Liberation: One Formerly-Frantic Mom’s Pesach Cleaning Journey as told to C. Saphir
When I read this woman’s story in Mishpacha Magazine, it brought tears to my eyes and knew I had to share with all you JewishMOMs in these crazy days leading up to seder night. Chag kasher v’sameach!
“Hi, Gila,” my husband, Aryeh, greeted me. “What’s for supper?”
The scrub brush I was holding clattered to the floor as I rose abruptly from the stepstool I was sitting on. “Did you just ask what’s for supper?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Is something wrong?”
“Goldie, go out of the kitchen,” I said to my eight-year-old daughter.
I kicked the kitchen door shut behind her. “I’ve been Pesach cleaning all day,” I hissed at Aryeh. “It’s a week before Pesach. I’m right in middle of doing the moldings. And you want to know what’s for supper?”
“Whoa, sorry for asking,” he said, his voice a mix of hurt and surprise. “Is there a rule that you’re not allowed to eat the week before Pesach?”
“As a matter of fact, there is,” I said. “The minhag in Klal Yisrael is that the week before Pesach, you fend for yourself. There’s some bread in a box near the front door, you can make yourself a sandwich. But please eat it over a bag, I don’t want to have to deal with the crumbs afterwards.”
Aryeh folded his arms. “I get it,” he said softly. “Scrubbing the moldings is more important than supper. I’m the Korban Pesach.”
With that, he opened the door and stalked out of the kitchen.
I slammed the door shut and attacked the moldings again with a furious vigor. That’s a husband for you, I thought bitterly. He has no idea what goes into Pesach cleaning, all he cares about is filling his stomach.
It was our first year making Pesach, and Aryeh and I had very different ideas about what that entailed. I knew how to make Pesach; he didn’t. Was it my fault that he came from a house where Pesach was just a regular Yom Tov? The day of Bedikas Chometz, my mother-in-law would stand at the stove cooking macaroni. She started cleaning the house three days before Pesach, and anything she didn’t feel like cleaning, she just tied up and sold. Her Pesach cleaning was so lackadaisical, I often wondered whether I was allowed to eat anything in her house on Pesach.
Aryeh’s family created their own minhagim every year anew, deciding on a whim which products to use. One year, my mother-in-law made her own ketchup, the next year she bought ketchup. “I didn’t feel like making it this year,” she announced.
What did she think this was, a game? In my family, there was no ketchup on Pesach, period. We didn’t even use tomatoes, because we only ate vegetables that were peeled. And after weeks of bleaching our hands raw, the juice of the tomatoes stung so badly that peeling tomatoes was the last thing we wanted to do.
My mother would bleach down every wall and window in the house before Pesach, just as her mother and grandmother before her had done. Pesach cleaning, in our house, started on Tu b’Shevat, and from that time, there was no chometz outside the kitchen and dining room. A week before Pesach, we moved all the chometz into the garage, where we sat and ate in our coats, shivering.
The first time that Aryeh sat in my parents’ garage eating stale bread with salami while huddled in the garage was also the last time. “This is dysfunctional,” he told me then. “From now on, we arrive here on Erev Pesach in the afternoon.”
“How can you call my family’s minhagim dysfunctional?” I asked, deeply hurt.
“What minhagim?” he challenged me. “To turn Pesach into misery for the whole family? To throw us all into the dungeon for the sin of eating bread three days before Pesach?”
“Well, at least we have a mesorah,” I said defensively. “Your family has no mesorah when it comes to Pesach, you just make it up as you go along!”
“We sure do have a mesorah,” Aryeh shot back. “Our mesorah is that we don’t starve before Pesach, and we don’t kill ourselves with chumros before and during Pesach.”
For the sake of shalom bayis, I refrained from pointing out to Aryeh that Pesach is the time for chumros. But when the time came to make our own Pesach, I knew how I was going to make Pesach. And it wasn’t going to be my mother-in-law’s way.
When Aryeh saw me bleaching the walls in the den that year, he said, “Look, the Mishnah Berurah says that you’re not supposed to laugh at people who wash their walls, so I’m not going to laugh at you. But do you really have to use bleach? Can’t you clean with something safer, like regular dishwashing liquid, or Windex?”
“Who ever heard of using dish soap or Windex to Pesach clean?” I responded. My mother cleaned every inch of her kitchen with bleach, from the light fixture down to the cracks between the floor tiles. She even unscrewed the handles of every drawer and cabinet and soaked them in bleach.
Aryeh thought that unscrewing the handles was insane, but he knew better than to suggest I do otherwise. He did, however, make another, very tentative suggestion.
“Rabbi Weissbaum is speaking for women this Shabbos, before his regular Shabbos Hagadol derashah for men. Would you like to go?”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I’ve been up late every night cleaning for Pesach, and Shabbos is my only time to rest.”
“I’ll make sure that you get a nap,” he said. “But I think it’s important for you to get out a little and hear something uplifting about Pesach, so that it’s not all about drudgery. If you want to go, I’ll babysit.”
The topic of the rav’s derashah for women was, “Pesach and Priorities.” That didn’t sound very uplifting, but since Aryeh was offering to watch the kids, I figured I had very little to lose by going. At least I’d get some fresh air.
I was surprised to see the number of women who turned out for the shiur. Wasn’t everybody worn out and exhausted, like me, from all the work?
“A lot of work goes into making Pesach,” the rav began, as though reading my mind. There was a collective nod by all the women in the audience. “So it’s important to know what’s critical, and what’s just a nice thing to do.”
