Defending ‘humrot’

Jews might be crazy about their traditions, but sometimes a little bit of craziness can be a good thing.

April 5, 2012 22:58
3 minute read.
Passover matza

Matza 370. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)


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Passover is a time to be with family and friends, to celebrate the advent of springtime with outdoor trips and to focus on one’s personal renewal as nature renews itself after the long winter.

But Passover is also a time when Jews tend to adopt a slew of stringencies, or humrot, in their Jewish practices.

Jews are particularly fastidious about what can and cannot be eaten. During Passover, even a speck of hametz – unleavened wheat, spelt, barley, oat and rye products – can make a huge pot of food unkosher. As a result, an inordinately feverish atmosphere of zealotry surrounds the culinary habits of Jews during this holiday. Some Jews refuse to drink water from the Kinneret on Passover for fear that a piece of bread fell into the huge freshwater lake and a minuscule particle of it found its way to the tap. This year, as in past years, a representative from the Jewish National Fund sold all of the hametz in our national forests to a non- Jew so the Jewish state would not transgress the prohibition of possessing the stuff.

Ashkenazi Jews, and some Jewish communities from North Africa, also have a tradition of not eating various types of legumes, or kitniyot – corn, rice, peas, lentils and beans – because these products were stored together with grains or because they can be used to produce foods that look like bread or cake. The precise list of items that constitute kitniyot is a subject of debate. The Belz Hassidic sect will not eat garlic because generations ago in Eastern Europe, garlic was preserved inside sacks of wheat. Other hassidic sects will not eat vegetables that cannot be peeled, for fear they have been coated with a substance that contains hametz. Many Jews will go to great lengths to make sure that matza does not come into contact with water or other liquids; some go as far as eating matza separately, changing the tablecloth before commencing with a meal.

MANY SEE adherence to all these humrot as a form of neurotic preoccupation with the trivial. After all, aren’t the grand ideas of Passover – the meaning of freedom, the birth of the Jewish people, God’s relationship with the Jews – the point of the holiday, and not the petty preoccupation with customs that lack relevance in the modern age of industrialized food production? And adherence to humrot in one area of practice can lead to leniencies in other areas. Refusing to eat at the home of a less observant Jew might be a humra with regard to the food, but it is a leniency with regard to hurting that Jew’s feelings. And when supermarket chains decide, as they did this year, not to accept bottles for deposit returns during Passover, it might be a precaution against having the remnants of beer, whiskey or other hametz beverages in their possession, but it is liable to prevent the recycling of thousands of bottles.

YET THERE is also a positive aspect to all these seemingly over-zealous humrot. Adhering to stringencies can emanate from a sincere desire to give expression to one’s willingness to do God’s will. It can also be an outward expression of one’s strong feeling of commitment to tradition.

A large percentage of Israelis actually identify with this positive aspect of Passover humrot. A recent survey by the Panels Institute for Gesher, an organization involved in healing the rift between religious and secular, revealed that many Israelis, including those who define themselves as secular, have a strong commitment to maintaining Israel’s Jewish character. Asked whether it was necessary to continue to enforce the Hametz Law, which prohibits the public display of hametz during Passover, 56 percent of respondents answered that it was.

In essence, the Hametz Law is a humra. There is no prohibition in Jewish law against displaying hametz.

Nevertheless, the majority of Israelis want to see this humra remain in place. They rightly believe it is unfitting for a state that defines itself as Jewish to allow the public display of a food that Jews throughout the ages have scrupulously refrained from eating. Jews might be crazy about their traditions, but sometimes a little bit of craziness can be a good thing. It shows you care.

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