In answer to my friend Martha Ann

Today I received the following email from my friend Martha Ann

Sarah, sometime when your life isn’t at such an “Olympic” stage, why don’t you write a post about what you have to do to get ready?  Are there other occasions where you have to do other things as well.  I understand about the wheat but what about the dishes, cooking utensils and all the aluminum foil???  I’m sure there are a 1000 other things I could be asking but for those of us who are not familiar with Jewish holidays/celebrations/etc, I don’t even know enough to ask questions!  Maybe it isn’t something to share but thought I would ask - could be there are others who grew up unfamiliar with other religions might like to know as well.  Martha Ann

In other words, what is this insanity around Passover?This is a great question that sort of cracks open the evolution of Jewish law from biblical times until today.

Here from Chapter 12 of the book of Exodus is the source
טו  שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ--אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם:  כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל חָמֵץ, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל--מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן, עַד-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.15 Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; howbeit the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.
טז  וּבַיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם:  כָּל-מְלָאכָה, לֹא-יֵעָשֶׂה בָהֶם--אַךְ אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל לְכָל-נֶפֶשׁ, הוּא לְבַדּוֹ יֵעָשֶׂה לָכֶם.16 And in the first day there shall be to you a holy convocation, and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done by you.
יז  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַמַּצּוֹת, כִּי בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, הוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-צִבְאוֹתֵיכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם; וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם--חֻקַּת עוֹלָם.17 And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore shall ye observe this day throughout your generations by an ordinance for ever.
יח  בָּרִאשֹׁן בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ, בָּעֶרֶב, תֹּאכְלוּ, מַצֹּת:  עַד יוֹם הָאֶחָד וְעֶשְׂרִים, לַחֹדֶשׁ--בָּעָרֶב.18 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even.
יט  שִׁבְעַת יָמִים--שְׂאֹר, לֹא יִמָּצֵא בְּבָתֵּיכֶם:  כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל מַחְמֶצֶת, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל--בַּגֵּר, וּבְאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ.19 Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses; for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a sojourner, or one that is born in the land.
כ  כָּל-מַחְמֶצֶת, לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ; בְּכֹל, מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, תֹּאכְלוּ,
מַצּוֹת.  {פ}
20 Ye shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall ye eat unleavened bread.' {P}

So what you learn from these verses are a few things.
  • Eat unleavened bread for seven days ( that's matza)
  • Get the leavened stuff out of your house
  • Eating leavened food during Passover is REALLY bad ( Cutting the soul off is a big deal punishment)
  • The first and last day are observed with the same strictures as Shabbat ( no work, no lighting fire, no cooking, no commerce)
  • Leavened stuff can't exist in your house

Most Jewish Holidays have particular food practices associated with them, and holiday meals that need to be cooked for them.Because there are restrictions on buying and cooking on the holiday all the prep has to happen in advance.

Passover though adds additional complications to the matter. It isn't just bread that is forbidden. All foods made with five particular grains ( wheat ,oats,barley, spelt and rye) unless they were already baked into matza. are forbidden. Anything made with grain alcohol is forbidden, no beer or single malt scotch or vanilla extract.Even trace amounts of these ingredients are forbidden.

Additionally if your family like mine comes from Eastern Europe where bread flours were often stretched with bean flours, legumes and also rice and corn is forbidden as well. 

So now you get a sense of how during Passover large swaths of the supermarket are off limits. When I shop for Passover I can buy fruits, vegetables, kosher meat and fish without too much trouble. there are also packaged Kosher for Passover goods available. You can buy packages of stuff that looks like breakfast cereal( it's awful unless you are under ten).

But if you look at the biblical text it says that you can't have leavened stuff in your house.Other sources say that you can't own Chametz ( the catch all word for food you can't eat on Passover)  you can't see it and you can't find it on Passover.  This is the source for the crazy cleaning. The crumbs behind the fridge need to be cleaned up as do the ones behind the stove and inside any of the cabinets. 

On the morning before Passover I sell all of my reamining Chametz to my doorman. He gets to own the stuff I know about( like the bottles of booze, and the stuff I don't know aboutlike a forgotten piece of Halloween candy. My doorman also retains ownership of the spaces underneath all of the Chametz in my apartment.

Different communities and families establish standards of what makes a kitchen OK for Passover. I cover all of the surfaces that might get in touch with food. I cover all of my kitchen counters, and the burners on my stove.T do a self clean on my oven and then turn it all the way up to high. During Passover I probably wouldn't eat at the home of someone who did not do the same. 

I use a completely different set of pots and pans, silverware and dishes (and dish drainers and silverware organizers and sponges and glasses) during Passover.

We all get new toothbrushes at Passover. 

And all of that is before you start to cook. The first two nights of Passover you have Seder, which means order. Seder is both a meal and a service ( elements of the mass come from the Seder). 

At the beginning of the Seder we recite a formula inviting all who are hungry to come and eat. Our table is open to it's fullest and every seat is filled with family and friends and community members who don't have a Seder to attend. I am making and serving a multi course fancy dinner for twelve, two nights in a row. In addition to that, I am also feeding breakfast and lunch to everyone staying with us. Because the first day of the holiday is on Shabbat, that adds another level of complication to the food prep. Some kinds of cooking are allowed on a holiday but are not allowed on Shabbat so that's more prep that has to be done before the holiday starts.

After the first two days of the holiday buying food is more complicated. There are additional strictures about what is OK to buy during the holiday. So it makes sense to buy everything before the holiday begins. If I lived in a big suburban house I would have a big freezer in my basement.I live in a Manhattan apartment and have a not very big fridge. managing fridge and freezer space for so much food, for so many days is not easy.
A matza cover I made, the text is a core one from the haggadah
In every generation each person is obligated to see themselves as if they were personally liberated from Egypt, as it is written' You will tell your children on that day saying...'

So that in a nutshell are some of the reasons for the Passover cooking Olympics.

I am leaving out the power of transmitting this tradition to my kids, the power of evoking my parents as we go through each aspect of the preparation, the power of evoking generations and generations of people before me doing the same thing so we can celebrate freedom from slavery and hope for full liberation for all of us.

If you have other questions, by all meals ask.


  1. Thanks, Sarah, for such good insights.

  2. Please, please let me know when my posts are just too much inside-baseball on any topic. I love that I have readership from various corners of my interests. I any thing in any post makes no sense or not enough sense, please let me know and I will be happy to clarify.


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