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Passover Panic

Monday, April 2, 2012
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Dear Miriam,

This is my first Passover living on my own, and I have no idea how to get ready for the holiday. I know I should clean everything, but do I actually need a blowtorch? Do I have to cover my counters and throw away all my food?

Signed,
Passover Panic

Dear Panic,

This is one of those times where it's great to be an advice columnist and not a rabbinic authority because I'm going to answer based on what feels right rather than on what is right according to halacha (Jewish law). If you want more definitive answers, I encourage you to ask a rabbi (Philly has lots!). I also happen to believe that there are lots of potential interpretations of "right" in this scenario, so pick your rabbi accordingly.

Technically speaking, Jews on Passover are prohibited from eating, owning, or deriving benefit from chametz (anything containing wheat, rye, oats, barley, or spelt that has come in contact with water and might have had time to rise). You can decide to clean your house top to bottom, wash all your sheets, get the crumbs out from your computer keyboard and (the one I always forget) go through all your bags removing old mints and granola bars. You can lock up all your food and "sell" your chametz so that you don't own it for the week (if you're unfamiliar with this tradition, it's a good one to ask a rabbi about). You can go to ShopRite's The Kosher Experience and spend a month's grocery budget on a week's worth of Dr. Brown's soda and chocolate covered marshmallows.

You can also take a deep breath and decide what's really important to you. Maybe avoiding bread is the extent of what you want to do to set the week apart. Maybe you want to focus on the metaphorical chametz that puffs up your ego and makes you act in ways you wish you didn't and rid yourself of those bad habits. Maybe you want to go home for the week and abide by whatever traditions your parents follow in their home.

I encourage you to think about the holiday as a time-bound motivation for spring cleaning, a divinely sanctioned excuse finally to get rid of that old loaf of bread in the back of the freezer and the remaining crumbs of any stale but possibly still edible cereal. You don't have to throw them away, but you might feel lighter and closer to freedom and redemption if you do. Yes, there are a lot of laws, but the reasons behind them are, ultimately, spiritual ones. Most importantly, don't panic!

But maybe you really, really want an excuse to play with a blowtorch, which is how some people clean their ovens for Passover. If so, go for it! But if you have a self-cleaning oven, just turn it on to self-clean mode. (I also recommend opening your windows and being prepared to cover your smoke alarms with a wet towel.) With a non-self-cleaning oven and no blowtorch, use heavy duty oven cleaner (and still probably plan to open the windows). Covering the counters is one of those traditions that often takes on the force of obligation. If your family growing up covered the counters, you'll probably want to, too. If they didn't, you may still want to, but bear in mind that there's nothing in the Torah about contact paper.

The holiday is supposed to be a happy one, but it's not at all unusual for people (whether their first time cleaning for Passover or their fiftieth!) to feel overwhelmed by the amount that needs to get done. Please try to enjoy yourself; this is a holiday with a radical message of freedom, not a prescription for OCD.

Be well,
Miriam

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