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Does God Really Care If We Eat Bread on Passover?

The Torah prohibits eating bread or any form of leavened product, chametz, during Passover. The penalty for eating or even owning chametz is severe: being cut off from the people Israel (Exodus 12:15). Such a punishment sounds descriptive rather proscriptive: those who wantonly eat bread on Passover are certainly making a statement of disengagement from the community and our ancestral traditions. That begs the question, though, of whether God really cares if we eat bread on Passover.

I gave up long ago the belief in a fire and brimstone God who strikes us if we eat bacon or skip Yom Kippur services. The image of such a vengeful God reflects medieval Christian polemic against the God of Hebrew Scriptures rather than the Jewish belief in a just and good God. If God is just, punishment should fit the crime. I know too many good people, some who are kosher and keep the Sabbath and others who do not, who suffer with illness and tragedy out of proportion to any real or imagined “sin” they may have committed. That makes it clear to me that God is not causing these troubles, though God can help us cope and survive them, as Rabbi Harold Kushner so eloquently explains in his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

Putting aside the fear of punishment, there are other good reasons for refraining from eating chametz on Passover, both rational and emotional.

The great medieval codifier and philosopher Maimonides believed that God as the Great Rationalist has a reason for every commandment. While we should seek to understand these reasons, even if we cannot, we can trust that some good will come from our observance of them.

Rationally, there are several good results that come from refraining from chametz on Passover. The first, of course, is strengthening one’s Jewish identity (which is important not only for a sense of belonging but so we Jews can fulfill our role in bringing the values of justice, balance, and equality to the world). Refraining from eating chametz also teaches us self control (the root of all success in the world) as well as the more subtle value of the effort we make to eliminate even traces of what holds us back from being our best selves (in the mystical sense that chametz represents that which puffs up and erodes our own best selves).

These are all good reasons, but not the reason I do not eat chametz on Passover. I do so for an emotional reason: It is one of the many ways I show my love of God.

If you truly love someone, you try to do things which will please the other person. It may be bringing flowers or some other gift. But the best gifts, and sometimes the hardest, are those of one’s time and consideration, like taking out the garbage without being asked or saving them the last slice of that delicious chocolate cake in the frig. A little inconvenience is the least one can do for someone one truly loves. The same goes for God. God doesn’t need us to refrain from eating bread on Passover, but I believe God is pleased when we do. That’s enough for me to stick to dry flat matzah for eight days. It is the least I can do for someone I love.

–Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman

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Comments read comments(10)
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Grethel Jane Rickman

posted April 6, 2007 at 3:10 pm

Rabbi Grossman, I am so glad that you wrote this! I also dropped the view of a angry God who is so eager to punish at the drop of a hat because the Torah speaks/teaches of God’s compassion. Also, I am refraining from consuming chametz until the end of Pesach. I reside with a family member and it has been interesting teaching her about what I can and can not have {during Pesach and during other times}. But, I converted; she didn’t. However, I was so blessed and happy when she bought me a box of special passover cookies. “I seen these and I thought you’d like to have some,” she said. The action said a lot! :) Chag Samaech! Shalom.

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posted April 6, 2007 at 4:28 pm

Grethel Jane, I have the exact opposite problem…i have a non-jewish friend staying with me and she’s been not very happy with Passover, but I told her once, that for a week, she can abstain..its not like I’m on Atkins, and this is the first part(I think on Atkins its like 3 months no starches). I gave up on the concept of a vengeful G-d also, but i did it as part of evolving to a more Existential outlook, that time is Not linear(kinda like for the “wormhole aliens in ST:DS9), and the G-d while not vengefull is more like the disaproving friend who wants you to do right, even when you really don’t want to. I actually had that discussion about non-linnear time at First Seder …

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Marian Neudel

posted April 6, 2007 at 6:40 pm

Of course nobody gets hit with fire and brimstone for eating hametz this week! It’s a way to remind ourselves of our history and the obligations it imposes on us (like being kind to the stranger.) The thing about ritual, and art, and narrative, is that they are open-ended (unlike, say, theological discourse.) They lead in all kinds of different directions, and we are always invited to choose which ones we will follow. That’s nothing new–it’s how the Talmud works. Every year, the holiday rituals lead me in a different direction from the year before, but my choice of directions is governed by basic Jewish principles: the ethics and morality of the Torah.

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posted April 8, 2007 at 5:50 pm

1/ No vengeful G-d? Do you watch the news? 2/ The interesting part about chometz is to watch all the people who only use ‘Kosher for Passover’ foods on Passover, but the moment Pesach is over its back to the baby jumbo shrimp.

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Grethel Jane Rickman

posted April 8, 2007 at 8:08 pm

David, It is wise to gaurd ones eyes! As Rabbi Nachman taught: Page 51 # 7 ;)

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Stephen Davidson

posted April 9, 2007 at 5:56 am

If we take the fire and brimstobe G-d out of the Torah, then Moses goes too. And just about every single prophet. Maybe we should trust in mercy, without the editing process.

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posted April 9, 2007 at 1:52 pm

I’m gonna put my 2 cents in here… I’d like to take to task the concept of the “fire and brimstone” g-d as also not being central to jewish thought. Torah may be replete with images of G-d being angry, and vengeful, but we also have images of him showing mercy, or at least being willing to “listen” to thise he has sent as his “emisaries”(look at Abraham barganing with G-d for the Sodom and Gomorrah, or Moses AFTER the Golden calf when G-d wants to destroy the ppl, but Moses talks him out of it. At times I refer back to Genesis, and there are strories that suggest that G-d made man to “help” in the act of creation, and that women were made to “help” man, as in hebrew, the female counterpart is called Chava or “friend”/”Helpmate”. I tend to think of being with G-d, walking in the prescence not of a King, but the Friend who wants me to do the right thing(even when I really don’t). I try to avoid “open hametz” during passover, but even I know that I’m human and won’t make the full mark, because it can bring out the best me that I can.

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Grethel Jane Rickman

posted April 9, 2007 at 1:57 pm

Should remember what our tradition says about HaShem’s prayer? In the Talmud the sages said: HaShem prays: “May it be My will that My mercy prevails over My anger, that My mercy may prevail over My other attributes so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and on their behalf stop short of strict justice.” Not exactly fire and brimestone, eh? Hmm??????? Shalom.

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Stephen Davidson

posted April 9, 2007 at 3:09 pm

I would just as soon, that G-d be G-d, and that I do not require the Judge of all the Universe to bow to my fears about consequences and accountability for actions and behaviors I know violate his declared ways. Psalm 51 is a better outlook than what the Sages wrote about what Ha Shem desires of people after His very own heart.

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Grethel Jane Rickman

posted April 9, 2007 at 8:43 pm

The story of Nineveh also speaks to us. Psalm 51 is about teshuva. Christians have misinterpreted teshuva with a concept that came from Pagan faiths–human sacrifice. Shalom.

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