As the countdown begins

As the countdown begins

Moshe established for Israel that “shoalim v’dorshim – they ask and expound” matters to do with a festival – traditionally thirty days before its onset. (Megillah32b; Shulchan Aruch Ohr Hachayim 429:1)

Yes, as this edition of the paper goes on sale we are celebrating the festival of Purim. But on this very same day we are entering the 30-day pre-Pesach period, when it is appropriate to commence dealing with what are nowadays referred to so often as FAQ’s – frequently asked questions.

I would add that it is also the day on which we should begin to fulfil the very first law in Shulchan Aruch regarding Pesach – the provision of “kimcha d’Pischa” (literally “flour for Pesach”) i.e. giving to charitable funds that will try to ensure that all have sufficient resources to enable them to celebrate the festival despite the cost of its basic requirements.

And if you indeed do it today you will also be fulfilling one of the requirements of Purim – matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the needy. The Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund is particularly recommended in this regard. (Details how to donate are online.)

Halachah has various branches. There are laws that are “d’Oraita – Torah based”. The ban on chametz on Pesach falls into that category. However there are also many laws “d’rabbanan – of rabbinic origin”. Finally, regarding so many aspects of Jewish life there is a tapestry of “minhag – custom”. If such is the case regarding religious practice the whole year through, how much more so is it so on Pesach – the ultimate religious festival celebrated in the home to which countless generations, communities and households have added their particular touch. Accordingly there are many differences in practice to be taken into account as we gear up for the frantic annual pre-Pesach shopping marathon.

So although it has all been said before, it is timely to once again remind ourselves of the basic principles applicable to Pesach purchases. And, I might add, in that context it is worth thinking whether it is actually necessary to buy everything available for the chag. There was a time that for reasons relating to the strictness of Pesach laws one purchased almost no manufactured products and all was done in the home – and there are still some who follow that principle. Perhaps it would be a good idea if for at least one week in the year one combined healthier eating practices with emphasis on the best halachic practice.

But back to the FAQ’s.

Why do even items bearing kosher approval symbols need special approval for Pesach? Because on Pesach, in addition to kashrut rules applicable all year round we need to know that not even the tiniest amount of an impermissible ingredient is present in the product. Unless specifically manufactured in accordance with Pesach principles any flour-based ingredient is a problem. And in this context “any” literally means “any”, for on Pesach  we do not even accept (as we may at other times) an unintended additive comprising less that one sixtieth of the bulk of the final product.

But obvious chametz aside, there are other issues to watch out for even while looking to purchase products marked “kosher l’Pesach”.

Kitniyot: The basic principle of Pesach kashrut is that anything made from wheat, barley, oats, rye or spelt becomes chametz – leaven – if it has made contact with water and been allowed to stand for 18 minutes without being worked or baked. However to avoid confusion similar restrictions were subsequently placed on kitniyot – other grain-like vegetables of which rice and legumes are prime examples. This stringency was never accepted in Sephardic communities. Consequently many Israeli products, manufactured to cater for its extensive Sephardi communities, are not appropriate for those of Ashkenazi descent. Accordingly, even in regard to products sold in kosher shops with Kosher l’Pesach sections one needs to carefully read labels to avoid the problem.

Gebrochts: Halachah is adamant that once matzah is baked it cannot become chametz if subsequently dampened. Nevertheless especially in the Chassidic world there are those concerned with baked matzah being dampened, perhaps because there may be a residue of unbaked flour on the matzah or simply because of the desire to be more particular in regard to the very strict laws of chametz.

The Yiddish term “gebrochts” actually refers to matzah that is “broken” and soaked, including items made from matzah flour (crushed matzah) such as kneidlach. While many authorities absolutely disagree with what has become in recent years an increasingly prevalent custom (even suggesting that having no kneidlach reduces the enjoyment of yom tov) to maximise their potential clientele many manufacturers and caterers avoid ingredients that could cause conflict with that custom. Thus they might use potato or nut flours rather than matzah meal involving flour derived from the problematic grains.

Your custom and that of your guests will determine your attitude to products containing matzah flour. (Regarding nut flours remember that there may be allergy implications for some; even if using cereal flour-based ingredients be aware of gluten-free requirements of some individuals who may need to consult a rabbi regarding the obligation to eat matzah.) Note however that on the last day Pesach strictures regarding gebrochts do not apply. However as this year the last day is Shabbat one should consult a rabbi regarding preparation of gebrochts on the Friday.

Shmurah matzah: To avoid chametz we are commanded to “guard the matzot” (Shemot 12:17). In practice this requires us to ensure the flour does not come in contact with moisture before baking begins. However the point at which guarding must commence is halachically contentious. Shmurah (literally, “guarded”) matzah that is especially appropriate for use at the seder (though some insist on using it all Pesach), is made from flour milled from wheat guarded against moisture even prior to the milling. Please note that shmurah matzah can be made either by machine or by hand. The preference for matzah made by either method is a separate matter depending on custom – although it is fair to say that nowadays all hand made matzah is shmurah. I would however make the point that not all authorities treat handmade matzah as preferable – in fact when I studied in Yerushalayim some 50 years ago, rabbanim, led by the world famous posek Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and author of Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata Harav Yeshua Yeshaya Neuwirth – arranged to rent space in a factory, carefully clean and kasher a matzah making machine – and in 18 minutes they made enough machine matzot under the strictest supervision to serve for the whole of Pesach. While we are generally not in a position to do as they did, those who prefer machine shmurah have authorities on which to rely.

In conclusion: Tradition is an overriding concern – and indeed that is a reality permeating all Pesach custom.

Good luck with the shopping (and don’t overdo it or the eating)!

Shabbat shalom,

Yossi Aron OAM is The AJN’s religious affairs editor.

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