Introduction: My How Those Guides Do Grow
In Egypt long ago, Moses told the Jews exactly how to prepare for Passover. In modern-day America, we’ve had Rabbi Avrohom Blumenkrantz to guide us instead.
A distinguished student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Blumenkrantz was the rabbi of Bais Medrash Ateres Yisroel in Far Rockaway, New York, for many years. Like many other synagogue rabbis, he prepared a Passover bulletin for his congregants each time the holiday came round. But his guide was always different. Already in 1977, it was remarkably comprehensive and specific, featuring not only basic Passover laws and synagogue prayer times, but also a painstakingly researched list of permissible medications and choreographed instructions for conducting Shabbat meals on Erev Pesah.
In 1981, Rabbi Blumenkrantz took his guide nationwide. From then on, each year before Passover he released a new and longer volume of The Laws of Pesach: A Digest carrying the disclaimer that “all previous issues must be disregarded.” As the decades progressed, the 52-page manual grew into a 600-page tome that became a wide-ranging guide to life covering everything from appropriate Hol ha-Moed trips to tips for relieving constipation due to the Passover diet. Upon Rabbi Blumenkrantz’s untimely passing in 2007, the Jewish Press called the book “a universal tool to prepare and observe Pesach properly” relied on by tens of thousands of families and “the single Halachah bestseller of all time.” In fact, his death did little to deter the guide’s popularity; his children continue to put out a new guide each year in his memory.
While the Blumenkrantz guide was growing in readership and size, other Passover materials were following a similar trend. The Star-K’s 50-page handbook and medicine list debuted in 2002, and by 2018 had swelled to over 200 pages. The Orthodox Union’s (OU) glossy magazine now runs over 100 pages. Since the year 2000, there has been a virtual explosion of frequently updated books and online resources about how to keep Passover from halakhic figures across the Orthodox spectrum and beyond.
As there’s no reason to assume that Passover should be immune from the well-documented slide to the right in American Orthodoxy, one might suspect that the guidance in these handbooks is getting stricter by the year. Their burgeoning size alone would suggest it. One can certainly point to instances of growing stringency: peanut oil, officially permitted by the OU for Passover use in 1948, was no longer deemed acceptable by the 1990s.
But as I’ll explore below, bigger guides aren’t necessarily stricter guides. As new materials and alternative guides proliferate in the new millennium, Passover guidance might actually be getting more lenient overall.
The Guides Grow Up and Get Strict
American Orthodox Jews have long relied on synagogue bulletins and English-language guidance prepared by major kashrut organizations to help them prepare for Passover. The Women’s Branch of the OU created a short guide to the Seder and some other holiday laws just a few years after the OU got into the kosher certification business in 1924. By the 1930s, the Women’s Branch was also issuing lists of foods certified by the OU as kosher for Passover. Around the mid-twentieth century, the OU put together a few lengthier Passover manuals that included information about kashering utensils and cleaning for the holiday. The Organized Kashrut (OK) Laboratories began publishing a monthly magazine called The Jewish Homemaker in 1969, which ran a Passover issue each year. But these materials were all relatively basic. You had to ask your rabbi for more detailed guidance.
This changed in the late 70s and early 80s with the publication of two important resources. The first was Rabbi Shimon Eider’s A Summary of Halachos of Pesach. Initially published in seven slim softcover volumes between 1977 and 1983 as a companion set to a cassette tape lecture series, Eider’s guidance is precise and comprehensive. He suggests nearly 80 places around the house to check for hametz. He addresses many situations, including unlikely ones: if you drink four cups of wine right after Kiddush before reciting the Haggadah, you still need to drink three more cups in their appropriate places during the Seder. The guide is also quite strict at times. He recommends placing two kezayit-sized pieces of matzah in one’s mouth at once at the Seder, chewing them simultaneously, and then swallowing one and then the other. This is hard to do, particularly since Eider considers the two kezeitim (ostensibly olive-sized pieces, although that is a longer discussion) to be about half of a handmade matzah. Eider’s book was popular and went through several more editions. It’s still widely-available today.
