Enslaved by the grease-cleaner
What does the outrageous obsession with cleaning have to do with the festival of freedom?
The festival of freedom is upon us. According to some of the poskim - the arbiters of Jewish law - including my mother, this festival actually begins at the end of Hanukkah. The hysteria that has overcome some households because of it is pitiful: The declared Public Enemy No. 1 is clearly chametz. It poses a greater threat than Iran, and greater than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And fighting it is a lost battle. Just as the Israel Defense Forces fights fallen autumn leaves and makes new recruits sweep entire bases, so the Jews wage their war on chametz. But we don't stand a chance; and all the cookies and pretzels that have risen up to annihilate us have gotten the better of us. We survived Pharaoh, but this is really too much.
I contemplate with pity these obsessed religious women who clean like crazy. What does this have to do with freedom? What does this enslavement have to do with salvation? These poor things arrive at the seder night as tired, nervous wrecks. Holiday joy? Don't make them laugh. All they want to do is curl up in bed with a bottle of bleach and dream dreams of cleanliness.
A girlfriend of mine, married plus four plus one on the way, is spending the week before Passover with everyone at home - everyone except her husband, who is doing reserve duty. And thus, with four toddler-ogres gaily tossing out bread crumbs, she will do her holiday cleaning. What a nightmare.
"Get a cleaning person," I suggested to her last week. She's still laughing. Evidently a pre-Passover cleaner costs $230 an hour, like a trumpet lesson with Miles Davis, of blessed memory. And you can totally forget about a babysitter.
Eventually I finished doing my kitchen. My friend the policewoman wangled me some crime-scene tape, and now everyone knows: Anyone who enters that room is a dead man. There's not a court in the land that would convict me.
Passover is an excellent time for sorting and throwing out nonsense that we have accumulated over the years. Obviously not our stationery collection; it's an entire legacy. And not the blurry pictures of exes either. That's nostalgia. I'll regret it if I throw them out. We are talking more along the lines of the junk my husband has hoarded over the years: pay slips, old bills, a yearbook, old army IDs and part of the six-volume Mishnah. As to the last, it takes up a ton of room and you really don't need it all. Tractate Zevachim, for instance. Or Tractate Nazir. He won't notice. Good, now there's a little more room. I can breathe.
I do like some of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner's doctrines, however. For example, he teaches that all you have to do before Passover is to give the floors a serious cleaning and get rid of the chametz in the house. Sticklers can also pass a rag over kitchen cabinets. That's it. No books, no clothes closets, no taking apart the tiling in the bathroom.
This girlfriend of mine ended up selling her body as a pre-Passover cleaner. And wouldn't you know: This poor lost soul happened to wind up cleaning at the home of the same Rabbi Aviner. After two hours of cleaning out the cracks around the oven with a toothpick, she asked the rabbi's wife tearfully: But I thought Rabbi Aviner takes a lenient approach? "He might be lenient, but his wife is strict," the rebbetzin declared, putting an end to the matter.
Mishnah Tractate Pesachim discusses the limits of psychosis: "We do not worry that a weasel might have dragged [chametz] from house to house and from place to place. If that were the case, it would pass from courtyard to courtyard and from town to town, and there would never be an end of the matter."
In other words, if you have cleaned a particular area - then you've cleaned it. That's it. Finished. Done. There is no need to go back and give it a quick wipe down because a fly might have gone by that sat on chametz earlier. The Mishnah restricts our cleaning obsession. It's a worthy text. The problem is that, overcome by all of the fumes from spray grease-removers, women, whose understanding is no great shakes on ordinary days, interpret the Mishnah thus: "You must worry that a weasel may have dragged [chametz] from house to house and from place to place" etc. - and then deduce that there is no end to the matter. Besides, the sheer mention of this unclean animal only spurs us to scrub with greater fervor.
Spring has come and I am up in the attic, suspended upside down like a bat with a dust cloth and bleach. True, there is most likely no chametz here, but you can never be sure and must never be complacent. A special team of shingle cleaners is dismantling my roof. They might even put it back together in the end. I know, it sounds excessive, and I know, there is no chametz inside the roof, but it's an opportunity. When do you ever clean in between your roof tiles?
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