Bitter Herbs, Not Bitter People: Preparing for Pesach

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Now that Purim is behind us, the countdown to Pesach has officially begun, complete with its angst, anxiety, stress, and exhaustion. Sadly, many people associate Pesach with backbreaking work, exorbitant expenses, endless preparation, and bread deprivation. It is not unusual to hear moans, groans, and krechts coming from both men and women when mentioning the upcoming holiday. Many describe themselves as rolling into Pesach ‘like a shmatta,’ unable to enjoy the festive atmosphere, meaningful Sedarim, or even quality time with friends and family.


But this is not the way the Torah or our Rabbis intended it. I believe that the bulk of the stress, aches, and pains that result from Pesach preparation is self-induced and utterly unnecessary. True, there is a high cost of matzah, wine, and Kosher-for-Pesach groceries that cannot be avoided and are challenging particularly during these difficult economic times. However, the overly labor-intensive house preparations and extensive,arguably overly complicated menus and recipes can all be avoided.


For some reason, Pesach has gotten away from us with the purely voluntary now becoming mandated standards and what should be the primary goals becoming almost entirely neglected and dismissed. Undoubtedly, halacha demands that we seek and destroy all chametz in our possession. Definitions of “chametz,” “seek,” and “in our possession” are all very clear and require a preparation of a home that should take only a few hours total. Areas and places where chametz is never brought don’t need to be cleaned or checked (Shulchan Aruch o.c. 433:3). Appliances that will not be accessed or used need not be cleaned or checked; they simply need to be put away and sealed. Any food that is not categorized as edible (a dog would not eat it) is not considered chametz (Shulchan Aruch 442:2). There is no need to check for crumbs that are less than a k’zias if they are dirty or soiled and wouldn’t be edible by a human (Mishna Berura 442:33).


Practically speaking, any cabinet, closet or room that will not be entered on Pesach, can simply be closed with a piece of tape across the door and any chametz contents in it sold. Any kitchen cabinet, drawer, or cupboard that will not be used on Pesach need not be cleaned at all; it just needs to be taped shut. Any appliance, food processor, sandwich maker, mixer, bread machine, etc. that will not be used, need not be cleaned whatsoever. They just need to be put away for Pesach in a sealed space.


Nevertheless, at some point in recent Jewish history, Pesach preparation was substituted with spring-cleaning. If one is moving a refrigerator, oven, or any other heavy appliance, he is spring cleaning, not preparing for Pesach. If one is climbing on a ladder to clean a ceiling fan, taking a toothpick to a toaster or food processor, scrubbing grout with a toothbrush, emptying and wiping all dressers, closets, linen pantries, crawl spaces, or shaking out books that haven’t been opened in years, she is spring cleaning, not preparing for Pesach.


Halacha demands that we go room to room confirming there is no chametz that is larger than 30 grams and edible. That can realistically be accomplished in a few hours at most in almost all of our homes. If you are spending days, weeks, or over a month cleaning, if you are worn down, exhausted and your back aches, blame your proclivity for spring cleaning, don’t dare blame God or His wonderful holiday of Pesach.


Make no mistake, this substitution of spring-cleaning instead of Pesach preparation comes at a great cost and it will likely hurt our community’s attitude towards Pesach in the future. Rather than enter Pesach excited, enthusiastic, and energized to spend time with family and share divrei Torah at our Sedarim, we are increasingly becoming resentful and negative about being observant and burdened by Pesach. Rather than happy people eating bitter herbs to celebrate freedom, we are becoming bitter people exchanging our freedom for unnecessary burdens in anticipation of Pesach.


Pesach, more than any other holiday or time of year, is designed to communicate our values, priorities and lifestyles to the next generation. Pesach, and the days leading up to it, should leave our children with sights, smells, flavors, traditions, and experiences they will draw from and seek to emulate in their own homes for the rest of their lives. It should provide memories and recollections that will inspire and charge the next generation in their Judaism and commitment to the beauty of a Torah lifestyle.


Bedikas chametz, complete with its hide-and-seek nature, should be fun, exciting, and adventurous. Instead, for many it has become a chore that we unburden ourselves from as quickly as possible. Burning chametz, rolling matzah balls by hand, chopping charoses, grinding marror, setting the regal seder table, reenacting the Pesach story at our seders, welcoming visiting family, are among the activities that can be carried out with joy, enthusiasm, nostalgia, and meaning.


Depleting ourselves of energy and joy by engaging in spring cleaning rather than Pesach preparation is not only depriving us of the simcha, joy, we are capable of feeling, but it is indelibly impressing on our children negative memories and associations that will likely haunt them and shape their own attitude toward Pesach preparation and observance.


By exerting all of our energy into that which is unnecessary, we have little left to do the things that make Pesach preparation fun and create the memories that our children and grandchildren will draw from throughout their lives. Today, you can buy bedikas chametz kits complete with numbered pieces of bread, packaged finely chopped charoses and even a jar of kosher for Pesach salt water.


With all respect to the companies that have commercialized those mitzvos, I implore you, don’t cave. I vividly remember how we prepared and hid the bread for bedikas chametz and that is how I taught my children to do it. I can easily picture my siblings and me competing over who got to chop the charoses and how my mother and grandmother lovingly added all the ingredients in their special recipe and it is that experience we try to create for our children today. Is adding salt to water so laborious that we can’t put in even that effort to prepare for our seder table?


As we enter the final countdown to Pesach this year, I beg you to ask yourself the question – which sounds will ring in your children’s ears in the future when they think back to Pesach in their home? Will it be moans, groans, bitterness and complaints or will they remember the joyous sounds of an energized family eagerly preparing for a meaningful Yom Tov?


The Shulchan Aruch (529:2) tells us, “Chayav adom liheyos sameach v’tov leiv b’moed. A person is obligated to be joyous and happy on the holiday.” The Mishna Berura is quick to add that being happy on the holiday is a Biblical mandate and applies equally to men and women.


Let’s not allow spring cleaning or unnecessary stringencies to get in the way of fulfilling our duty to God, our children and ourselves of being happy, joyous, energetic, and enthusiastic.


Over the next month, as we prepare for Pesach, let’s remember what is essential and what is unnecessary, what is an obligation and what isn’t even a mitzvah and most importantly, what will make our children love Pesach and what will cause them to resent it.