[Note: The following is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]
In this post, I want to highlight some of the inane measures taken by some, invented in the name of avoiding hamess on Pesah, that one might encounter. Newcomers to Judaism, such as geriym and ba`aley teshuvah, are often thrown off by such weird practices and often – in an honest attempt to understand the intention of the Torah – invent myths about the supposed nature of hamess based on them. More than this, many of these contrived “chumros” blur the lines of the halakhah and actually lead to some people violating actual prohibitions because of the misunderstanding caused by such “customs.” As it says in the Gemara, “כל המוסיף גורע – kol ha-mosiyf gorea` – everyone who adds [to the law in actuality] detracts [from it]” (b.Sanhedriyn 29a).
Much the nonsense comes from a directive – quoted in the name of the Arizal – that one should be careful to respect every “chumrah” of Pesah, no matter how strained the concern may be. Another one has the Arizal promising that anyone who is careful with even the slightest amount of hamess on Pesah is guaranteed not to sin for the entire year (Mishnah Berurah, Be’er Heitev 447:1). First of all, no one knows if he ever said such things, they may be completely fanciful. Second, even if he did say them, I am sure that even he would not have countenanced some of the ridiculous practices that have cropped up today. Third, if the Arizal did say these things he had no halakhic authority to do so. Halakhah comes from Hazal as explained by their direct expositors, and from nowhere else. Ironically, many of the “chumros” invented for Pesah cannot be attributed to modernity, so one has to wonder, if Hazal took no issue with them, how is it that anyone else should?
Foil, Foil Everywhere
Perhaps the most well-known para-halakhic practice in preparation for Pesah – which has already become a major parody within the Jewish world – is the covering of all kitchen surfaces with aluminum foil. Counters, stovetops, cupboards, sinks, and yes, even the refrigerator door handle – everything is obsessively covered before Pesah by many Jews. So widely-practiced is covering by foil that when I lived in Israel, they actually included rolls of aluminum foil in the Ma’oth Hittiyn care packages. So now public charity is being used to buy foil! When the Gemara in Masekheth Pesahim (see chapter 10, `Arvey Pesahim) takes great pains to discuss exactly how much wine should be given to each `aniy in order to fulfill the misswah of the arba`ah kosoth (since there is a shittah that says one can fulfill it with only two full cups instead of four), why would we then spend hundreds and possibly thousands of public dollars on something that has no basis at all in halakhah? Kol ha-mosiyf gorea` (כל המוסיף גורע) indeed.
You will be happy to know that there is absolutely no need according to halakhah to cover anything with either aluminum foil or parchment paper. Not your sink, not your cupboards, not your counters, not your stove, and no, not even your refrigerator door handle. What is required is that you clean your home of visible hamess, giving special attention to any significant pieces in the same room that may be able to be combined to form the bulk of a Suri or “Egori” olive (ke-zayith, cf. m.Keliym 17:8). Further required is that all cooking and food preparation utensils be either set aside or undergo a kashering process (I will discuss hakhsharath keliym in the next post). What is strongly recommended, however, is that you thoroughly clean the exposed surfaces of your kitchen (no need to pull out the refrigerator), using a bleach-based cleaning solution. The bleach solution will nullify any traces of hamess that might possibly be found by rendering them inedible. Since you do not cook or set food – especially hot food – directly on your counters or the shelves of your fridge they do not require kashering, let alone covering.
To give you an idea of just how sane the actual laws of kashering are for dishes and surfaces, check out this brief summary based on the rulings of Rav Yitzchak Abadi of Jerusalem.
Probably the most inane para-halakhic and superstitious “custom” that I have heard of in regard to avoiding hamess on Pesah is the refusal to eat cucumbers by Chabadniks because – and I quote – “its seeds look like grains of wheat.” This is insane. Do these same people avoid eating kosher sushi because it looks just like real crab? Certainly not. What are they afraid of? Confusing cucumber seeds and wheat berries? If someone thinks that this could happen, they quite frankly need to take anxiety medication and discuss their irrational fears with a professional. I think it is obvious to any reasonable, thinking person that this is ludicrous – aside from being completely without basis in the halakhah. I mean, do they forget that beautiful little piece of Gemara in Pesahim about Rav Huna’s seder plate? He put rice on it! Obviously, Hazal were not at all concerned about the “appearance” of qitniyoth confusing us into eating wheat and barley (cf. b.Pesahim 114b).
Another incarnation of this is requiring that all fruits and vegetables be peeled prior to consumption on Pesah because there might be “traces of chametz” in the peels. Don’t be taken in by this and do not be fooled into thinking that those who do such things are on a “higher level” of dedication. Comparing one level of foolishness to another only serves the purposes fools. The fact is that Hazal are the bearers of the mesorah and in many cases they are the architects of it. They knew what hamess was and how to effectively avoid it on Pesah. They transmitted those things faithfully to us in their talmudh and so there is no need for later innovations that are obsessive and usually based on some kabbalistic consideration foreign to Hazal in the first place.
