Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two-minute Torah: "Command" vs. "Speak"

This Shabbat we read Parashat Tzav. The word "tzav" is an imperative form of the word which also gives us "mitzvah." Therefore "tzav et b'nai Yisrael," the first phrase in our Parasha, means "command the Israelites" or even "proclaim a mitzvah to the Israelites." The Torah is full of mitzvot but the formula "tzav et b'nai Yisrael" does not appear that often. Usually it is "vayidaber Adonai et Moshe l'emor" -- God spoke to Moses, saying. Why here is it "command" and not just "say"?

Rashi writes: "The expression “command” always implies urging ("ziruz") one to carry out a command and also implies that the command takes effect at once and is also binding on future generations. Rabbi Shimon said: “Especially must Scripture urge the fulfillment of a command in cases involving financial loss.”

It may be that the reason ziruz, urging, was so necessary here was because the commandment concerned the bringing of the daily sacrifices, which were to be brought twice daily for all eternity. Inasmuch as this would require the expenditure of vast sums, some hesitation might be expected. However, in the case of other mitzvot, e.g. lulav, even though they require expenditure of money, it is limited, so the Torah does not use the word tzav in connection with such commandments."

Rashi shows a recognition here that Jews may not always be enthusiastic to fulfill the mitzvot. Of course here there is a rational basis for the reluctance -- it's expensive. And the fact of the matter is that financial issues were often a challenge to fulfillment of mitzvot -- but the halacha tried to evolve to accommodate external reality. For example, the selling of chametz before Passover was developed because of Jewish distillers and liquor merchants who found it impossible to literally dispose of their entire inventory for Passover.

But of course there were limits. Late Friday night services were an American invention. In the old country services were held Friday evening at sundown, not at 8 or 8:30 pm. But in America in the early part of the 20th century, people had to work on Shabbat. Business put up signs that said "if you don't come to work on Saturday, don't come to work on Monday either."  But no one ever explicitly said it was OK to work on Shabbat.

Today the disincentive to observe mitzvot is rarely financial.Jews in prior generations went to work on Shabbat because they really had to -- there was no legal protection for religious observance and there was a legitimate issue of survival. People felt that they were doing the wrong thing but felt they really had no choice. Although there were people who made the sacrifice, they knowingly chose poverty in order to observe Shabbat. But today for the most part nonobservance is through choice, not necessity.

If something is a mitzvah we can deduce two things about it. One is that we would not otherwise do it; the other is that we can do it. God doesn't waste time commanding is to do the self-evident but neither does God command us to do the impossible. What's yourreason for not observing some of the mitzvot you currently choose not to observe?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Kosher for Passover Made Intelligible

Edited April 2018: This post still gets a lot of hits due to the Google Search Engine algorithm but it is outdated. Please also read this post:

Please note that this was written for my congregation at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, CT. Your personal or community practices may be stricter and if I am not your rabbi you should not rely on my writings for practical guidance. As always, your own rabbi should be consulted and is the final authority.

Observing the dietary restrictions of Passover is not always easy, but it is made even more complicated by misunderstandings and misinformation, both of which are rampant. To help you in your observance, I have prepared this Pesach Guide, trying to be as straightforward as possible. In doing so, I have consulted the Rabbinical Assembly Pesach Guide by Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz, but I alone am responsible for the rulings and conclusions contained herein. It should be noted that some of these rulings are more lenient than those contained in the most recent issue of the Rabbinical Assembly guide and follow earlier versions of that guide.

