December 16, 2018

Passover and OCD

Every year around this time, Jewish households go through the arduous process of cleaning for Passover.  For the strictly observant, houses must be cleaned of all chametz, or leavened products made of certain types of grain, which a Jew may not eat or even own on Passover.  Given the amount of cleaning involved with making a home chametz-free, spring cleaning generally gets rolled into the mix as well.  In many ways, that makes sense.  If you have to do spring cleaning at some point, why not do it when you’re already turning the house inside out to get rid of chametz?

So far, I’m on board with the whole clean-fest.  But here’s my problem. Often, what starts out as a good faith attempt to clean up ends up going too far.  For example, last week, when my husband and I were deciding when to start our Passover cleaning this year, he told me that our bathroom wall tiles needed to be cleaned. I didn’t know what he was talking about and asked him to point out the problem. “Here,” he said, pointing to the bathroom wall.  “Look at this.” He pointed to the tiles, which were yellow, and then pointed to some rings on the tiles which, on close inspection, appeared to be a slightly darker shade of yellow.  However, I noted that that seemed to be the case on all the tiles.  “Look” my husband continued as he tried to clean off the tiles. “It doesn’t come off.”  “Maybe that‘s the design in the tiles,“ I said. “Or maybe the rings got there from a leak. The point is, since we can’t get it off when scrubbing it with soap and water, we shouldn’t worry about it now.”  My husband seemed only slightly mollified by this. But the fact is, there’s no prohibition against having discolored tiles in your bathroom or anywhere else on Passover.

My husband’s not the only one. I’ve been known to obsess over the pattern of the contact paper I place inside my kitchen drawers before the holiday, just as I’ve been known to obsess over those little bubbles that can form on the contact paper if you don’t set it down just right. Even a failure to repaint before Passover, while regrettable, is not exactly a sin. So what causes cleaning-overdrive this time of year? As I discussed above, the convergence of spring cleaning with Passover is one reason, but there is another. The prohibition against not only eating but even owning chametz on Passover is very severe. The punishment for violating it is “kareth,” or being spiritually cut off from the Jewish people after death.

Thus, piety over the prohibition of owning chametz on Passover can lead to severe practices.  Many Jewish homes forbid eating while reading a book year round for fear that crumbs will get in between the pages and remain there over Passover. Similarly, whole rooms or floors of houses are deemed areas in which it is forbidden to eat year round for fear that there will be missed crumbs left in these areas on Passover. While this may make for good housekeeping (although it rules out breakfast in bed – unless it’s matzah), it may not be necessary from the perspective of Jewish law. I remember seeing the husband of an ultra-orthodox friend stressing out about chametz gently tease her by reading aloud a Jewish legal commentary saying just that.

So clean and cook for Passover, by all means, but don’t get carried away.  After all, we weren’t freed from slavery just to become slaves in our homes.