Bread or Matzah: Does it Matter?

by Lynn Urbach, President

 Which of the following is the most commonly observed practice for Jews in the United States?

  1. Going to synagogue on High Holy Days
  2. Observing Shabbat at least once a month by going to services or lighting candles
  3. Fasting on Yom Kippur
  4. Attending a Passover Seder

According to a study by the Pew Research Center (Lipka, 2014), attending a Passover Seder is one of the most observed of rituals among Jews in the United States. Of the 70% of US Jews who attend a seder, how many of them avoid chametz (food that is traditionally forbidden for Jews to eat during the holiday) for the following seven or eight days? Do you? Why or why not?

Many Jews restrict what they eat during Passover. Some don’t eat bread. Others have a separate set of dishes and utensils used only for Passover and buy foods specifically marked “kosher for Passover,” thereby ensuring that none of the food they eat is contaminated with forbidden products. As Reform Jews, our obligation is to learn what and why the laws are and  to make an educated decision for ourselves and our families as to what to practice.

Passover starts six weeks from when I am writing this. Soon I will start to clean out my kitchen cabinets and vacuum my car, trying to remove all signs of bread and other chametz before the seder. I will search Portland area grocery stores for decent matzah. (I think I’ve tried them all; Yehuda and Streits beat the cardboard Manischewitz hands down, but they can be difficult to locate in Maine.)

If you heard me speak on Rosh Hashanah morning at Bet Ha’am, you know that I do not believe God pays attention to what I do. I believe in God, but not in the sense of an all-powerful Being monitoring or actively manipulating our world. I’d love to talk with you about this, but that needs to be a conversation held in person. If I don’t believe that God is going to cut me off from the Jewish people, as the Torah states, why go through the effort? I, like most of us, have a very full life with too much to do and not enough time. This project of mine–cleaning my house, purchasing special food, and monitoring my eating habits–will take time, effort, and energy both before and during the holiday.

For those seven days I will eat no bread or pasta products; I make sure that any canned soup I eat does not have any wheat protein, pasta, or other forbidden grains in it. Why do I go through this trouble? I have a number of reasons. Here are a few:

  • I feel good because my refrigerator and cabinets are clean and sparsely filled so I can see everything in them.
  • I am mindful of my eating; I consciously consider what I will eat for each meal and, in being more aware and more limited than is my norm, I become particularly grateful for what I have.
  • My practice brings back memories of my childhood, when my brother and I had to help my mom clean out the cupboards, and together we performed the ritual of bedikat chametz, searching for and burning the forbidden crumbs that my mom had hidden the night before.

Memories can be a powerful factor in the choices we make, but the primary reason I avoid chametz during the week of Passover is that it helps me feel connected. It connects me to history, to community, and to Jews all over the world. In committing to this undertaking, to this long-standing tradition of the Jewish people, I am forcing myself to take charge of an important part of my life. I am making a statement to myself, and to those who pay attention to what I do, of what, fundamentally, is important to me. And I reinforce my connection with all who join me in this ancient tradition.

I am actively involved in our Bet Ha’am community for the very same reasons I choose to follow the laws of Passover. I feel comforted and fulfilled when I attend Shabbat services. Being active at Bet Ha’am helps keep alive my commitment to live according to Jewish values, and it certainly reminds me of my childhood and my family. But by far the most important reason I am engaged at Bet Ha’am is that it connects me to you, to my community. Please, join in. Participate. We want you, and we need you.

Chag Pesach sameach, may you have a joyful Passover holiday.

Works Cited

Lipka, M. (2014, April 14). FactTank: News in the Numbers. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/14/attending-a-seder-is-common-practice-for-american-jews/

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