Opinion

There’s No Business Like Pesach Business

It's like Christmas with its surge of consumer spending, but in Passover's case, the reasons for the splurge lie in rabbinic traditions

Passover products
Emil Salman

People like to juxtapose Christmas with Hanukkah, but that’s only because the two holidays occur at about the same time of the year.

For Jews, Hanukkah was a small-time affair that only rose to prominence because of its proximity to Christmas. But the better comparison for Christmas is Passover. Not only do both Christmas and Passover celebrate birth stories – Jesus and the Jewish nation, respectively –  but both are major events on the religious calendar that bring a traditional celebration, hallowed by time and faith, into the clutches of modern capitalism and marketing.

By some estimates, Christmas accounts for a quarter of all U.S. personal spending in the United States, and the shopping madness begins a month before, with the Black Friday sales following Thanksgiving. It’s big business for airlines and gas stations too, as Christmas travelers crowd airports and highways. And then, of course, there are the post-Christmas sales and shopping.

No one can beat Americans for unbridled consumerism, but Passover in Israel also entails weeks of holiday shopping – mainly for food, with presents taking a distant second place.

Hotels in Israel fill by some accounts to 97% occupancy as people pay hundreds of shekels per person per meal to eat some of the least delectable food of the year – heavy menus based on matza and potato starch, only rarely relieved by small pleasures like kneidlach laced with chicken fat.

But, there’s a subtle difference between these two demonstrations of consumerism.

Shop till you believe

I’m sure for many Christians, Christmas isn’t an unmitigated joy: schlepping a Christmas tree home, shoving your way through crowded airports, spending hours with family members you try to avoid the rest of the year, and dealing with all the perceived insults and resentments entailed with mass gift-giving.  But the public image of Christmas has been diverted from the value of peace on earth and good will toward men, towards the joy of consumption. A web search for Christmas comes up mostly with 10 best shopping this or that.

Do the same search in Hebrew for Passover, and you also get where are the cheapest places to do your holiday buying. You also find a survey showing that half of all Israelis have to scrimp and save this year to be able to host a Seder meal.

Therein lies a big difference between the shop-till-you-drop in the two holidays.

Israelis also shop madly on Passover, but it's mainly for cleaning materials, not electronic toys.
Ofer Vaknin

It’s a pity, but Christmas in the West has become unapologetically hijacked by consumerism. The images people associate with the holiday are, in approximate order, Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, red and green, and a manger scene. That manger comes a distant fourth and is the only one that has anything to do with the Christmas story.

The shopping imperative has taken over the image of Christmas to the point that the holiday has been adopted in places like Singapore and Japan (where there is a strange local tradition of marking the day with a meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken) where there aren’t many Christians. But it’s become widely reduced to a celebration of consumerism, which it is why it’s so palatable to people who don’t believe.

Rabbinic roots

Passover is another story altogether. Like the other holidays of the Jewish year, it remains firmly rooted in rabbinic tradition (with all its rules and obscure language and symbols. The Seder has its moments of meaning, but anyone who goes through the Haggadah from start to finish at a reasonable speed finds large parts of it incomprehensible and antiquated; its rituals complicated.)

As for the nature of Passover shopping, for religious and traditional Israelis, who are the great majority, the madness about stocking up on food and cleaning products is about meeting the requirements of the holiday, not about the vacuous joy of spending.

That’s not to say that the people crowding the supermarket aisles this week are concentrating on the spiritual message of Passover, but they are certainly not shopping for the pleasure of buying a box of matzah or floor cleaner.

Passover is big business in Israel, because rabbinic dicta leave the modern household with little choice but to shop and buy. But Passover hasn’t become its slave.