Maintaining Derech Eretz in the Face of a Loaf of Bread on Pesach

Blast from the Past. First posted on 11/13/2006.

By Westbank Mama

I’ve written before about what started me on my journey to observant Judaism, and I’ve been thinking lately of another incident (pothole?) on this long road of mine.

My brother decided to become observant also, and we both attended Yeshiva University. At some point in our learning of the various halachot (Jewish laws) we realized that the upcoming holiday of Pesach (Passover) might be problematic. The laws of kashrut (what foods are permissable to eat) are very strict when it comes to Pesach, and we both knew that what we thought was acceptable to eat in past years in my parent’s house wasn’t going to be acceptable for us anymore. We also knew that refusing to come home for the Pesach seder wasn’t an option – it would hurt my parents too much.

The issue of Kibbud Av V’Em (honoring your father and mother) is very complex, and is an extremely sensitive issue among Baalei Teshuva (those who aren’t born in religious homes but become observant later on). My brother and I became observant through NCSY (an Orthodox youth group involved in outreach), and we had some excellent Rabbis and counselors give us advice. They told us that except in cases where your parents ask you to do something which explicitly demands you break Jewish law, then you should listen to them. (Like most issues of this sort, it is important to ask a Rabbi if you have a specific case in mind and need an answer. I am just giving the outline here).

This complex situation touches on an issue that unfortunately is misconstrued by many who are not intimately familiar with observant Judaism. Most people know that there are myriad laws governing the “ritual” aspects (laws between man and G-d) of Orthodox Judaism – what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, how you dress, how you pray, etc. At the same time there are just as many laws concerning the “ethical” aspects – how one treats other people (laws between man and man). The second type of laws are just as binding on Orthodox Jews as the first. There is no concept of the “letter” of the law referring to the first type, and the “spirit” of the law referring to the second.

In most cases there isn’t a problem following both the first and second types of laws. In the case of Baalei Teshuva, though, there are many instances where there seems to be a conflict between the two when it comes to how to deal with their families. There is a huge responsibility carried by those of us who are new to observant Judaism to constantly balance following the laws as we learn them, with being sensitive to the feelings of others – especially parents. In some ways it is like walking a tightrope – always trying to make sure that we walk that fine line.

My brother and I were relatively lucky – our parents had their “sore spots” as is natural with parents whose children choose a very different path in life, but they weren’t anti-religious. We knew that with some tact on both sides we could work things out.

Which is what we did. I can honestly say that in this situation we did sweat the small stuff. My brother and I brought the meat and the handmade Shmura matza from New York City. We had the local Lubavitch shaliach come in to kasher what was possible to kasher, we bought new dishes (my mother actually enjoyed feeling like a young bride who picks out new things!) and we used paper and plastic where we could. We thought long and hard about how to organize the seder. At that point my family was using English Haggadot (remember the Maxwell House Coffee edition?) and we decided that we would all take turns reading aloud, and here and there my brother and I would “casually” jump in with “Oh, I heard something interesting about this”, or “I learned about this just the other week….”. In order to not make too much of a “production” out of the amounts of matza and maror (bitter herbs) we had to eat, my brother measured them out ahead of time, and I knew that I needed to eat the amount on the plate he would put right next to me. He decided that he would be official wine pourer, and while he was taking care of everyone else I would pour for him. (These things relate to some of the finer details about the Pesach seder).

Soon enough all of the preparations were done – the food cooked, the table set, and all of us dressed in our finest clothes. A Pesach seder wouldn’t be a Pesach seder without invited guests, and this was taken care of by inviting my aunt and uncle, who wouldn’t have a seder to go to if it weren’t for ours. At the appropriate time we heard the knock at the door, and I went to answer it. My aunt and uncle came in, and my aunt gave me a big smile and, handing me a foil-wrapped package, said “This is for you”.

A number of things happened in the next few seconds – although thinking back on it it seemed to take much longer. My brain processed the information coming to me both from my nose and my hands, and I gradually realized to my horror that the hostess gift warming the palm of my hand was a freshly baked loaf of bread.

Those of you who are observant Jews will not need an explanation as to the drama of this moment. For those of you who aren’t – a short summary. Most of the laws of Passover relate to the injunction that we remove all chametz – leavened substances (bread, cookies, pretzels, etc. and anything containing even a minute amount of leavening) from our homes. We spend weeks before the holiday cleaning out every corner, and we use a completely different set of dishes and cooking utensils for the entire week. We only buy food that is certified not to contain chametz, and many people follow very strict traditions during this time. So bringing a loaf of bread to the Passover seder is probably the equivalent of bringing an expensive bottle of whisky to an Alcoholics Annonymous meeting – saying that this was a faux pas would be a gross underestimation.

