The greatest rabbi of the shtetl, a sage famous throughout the land as the foremost mind in Jewish thought, is approached by two young seekers of knowledge. They have traveled for weeks, a great distance, on foot, in order to sit at his feet.
“Rabbi,” asks one, eager for wisdom. “What is the meaning of Passover?”
The rabbi reels back, shmushes his face together, looks over his glasses and exclaims, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”
It’s funny because it’s true. No holiday sums up the Jewish need to celebrate with food quite like Passover. While this Jewish Proverb does condense the massive scope of Jewish history and suffering into a single pithy statement; it is also true that it explains what’s at the heart of most of our holiday celebrations. From Pharaoh to Haman, from Hadrian to Hitler and beyond we are a people on the run from vicious and pathological enemies. Once we’re safe? What can we say? We like a little nosh.
Passover, for those of you who were asleep in Hebrew or Sunday School, celebrates the dramatic and narrow escape from slavery and genocide of the Jews of ancient Egypt. After spending some 400 years in bondage God finally got off of his ass and sent Moses to the rescue.
Mo threatened the Egyptians with the wrath of God (i.e. the 10 plagues) if the Jews weren’t set free. Of course their Pharaoh didn’t listen, so we let them have it. Frogs. Lice. Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Wild Beats. Blood. Eventually we got all Angelina Jolie on their asses and slayed their first-born male children. This final little stunt got the job done. The Egyptians were so freaked that they chased us out of their country. We had to pack and get out of town so fast that we didn’t even have time to bake bread.
Oy, what a shanda!
We won our battle for freedom and since we’re a creative people we’ve decided to commemorate the occasion for the rest of eternity by creating an entire holiday centered around eating the only food we got to pack on our way out of Egypt: poorly made almost-bread. We were enslaved for four hundred years before we were set free and each year we eat crackers to celebrate. Crackers. The chosen people? What exactly were we chosen for? After reviewing the Jewish Laws of Passover, one might assume the answer to this question is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Normal, everyday kosher laws, which, by the way, only about 20% of Jews actually follow any more, are pretty basic. To make it simple enough for you to wrap your goyisha little minds around here’s what you need to know: meat and dairy items can’t be served together in a meal and shellfish and pork are both strictly forbidden.
During Passover this mishegas gets kicked up a notch. In addition to the everyday no meat and dairy together and zero bacon and lobster there’s a whole slew of extra items that are also off the table. This list includes: wheat, oats, rye, barley, spelt, rice, corn, millet, beans, lentils, peas, green beans, soybeans, peanuts, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and mustard. Basically we can’t eat anything that might kinda sorta almost imitate bread rising or fun. Don’t worry we can have cake; it just has to be made from delicious potato starch and Matzo flour.
Passover meals also cannot be served on plates or cooked in pans that have ever touched any of the filthy foods on this list. That’s right, friends. Separate but equal pots and dishes. If, God forbid, you have an accident and serve a little edamame on your Kosher for Passover dishes? Jewish Law says that the offending dish must be buried in your yard for one year.
Crazy, right? It gets better. Here’s the real fakakta part. This list of unmentionables (known as hamets) can’t be in your house once Passover begins. The night before Passover, immediately after sundown, the search for these non-kosher items takes place. The aim is to insure that none of the hamets has been left behind after the cleaning of the house. The procedure for searching is very specific. A single candle is lit. One candle. The law is precise on this. More than one candle would resemble a torch, which is totally not acceptable.
The search for crumbs of bread is started by candlelight and since by this time the house has been cleaned thoroughly and the chances of finding any bread are minimal, it is customary to put a number of large crumbs of bread in places where they can easily be found because you have to find something. These crumbs are gathered and put aside for breakfast the next morning.
I promise I’m not making this up.
If you happen to have a restricted food in your house and don’t want to burn it, which is what you’re supposed to do. There are options available. Namely, sell these disgraceful foods to a non-Jewish friend with the full knowledge that it is a temporary sale. This sounds like a joke, but there is a contract involved complete with a bill of sale administered by a rabbi. Once the 7 days of Passover are done, the food can be bought back for whatever price was agreed upon.
Exhausted yet? How do you think we feel? Since our days in Egypt we might have developed a few control issues. There are other rules and they are just as hair splittingly specific. That’s what happens when you’re left alone in slavery for 400 years. It leaves a mark. Do think of us this week while you’re sucking on a Cadbury Egg while waving palm fronds to welcome the baby Jesus back to the cross or whatever it is Christians do. We’ll be scrubbing our houses down and eating crackers. Chag Sameach, y’all!