In defense of spring cleaning

This year I want to clean the corners of my living room, while focusing on clearing the dark corners of my soul.

A woman cleans her home 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
A woman cleans her home 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
‘Passover is no time for spring cleaning.” Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg z”l and others popularized this revolutionary halachic message in Israel 20 years ago in answering questions from their haredi female followers. Scheinberg used the language of obligation: Since women are obligated to rejoice in the holiday and drink four cups of wine, they mustn’t work so hard that they fall asleep at the Seder table. A few years later, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the leaders of religious Zionism, told his women’s class that they should spend the time before the holiday playing with the kids and taking hikes. Cleaning, he said, could be finished in less than a day.
As a young mother I rejoiced in this ruling, which gave halachic validity to the phrase “shmootz is not hametz.” I followed the advice of these minimalists: Drench your home in bleach, thus rendering any crumbs unfit for a dog to eat, sell the leavened contents of your kitchen cabinets and be free! And then came the questioning:
•Am I really free when I pour liters of detergent on my floor?
• If Passover is NOT the time for spring cleaning, when is the time? And who will do it?
These rabbis, and the many jokes related to Passover cleaning, assume as a matter of fact that Passover cleaning is mama’s business, and that everyone else should run for shelter. But a little research into the history of domestic roles reveals a very different picture. While regular house cleaning was indeed women’s domain (and still is for many), spring cleaning was an exception. In many cultures there was and is a time during the year, usually spring, when every member of a household is expected to pitch in the sacred job of cleaning the house. Sacred, because often spring cleaning carries great significance as a spiritual preparation for an upcoming holiday.
For example, many Catholic and Orthodox Christians devote the onset of Lent, the period of repentance and forgiveness leading up to Easter, to a thorough cleaning of their homes. In Greece it is called “Clean Week.” Iranian and Persian-related cultures, which celebrate the new year, Nowruz, on the first day of spring, start preparations for the holiday a month before by cleaning. It is called Khouneh Tekouni, “shaking the house.”
Societies use praise and instill a sense of worthiness in their members for executing difficult and what they deem as important tasks. Jews, too, often feel joy and a sense of accomplishment by fulfilling a mitzva or a minhag, custom. This feeling is called simcha shel mitzva, joy in performing a commandment.
I realized that the rabbis’ logic, which at first seemed to show sensitivity toward Jewish women, was somewhat flawed. The lenient ruling undermined the ancient female costume of cleaning and scrubbing, calling them chumra b’alma, ungrounded and not important, thus denying women their due praise and even insulting them. By stripping from this custom any obligatory power they effectively discouraged men – and children – from seeing any Jewish value in this practice: There is no spiritual meaning in this cleaning, minus the few hours needed to get rid of actual hametz. Mama is just crazy and obsessive.
There is just one more thing. Spring cleaning is still important, stated the rabbis, but this is not the time. Let Mama do it, by herself, unseen, slowly over the summer.
There are two ways of transmitting tradition. Musar avicha, instruction from one’s father, and Torat imecha, teaching from one’s mother (Proverbs 1:8). While men traditionally taught Halacha “the Way” through books, women, and many men too, transmitted halachot and minhagim through their actions and stories.
These customs, the many ways, expanded the minimal Mishna Brura’s just getting rid of hametz into an intricate system of obligations: taking down the curtains, cleaning the walls, sorting through clothes – not just to make sure there are no crumbs hiding, but to give the house a fresh feeling and to gather anything that can be given to the poor or relatives.
Our mothers understood the necessity of this major, once a year effort, of riding the house of moldy patches and piles of clutter, and brought it, through the power of minhag, into the realm of obligation and spiritual merit. Thus including everybody in this huge effort, and granting all praise, satisfaction and simcha shel mitzva.
I started to listen carefully to the echoes of my bubbe’s teachings, Rebbetzin Raytze, whom I never got to meet. I hear her say that hametz is also a metaphor for things, emotions and thoughts which have turned sour and expanded beyond our real needs, and they clutter the space in my house and in my mind. She encourages me to get everyone in my household to clean with kavana, as a deep spiritual practice.
This year I want to clean the corners of my living room, while focusing on clearing the dark corners of my soul, ridding myself of guilt, doubt and heaviness, reminding myself that spring is coming and with it many hours of daylight shining through the clean windows.
I want to go through my clothes, and give away a skirt that no longer fits me, not holding on to it with the hope that one day it will fit again. It is good training for leaving Egypt, the “narrow place,” and not going back. I want to cut down on the use of strong detergents.
It will mean fewer hours of free time, but will free our home, garden and air from their hazardous impact. My bubbe also knows I have a chronic fatigue problem, and she encourages me to hire someone to help, beyond the family members. I’ve just received the number of a young woman in a conversion course. Maybe I can transmit to her the many ways of cleaning for Passover.
The writer is the spiritual leader of Nava Tehila - a Jewish renewal community in Jerusalem. She is the co-author of Kirvat Elohim (Yediot, 2006) and is in the process of recording a new album of original music for prayer with her community’s musicians.