There are multiple manifestations of the faceoff between the elimination of bread from our homes beginning this weekend and the incorporation of matzah as it replaces it over the next nine days.
This message was brought home to me last week on a sunny, warm afternoon in our hotel room in Jerusalem, as we were packing up in preparation for our journey back to New York the next morning. There was a knock at the door and I immediately walked over to see who it was. The room had been made up earlier so it probably was not housekeeping.
I open the door, and there is a young lady standing there toting a wagon that is filled with a variety of foodstuffs. We spent the last few days of our stay in Jerusalem at the Herbert Samuel Hotel at the intersection of Ben Yehuda and Jaffa Road. She said that she was there to go through the hotel room minibar — you know, the little fridge where you can pluck a miniature size can of Coke for only about $6.
The young lady who says her name is Tzila ambles in and heads to the fridge. She does not have to bother replenishing anything in the cold box, I tell her, because we have not consumed anything or even moved any items from the inventory contained therein. She says no, she is not there for that; she is going through the more than 150 rooms in the hotel to empty the minibar of all its chametz.
I’ve never been in Israel at this time of year, and, frankly, I had not considered the idea that this was an important part of the Pesach preparation process in Israel but it apparently is. It is not a matter of any given hotel owner or management company preferring that their facility not serve or make chametz available over Pesach. In Israel, it is the law. Not only in Jerusalem; it is a law, Tzila said, that applies to all Israeli merchants in the food business.
“So,” I inquire as she sits on the floor collecting bags of chips and cans of soda without Passover certification, “how would anyone know whether there was chametz in the room refrigerators or not?” She responds that while there are always kosher enforcement inspectors out there in the field, over Pesach the Israeli government steps up those eff orts.
She adds that the next step, a little closer to the chag, the minibars or mini-fridges will be fully stocked by the hotel with kosher-for-Passover items. As long as we are standing there talking, I ask her if there are restaurants in Jerusalem or, for that matter, anywhere in Israel, that serve bread during Pesach. She says that this may not be a factor in Jerusalem but that in other cities around the country and especially in Tel Aviv it is.
I ask her how the government or the agencies that oversee these matters deal with it, and Tzila says that restaurants or stores that sell chametz over Pesach are fined 2,000 shekel per day that they are in violation of the Pesach regulation.
She adds that this is also the case with restaurants that sell or serve nonkosher foods, like pork, anywhere in Israel. Tzila adds that the fine, which computes to about $571 a day, is just the cost of doing business and apparently well worth it for some shops and food emporiums.
She is sitting on the floor opposite the little fridge, seemingly glad to pontificate on the subject. I was thinking that it is probably rare for her to encounter people in their hotel rooms during the afternoon, especially those who are genuinely interested in what she has to say.
So that conjures up some additional thoughts and ideas about the matter of chametz that I have always found fascinating and are not emphasized sufficiently. While there are several central and even parallel themes to the proper observance of Pesach, perhaps none of them are as focused on the idea of seeing to it that our homes and possessions are completely purged of foodstuffs that are in any way, shape, or form what we would refer to as chametzdik.
Over the years, some have suggested that in Egypt, bread was an object of worship, and since we are marking and celebrating the exodus from Egypt, it is proper that we also distance ourselves from the things that they idolized, like bread.
But Chassidic thought suggests that there are greater ramifications and considerations in the dynamics that exist between chametz and matzah. It is written that the Ba’al HaTanya, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, though he lived in one small room, spent the entire night prior to Pesach conducting the traditional search for chametz. It would seem that we go through our homes and apartments in the same search in about 15–20 minutes. What was the Rebbe doing during the hunt that took him the entire night?
Our commentators say that the search for chametz on this night is not simply about a ceremonial removal of chametz that is represented by ten pieces of bread that are strategically placed around our homes. They say the search for chametz that took all night was the search in the heart, in the psyche, and in the mind of the Rebbe.
So it seems that chametz is not exclusively about bread or other leavened items. It is more — much more — than that. Bread and matzah are products that are essentially composed of identical ingredients. The difference is in the timing. Bread is given time to rise into a handsome, tasty, and filling loaf. Matzah, on the other hand is rushed through the process, not given time to rise, and is quickly placed in a 600 to 800 degree oven so as to bake quickly and remain flat.
Some observe that allowing the bread to rise is a matter of escalating hubris and ego, which for many of us is an inevitable pattern of our everyday lives. The idea of the search is therefore about reflecting upon who we are, what we have become, and how we think and conduct ourselves.
At the other end of the corresponding spectrum is the matter of the humility that we hope to aspire toward, as represented in the simple smallness and flatness of the matzah. In essence, the objective of the search for chametz is a conscious and deliberate eff ort to recalibrate and refi ne ourselves. It is the season of our freedom, which is signified by the joy of the attachment to Hashem, as opposed to the rest of the world’s misinterpretation of freedom as something that results in lessening service to our Creator.
The refinement that is supposed to take place inside our souls — and not just our stomachs — over yom tov is a process that we count up towards in terms of the seven weeks of Sefirah leading to our celebration of Shavuos and the giving of the Torah to Am Yisrael at Sinai.
That is a relatively brief period of time in which we can accomplish a vast and considerable amount. So while we are picking up those bread pieces and burning our leftover chametz, perhaps we should be mindful of what the observance and experience of Pesach should truly be about. It may start with a knock at the door of a hotel room in Jerusalem to empty chips and crackers from a minibar, along with a quick education on the interplay between the government and the food industry in Israel.
But its true essence is who we are as we conduct the perfunctory and expeditious search for pieces of bread in our homes, as well as the elongated and truly never-ending search of our hearts and minds in yet another try at attaching ourselves to Hashem and His very special ways of communicating with us at this time of year.
Chag sameach to all.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org