Monday, March 28, 2011

Minhag, Mishagas and Making Pesach

A comment on a different posting about the craziness that goes on when making Pesach got me to thinking, hence this posting. If you think that there are a variety of different minhagim and personal customs and quirks that exist during the year, it's nothing in comparison to Pesach.

Here's my take: each to their own. You think I'm nuts with some of the things I do? Fine, you don't have to do what I do, but be so kind as to not make remarks that I'm out of step with how things "should" be done, that I've gone overboard. That "should" is how YOU hold, and I'm not a'chiv to hold your way any more than you are a'chiv to hold my way.

There is a wide divide in some areas between Ashkenazim and Sefardim when it comes to Pesach. And even that is too general a statement. There are all kinds of differing customs among the Sefardim, depending on country/place of origin, and the same goes for the Ashkenazim. And you have the chasidishe/non-chasidishe differences. But even the chasidim don't all hold the same customs, and neither do all non-chasidishe Ashkenazim.

I grew up with a saying in our family that I've also heard from many others: "Mir mischen nisht auf Pesach"--we don't "mix" with others for Pesach. There are plenty of people whose homes I have not one kashrut concern about during the year, but when it comes to Pesach I don't eat, or don't eat most things, in their homes. We have different minhagim that we hold and that's just fine. No one I know has ever gotten insulted if an invitation is not accepted or accepted with a caveat over Pesach. One of our friends is an old-time Breuer's Yekke, raised in Washington Heights. His family eats only those products approved by KAJ, hence his family basically only eats in their own home for Pesach. So?

And when it comes to how a house will get cleaned for Pesach and what will get cleaned, well each balabosta has her own customs and quirks. Indubitably some of what gets done in the name of making Pesach is really more about spring cleaning. So be it. And if what some call making Pesach begins in January, well so be it. And if for some people waiting until the week before Pesach begins is when they first want to think about Pesach, well so be it.

Any tips I offer on the blog regarding Pesach are not "Torah mi'Sinai." What they are are observations born of my personal experience in making Pesach both in my own home and helping my mother when I was young and unmarried. If something works for you, fine. If it doesn't appeal to you or look like it's going to help you, fine.

Personally, I think all the varying customs, both group and individual, are interesting. To me many of them speak of family life and lore being recreated many generations down the road since those customs sprung up. Telling me that I don't have to do something just because my great grandmother did it misses the point entirely. Isn't it wonderful that I actually know what my great grandmother did and that I can connect to her through doing the same thing. No, I don't live in the same world that my great grandmother did, and some things I am quite thankful have changed. I don't wash my clothes in a stream using a washboard. Given what I know of my great grandmother she would have welcomed with open arms the new innovations that have freed us of truly back breaking labor. I don't make my own potato starch just because Babi did, and I'd be willing to bet that she would be quite thankful that I, her descendant, don't have to undertake that labor. But given that this great grandmother was what we might call a "clean freak," and given that her granddaughters were just like her and that her great granddaughters seem to be keeping that tradition, I think she'd like that just fine.

You'll have to excuse me now--my kitchen ceiling needs washing


Anonymous said...

Pesach is great. U have all these ppl taking on 'chumras' that have no mekor. 4 some reason ppl think that anything is a chumra, what they dont realize is that if something has no source in halacha its foolishness. If someone says that he will be 'machmir' and not eat oranges all pesach, he isnt a machmir, he's a fool!
Life On A Cotton Ball: Time

JS said...

I agree with the substance of this post. Generally speaking, it really is no business of anyone else what one does to prepare for Pesach or what one will or won't eat on Pesach. To each his/her own.

But, I don't think it's always so clear cut since we are part of a community and "no Jew is an island," so to speak. You see this during the year, where others' chumras become so widely accepted that people that don't follow them are looked upon with a jaundiced eye. For example, it's perfectly fine, kashrut-wise, to have a single sink and a single oven. But, there are those who are incredulous that this is acceptable or will wonder if everything is on the up and up at that home.

Another problem is when others' chumras become so widely accepted that other people are forced to accept them as well. I've noticed that it is increasingly difficult to find non-cholov yisroel cheeses in some kosher markets, for example. Similarly, it's harder to find non-pas yisroel goods as well.

In Pesach, this trend gets completely out of control. I don't go to Pesach hotels, but I've heard it's impossible or nearly impossible to find one that will serve gebrokts. A family friend told me he broke some matzah up into his soup and was approached by several people telling him he couldn't do that and they tossed his soup in the garbage. Many people pour boiling water on their counter tops and then cover them as well which is completely unnecessary - but, there are those who will wonder why your counter tops are uncovered. The list goes on and on.

