Tuesday 14 April 2009

Is This What Pesach is About?

Pesach (Passover) is the festival that we celebrate to recall and mark the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. A central part of Pesach is the prohibition of the eating or possession of any leaven. The reason that we eat no leaven, and we spend weeks purging our homes of every possible crumb of leaven before Pesach, is to mark the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt. They had no time to allow their bread to rise. In commemoration of this fact, we are commanded not to eat leaven for the duration of the festival of Passover. In the place of bread, we eat matza. In the Pesach seder, matza is also referred to as the "bread of our affliction".

From all of this, I have gained the impression that the festival of Pesach, with all the foods that are uniquely associated with it, is not designed to be a culinary extravaganza. I remember as a child growing up in rural South Africa that Pesach was a week of gastronomic hardship. Other than the overeating that occurred on the seder night in celebration of our freedom, there was little in the way of exciting food to eat for the rest of Pesach. We had to go without most of our usual every day foods. Kosher-for-Pesach tea, coffee, Coca Cola or chocolates were either not yet invented or not available in that part of the world. And it was our understanding that this hardship was part of the message of Pesach.

Wind forward a few decades to 2009 and Pesach in Israel. Things could not be more different. It would be fair to say that there are few, if any, every day foods that are not available with kosher-for-Pesach label attached. Many restaurants have kosher-for-Pesach bread rolls and pita breads. Burger King has its kosher-for-Pesach menu complete with rolls to go with its regular Whopper and Double Whopper burgers. I remember feeling shocked when visiting Israel for Pesach about 12 years ago, and being served kosher-for-Pesach filled rolls on the train ride to Haifa. These days, nobody would expect anything less. There was once a time when most coffee shops and patisseries in Israel closed for a well-earned break over Pesach. Not anymore. The Pesach week is now one of their busiest times of the year to go along with the glorious Spring weather. They have cleaned out the leaven well ahead of time and have baked up a veritable Pesach storm. Whilst in many cases, the Pesach version of the food is noticeably less good than its non-Pesach variety, this does not need to be the case at all. A short walk down the main road of any Israeli town or city, and a brief glance into any cake or coffee shop will convince you that Pesach can be as tasty as any other time of the year. A few years ago when this new approach to Pesach began to take hold in Israel, I was convinced each time I saw a cake shop that held a variety of delicious cakes that it was not kosher-for-Pesach. I now realise how wrong I probably was.

Admittedly, many of the most tasty items contain the dreaded kitniyot (legumes) which are still not eaten by many Ashkenazi Jews over Pesach. The issue of the eating of kitniyot remains a significant issue, particularly for those who choose to abstain from them during Pesach. There seems to be a universal view that kitniyot are not actually prohibited during Pesach. Many Ashkenazim do not eat them due to Rabbinical prohibitions on eating them, largely to avoid confusion or a mistaken belief that somebody may be transgressing the laws of Pesach. Having been adopted into general observance across significant parts of the Ashkenazi world, the removal of such a Rabbinical prohibition is complicated and will not be contemplated by many that adhere to it. Having said that, there are some Ashkenazi authorities who have decided the eating of kitniyot is not prohibited for Pesach, and is in common practice across the majority of Israel's residents. As such, they have accepted that kitniyot can be eaten and have decided that it is acceptable to lift the Rabbinical prohibition.

For those who do eat kitniyot, Pesach seems to be as exciting as any other time of the Jewish year, particularly as far as food goes. For those who do not eat kitniyot, the choices are significantly less, but still much greater than what they were only a few years ago.

Does this culinary indulgence contradict the reasons why we celebrate Pesach? I am not really quite sure. One thing, however, is clear. Even Pesach has joined the family of Jewish festivals where food has a central (and most delicious) role. And we don't have long to wait after Pesach for the next eating fest.

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