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The Passover Diet

Burning Chametz (zeevveez, Wikicommons)

On Pesach (Passover), Jews around the world all go on a diet.

Not only are we abstaining from bread, pasta, and other leavened food (chametz) for a week or eight days, we completely remove all of the forbidden stuff from the house and even disown any crumbs that we might have missed.

What’s the purpose of such extreme behavior?

The Torah states that a Jew who eats leavening on Passover cuts himself off from the Jewish People (Exodus 12:15). So it makes sense to get all of the leavening out of the kitchen and dining room and even to change the dishes. But why does it matter if there’s a box of pasta in the basement or a granola bar in someone’s knapsack?

The simple and obvious reason is because there is a chance that someone might stumble upon that delicious granola bar, forget that it’s Passover, and eat it, leading to the dire consequence mentioned above. So the Torah in its wisdom tells us to completely remove all leavening from our homes and possession. We go to such an extreme that we declare any undiscovered leavening “ownerless, like the dust of the earth.”

But this explanation doesn’t really answer the question. If the issue is not eating leavening, why doesn’t the Torah trust us not to eat it should we stumble upon it? Why not just prohibit eating it and let us practice a bit of self-control?

It seems to me that the Torah is actually teaching us a profound lesson about self-control itself.

Many of us (myself included) go on a diet once in awhile. Whether we’re trying to lose weight or simply avoid overindulging in certain foods (have you ever met someone who overindulged and was glad they did?), controlling our eating is a BIG topic (and as I wrote in Body & Soul is arguably a fundamental topic in Judaism). The Passover restriction is thereby a vital lesson in self-control throughout the year: if there’s a type of food that you’re trying to limit or eliminate, don’t bring it in the house at all. A person can hold out for only so long before giving in to that craving.

In other words, the real diet battle isn’t in the kitchen, it’s at the grocery store. In fact, due to clever marketing and packaging, a wise person doesn’t even walk down certain aisles in the grocery store where the risk of impulse buying is high.

The Talmud warns: “Don’t set yourself up for a test” (Sanhedrin 107a). The Passover rules are teaching us a lesson of Torat Chaim – wisdom for living – on how to master self-control throughout the year.

Wishing you and yours a holy, happy and healthy Pesach.

About the Author
Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld PhD is the Executive Director of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc (JSLI.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing Jewish education at all levels. He is the author of Body & Soul: The Torah Path to Health, Fitness and a Holy LIfe; The Art of Amazement (available in Hebrew as Omanut Ha’Hitpa’alut); and the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar iPhone app. His weekly Torah Health podcast may be heard on TorahAnytime.com.
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