Pessah cleaning or OCD?

It is precisely the over-obsessiveness that risks turning one of our most exciting festivals into a dreaded experience.

Green cleaning 521 (photo credit: Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)
Green cleaning 521
(photo credit: Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)
It’s that time of year again. By the time Pessah rolls around, many a woman will sit at the Seder table with calloused hands. Men, meanwhile, will find the mounting pile of paperwork at the office over these next few weeks a welcome sight. Of course, no one benefits more from Pessah than the tourist industry. For many, the enticement of not having to lift a finger makes the cost more than worthwhile.
From Crete to the Congo you can find a five-star Pessah experience virtually anywhere in the world today. The food may not be mama’s recipe, and sharing a dining-room with 900 people singing Vehi Sheamda with six different melodies – simultaneously – may not be as atmospheric as being surrounded by the warmth of family in the privacy of one’s own home; but it still ensures that tender hearts don’t start palpitating at the sight of Mr. Muscle, Mr. Clean or Ajax. No leavened matter shall be seen throughout your property. This is the verse that transforms conscientious housewives into ones with OCD and on the verge of a breakdown. I know some women who scrub cupboards that are only opened before Pessah. My dear mother displays more energy in her Pessah cleaning than Australian Emma Snowsill did when winning gold in the 2008 Beijing Triathlon.
When we were younger there was perhaps always the risk that we would take food into the playroom in the basement. The last of my siblings moved out of home 12 years ago. That playroom hasn’t seen a morsel in all that time. Still, attention to detail in every nook and cranny of that room is no less today than it was back then.
I’ve spoken in the past about how Pessah has such a hold on history, and why we are driven to such punctilious observance. It is precisely its ritual aspects that have preserved the intensity of the holiday so well. All the cleaning and scrubbing, the change of diet and habit is precisely what has so emblazoned Pessah on the Jewish psyche, so that we always remember the birth of our nation. Indeed, many non-observant Jews will run a mile from a breadcrumb during the eight days.
But I want to go on record to say, Pessah cleaning is not spring cleaning, and it is precisely the overobsessiveness that risks turning one of our most exciting festivals into a dreaded experience. It’s almost as though we’re looking to relive our servitude in Egypt so that we can better appreciate the Exodus celebration when the holiday arrives.
On Pessah we greet one another with Hag kasher ve’sameah – “a kosher and happy Pessah.” The kosher bit is paramount. But for too many it comes at the expense of happy. If so, then something is desperately wrong.
“No leavened matter” means exactly that. It means no hametz food particles. It means certain sealed cupboards, koshered stoves and covered countertops. It does not mean going where no man – or woman – or child – has gone before. It does not mean scrubbing the parquet floor till you’ve sanded the wood down an inch. It doesn’t mean spending hours scouring the bath – unless you really enjoy the occasional sandwich in there. And it certainly doesn’t mean that one should greet Pessah preparation with the same trepidation as the Jews felt toward their Egyptian taskmasters.
Wishing you a kosher and happy one! Next year in Jerusalem. The year after in Miami, perhaps?
The author is a renowned writer, lecturer and broadcaster.
He is rabbi at the Mill Hill Synagogue in London, and Chairman of the Rabbinical Council, UK.