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Nobody’s Slave: A Positive Approach to Pesach Cleaning

I have been asked to speak a bit more about Pesach, about making it a pleasurable rather than a tense and forbidding time.

Of course, the first thing I will say is that you should consult with your own poseik. Ruti is not a rabbi, nor do I wish to be. Nor am I your mother, nor your own tradition. You will sort out what works for you with the right authorities. Also, if you have living with you a relative who is ill or for any other reason needs an extraordinary amount of care, I recommend finding out what leniencies are available to you that might level the playing field a bit.

What I want to share is why I love Pesach so much, and tips and tricks that I have learned over the years to make preparing for Pesach and the Seder(s) a joyful and spiritual experience, rather than slavery. I’m going to be talking to myself. You are more than welcome to eavesdrop and cull any tips you find useful.

Before I even start cleaning, I read up on why I am doing the mitzvah. I am cleaning spiritual chametz (often compared with arrogance) out of my system. Like all things Jewish, we DO in order to FEEL. Periodically, we are asked by our tradition to clear our soul of cobwebs. At this time of year, ridding ourselves of chametz (leaven) is the path toward that purification. Cleaning my house — especially my kitchen, one of the centers of my human creativity — makes me lighter, faster, better. Maybe a little finer in my character traits, if even for a short while.

There is no one right way to clean for Pesach. Besides the aforementioned authorities, personal to each of us, we all have different personalities. Some people admit that they work better under the pressure of a last-minute deadline. We’ve done that. There were years when we procrastinated ourselves into the week before, cleaning with a few friends until three in the morning. But when the work was done (around a lot of music and insane laughter), we finished off the last of the Scotch and played music till five. The main thing is that it was fun.

This approach, however, does nothing to ameliorate the mounting tension of the weeks before the late-night last-minute cleaning party.

Perspective and priorities keep me from going batty. I have certain phrases playing in my head that have kept me strong and focused over the years. One of my favorites is: “Dirt is not chametz, and your family is not the korban Pesach (the Passover sacrifice).”

Other ideas I like to keep in mind follow (all of which I have heard or read from competent authorities).

This holiday is eight days. EIGHT DAYS! One can seal up and sell a lot (such as pantries, chametz pots, pans, appliances and their cupboards). Camping is fun, especially when it is indoors, in my own home, with camp tables set up with the supplies I will need.

A room where people do not eat or walk around with food doesn’t need to be cleaned. While I may have products that have chametz in medicines and self-care products in the bathroom, I can just seal the medicine cabinet with anything I haven’t already cleared with a rabbi, and sell the cabinet with my chametz. It’s not a Pesach necessity to scrub the floors and walls.

Cleaning for Pesach is not spring cleaning. Either I start spring cleaning before Adar, or save it for after the holidays. Between Adar and the holiday, I need to focus on the main point of Pesach cleaning: getting rid of edible, accessible leaven. That means that if it’s smaller than a kezayit (the volume of an olive), in a place people (to include crawling babies) cannot get to, and uninteresting to a dog, I don’t need to make myself and my family crazy.

Obviously, crumbs in kids’ pockets — only if the clothing will be worn during the holiday — must be cleaned, as children are great at sticking their hands everywhere, including in their mouths. On the other hand, agonizing over the pretzel piece in the keyhole may be moved way down on my list of priorities.

I like to start early. This will seem upside-down, so bear with me. The first thing I clean in the weeks before Pesach is my kitchen, as it’s the most important room in this context. The stove and the fridge are the hardest things to clean. Getting a thorough cleaning in early means that if I live mindfully after the initial scrubbing, the quick cleaning just days before Pesach can be joyful. What does living mindfully mean, in this situation? Prepare fewer foods that have chametz. Even if it’s not my habit, I try to wipe up messes and spills immediately after food prep. I serve kitniyot to the kids (in my case these days, the grandkids) in the last couple of weeks before Pesach, rather than bread and chametz cookies. We localize our eating to the table.

I play lively music, and dance around my kitchen as much as possible, making my own private party (or a party with a friend or family member, if they’re around). I “dress up” with a beautiful and colorful apron, reminding myself that this is holy work, and that I am nobody’s slave.

Another tip: I work best when I give myself an earlier “false” deadline. My dream has always been to have the house ready at least a week before Pesach. While this rarely happens, making the deadline has ensured that I am ready at least a few days before. I use disposable plates for a week before Pesach.

Some families make a happy family experience out of Pesach cleaning. I envy them. Raising a house full of individual universes made that an unlikely adventure for us. But each of my sons had certain age-appropriate tasks given to him. Little boys competed with their best friends to scrub light switch covers and cabinet doors. Big boys cleaned cars, covered tables, cleaned chairs, and schlepped all the garbage. Each young man over thirteen was responsible for his own bedroom, after a serious lecture about how much God counted on him to do a respectable job of keeping the mitzvot. (Incidentally, I think their rooms were cleaned better at Pesach than any time of the year, once they realized that we trusted them to behave as responsible men.)

I remind myself that a screaming mommy does nothing to make this holiday special to my kids. More effective was the nut dancing around and laughing in the kitchen dressed in a Red Hot Chili Peppers apron.

More later, on preparing the Seder.


Ruti EastmanRuti Eastman fell in love with Israel on her first visit, but had to wait 16 years to make aliyah in 2007. She writes about her adventures in Israel, as well as about the family history she wants to capture for her children. She has worked variously as an editor, teacher, artist, radio disc jockey, US army soldier; but her favorite job description is “raises crops of boys.” Ruti writes at Never Ruthless and at Ki Yachol Nuchal! Her book of collected essays is due out in 2017.


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