Rabbi Blumenkrantz’s guide, which, as noted, was published annually from 1981 on, took matters to the next level. Here are some examples of what he has said over the years. Starting early on, he recommended using an oral irrigator (Waterpik) to clean one’s braces the day before the holiday or, alternatively, to go to the dentist. He suggested that one visually inspect each piece of matzah for folded portions or air bubbles that could render it hametz despite the already rigorous production methods and certification process in place, as “nothing contains so much chometz as matzoh.” The guide also frequently opines on matters unrelated to Passover. Even in his 1977 synagogue bulletin, Blumenkrantz forbade using birth control without consulting a rabbinic authority, warning that otherwise, one “is in violation of daas torah and halocho.” He also said that when cleaning for the holiday, a woman should find her ketubah, and if there are problems in the marriage, take it “to a competent rov to check it out.” By the mid-90s, the guide included a lengthy section on checking for sha’atnez (forbidden mixtures of wool and linen in garments). In its most recent volumes, it suggests that yoga could be idolatry.
The OU mostly stepped back during the 80s and 90s. In these years, it included virtually no information about kashering in its annual Passover product guide and handbook, instead instructing readers to consult with a “local Orthodox rabbi.” And although in 1985 the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the OU’s youth division, co-published a step-by-step guide to the Seder by Rabbi Label Sharfman, it sounded a lot like Blumenkrantz and Eider. It provided vigorous directions for checking romaine lettuce for bugs, recommended using only shmurah matzah the entire Passover, detailed how high to lift the wine cup for Kiddush, and said to chew as much matzah as possible before swallowing because the two-minute time-limit for its consumption only begins once one swallows. Notably, this 1985 guide was significantly more detailed and stringent than a 1960 NCSY Passover guide, which was similar to the OU guides of its time.
The Guides Retreat Toward Leniency
But more guides appeared in the new millennium. The OU introduced a kashering primer in 2005, and each successive year, it has added more information to its Passover guide. These days, one who wants a detailed manual might be satisfied with the OU guide alone, which was not true in earlier decades. Similarly, the Star-K created a Passover handbook in 2002 by partnering with Rabbi Gershon Bess of Los Angeles to make his list of approved medications available to a wider audience. Before, only Rabbi Blumenkrantz’s medicine list was readily available. Nowadays, there are also extensive and widely-circulated guides from the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) and other kashrut organizations.
Nearly every one of these newer resources is free of at least some of the stringencies Rabbi Blumenkrantz prescribes. To compare the Blumenkrantz guide with recent OU magazines: the OU allows one to purchase any paper towels; Blumenkrantz is concerned they might have hametz or kitniyot (legumes prohibited to Ashkenazi Jews on Passover). The OU permits an individual to use most medications on Passover (if they aren’t liquid or chewable) without concern for any hametz contained in them, but Blumenkrantz does not. Both guides allow microwaves to be kashered for Passover (not all do), but while the OU only requires one to heat a glass of water in the microwave for 10 minutes, Blumenkrantz says that the water must be boiled for a full hour. Blumenkrantz requires one to kasher or replace stovetop knobs; the OU makes no mention of such practice. And these are just a few instances among many.
In the last couple of decades, several other rabbis from the Haredi community in the United States, such as Yaakov Forchheimer, Dovid Ribiat, Elozor Barclay & Yitzchok Jaeger, and Pinchos Yehoshua Ellis published English Passover Halakhah books. Each is overall less strict than Blumenkrantz and more in line with guides like the OU’s. Most recently, in 2014, the Laws of Pesah volume of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series—one of the most popular halakhic works in the religious Zionist community in Israel—was translated into English. Melamed tends to be more lenient than his Haredi counterparts. For example, although many Passover guides state that a dishwasher cannot be kashered, Melamed lists more than one acceptable method. And he says that one who eats a kezayit of matzah at the Seder without wasting time will certainly finish within the appropriate time period, so there’s no need to look at the clock or engage in the extreme eating practices recommended by other books.
