On Root / In Search of Breadcrumbs, Oxygen and Pickles

All three things come from the same root, but we only have to eradicate one from our homes on Passover.

This coming week, Jews worldwide are gearing up for that major yearly spring cleaning known as Passover preparation. While of course dirt, dust, grit, grime, soot, schmutz and other "normal" objects of cleaning are also dealt with in the whirlwind, the major target for the concerted search-and-destroy mission is crumbs.

Crumbs, crusts and food residue of all types are sought out, flushed, scoured, burned and otherwise energetically eliminated.

Fare that can be eagerly chewed at all other times, this week is to be eschewed. These foods are not only to be passed over but banned and made contraband for the duration of the holiday. Why?

The answer lies in a single word or concept: chametz.

What is this mysterious substance that makes strong men anxious and even stronger women – see under: balabusta – get out the blowtorches?

Sour power

The word chametz comes from the root ch-m-tz. Its basic meaning is "sour," in various aspects.

Many things either are sour or can sour, including opportunities, but only some very particular "soured" things are actually classed as chametz.

The basic adjective is chamutz, which describes anything from a lemon to bad wine to a face expressing disgust or dissatisfaction. Israelis facing unpalatable food or news might pull a partzuf chamutz, which we might translate as "sourpuss."

In Israel, we put the sour before the sweet in the ever-popular Chinese taste combination, chamutz-matok, literally "sour-sweet."

Apropos of which: If you're looking for good Szechuan or Cantonese in Israel, don't go to a restaurant that advertises itself as Oriental – mizrachi. While it does mean "Eastern" and comes from the same idea of the land of the rising sun, an Oriental restaurant in Israel is Middle Eastern.

At mizrachi restaurants, you'll find a different palate, and palette, of chamutz. Not only cucumbers, but all sorts of vegetables – carrots, cauliflower and cabbage – are served up in pickled form and are collectively referred to as chamutzim.

You'll also get a lot of chummus, which is in fact also from this root. The plant that gives us chick peas (Cicer arietinum) is called chimtzah in Hebrew. In Arabic it's hummus, presumably because its leaves have a sourish taste.

Back to pickles: The souring or pickling process is known as hachmatzah, "to make sour." This is of course the (intentional) chemical process that happens to the vegetables or the (unintentional) one that happens to bad milk, but the word is also used in a whole world of metaphorical "souring." When you come late and miss an appointment or pass up an opportunity for a 'sweet' deal – hechmatzta, "you missed out." A great new show is often advertised as asur lehachmitz – "don't miss it!"

The acid test

The literal pickling process is usually done either with brine, or with "vinegar," chometz.

Interestingly, neither vinegar nor pickles are forbidden on Passover, despite the similarity in sound to the dreaded chametz. The forbidden soured thing is leavened dough. For instance, bread made from a yeast culture passed down from previous batches of dough is appropriately enough called "sourdough" – in Hebrew, machmetzet.

The sourness of vinegar, pickles and other fermented things comes from their acidic nature. "Acid" in Hebrew is chumtzah. In Greek "acid" is "oxy."

If that looks familiar, it's because the gas we breathe was named "oxygen," because chemists of yore believed that all acids possessed oxygen molecules and the presence of oxygen "made acid" (oxy- gen, as in "genesis").

The Hebrew term for this element, chamtzan, also means acid-maker, as well as keeping the sour reference, as in the Germanic equivalent Sauerstoff. Chamtzan, "oxygen," becomes its own root, and from it are derived words like chimtzun, "oxygenation," a word familiar not only to chemists but also to hairdressers, since that process – using mei chamtzan, "hydrogen peroxide" – makes dark hair blonde.

Fast food on the fly

So chametz, that is,bread and otherleavened foods – dough that has "soured" – is forbidden on Passover. It is also an opportunity to explore that which is puffed up, soured or missed in our lives.

Matzah, "unleavened bread," which is both the slave's bread and the original "fast food" feast on the flight to freedom, is the opposite of leavened: It's flat, simple and basic.

Interestingly, the other major tastes are very present at the Passover seder. An egg is dipped in salt water, representing tears of oppression, and horseradish, maror, "the bitter root" (mar = "bitter") eaten to remind us even more of slavery.

From those hors d'oeuvres of suffering, we end up with the sweetness of freedom, which we may aptly see as our just desserts.

Next week: Beseder – Everything is "OK" "at the Passover feast" – or is it? Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Tomer Appelbaum