A-Mitzvah-to-Eat-107807218392137  or Instagram https://www.instagram.com/a_mitzvah_to_eat/

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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