Haredim collecting water for baking shmura matza, from the Palestinian village Al-Walaja, last week.
Haredim collecting water for baking shmura matza, from the Palestinian village of Al-Walaja, near Jerusalem, last week. Photo by Alex Levac
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Books with pages spread wide open, perched on balcony railings and shedding imaginary crumbs of not-kosher-for Passover food. Shelves covered in new paper, and masses of aluminum foil on kitchen counters and the stovetop. Signs on doors warning "Do not bring in hametz" - referring to leavened products - with several exclamation marks. All of these were signs in my childhood that Passover was approaching. Above all I remember the near-hysteria that overtook the women and girls in the house, which mounted as the holiday grew nearer while they, dressed in rags, pursued to the death every stain and crumb.

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I only understood the full depth of the madness created in people's hearts by this holiday when I watched my father and the man across the way standing balcony to balcony on the morning of Passover eve to scrutinize in the sunlight the leaves of lettuce that had previously sailed in the bathtub. As part of this essential activity, the two men - whose Passover chores consisted entirely of such washing of heads of lettuce, until the hametz inspection on the morning before the holiday began - made sure there was not the slightest suspicion of worms or other sorts of vermin on the leaves that were destined to grace the seder table as bitter herbs. When the examination was concluded to their satisfaction, they took clothespins and hung the leaves out to dry on the clotheslines.

In truly strict homes, I heard from girlfriends, they began the preparation for Passover on the day after Purim, which falls a month earlier. There they knelt on the floor and scrubbed every single tile with brushes and kerosene. In other households they took a toothpick dipped in rubbing alcohol and cleaned pot handles and faucet cracks with it. The contents of closets were laundered well in advance and the clothes were hung out on lines, with pockets turned inside out, for days on end. There were homes where they ate nothing but potatoes and eggs for some weeks.

Chabad Hasidim, Hasidim affiliated with the Eda Haredit, and especially the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect are the most scrupulous of all. Shmuel Pappenheim, a former spokesman for the Eda Haredit, explains just how far the limits of strictness reach: "At Passover," he says, "it is customary not to visit and not to host people, except for close family members, of course, because no one will eat at anyone else's home."

While Hasidim avoid eating "soaked" matza - i.e., matza that has come into contact with water - among the Lithuanians (non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jews ) this stricture does not exist.

"You don't want to insult anyone," explains a Chabad Hasid, who prefers not to be identified by name. "It's uncomfortable if the host offers you a cucumber, for example, and you don't eat it because its seeds resemble grains of wheat."

In Chabad circles, it is absolutely forbidden even to mention bread or bread products aloud during Passover. Prof. Shaul Stampfer, a lecturer in the history of the Jewish people at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that observance of customs related to preparing for and keeping Passover is an opportunity to express devotion and piousness in contemporary life, when observing religious commandments has otherwise become relatively easy.

"There was a time that it was impossible [in the Diaspora] to obtain kosher wine or kosher-slaughtered meat. Today everything is prepared, in packages at the supermarket. Proscriptions bring back something of the difficulty of observing commandments. It's possible to ridicule them, but in principle it's a human and emotional thing of the first degree," says Stampfer.

No eggplant

Often the objective of following the Passover rules observed by Hasidim is not clear even to them. Sometimes they avoid various kinds of foods, only because in the past their community did so. "In Russia [where Chabad Hasidism began], there were no eggplants," says the man from Chabad, "and therefore at Passover, Chabadniks don't eat eggplant."

The Vizhnitz and Satmar Hasidic sects originated in Hungary, where frozen fish was imported in winter. Only the heads of the fish were not frozen, because they were smeared with rubbing alcohol. The alcohol is considered hametz and therefore to this day these Hasids avoid eating fish on Passover.

In Chabad they don't eat radishes. The reason: The third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson [this was also the name of the seventh, and last, Rebbe], did not eat them during Passover. As a rule, Hasidim do not eat fruit or vegetables on the holiday that have not been peeled, for fear that hametz has adhered to the peel, and customarily remove the peel even from tomatoes. For the same reason, they also will not eat berries, dates and the like. The very strict avoid eating any vegetables or fruit, apart from potatoes.

The disciples of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe noticed that he did not use a knife on Passover, and therefore a minority of them they have also stopped using knives, though they do not understand the reason. On seder night it is customary to eat from glass dishes, but in Chabad they allow the use of porcelain with a gold rim. Why? Because at seders conducted by the Rebbe, the food was served on white china decorated in gold.

In Toldot Aharon, the rule on Passover is that only what people have seen themselves is acceptable. That is, the kashrut of anything they themselves have not closely supervised, anything in the preparation of which they were not involved, cannot be trusted. Therefore they use only new, transparent glass dishes, according to Pappenheim, a member of the sect. Plastic or paper disposable dishes, cardboard egg cartons and metal pots and pans do not enter the Toldot Aharon kosher-for-Passover kitchen. A crumb of hametz might infiltrate the plastics at the factory or the recycled paper on the production line. Contrary to the Lithuanian custom, in Toldot Aharon, they do not immerse anything from the everyday kitchen cupboard in boiling water to kosher it for the holiday. In this Jerusalemite sect, they do not wash dishes at all during Passover and they pile up until the holiday is over.