Now, this is not to say that there isn’t the concept of being unusually careful in an effort to completely avoid hamess on Pesah – there certainly is (and I plan to discuss this in the next post on kashering). But those considerations are already built into the halakhah itself. And it is not as if the meqori approach guarantees that in all things it will be “easier” than the mainstream practice. Although this is generally the case, it is not always the case. One who truly seeks to fulfill the Divine will is open to the truth whatever it may be, whether easy or difficult. May HaShem grant us the ability to perform every misswah, great or small, with a full heart.
No KLP Kneidlach? It Gebrokts My Heart
Gebrokt is a Yiddish word meaning “broken” and refers to massah that has been soaked in water or some other liquid. Entrees that were made with such massah are called “gebrokts” because the massoth are generally broken into small pieces or ground prior to cooking or baking with them. The Hebrew term for such entrees is massah sheruyah meaning “soaked massah.” The Hasidic practice is to avoid allowing any liquid, especially water, to come in contact with massah during Pesah. The reason? They are afraid that even their massoth may be hamess. The explanation goes the that there may be some small amount of flour that went through the baking process that never truly mixed with water to become dough. Putting that massah into water would expose that bit of flour to water and it could thereby become hamess. This is absolutely ludicrous. This is the reason for all of the products made from potato flour that show up on Pesah. However, I am waiting for some “rebbe” to announce that potatoes may actually be one of the five grains and are therefore forbidden be consumed (this is a joke, of course, but I think my intent is clear). Even still, with all the fuss over the supposed wheat-like appearance of cucumber seeds, you would think that they would avoid potato flour because it looks very similar to…oh, possibly… FLOUR.
The practice of avoiding gebrokts and worrying that massah, although prepared according to strict standards of shemirah, may actually be hamess is a thoroughly Hasidic invention. Although there were those, even before Hasidism, who had the practice of not eating massah sheruyah on the night of the seder – such as the Ra’avan (cf. Ra’avan, Pesahim 162a) – their concern had nothing to do with avoiding hamess (or they would have avoided it throughout the hagh), rather it was to preserve the strong taste of massah in the mouth, something that is lost when it is soaked in water. Even after the emergence of the Hasidic movement, there were those – such as Rav Hayyim Volozhiner – who maintained the practice of not eating gebrokts during the seder because of the Rambam, who says that massah eaten during the seder should be “lehem oni – poor bread” (i.e. not “enriched”) and should be free of salt, spices, eggs, fruit juice, olive oil, etc. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5:20). The irrational fear that duly guarded massoth could actually be hamess historically arose from the Hasidic movement alone. Their attempts to co-opt earlier sources to justify their nonsense is strained at best.
There are some Hasidic-Haredi groups that refuse to eat massah at all during Pesah because of the fear that it may actually be “chametz.” Only because it is a misswah de-oraytha do they consent eat a small amount during the seder. This fear should illustrate well the concern in Hazal that “אין לדבר סוף – ein le-davar sof – there is no end to the matter.” In other words, there has to be a limit of what we consider a reasonable and likely concern (hashash) because if there isn’t insanity ensues. This reasoning is brought in m.Pesahim 1:2 and codified by the Rambam in Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 2:7 about checking the home for hamess. It is brought in m.Yoma 1:1 with regard to keeping a new wife in reserve for the kohen gadhol on Yom HaKippuriym since it is a Torah requirement that he be married. Hazal instruct that it is enough to have one woman prepared to marry the kohen should something happen to his current wife during the night – if it should enter our minds to arrange for still another in case something happened to both the wife and the back-up, they say that you would then have to worry about the back-up of the back-up as well, ad infinitum, and אין לדבר סוף – ein le-davar sof. Since entering into an impossible and endless regress is never the requirement of the Torah or the halakhah, such unlikely concerns may be dismissed. This reasoning is stated throughout the Gemara as well, and it is nearly always mentioned as a limit to the word hashash, meaning worry or suspicion. Hazal thereby teach us that it is right and good to have concerns about the misswoth of the Torah, but that there must be reasonable limits to such concern – and it is they who held the authority to set the boundaries for such things.
This also happens to be why I personally believe that when the Rambam states that hamess cannot be nullified “even [in a ratio of] one in several thousand” that he is referring to actual, quantifiable, reasonably present hamess – not invisible hamess that is conjured up through the powers of unlimited hashash (cf. Hilkhoth Ma’akhaloth Assuroth 15:10-11). But this is for another time.