kosher bookworm

The Observant Jew


Rently a fascinating book of essays was brought to my attention, titled The Observant Jew, by Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz. In this volume there is an essay titled “Pesach: Being Machmir,” dealing, obviously, with the holiday of Pesach, an essay that I am certain that you will come to appreciate.

The author, Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz, received his semicha from the famed Telshe Yeshiva. He lives in Monsey, New York and is the author of the weekly column Observant Jew, as well as Migdal Ohr, a weekly publication on the parsha distributed worldwide.

This week’s The Kosher Bookworm column will be devoted to this unique brief essay that this writer believes is not only timely but also timeless. In “Pesach: Being Machmir,” the author, with an obvious smile, imparts to us a humorous, yet sober picture of what Pesach should represent to us in terms of our religious beliefs and the historic context within which we observe this holiday.

The author told me that he defines his theological views as follows:

“One thing that was life-changing was my study of Chovos Halevavos, especially Shaar Habitachon. It taught me to look at life as if G-d was running the show, because He is!  In that case, when things happen, it is not in a vacuum. I began to look for G-d in the most mundane situations and ask what I was really looking at and what G-d is trying to tell me. It’s part of a conversation where you get better and better at understanding the other party the more you interact with them, or in this case G-d.”

The following timely essay by Rabbi Gewitz will give you a sample of his thinking on theological issues as interpreted by our sages and applied to in the proper manner in which we come to the observance of the Pesach holiday.

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Pesach is the festival of our freedom. It’s supposed to be that, actually, though it seems more like when we left the servitude of Mitzrayim for the servitude of our kitchens and housecleaning.

This topic has been written about to death, but every year, men and women, or at least, women, make themselves and their families crazy getting ready for Pesach. “Oh no! Purim is next week? That means Pesach cleaning is around the corner! Oh man, that’s not fair. How much can one woman/man/child/nuclear physicist attempting to negate chametz molecules with WD-40 and a blowtorch do?”

I really wonder if this is what Chazal had in mind when they discussed eliminating chametz. Of course, in those days it was much easier. You could just wash off the floor (literally), put on a new layer of dirt, and if worse came to worst, just burn down your hut and start again. But not so today. Now we have things like cinder block, linoleum, and arson laws.

But what would they say if they saw the things we do? Well, of course you should vacuum out the back of your closet, isn’t that where you eat cookies when you’re hiding from your kids? And cleaning between floor tiles with toothpicks is obviously of utmost importance. And who knows how much chametz built up in the furnace? But what about some of the crazy stuff we do?

I know the prevalent minhag is to go a little crazy to avoid chametz, and it was in this vein that the custom of not eating gebrokts (basically, no more matzah balls) was established. But, I sometimes wonder how much of what we do borders on bal tosif (adding new mitzvos) — a big no-no.

A number of years ago, I was at a supermarket in Baltimore the week before Pesach and a woman was holding her items instead of putting them on the conveyor belt. I moved my groceries to make room for her but she said, “No, thanks, this is my Pesach stuff, I don’t want to put it on the conveyor belt.”

Now, at the time, I was learning Yoreh De’ah and the halachos of such things as mixing meat and milk, and I knew that there was no magical transference of chametz possible from the clean and dry conveyor to her closed packages of Pesach socks or whatever she had, so I told her so. “There’s really no problem,” I told her. “Halachically speaking there’s nothing to worry about.”

“I know,” she replied, “but I’m being machmir.”

Machmir? Machmir! What does she mean machmir? Machmir is when something is a she’eilah, or even a remote possibility. Not when it’s nothing. Jokingly, my father said, “Next year they’ll cover the conveyor belt for Pesach.” We had a good laugh, but the joke was on us. The next year, they did!

A few weeks ago, just before Rosh Chodesh Nissan, I went to my local kosher supermarket and saw that two lanes were covered with contact paper and had special signs designating them for “Passover Use Only.” Even with all the other lanes full, and nobody in those lines, people couldn’t use the Passover lanes. I couldn’t convince the Hispanic cashier to scan my non-chametz items and let me wave the chametz items over the scanner without touching it, even if I removed it toch k’dei dibbur. Well, at least she didn’t stop to wonder if my green beans were kitniyos.

Perhaps the store had to do it for people like my “machmir” friend in Baltimore. I suppose it’s mostly harmless, as long as we understand that this craziness is self-imposed and not what the Ribono shel Olam demands. I wonder sometimes if He shakes His head at us and wonders, “That’s not MY Torah; what are they thinking?!”

On the other hand, it is well known that many noble Jews have always been more careful regarding Pesach. Many European Jews would not eat dairy the whole Pesach for fear of contaminated milk products.

R’ Gifter z”l once told me the story of when his mother came to visit him and he had gone to a farm to get milk. They had been there as the cows were milked so it was chalav Yisrael and there was no worry of chametz. But she wouldn’t eat it. She said, “Nein, mein teiyera. Fahr dir iz kosher, fahr mir nisht (No, my dear. For you it is kosher, but not for me).”

So, next year, when you’re chasing your neighbor’s cat to clean the crumbs from the bells in his collar, remember that Pesach is really supposed to be a joyous holiday celebrating our Redemption, not a time of reluctant drudgery. Keep in mind that it’s about removing the chametz from your neshama, and cleaning house internally as a preparation for living a Torah life, the only real way to be free.

And if you see me put my shrink-wrapped box of potato starch on the uncovered conveyor? “Fahr mir iz kosher, fahr dir nisht (For me it’s kosher, maybe not for you).”