In 1960, life as we knew it changed forever.
A cataclysmic event took place.
But, like an asteroid falling in the Sahara Desert, the impact was not recorded. You won’t find it in any history book. A diligent search of newspaper archives may turn it up … buried on a back page.
That year, a popular company produced a revolutionary product: flavored sodas for Pesach!
Not since Barton’s covered a matzah in chocolate — and loosened thousands of fillings with Passover Almond Kisses — has there been such a revolution in the observance of Pesach.
Amid a world of boiled eggs and potatoes, nuts in their shells, water pitchers and fresh-squeezed orange juice, this was a game changer. It was a paradigm of the old Yiddish expression, “Ich veis nisht mit vos m’est ess.” Literally, that translates as, “I don’t know what to eat it with.” But the connotation is, “What is this? Do you eat it with a fork or a spoon?” In other words, this is totally out of my realm of experience. I don’t know how to relate to it.
A (then) young man called up Harav Shlomo Freifeld, zt”l, to ask if his family could buy the soda for Pesach. Reb Shlomo’s answer was classically — and characteristically — full of fizz and flavor:
“It’s no mitzvah to make Pesach like the rest of the year.”
What’s Pesach all about? What is the meaning of going cold turkey on chametz? In 1921, Rabbi Menachem Ekstein, Hy”d, wrote a sefer called Tna’ei Nefesh Lehasagas Hachassidus. Literally, that might translate as spiritual conditioning for attaining Chassidus. In 1937, the Bais Yaakov Journal in Lodz published part of the sefer in Yiddish translation. The Yiddish title needs no translation: P’sikalogishe Elementen in Chassidus.
The sefer is unique in that, instead of giving chassidic insights into pesukim or stories with pithy insights, it presents a program for achieving a higher spiritual state. In step-by-step instructions of mental exercises, Rabbi Ekstein tries to help the reader develop a sense of ruchniyus.
After the program, he turns to explaining the significance and symbolism of special days in Yiddishkeit. He says that people tend to be most involved with three things: their work, their food and their homes. Come along Shabbos and Pesach and Sukkos to refocus our minds on what is truly significant — the life of the soul.
“Pesach,” he says, “comes to lift our thoughts above our food. It tells us ‘People, is it worthwhile to be so involved in food and, similarly, other desires, to the extent that these things become ends in themselves? They, themselves become goals and sources of joy and even pride? They only offer fleeting pleasure. Their real purpose is only to sustain the body. … If you understand this well, you won’t get caught up in pursuing them.’”
He goes on to say that chametz comes from the five grains. And these grains represent five character traits. Chametz symbolizes someone “blowing up” beyond his true significance and having an inflated self-image. The message of Pesach is, thus, to deflate that overblown ego and find our true place in the world.
Years after the soda revolution, the same (less young) man asked a Rabbi about certain health and beauty products that did not have supervision, but were included on a list of products known not to have chametz.
“It’s only eight days,” said the Rabbi. “I think you can survive using deodorant from Israel with a hechsher for eight days.”
The deodorant response was — on the surface — more pragmatic than spiritual. But it comes out of the same worldview. What’s Pesach all about? It shouldn’t be about seeking a way to have virtual chametz.
The same (aging) fellow was once speaking with a friend whose family came from a Polish chassidic background. In the conversation, it came out that the friend didn’t buy any manufactured products for Pesach. His family only used things that were made at home.
This was a revelation. What a great idea! No more turning Pesach from simplicity to shopping spree.
Before springing this wonderful idea on his family, though, the man asked the Amshinover Rebbe, shlita, if he should take on this chumrah. The Rebbe, well acquainted with this individual’s familial circumstances said, “It’s a great idea. But if you want to do it, do it for yourself. Don’t impose it on your family.”
Clearly, those who have the ability to retain this age-old mesorah of — to the greatest extent feasible — only consuming products made in their very own home, should do so.
A Chassid once asked a different greatly respected Rebbe whether it was preferable to use homemade grape juice for the arba kosos or commercially made wine with an excellent hechsher. The Rebbe instructed him to use grape juice.
However, when this same Rebbe paid a visit to another elderly Rebbe who served him commercially-made wine on Chol Hamoed Pesach the visiting Rebbe, out of respect for his illustrious host, drank a bit of the wine he was given.
As is true with all matters of Halachah and mesorah, each reader should consult their own spiritual mentor for specific guidance. But it would be a good idea to memorize and bear in mind Rav Freifeld’s wise words, “It’s no mitzvah to make Pesach like the rest of the year.”