Question: Our children were planning to spend Pesach abroad for the first time this year, before the coronavirus crisis put paid to that. But even if we could afford it, we have always felt to go to a hotel to avoid preparation seems a bit like cheating. What do you think?
Rabbi Brawer: From a religious standpoint there is absolutely nothing wrong with avoiding heavy Passover cleaning and shopping. Jewish law demands that one’s property be chametz free, but it does not dictate how the cleaning gets done, or who ought to do it.
It makes no difference if one does the cleaning themselves or pays another to do it. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with vacating one’s property (provided they sell their chametz) and decamping to a hotel for the duration of the festival.
However, a paying guest at a hotel is still obliged to undertake the ritual search for chametz (bedikat chametz) in their hotel room on the eve before Passover. And if one plans to return home before the end of the festival, they must undertake the search before leaving, so as to ensure a chametz-free home upon their return.
It is undeniably true that Passover getaways are expensive and they are not for everyone. But for many observant Jews, who take precious time off from work for Passover, this may be the only holiday time they get, and so it is understandable that they make the most of it by going away for a relaxing break with their family, if they can afford it.
The important thing is not where one celebrates Passover, but what sort of Passover they are able to experience. The essential elements of this festival are family, tradition, memory and a renewed connection to Jewish peoplehood and history.
For some, these experiences are heightened at home and within one’s community. For others, going away with one’s family is the best way to savour these important elements.
One practical outcome of increased travel to destinations for Passover is the reduction in size of the congregations at home.
When I first started out in the rabbinate, Passover was one of the busiest times of year. The synagogue was packed with congregants and many newly-weds as well as young families returning for the festival.
Over the years I have seen the numbers decline significantly and this, in a large sense, is due to the rise of Passover hotel programmes. A reduced congregation can be disheartening. However, synagogues can think up creative programming that leverages a smaller, more intimate crowd.
For those who find large crowds overwhelming, Passover at home may well offer a welcome alternative.
Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University
Rabbi Romain: You highlight one of the underlying problems with Pesach: on the one hand, it is a major festival with a powerful message of freedom from tyranny that has cascaded down the generations and travelled across the world.
On the other hand, it can involve an inordinate amount of work, not to mention expense, while it can also be a period of high stress and frayed tempers. This is not the way Jewish festivals should be.
Yes, creating a special atmosphere often does take effort; and yes, a spring clean to the kitchen and house at large is a good idea. But perhaps we should go about it in ways that make it more pleasurable and less something so many people dread… and therefore try to avoid
Start the cleaning further in advance. Make sure that it is not just one person doing all the work, but if there are others in the house, it is a shared task.
Cut the expense by not purchasing products that cost more than usual because they are certified as kosher l’Pesach, but which are intrinsically free
of leaven and do not need to be watched, guarded and guaranteed.
Of course, avoid chametz but, in all other cases, the normal products will do fine and there is no reason to go along with the extra pieties that have become burdens, and which mean that halachah is out of kilter with common sense.
As for the absent children, their foray abroad (assuming it was not cancelled because of coronavirus) is an opportunity to extend invitations to others. What about relatives you do not see so often? Or members of the local community?
It would be a particular mitzvah to invite those who live alone, or are students nearby, or are new to the area, or have suffered a bereavement recently, or have just gone through a divorce.
In the hierarchy of important Jewish values, offering hospitality has to be up near the top of the list. As a side-effect, it will give you a sense that your Seder has been especially worthwhile.
During this coronavirus time, with the cancellation of events and sense of isolation many will experience, it is even more important to have the camaraderie of the Seder — even if it is only a limited number this year — just no hugging or handshaking and plenty of handwashing.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead Synagogue
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