“Eating matzah is a mitzvah d’Oraysa,” he said. “That’s critical. Telling your children the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim is also a d’Oraysa, so that’s also critical. I should stress, though, that the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Vehigadeta levincha is very much dependent on the parents’ shalom bayis. When we give over a mesorah, it has to be palatable to our children, and if the atmosphere between the parents is tense, they’re not going to want to recreate what they saw growing up.”
There was pin-drop quiet in the room.
Rabbi Weissbaum pressed on. “So if there’s a lot of arguing in your house before Pesach – even if it’s done behind closed doors – then chances are, you’re not giving your children a positive example of what Pesach, and Yiddishkeit, are supposed to be about.
“Next critical item is simchas Yom Tov. Pesach is one of the shalosh regalim, so there’s a mitzvah d’Oraysa of simchah. Simchah has halachic parameters, such as drinking wine and eating meat for men, and buying new clothing or jewelry for women, but on the most basic level simchah means to be happy.”
I found myself shifting uncomfortably. Somewhere in the audience, someone started to cough.
“Then we have the issurim of eating and owning chometz,” the rav continued. “The Shulchan Aruch lays down the basic rules of how to eliminate chometz, but Klal Yisrael are kedoshim, and we have developed all sorts of beautiful minhagim and chumros over the generations to help us avoid even the tiniest mashehu of chometz. It should be obvious, though, that if the chumros are causing tension and strife in the home, and preventing you from being b’simchah, then you need to reevaluate your priorities.”
I didn’t really hear much of what the rav said after that; the words “It should be obvious” were ringing in my ears. To Aryeh it was obvious. To my mother-in-law it was obvious. But where I came from, it was far from obvious. Bleaching the walls was a priority; sitting down at the Seder relaxed and happy was not.
When I came home after the derashah, I apologized to Aryeh for putting the moldings ahead of his supper. “You’re not the Korban Pesach,” I said. “I’m going to keep that in mind from now on.”
“You’re not the Korban Pesach, either,” he replied. “You shouldn’t turn yourself into a shmatteh.”
I may not be the Korban Pesach, but I’m also not my mother-in-law, and I can’t cook macaroni for my family the day of Bedikas Chometz. But after that first, miserable experience making Pesach, Aryeh and I worked on finding a middle ground that would be comfortable for both of us. We don’t start Pesach cleaning on Tu b’Shevat, nor do we start three days before Pesach. We start three weeks before, doing a little bit each day, with the bulk of the work getting done in the last week. This way, everyone can eat chometz normally up until a few days before Pesach, and I don’t have to watch the kids like a hawk for weeks to make sure they’re not harboring any pretzels or other incendiary devices.
I’ve also gotten used to the idea that my minhagim are Aryeh’s minhagim, not my parents’ minhagim. Just because my parents don’t use any Pesach products doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t. Just because they don’t eat gebrokts doesn’t mean that I can’t. On the contrary, the more I respect my husband’s wishes and follow his minhagim – untraditional as they may seem – the more of a mesorah I am giving over to my children.
These days, I hardly use any bleach when cleaning for Pesach. A little for the countertops and sinks, a little more to pour down the drains, and that’s it. I’ll admit that when I sit down at the Seder with hands that are not cracked and bleeding, I feel a little guilty. I mean, can you really be yotzei Pesach cleaning using only Windex and Mr. Clean?
“The Shulchan Aruch doesn’t say anything about bleach,” Aryeh assures me. “And Rabban Gamliel doesn’t list chapped hands as an essential requirement for the Seder.”
I still like to wash all the walls and windows in the entire house for Pesach. I’ve learned, however, that with the possible exception of the kitchen and eating areas, washing the walls has nothing to do with chometz; it’s a matter of kavod Yom Tov. So if I can do it in a way that brings honor to Yom Tov – read: in a way that allows me to remain happy and calm – I do it. If not, I don’t bother. I can always decide to do the walls for Shavuos, if I’m in the mood.
Do you know what’s the best part of this liberated approach to making Pesach? The kids absolutely love Pesach. The first few years we made Pesach at home, they were too young to really be involved, but now that they’ve grown up a little, they can’t wait to start Pesach cleaning, and they vie for the coveted jobs of vacuuming the car, shaking out the sefarim, and covering the fridge and the cabinets – jobs that my siblings and I used to fight to foist on each other.
Every year, beginning around Chanuka time, my kids start bringing home reports about which of their friends’ families are starting with their Pesach cleaning. These reports always make me feel shaky, and I have to keep reminding myself that earlier isn’t necessarily better.
Then, as Pesach approaches, the chumra competition starts. “My friend Shayna says that her family’s minhag is to sell the kosher l’Pesach potato chips with the chometz,” my daughter announced a few weeks ago.
“And the Moskowitzes down the block don’t let any chometz into the house from Rosh Chodesh Nissan,” my son piped up.
That comment brought back memories of pre-Pesach sandwiches eaten in my parents’ garage. I took a deep breath. “If that works for them, it’s great,” I said. “But do you know what special minhag we have in our family?”
The kids looked at me, puzzled. What minhag did we have that could possibly rival those of Shayna’s family or the Moskowitzes?
“Our minhag,” I declared, “is to be happy when we make Pesach.”
My son nodded approvingly. “I like that minhag,” he said.
This article was reprinted with permission from Mishpacha Magazine.
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