I. What is Chametz?
Chametz (“leaven”) is the product of five specific grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye. Once these grains come into contact with water for eighteen minutes they are considered chametz. These are the same five grains which can be made either into bread which requires the hamotzi blessing or into matzah. We are forbidden not only to consume these products during Pesach, but even to own them or derive benefit from them in any way. Obvious examples of chametz include bread, cakes, cereals, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages other than wine. Only products made from these five grains can become actual chametz. However, once these grains have been made into matzah they are no longer subject to becoming chametz, and thus we can use matzah meal or crumbled matzah for all kinds of different Pesach products.
Note that the issue of chametz, despite popular misconceptions, has nothing to do with the presence or absence of yeast. Crackers, pasta, pita and flour tortillas contain no yeast, yet they are still chametz and forbidden for Passover use.
II. What is Kitniyot?  
Another category of products which most Jews do not use for Pesach is kitniyot (“legumes.”) This category in essence consists of vegetables which can be ground into flour. The most common forms of kitniyot are corn, rice, and beans. Ashkenazi authorities, fearing that people might accidentally use wheat flour while thinking it was corn or rice flour, banned the use of these products on Pesach as well. Sephardic communities never accepted this prohibition and thus Sephardic Jews are free to eat these products on Pesach to their heart’s content.
A couple of things are worth noting here:
a.) There is no prohibition for Ashkenazic Jews of owning kitniyot on Pesach or having them in your home. While actual chametz needs to be disposed of or sold through the agency of the rabbi and locked away, this is not necessary with kitniyot.
b.) Different communities in Europe followed different practices with regard to what was or was not considered kitniyot. Some products which have different status in different communities are garlic, mustard, and string beans. Everyone should follow their own family tradition in this regard.
II. What Products Require Kosher for Passover Certification?
Another area of confusion is what products require certification, and why some products may be purchased without certification before but not during Pesach.
During the year, an accidental admixture of forbidden foods which is less than 1/60th of the total is considered nullified. This would also apply to any accidental addition of chametz in an otherwise Kosher-for-Passover product. That is the reason why we formally nullify any overlooked chametz both the evening and the morning before Pesach. But during Pesach, even the tiniest amount of chametz cannot be nullified.
An example of this type of product is orange juice. Orange juice is a product which in the normal course of things is chametz-free. But suppose it is produced in a factory which also produces chametz-containing products. There is a remote possibility that some small amount of chametz might accidentally wind up in our orange juice, but if we bought the juice before Pesach, this would be nullified. If we buy it during Pesach, the miniscule amount of chametz is not nullified, and thus juice bought during Pesach needs certification.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if bought before Pesach:
Unflavored caffeinated coffee (flavored, instant and decaffeinated coffees require certification), sugar, pure tea (not herbal or decaf), salt, pepper, natural spices, pure fruit juices, frozen uncooked vegetables (assuming they are not kitniyot), milk, butter, cottage cheese, cream cheese, ripened and hard cheeses, frozen uncooked fruit, and baking soda.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if purchased before or during Pesach:
Fresh fruits and vegetables (non-kitniyot), eggs, fresh kosher meat, fish.
The following foods  require Kosher for Passover certification whether purchased before or during Pesach:
All baked products (matzah, matzah meal, cakes, cookies, etc.), wine, vinegar, liquor, oils, dried fruits, candy, chocolate flavored milk, ice cream, yogurt, soda, decaffeinated coffee or tea, herbal or flavored tea, and canned tuna fish.

The following foods require Kosher for Passover certification if purchased during Pesach:
Processed foods (canned, frozen or bottled), milk, butter, juices, vegetables, frozen or canned fruit, milk products, spices, caffeinated coffee, caffeinated unflavored tea, as well as any product listed as requiring certification before Pesach.
III. Pets and Pesach:
The problem with pets and Pesach is not a question of animals eating chametz or non-Kosher food. Animals are not subject to the mitzvot and there is no problem with them eating anything. The issue is that Jews are forbidden to own or benefit from chametz during Pesach.
The problem can be dealt with in one of three ways:
1. Feed your pets Kosher for Passover table scraps during Pesach if that is possible.
2. Scrutinize pet food labels to make sure they contain no chametz (kitniyot and non-kosher meats such as pork or shrimp are not a problem).
3. Include your pet and its food in the sale of chametz authorization.
IV. Vegetarians and kitniyot:
While the Israeli Conservative Rabbinate has ruled that the custom of refraining from kitniyot need no longer be followed, the North American Conservative Rabbinate has not done so. In part, this is because unlike in Israel where Sephardim are the majority, it is almost impossible in North America to find kitniyot-containing foods with reliable Passover certification.
However, the Rabbinical Assembly has ruled that vegetarians who may otherwise not get sufficient protein during Pesach may indeed eat kitniyot. If this applies to you, it is wise to consult with your rabbi as to the best way to make sure you are in fact eating kitniyot and not chametz.
V. Kosher for Passover Certification:
When looking for products which require Kosher for Passover certification, it is important to make sure that the certification is actually printed on the label or bottle cap and not just a sticker which is handled at the retail level. There is no guarantee that the sticker was applied to the proper product.
Similarly, do not assume that just because a store stocks something in the Passover section that it is actually kosher for Passover. Neither the supermarket clerks nor their managers are experts in Jewish religious practices, and it is not uncommon for “Jewish” foods which are not kosher-for-Passover to be placed in or near the Passover section. It is your responsibility to check for appropriate Passover certification.
VI. Some Final Thoughts:
We are fortunate to live in an age when many kosher products, both for Pesach and year-round, are available even to Jews who live in areas with relatively small Jewish communities. Gone are the days when kosher-observant Jews subsisted on matzah, potatoes, cheese and eggs during Pesach.