Leaven’s Fate: What to do with your chametz.
By Melissa Jacobs
It’s time for the annual Passover chametz purge. For some Jews, not eating chametz is not enough. They follow the biblical directive to rid the house of it. Exodus 12:15 states, “On the first day, you shall put leaven out of your houses,” and “seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses” is written in Exodus 12:19.
What’s to be done with all that chametz? There are several choices. It can donated, burned or sold.
Donating can be done through the Mitzvah Food Project’s annual chametz drive. For the past 10 years, approximately 40 congregations have participated in the chametz-athon. The foodstuffs may not be wanted by observant Jews, but they are needed by others. Drisana Davis, Mitzvah Food Project manager, says this year’s need is greater than others.
“With the current economic downturn and rising food and living costs, this is a critical time for our vulnerable seniors, children and families,” Davis says. “The Mitzvah Food Project is experiencing several increases in need and a growing demand for funding to continue to feed its participants. The number of client households served over the most recent program year [Sept. 1, 2009 to Aug. 31, 2010] increased by 11 percent. In the first three months of our current program year, the Food Project experienced a 24 percent increase in the number of households served as compared to the first quarter of last year.”
Jacques Lurie, director of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia, sees that suffering in his own synagogue. “Because of the economy, there is increased need among members of our congregation,” Lurie says. “We also have a lot of senior citizens who rely on the Mitzvah Food Project. When it comes to Passover, many Jews choose to rid their homes of chametz. That’s a choice they can afford to make. Other people don’t have that option.”
Shaare Shamayim congregants who can donate chametz, do so, and have done so for many years. Lurie says that, in addition to chametz, his congregants donate matzah that they receive as bonuses from some supermarkets. This year, the Mitzvah Food Project is also accepting donations of $10 gift cards from area supermarkets.
” ‘Let all who are hungry, come and eat’ is part of the seder, and this is one way of doing just that,” says Elena Shaw, program director of the Germantown Jewish Centre, a participant in the Mitzvah Food Project’s chametz drive.
Shaw says that the chametz drive can also be a great lesson for children. The mother of an infant and a 3-year-old, Shaw is conscious of setting an example for her children. “I explain that we are donating our chametz because, although we don’t eat it during Passover, there are lots of families who do. We’re doing the mitzvah of making sure that other people in our community have food to eat.”
Not everyone can afford to dispose of their chametz. In those cases, chametz can be “sold” to non-Jews. The chametz remains in the house, in a designated area. That area is then sold, for a nominal fee and via legal contract, to a non-Jew who owns the space and the chametz for the duration of Passover. The transaction transfers legal ownership of the chametz from Jew to non-Jew, and completes the biblical directive. Rabbis act as agents between a trusted non- Jew and congregants and the transactions are usually done via email.
While adhering to biblical law is important, rabbis say that ridding the house of chametz shouldn’t overshadow the reason for it. “It shouldn’t be, ‘Let’s make sure every speck of chametz is out of the house.’ People shouldn’t get obsessive about it,” says Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch of Mekor Habracha in Center City “Nor is it something that should be done with triviality It should be done with intent, and an acknowledgement and understanding of the reason why we are commanded to remove chametz from our lives for seven days.”
What is the reason? What is the meaning of chametz? There are many.
“First, it is our way of re-enacting the story of Exodus,” says Rabbi Kevin Carr of Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill. “However, it’s not just the exodus of the Israelites that we should remember. We are meant to appreciate their situation before the exodus, while they were slaves. Matzah is not called ‘the bread of liberation.’ It’s called ‘the bread of affliction.’ We eat matzah – and not chametz – to remind ourselves of that affliction and its slavery, hunger and oppression. For seven days, we are all slaves like our ancestors were.”
That the Israelites had to flee quickly should also be remembered, says Hirsch. “The bread didn’t have time to rise because the Jews didn’t have the freedom to say when they would leave,” he says. “Now, we don’t have to flee our homes. And, we can practice our religion openly. We have the freedom to relish life, experience it, embrace it and know that every day is worth living to the fullest. That is no small thing.”
There are other interpretations of freedom and chametz. “The making of chametz involves the rising of dough and the use of sour yeast,” says Rabbi Mike Uram of Penn Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania. “One idea is that the process of cleansing our homes of chametz is an attempt to accomplish that cleansing internally and rid ourselves of anything that is inflated or sour. Ego, bad feelings about people, greed – it can include many things. It’s like: Clean your kitchen, clean your soul.
“As we gain freedom from chametz, we gain emotional and spiritual freedom from things that we are enslaved to today,” Uram says. “That includes something like technology or, especially on a college campus, success, grades, body image, popularity So, removing chametz from our homes can be an experiential tool of identifying those things – and ridding ourselves of them.”
“I talk about it as a spiritual version of looking at that which puffs us up,” Carr says. “I talk about ‘spiritual chametz’ as pride and arrogance, and our need to remove them and recapture our modesty, humility and perspective.”
There’s even a rabbinical interpretation of the physical act of cleaning chametz from the house. “Passover represents a holiday in which the Jews were very physical,” Hirsch says. “Exodus is about action. The work of slavery running out of Egypt, wandering in the desert. It’s the most physical of all holidays. And, cleaning the home is very physical. It might be where spring cleaning comes from.
“But, action without spiritual or meditative quality is almost pointless,” Hirsch says. “Don’t get so OCD about chametz that you forget the ‘why’ of why we do this. Be present in the moment. Think about it. Experience it. Allow yourself to be affected spiritually. That is the ultimate freedom.”