The dining table at which Toldot Aharon adherents ate hametz during the rest of the year gets covered in several layers of paper, each one separated from the next by aluminum foil. The ultra-strict than lay sheets of plywood on the table. Over all this a white tablecloth is spread. There are those who take care to cover all the kitchen walls in aluminum foil to wrap it as well around doorknobs that were touched by hands that came in contact with hametz. These circles do not use commercially prepared spices, salt and sugar, sweets, cakes, cookies or alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. And instead of oil, they use chicken or goose fat they have rendered themselves.

"This means that every omelet in the morning is considered to be meat," says Pappenheim, which removes dairy foods, too, from the menu. Anyone who can, buys unpasteurized milk products from a dairy in advance, at least for the children. At Kfar Chabad, this is not a problem because it has a dairy barn; in Jerusalem there are families that make their living by selling these products in their homes every year. For their part, Chabadniks also prefer to drink homemade wines.

During the holiday itself no allowances are made for hametz: Every microscopic crumb of leavened food brings with it a heavenly death sentence. Hasidim do not even trust the Mekorot Water Co.'s pipes - maybe an insidious crumb of pita has found its way into them - and prepare water for drinking and cooking in advance for the whole holiday in a special tank. They put a kind of white sock over the faucet to filter out any hametz that may have infiltrated the pipes. In Chabad there is a custom of boiling all sugar in water before Passover and then straining it, so they can use the sugar syrup for sweetening throughout the holiday.

Some of the ultra-Orthodox of Jerusalem prefer to collect honey from a beehive or to buy sugarcane and grate it. They also buy rock salt from the Dead Sea and grate it, black peppercorns direct from a farmer, and also ginger for the haroset (the mixture used at the seder that represents the mortar used by the Jewish slaves in Egypt ). Also in Chabad, they cook meat and fish dishes for the week-long holiday in advance.

18 minute cycles

In Toldot Aharon they do not eat fish at all because cleaning the fish properly for the holiday is considered problematic. Eggs are thoroughly washed before Passover lest a crumb of the hen's fodder stick to the shells. Commercial products do not enter the home during Passover. Only shmura matza is eaten - that is, matza that has been under constant supervision from the grain-harvesting phase onwards, to ensure that the wheat and flour do not come in contact with water, which might precipitate fermentation. Shmura matza is handmade and expensive. The very strict eat matza they have baked themselves. To that end, in Chabad, families rent a bakery for half a day and the members of the family come to work and to supervise the bakers. In other circles "matza groups" are organized, with a number of people coming to supervise the baking.

At the Toldot Aharon bakery in Jerusalem they work in a cycle of 18 minutes, the time after which the sages determined that dough is considered to be leavened. Therefore they measure the time from the moment they pour the water into the flour, and ensure that the entire baking process is finished in no more than 18 minutes. Every two matzas are pushed into the baking oven with the help of a new stick, usually from a broom. This means that hundreds of thousands of broomsticks are purchased for one-time use. At the end of each cycle, the work is stopped and the bakers scrub their hands with soap, and remove any flour or bits of dough that have remained under their fingernails that could turn into hametz - before the whole process begins again. The risks that accompany the baking and eating of matza keep Hasidim awake nights.

"The matza might crumble and the crumbs, heaven forbid, might land on a plate with soup or salad dressing," says one man from Chabad. "Therefore, our custom is for everyone present [at every Pesach meal] to receive a bag with matza in it and he eats it from inside the bag. Only after the table is cleaned of crumbs do we go on to eat the rest of the food."

Amazingly enough, many Hasidim refrain from eating matza on Passover in general, except for the olive-sized piece as mentioned in the Haggadah on the first night.

With so many strictures and prohibitions, there is in effect nothing to eat. The Skverer Rebbe, of Monsey, New York, customarily eats only eggs on the holiday. "One egg as a matza, second as a potato and so on," relates Pappenheim. According to him, the most meticulous Hasidim finish the holiday with heartburn just from the difficult diet they have followed. For children this not easy.

Leizer Peles, a former Chabdnik who has left ultra-Orthodoxy, remembers that during Passover, members of his community ate mashed potatoes and meat, meat and mashed potatoes, every day for lunch and dinner. For breakfast there was something that was called cake but was in fact a kind of wet and nearly inedible mush.

"Everything is hametz. A matza has been forgotten for a moment on the table? Hametz! Haroset with wine in korekh [the so-called "Hillel sandwich" of matza, bitter herbs and haroset eaten during the seder]? Hametz! Very strictly kosher for Passover Coca-Cola certified by Rabbi Landau himself? Hametz! The neighbors' food? Hametz!!! Unfortunately I was destined to be born during the intermediate days of Passover, so I could forget about a real birthday cake," says Peles.

On the "Haredim Be'al Korham" ("Haredim against their will" ) Internet forum, used by crypto-secular Haredim (who maintain an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle even though they are nonbelievers ), one surfer writes: "I can't forget how, when I was a young boy, I would sneak into the top of the cupboard when nobody was looking and steal a little piece of chocolate. What I can't forget is the sweet taste of chocolate when you eat it secretly during Passover. Ahh, how unfortunate the secular are ... They will never experience such a sweet taste while eating simple chocolate."