This column was written by Diane Medved.
In most religiously observant Jewish homes this time of year, the mood is frantic. At the deadline--this year on Monday morning, before the Passover holiday starts near sundown--leavened food products become forbidden. That means that cereals and cakes, bread and cookies, pasta and beer may not even be owned, much less consumed. For the duration of the 8-day holiday, these products, called "chametz," cannot be part of Jewish life, replaced by a diet big on fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and a fresh stash of specially certified for Passover goods, many of which include the flour-and-water flat crackers called "matzah."
Matzah is very carefully baked within the 18-minute time frame that excludes possibility of leavening, and during the festival is creatively served as "matzah pizza," "matzah brei," (fried up with egg), and in fake-cakes and other baked sweets using matzah "flour" instead of the real thing. Before the holiday, homes are prepared by elaborate cleaning to remove all residue or crumbs of anything leavened, and usually kitchen counters are covered with something--a tarp, foil, contact paper--as a barrier against any errant chametz particle.
Sounds bizarre. Seems like a lot of work. And for what?
Not to strip away all pleasure from eating. Not to drive Jewish women crazy taking toothbrushes to grout. The restrictions and cleaning are important, though, because all the work and restraint do put us in the frame of mind that the holiday promotes: humility.
Everyone knows that Passover is a festival of liberation. Pharaoh finally caved to Moses' repeated pleas to release the Jews, with the coaxing of ten plagues, including the killing of Egyptian firstborn sons. Freedom is a wonderful thing; it lets you do what you want. Slavery, obviously, is horrific, especially subjugation to cruel taskmasters. If it's a holiday of ecstatic liberation, how is the message humility? And what has chametz to do with either liberation or humility?
If you've heard of the seder, then you probably know that the reason for matzah instead of fluffy bread is right there in the haggada, the little book that contains the proceedings of the evening. It says that once the Jews got the go-ahead to leave Egypt, they didn't have time for yeasty expansion, so they packed their flat matzah, grabbed the Egyptians' gold, and bolted. Matzah represents the exhilaration of freedom, and the absence of lofty loaves symbolizes the happy haste of their exit.