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On Passover eve in the Bnei Brak of my childhood, with the normal cacophony of holiday preparations swirling around him, a neighbor used to hang lettuce leaves delicately from his clothesline with clothespins. Most ultra-Orthodox people use a great deal of lettuce on Passover, using it as the traditional bitter herb at the Seder. In this case, although the neighbor's activity earned him glances and raised eyebrows from passersby, no one dared ask the meaning of this strange custom.

Passover is the holiday of chumres, or ultra-strict observance of Jewish law, in ultra-Orthodox jargon, and people have their own particular stringencies, inherited from their parents. Who can tell whether lettuce-hanging was a personal quirk or a custom originating in some tiny community in Poland?

The list of new stringencies and new products that boast they are kosher for Passover, which grows each year, makes it seem that the ultra-Orthodox are obsessed with a fear of leaven. Stores in ultra-Orthodox areas carry kosher-for-Pesach items that have nothing to do with food, such as soap, toilet paper, and even bleach.

If matters of kashrut provide grist for the scandal mills all year long - like this year's crisis over wigs made with hair sold at shrines in India, or various types of beef imported from South America - worrying over Passover kashrut is part and parcel of pre-holiday hysteria.

This year, for example, the independent ultra-Orthodox newspaper Mishpacha reported on a Yeshiva student who raised concern over the pages in Passover Hagaddahs. The paper may contain starch, and starch may have leaven. In other words, the student asked, what if the starch contains flour that could rise if dressing from the salad fell on the Hagaddah, and what if it went from there to the plate?

Pre-Passover questions about kashrut and its various stringencies fill the holiday-season newspapers, the various prohibitions providing subjects for neighborhood wall posters and in general raising the level of anxiety, over a holiday where cleanliness and aspects of kashrut are an inseparable part.

Rabbi Yehoshua Koifman, the kashrut supervisor of the Hatam Sofer school that is considered particularly strict in its kashrut requirements, says he found himself rejecting a number of what he called "strange" requests to pronounce various products kosher.

"Last year people asked us to pronounce pacifiers, bottles, and even toothbrushes kosher," he says, bemused. "I asked the manufacturer why he wanted the seal, and he said `because it helps sales.' "

Asked why he approved products as kosher when it was not necessary to do so, Koifman responded that they were all items that went into the mouth. "But in the case of a broom, that is going too far."

In regular matters of kashrut the principle of batel bashisim applies, whereby a very tiny amount of meat is "nullified" if it comes into contact with milk. But when it comes to leaven during Passover, no amount is insignificant. Thus it has become a prohibited but slippery, almost symbolic entity that can appear in the form of miniscule crumbs and hidden components of food that can be spied only with a microscope.

Hassidic sects, for example, are concerned that tiny grains of flour remaining on matza might rise and become leavened if they come into contact with a liquid. One explanation for hanging the lettuce out to dry, a Jerusalem hassid suggests, is to allay the fear of water touching the two matzas between which the lettuce is placed and eaten at the korech stage of the seder.

Matza in cling-wrap

Moshe Grylak, who wrote a book about the ultra-Orthodox, explains that the stringencies on Passover stem from the fact that leaven symbolizes the evil impulse, and therefore it is to be avoided as much as possible. Passover is also a time to emphasize tradition, he says, so "even if rationally I don't see a need for a custom, if I don't do what was done in my parents' home I may psychologically be disparaging my family's tradition," he says.

Apparently this is the reason Habad hassids, known for their strict observance of Passover, never eat squash or eggplant on the holiday. One Habad hassid from Kfar Habad says that it may be simply because these vegetables were never raised in Russia and they were not eaten at other times of the year, but the custom turned into a prohibition on Passover. Members of Habad eat their matza out of cling-wrap to avoid any contact with liquid. Vishnitz hassids do not eat fish on Passover in spite of other hassidic dictates that require the eating of fish on the Sabbath and holidays, out of concern that the fish may have been fed with food containing leaven.

In certain homes, mostly hassidic, tomatoes and peppers are not eaten on Passover because they cannot be peeled, and may have been touched during the harvest by people who have come into contact with leaven.

Grylak agrees that stringency has attained exaggerated social value. In recent years, veiled criticism of overbearing kosher-for-Pesach concerns has penetrated ultra-Orthodox society. One article in the most recent issue of Mishpacha discussed cleaning as an obsession, while an ultra-Orthodox Internet forum ridiculed the list of prohibitions.

Even tap water is not kosher

Israel Brandt, a hassid of the Karliner sect, says he does not trust the water that comes from the National Water Carrier to be kosher for Pesach. He therefore prepares all his drinking and cooking water before the holiday in bottles, drawing it from a spring near road 443 adjacent to home community of Beit Horon. He also does not want to depend on any particular seal of kashrut. Not only does he bake his own matzas, he harvests the wheat with his own hands, together with family and friends. He separates the wheat from the chaff using fans, and takes a tithe of the grain to give to the poor, as Jewish law requires. He then grinds the wheat himself at his own mill. About a week ago he baked the matzas with water from the spring, once again, with family and friends. He also produces his own oil and grape juice. "I have friends who mine their own salt near Sodom," he says. "There's great satisfaction in harvesting and working the millstones," he says.