The real danger is not understanding the distinction between halacha and chumra and minhag. When those categories blur, I think we all suffer.

ProfK said...

Not a fool, but someone who is not educated about why he/she does or doesn't do something or how a particular minhag came to be.

There are lots of people who will not eat any fruits or vegetables that cannot be peeled on Pesach. Ask them why they hold this way and if they are honest they will tell you they were brought up this way and if their parents didn't do so there must be a good reason, so they don't do so either.

That reason goes all the way back to Europe and to how fruits and vegetables, when available, were transported and stored. We're not talking specialized refrigerated trucks and purpose built cases for the produce. The produce was packed in the wheat gleanings/corn stalks from the fields and/or packed in flour so the produce would arrive whole. A tarp was laid over the top of the wagon to protect from the elements. Yup, produce that could be covered in chometz, and wet chometz at that. Such produce was frequently stored in cellars dug out of the earth and also laid on wheat/corn gleanings and open to dampness. So a lot of people peeled everthing because there was a real possibility that chometz could be present. [Not to mention the mold that could be growing on the peelings when stored this way.]

Fast forward to today where storage and delivery is nothing like that in older times in Europe, and yet the minhag remains.

Anonymous said...

Im not speaking about minhagim 'because thats how it was done in der alter haim'. Im speaking about things that ppl randomly decide to do in order to seem more religious, things with no reason al pi halacha. there is a saying, that u know a true rav if he is able to be a machmir, not come up with kulos. Any rav can find a reason in halacha why something should be muttar, to find a proper reason why something should be assur, is much harder.

Malky said...

Not on the topic exactly but please, could someone tell me how to manufacture some storage space in an apartment that really doesn't have much? I took your advice and started shopping early but I can't figure out how we are supposed to live with all this stuff until yom tov arrives. And no I don't have a closet to empty out to store this stuff.

tesyaa said...

What does "a'chiv" mean?

Anonymous said...

Basic translation for achiv--required.

Miami Al said...

I think it is wonderful if you truly have family customs to keep them alive. It connects you to the past and your family, which is Judaism at it's core.

On the other hand, if you are adding stringencies to which you have no family connection because it seems "frummer," that's another story.

The expensive one-upsmanship is very sad.

We are very careful on extending invites over Pesach because I'm simply not interested in random ramblings from what people do in their home. I don't particularly enjoy spending 4 hours discussing Kashrut, I have better things to do, like spend time with my children.

But if people want to be stringent on Pesach and only accept invites from within their family or group that does exactly what they do, that's fine, good for them.

HOWEVER, people that make things so difficult that one "has to go to a hotel," are another story. The trend towards Pesach hotels (a logical outcome of larger, spread out families, and the school/Yom Tov vacation schedule) is destroying a core Jewish ritual.

Joining family for a seder is at the core of Jewish Mensorah, and it is getting wiped out of a growing segment of the Orthodox community, and that is sad. I dread the day where the only families at home making Pesach are the poor and the non-observant.

JS said...


Would also like to know what "a'chiv" means. I kind of get the gist from the sentence, but never heard the word before.

Also, in your example about fruits and veggies, are you saying it's good that these traditions are still kept even though they no longer have no basis in reality? Or are you saying it's foolish and if people understood the reason they would drop customs like this one?

ProfK said...

A punctuation mistake on my part--that should be two words "a chiuv"--one required to do something. In English we use just plain chiuv when we say we are chiuv to do something. In Yiddish it's common to hear "du bist ah chiuv tzu tein" and I tend to use it in English also.

Re the fruit and vegetable example, I gave the information strictly to explain why some people did what they did. Personally, since the reason behind the practice no longer exists I can't see a reason to still keep doing things this way. But that is for those who still hold this custom to decide based on what is known about why the custom came into being. And that also assumes that they know why. I thought to ask my mom and she did know why--and her family didn't hold that way since their produce came to them from their own fields and was not transported as stated above.

Also keep in mind that the reason why something is done today that is a passed down custom may be completely lost--perhaps it was legitimate and is still legitimate now or perhaps not. A lot of the Jewry in Europe was illiterate and not terribly educated, neither in secular studies nor in Jewish studies. They simply repeated what they had seen their parents do with no questions asked. We may never know the origin and basis for the custom.