My husband has a special name for me in the run up to Pesach. “The rebbetzin has arrived,” he says, as I draw up a plan of action involving intensive hoovering, scouring and scrubbing and tut furiously when he crunches toast all over the kitchen. For, in our household, our relaxed approach to Judaism (lots of tradition and warmth, not so much scrutinising of labels) changes completely as Pesach approaches.
It is not enough for me to hide the toaster, swap bread for matzah and banish pasta and rice (for, yes, we are Ashkenazim, no matter how much my beloved insists that these distinctions don’t really matter). No, I have to do it “properly”. And that involves a whole lot of cleaning, and an atmosphere of stress and anxiety that can make us all miserable.
But what is “proper” Pesach cleaning? How vigilant do you have to be to make your home ready for the chag? Should I raise the stakes ever higher, and start vacuuming my curtains and tying muslin over my taps (yes, this happens, I am reliably informed). Do you need to scrub out your dishwasher with a toothbrush? And what should I feed my chametz-chomping cats?
For illumination, I turn to Rabbi Jeremy Conway, director of the Kashrut Division, London Beth Din, and my new best friend as he emphasises that Pesach should be a joy and not a return to slavery, even in the run-up to the festival.
“Pesach cleaning is not spring cleaning,” he says. “There is no need to go crazy. In fact, it’s the wrong thing to do. On Seder Night we’re meant to be relaxed and enjoy it. We’re instructed to lean, like princes and princesses. That’s relaxed and chilled,” he adds, “not dozing because we’ve exhausted ourselves working like slaves getting ready.”
Chametz doesn’t need to be completely eliminated but it does need to be removed so there is no temptation to eat it. “If it’s lying around, it’s all too easy to pick up that kitkat and put it into your mouth,” he says — a truth that resonates far beyond the Pesach period. So, put your chametz out of sight into a cupboard, seal it away and sell it (easily done online). There is absolutely no need to clean out the sealed cupboard before you put all your chametz in it. You are not, repeat not, spring-cleaning. Rabbi Conway stresses the need for common sense. Do check out the places where chametz may lurk (children’s school bags, for example). The garden shed does not need your attention unless you are liable to store sneaky snacks there.
How about those pesky crumbs that lurk unseen on floors and surfaces? The key is to render them inedible. “Crumbs can be nullified,” Rabbi Conway assures me, “as long as you spray your surfaces and wipe them over.” Any crumbs which might lurk are rendered inedible by the cleaning fluid, and any crumbs which might fall on the floor are so clearly not for eating that they should not concern you unduly.
Some people (not me) are concerned about starch products that lurk in, say, paper plates, pots of paint, or even wallpaper paste. For them, talmudic sages invented a dog test, meaning that, to be chametz, something has to be recognisable as food by a dog. “Even bad food could be chametz, if a dog would eat it. But if it’s something that a dog wouldn’t eat — like a paper plate — then it’s not chametz.”
Sharing Pesach-cleaning stories with friends, one cleaning method that came up was the use of cocktail sticks to gouge out unidentified (but possibly chametzdik) gunge from tiny crevices. Where does Rabbi Conway stand on cocktail sticks? Completely unnecessary, he assures me, unless you decide to kasher an ornately decorated becher for kiddush. Then you might want to use your sticks to make absolutely sure everything is clean because you wouldn’t want a speck of chametz in a vessel which you’d use for eating and drinking.
I raise the tricky question of those two perennial Pesach problems, dishwashers and ovens, hoping the Beth Din will have come up with a labour-saving way of making them Pesach-ready. I have heard horrible stories of people using toothbrushes to scrub out the Zanussi’s cutlery tray, and dismantling the oven’s fan to check for stray chunks of pizza.
The dishwasher is a problem, he agrees, and as four days of the chag are Yomtov, when you shouldn’t be using electrical appliances, it’s hardly worth bothering. Instead, use plastic plates and cutlery whenever possible and just toss them away. I’m not wild about this advice, because I care about the planet. But then, I’m still haunted by the year I discovered a piece of pasta stuck in my dishwasher filter the day after I’d put all my Pesach things away. So maybe I’ll invest in some disposable plates this year. And some washing-up won’t hurt the kids.
How about the oven? Some people use a blow-torch, I’ve heard. “People should not be using blow-torches in their homes,” says Rabbi Conway. “Let’s think about health and safety.”
Instead, spray your oven with oven cleaner and wipe it off, making any chametz inedible. And then leave it on full heat for a couple of hours. And either change your shelves — “that would be ideal” — or cover them with silver foil. “A few years ago we got a small portable oven, and now every year I shlep it down and we use it for Pesach. It makes life a lot easier.”
Rabbi Conway is happy to leave the Pesach cleaning of his own home to his wife. I bet you are, I’m about to say, but then he explains what a busy time of year it is for him and his team of rabbis who whizz around overseeing the efforts of restaurants and hotels to make themselves kosher for Pesach. This is the hard-core end of Pesach cleaning where blow-torches and caustic soda are deployed by teams of cleaners working through the night.
It’s a lengthy and expensive process, he tells me, which should be borne in mind when customers’ eyes water at the Pesach prices. Just the cost of ground almonds alone for Pesach biscuits, he points out, is 12 times that of flour.
Speaking of almonds, I broach the nuttiest Pesach story I’ve heard, the tying of muslin over kitchen taps as a home made water filter. He roars with laughter. “It’s completely unnecessary! In North-West London at least, we do not have a problem with chametz in our tap water.”
So why does he think we tend to extremes when cleaning for Pesach? Partly, it is tradition, he thinks, remembering the efforts of past generations and wanting to live up to their standards. And there is a strong spiritual reason behind cleaning for Pesach, in that doing it we are cleansing our souls, capturing a springtime spirit of renewal and rejuvenation. If chametz is seen as a metaphor for evil inclinations then, when we clean, we remove those feelings. “We’re going out of slavery. We’re on a journey to a better you.”
I can definitely relate to this, and agree that Pesach cleaning always makes me feel deeply satisfied and somehow, despite all the upheaval, happier.
It’s the Jewish Feng Shui. It’s a connection with the past and a vision of a simpler life. And now I’ve talked to Rabbi Conway I will definitely strive to be less stressed and more of a chilled princess.
How about my cats, though? Wilbur and Dexter aren’t Jewish and they love their kibble. Rabbi Conway’s team have checked out pet foods which are chametz-free, listed on the Board’s extensive and helpful website. (I check it out later. It suggests that I poach fish or chicken for the cats during the chag. Dream on, pussies.)
Rabbi Conway’s family once owned a rabbit. On the first day of Pesach, they fed it matzah, which it seemed to enjoy.
“But the next day it had burrowed out of its enclosure and we never saw it again.”