Spring Cleaning: A Centuries-Old Chore

At this time of year, in the days before Passover begins, many observant Jews are busy cleaning. But it’s not just the usual spring cleaning. Their goal is to clear the home of any trace of chametz, which are leavened foods that may not be eaten during the eight days of Passover. This includes bread, some kinds of cake, crackers and pasta, and even some alcoholic beverages. Why this prohibition? It is done in commemoration of a particular part of the Passover story – when the Jewish people fled Egypt so quickly that their bread had no time to rise.

At this time of year, I often think of an old Yiddish sign in the Museum’s collection.

Text, whiteboard

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The sign reads:  Sale of leavened products and the conclusion of a chapter will take place in the synagogue and be conducted by the rabbi.

But what does that mean? It advises that congregants could bring any unused leavened products that they had cleared from their homes to the synagogue, where the rabbi would offer to buy it. The chametz would then be burned, offered to non-Jews, or sold back to the congregant after Passover concluded.

The sign also refers to another pre-Passover tradition. Exodus tells us that when the Egyptian Pharaoh refused Moses’ demand to release his people from slavery, God unleashed ten plagues. During the final plague, when the angel of death was sent to kill the first-born of each household, the homes of the Israelites were “passed over” because they had marked their doorways with lamb’s blood. To commemorate God’s kindness, the first-born sons of many Jewish families fast on the day before Passover, and then gather together to hear the conclusion of the reading of a chapter of the Talmud that they had been studying. This sign tells congregants that this will happen in the synagogue as well.

What this all says to me is that it is important to remember the hardships endured by those who came before us, to be grateful for compassion, and to live and act with kindness and gratitude. It’s a meaningful message for us all. Wishing you a ziessen Pesach – a sweet Passover.

Nancy Johnson is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Curator and Archivist.

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