Passover: Don't forget to be happy despite the anxiety, humras - opinion

Of all the hagim, Passover is clearly the one that elicits the most anxiety and trepidation.

 SELLING HAMETZ: Passover elicits anxiety and trepidation. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
SELLING HAMETZ: Passover elicits anxiety and trepidation.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

Virtually all Jewish holidays are happy occasions; even Yom Kippur, with its 25-hour fast, can be exhilarating and uplifting when at its conclusion we are filled with confidence that our sins have been forgiven. 

The rabbis put great emphasis on the element of simhat yom tov, the joy that must accompany each one of our festivals. For a nation that all too often faced – and faces – extraordinary challenges throughout the year, these interspersed moments of mandated celebration have proven essential to both our emotional and spiritual survival.

Yet along with the simha, each holiday and life-cycle event also has its own degree of solemnity, even sadness. At a brit, we cringe as minor surgery is performed on our precious little one; at a wedding, we break a glass and reflect upon the loss of the Temple. 

We recite tearful Yizkor memorial prayers on the shalosh regalim – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – as well as on the Day of Atonement. On Sukkot, we leave our homes in a kind of mini-exile; on Shavuot we remain awake throughout the night immersed in study, partially as a tikkun, or correction, for having gone to sleep the night before the Torah was first given to us, thus demonstrating a severe lack of ecstasy and enthusiasm. 

Yet of all the hagim, Passover is clearly the one that elicits the most anxiety and trepidation. Scrupulously clearing the house of all traces of hametz while reordering our diet for seven days requires a major effort that engenders work and worry in large amounts. Because even the minutest bit of leaven is prohibited, we have to reorder our thinking for a week in order to stay in “Passover mode.” 

 Passover Seder (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) Passover Seder (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

And though it has become infinitely easier to create menus that mimic our everyday ones, it still takes a lot of clever creativity to go beyond eggs, potatoes and hot dogs. For Ashkenazi Jews, who are prohibited from eating kitniyot – this rabbinic decree, while often assailed, remains fully in effect with no change in sight – the absence of beans, rice, peas and corn, not to mention our beloved hummus, only adds to the struggle.

For many fastidious families, there is a custom to add even more restrictions – known in Hebrew as humrot – during the Passover period. The rationale behind these additional strictures connects to a statement in Ethics of the Fathers that advises us to build “a fence around the Torah” in order to more adequately protect and shield it from being violated (this is what some humorously refer to as making a “Safer Torah”). 

This concept is not confined to Passover; we see it reflected in many other areas of Halacha. For example, while the cooking or eating of dairy and meat together is biblically forbidden, we also use different sets of dishes and have a waiting period between meat and milk, so as to avoid entering a halachic “danger zone.” Similarly, rather than wait until the last moment, we light Shabbat candles 18 or 20 minutes prior to sunset on Friday night, just to be on the safe side where Shabbat is concerned. 

But, clearly, Passover is the prime time when humrot of all types abound. Many people refrain from eating matzah beginning with the first of Nisan, in order to “whet their appetites” for the matzah that will be served two weeks later at the Seder (is this actually possible?!); others avoid foods such as kneidlach or matzah brei that contain matzah or matzo meal that came into contact with water (a restriction called gebrochts). There are people who will not eat any fruit or vegetable (e.g., tomatoes, strawberries) that cannot be peeled, for fear that they came into contact with hametz; some even avoid paper plates that might have been manufactured with starch.

More than one observer of this phenomenon has questioned whether this tilt to the extreme has gone way too far. They ask: “What’s next? Burning down your home to ensure that all the hametz inside has been destroyed? Selling your blog for Passover?” 

The apocryphal story has been told of the rabbi in Bnei Brak whose toilet broke down just before Passover began. He frantically calls his plumber, who tells him that he will fix the toilet as soon as the holiday concludes, but suggests that the rabbi go and buy a toilet to be at the ready. When the neighbors see the rabbi walking through the streets carrying the toilet, the word soon spreads that, apparently, one needs a new toilet for Passover!

ALL KIDDING aside, the “humra craze,” or OCD (obsessive-chumra disorder), while well intentioned and stemming from a good place, can be counterproductive when carried too far.

For one thing, it divides people, for not everyone “holds” by the same observance, and so would be unwelcome at the other’s home. But more importantly, if the humra is truly radical, it may bring ridicule rather than respect to actual Jewish law, causing less-knowledgeable people to distance themselves from what seems to be an outlandish religion. 

More than one rabbinic authority has preached that Judaism is both apart from the world while remaining a part of the world. That is, we have our own unique lifestyle, with a custom and culture that provide us with a distinct practice and personality. But, at the same time, we live within the greater community of humanity, and must exhibit a “normal” pattern of behavior. Our ability to relate to and coexist with people of all faiths and backgrounds is essential to our mission of representing God in this world and sharing His moral code with others.

At the end of the day, however we may carry out our observance of the mitzvot, we should come away with a sense of fulfillment and joy. That is why, I suggest, we long ago coined the phrase – specifically for Passover – hag kasher v’same’ah, have a kosher and happy Passover. 

“Happy” must be the last word. ■

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]