My first thought was “oh, no, I really hope biur covers this” (“biur” is the spoken declaration said the morning before the Passover seder which states that all chametz found accidentally is like the dust of the earth – without value).

My next reaction was 100% due to my parents’ good upbringing. There is a saying that “Derech Eretz kadma l’Torah” – which loosely translated means that treating other people well is a pre-requisite to Torah learning. In my specific case this was literally true. Long before I became an observant Jew, my parents taught me Jewish values – one of them being that you treat other people, especially older people, with respect NO MATTER WHAT. So although part of me wanted to shriek and throw the bread out of the window, my “good breeding” kicked in and I smiled at my aunt and said thank you. I “casually” put the bread down on a coffee table explaining that “there just isn’t an inch of room left on the dining table” and we proceeded to sit down and start the seder. The rest of the evening went smoothly, although I couldn’t help being tense. I don’t know what I thought – that the bread would suddenly sprout legs and jump onto my newly kosher dishes? – but this gift seemed like the elephant in the room, to me at least.

It seems that my brother felt the same way. As soon as my aunt and uncle were out of sight (we checked by peeking through the curtains) my brother grabbed the foil package and slam-dunked that sucker into my neighbor’s garbage can with a satisfying clang.

That night I had a little chat with G-d. Well, a more accurate description would be to say that westbankmama’s younger self had a hissyfit – along the lines of “Ok, G-d, what exactly was THAT about?!? Here we were, walking that tightrope and doing just fine, and you send a gale force wind to knock us off!”. Needless to say, G-d was silent.

After my initial anger wore off, then the really dangerous emotions took over. I started to sing what I call the “Ba’al Teshuva Blues”. Evey one of us who has decided to become an observant Jew has probably felt this way once or twice – and some experience this every day! It usually comes after an embarrassment, or when all of the details of a new law seem overwhelming, or after you are disillusioned by the behavior of another Orthodox Jew (but, but, they aren’t supposed to do that..) It goes something like this: “This is never going to work. I will never fit in. Who was I kidding anyway? Is it really worth all of this effort? G-d will love me if I am a good person, do I really have to go the whole nine yards…”

A lot of these feelings come from feeling isolated. Similar to a 16 year old girl who has had her heart broken for the first time, you think that there is noone else in the universe who knows exactly how you feel.

Until you meet others who do know. The first time happens when you meet someone who is dressed in full Ultra-Orthodox regalia, and looks like he can trace his religious ancestors all the way back to Moses. Then you get to know him and he tells you his story – and it turns out that in the sixties he was a hippy who partook of every illegal substance known to man. That really blows your mind – until you meet someone else just like him. Then you start meeting others who may look like they have been religious for a long time, but they have also shared a similar journey to yours. Then, when you mature some more, you do meet people who have been Orthodox from birth, and can trace their religious ancestors a long way back. But you realize that they too have challenges to face, and that Hashem puts obstacles in their way – just different ones than the ones you have experienced. G-d is always forcing us to grow in one way or another – and that our own personal problems are as individually designed as our fingerprints.

So you keep going, and you put these feelings into perspective. Because all in all, the journey is worth it.

12 comments on “Maintaining Derech Eretz in the Face of a Loaf of Bread on Pesach

  1. Anonagirl:

    I think I know what westbankmama felt when she wrote about ffb’s dressing like hippies. I felt it myself when my then-teenage daughter was chalishing for a faded denim jacket. To me, the jacket was not just a jacket, it was a symbol of an entire generation/culture which personified drugs, sex, and decadence, which I had grown up in and had rejected. Of course I overreacted and jumped on her (this is not about great parenting skills). Because for her, it was just a jacket, she was totally innocent of the cultural baggage that came along with it. Now who was right here? Both of us: because it is true that wearing a denim jacket DOES give one a certain purposeful casualness which is why the “hippie culture” latched onto it, and is why a bais yaakov girl should avoid it. Even if one is totally innocent it is the parent’s obligattion to educate a girl as to the possible symbolic nature of certain garments.

    So in a long answer to a short question, yes, it was technically tznius, and I have no problems with someone else wearing such a garment, but for me and my family, it would not be appropriate to wear glaring symbols of “hippie” culture because of the statements possibly being made.

  2. In reply to the article: My parents had someone to seder once who turned up with a bottle of whisky in hand…

    And in reply to JDMDad, the local bakery near where I live had an advert “order your Passover desserts now”. I didn’t walk into the bakery, but this is not a kosher bakery, so I think we can assume that they simply meant “baked without wheat flour”.

  3. Dovid —

    It really depends on what you mean by “dressing like hippies.” For some, women wearing long jeans skirts are not dressed properly. For others, a long floral print Indian skirt, even with a slip underneath is not proper. Yet both reach below the knees. For some, sandals are not proper… but there is disagreement over this. Is there a problem with the basic tunic as long as it covers the elbows and collarbones? These are all examples of clothing from the 60s that revive periodically.

