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Remembering the true meaning of Passover

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — On Passover some Jews obsess about chametz. They spend so much time worrying about Passover Kashrut that they forget what the holiday is all about.

One such Jew was Rabbi Yechiel of Kozmir. He was fixated on observing every single law of the holiday and ridding his house of any and all chametz. A few days before Passover he would draw water from a well far from the city and guard it in his home, lest any grains accidentally fall into the water he would drink during the holiday. Even after he scoured his floor, he would not put a sealed bottle of wine on it lest it becomes “contaminated.” On Yom Kippur he would be worrying about Pesach. When he put on his kittel he made sure that no bread crumbs fell on it after the fast.

To insure that the wheat for his matza did not become chametz before the holiday, he would put it in a sack, then put the sack in a barrel, then hoist and hang the entire assembly from a rope attached to his ceiling. In this way he made sure that not a drop of water might touch it and spoil it for the holiday.

One year he called in a mill worker to help him take down the sack so that the wheat could be baked into matzot. The worker reached into his pocket and took out a knife to cut the rope from which the wheat hung from the ceiling.

As soon as he saw the knife, Rabbi Yechiel began yelling at the worker: “You’re using a regular knife! You should use a Passover knife instead!”*

Someone standing nearby shook his head at all of Rabbi Yechiel’s stringencies. “Everyone needs to observe Pesach and rid their houses of chametz,” he said, “but adding restriction after restriction diminishes the joy of the holiday.” (Sipurei Chasidim II, p. 287)

I agree with this bystander. Keeping Kosher for Passover is important but should never become an end in itself. It is rather a means to an end. Ridding our homes of chametz and eating matza and the special foods of the holiday are the ways we are reminding ourselves that God redeemed our ancestors from slavery. In the words of the Haggadah, “now some are still enslaved, next year may all be free,” and that we must work toward the day when all human beings will be free from all that still enslaves them and reduces the quality of their lives today.

This is the true message of Passover.

*The knife used to cut the rope comes nowhere near the wheat, and so does not have to be kosher at all.


Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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