    But the very basic laws of tznius dressing would leave room for these options. YOU may dress to a more conservative standard but does that mean that every other Orthodox Jew must meet your standards?

  4. To answer Tal Benschar “A loaf of fresh-baked bread at a Seder! How clueless can you get?”

    There was an email going around last year during Passover of a grocery store that had a Passover special on ham, so I’m sure there are a lot of people who don’t get it. For example, later this year my wife and I are going to Las Vegas for a few days. I’ve been researching kosher restaurants in the area. My aunt kept telling me there was a kosher restaurant on the Strip. We finally figured out she was talking about the Stage Deli in MGM Grand. I pointed out that it had things on the menu like a ham and cheese sandwich. She kept countering with things like that their hot dogs are kosher (Hebrew National?), they have matzah ball soup, etc. It just doesn’t sink in for people who never lived or learned the life.

    But thanks to Westbank Mama for this story. It helped me to keep things in perspective, I had my own little conflict at our Seder, but after reading this, I guess it wasn’t that big a deal, and I can let it go (and learn from it for next year!)

  5. This was a great read. Thank you for reposting it, as I missed it the first time around.

    I think we can all relate to the issues that arise when it comes to getting together with non-observant family, especially kashrus. It really becomes difficult at Pesach, where even the farthest flung Jews still, to some degree,
    “do the sedar”. My hats off to all those who have yet to solve the roadblocks that Pesach time can create.

    One thing that surfaced in my mind while reading about the BT’s you met who were hippies back in the 1960’s is this: What about those who are FFB’s and dress as if THEY are hippies from the 1960’s? I see these kids (and many grown-up’s, too) just about every day. These clothes are a distraction and a contradiction to the values that I have struggled to instill in my children.My wonderful kids understand that WE dress differently (b’tznius and conservative), than the kids they are exposed to when we have no choice but to go to the “big mall” and
    yet so many FFB teens we come across dress in the latest MALL fashions. I get a great thrill and satisfaction when I meet someone who you would think was the scion of a great rabbinic dynasty, and turns out to be a BT from Long Island, who was once a drummer in a hard rock band. On the other hand, I feel a great disapointment and even sadness when I come across someone who you would think is a drummer in a hard rock band from Long Island, and turns out to be FFB. It’s a bit off topic from your terrific Pesach post, but the thoughts crossed my mind…

  6. Meaning no offense to anyone, but my first reaction when I read this story was: Wow! A loaf of fresh-baked bread at a Seder! How clueless can you get?

    It is one thing to, say, bring a box of candies without a hasgacha. Many who are not Orthodox do not realize the need for such. But a loaf of bread!?!

    You are to be commended for your remarkable act of self-restraint. Remember, even if you think no one was watching, the One Above was.

    (I am reminded of a vort I heard from R. Aharon Soloveichik, zt”l. The midrash says that when Esther was asked who is the person who is afflicting the Jews, she initially wanted to point to Ahaseurus, but the Malach Gavriel came down and pushed her finger to Haman.

    What does this mean? R. Aharon pointed out that Gavriel is short for Gevuras El — the Might of God. Although we think that God’s Might is manifest in overt shows of strength, in fact it is often manifest in self-restraint. Thus the Chazal Mi Kamochah Ba Elim Hashem — Mi Kamocha Ba Ilmim — Who is like you among the mighty, Hashem — Who is like you among the mute?” — whioh Chazal mentioned when Titus was blaspheming in the Temple and Hashem stood mute, so to speak.

    Similarly, eizehu gibbor, ha kovesh es yizro.

    Self-restraint often requires Gevuras El — the might of Hashem.

  7. I used to feel that way too…about seeing Frum Jews and thinking they’ve always been this’s true in lots of cases, but certainly not in everyone you meet.

    As far as going to a relative who is not observant during Pesach, I remember my mom being told by my Zaide not to go to my dad’s mom, who was not observant enough (I don’t know if she had Matzah, since I, too, didn’t go visiting on Pesach there). I think you could go, but not eat the food there.


  8. WestBankMama: Well spoken, and full of chizuk for your fellow BT’s. I especially like the wisdom about how feelings of isolation can knock us over, and connection to the kehilla can heal us.

    I also appreciated the mention of customized obstacles and problems designed to help us grow. I’ve often wondered about what kind of learning one can do to help understand these individualized challenges better.

  9. What is the actual halachic requirement for dealing with a “gift” of chametz gamur that has just entered one’s home right before Pesach? Is this subject to change because of personal or family considerations?

  10. I once had a similar experience, with a relative giving my daughter chametzdik candy. I took care of the situation but still resent the relative who knows better but just didn’t think.

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