The Guides Go Online
Lenient trends may be accelerating in the internet era. Since anyone can publish material online at little expense, putting out Passover guides is no longer just the province of kashrut agencies and well-established players like Rabbi Blumenkrantz. Synagogue rabbis, for example, can put the guidance intended for their congregations on the internet. Some of these guides contain leniencies not found elsewhere. Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Providence, Rhode Island, for example, disagrees with nearly every other guide when he writes that although covering countertops that haven’t been kashered “is certainly a valid custom,” it’s not required.
The Beltway Vaad, a recently-created rabbinic group in the greater Washington, DC, area, also published an internet guide that’s more lenient than most others. The Beltway Vaad says one can kasher a self-cleaning oven by turning it to the highest temperature and leaving it on for 40 minutes instead of using its self-clean cycle because the cycle “causes the oven to get dangerously hot, and has been known to cause fires.” A plastic dishwasher and its racks can be kashered by cleaning it, letting it sit unused for 24 hours, and running it with soap. Concerned for people’s already strained budgets—and citing a host of other reasons to be lenient—the Vaad recommends purchasing hametz after Passover from all major supermarkets, even if they might use Jewish suppliers who did not sell their hametz over the holiday. And in 2018, Rabbi Haim Ovadia (a member of the Beltway Vaad) provoked a strong reaction by suggesting in the digital pages of The Forward something that goes against what nearly everyone else thinks: before Passover, one can cook food for the holiday in hametz pots because any flavor of hametz is nullified in a mixture as long as Passover has not yet begun.
The internet also provides a platform to contest stringencies, or humrot. So in 2014, when Rabbi Yair Hoffman, writing in the Five Towns Jewish Times, revived the notion that one should place two kezeitim of matzah in one’s mouth at once at the Seder, two articles refuting him appeared online within days, calling out the practice as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous humra. When Rabbi Eider advocated just such a practice back in 1978, no one seems to have responded to him at all.
Finally, social media is becoming a new force to educate consumers about acceptable leniencies. Every year since 2015, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida has made an “annual public service reminder” on Facebook in February that excluding ground meat, “All unprocessed raw meat and chicken is automatically kosher for Pesach and just needs to be rinsed well before use” and that people could buy and freeze before prices rise for the holiday. His post is usually widely shared by several rabbis and other individuals.
The Size of a Kezayit and Other Halakhic Flashpoints
Thus far I have highlighted a shift toward leniency by looking at Passover guides chronologically. When the Blumenkrantz and Eider manuals were the only materials on the market, stringency prevailed. Newer guides, however, tend to take a more moderate approach. In this section, I will consider three additional issues, each significant in its own right, where leniency is also on the rise.
- How Big is Your Kezayit?
The minimum amount of matzah and maror that must be consumed at the Seder causes a lot of angst each year. I’m not here to wade into well-trodden debates about the size of a kezayit, which seems to have grown over the generations. However, it is interesting to note two things: first, that the English guides at least are not getting stricter—they’ve been relatively consistent about the measurements for half a century now; and second, that in recent years, alternative, more lenient positions are beginning to surface online.
Many may be familiar with the phenomenon of the kezayit chart, a laminated piece of paper which allows one to check a portion of matzah or maror against an appropriately-sized graphic. According to the chart in wide circulation, each cup of wine at the Seder must be filled with 3.3 fluid ounces, the matzah (the first time it’s eaten) must be 6.25 by 7 inches, and the romaine lettuce leaves used for maror must cover an area of 8 by 10 inches. Sometimes people point to the very existence of such a chart as a prime example of increased stringency, and perhaps it is. It’s hard to imagine people always used to measure out their matzah so precisely. But the chart is older than one might think: it dates back to at least 1976.
Further, the measurements used by the chart have been widespread for even longer and have not changed recently. In 1970, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, son of Rav Moshe, published Sefer Kol Dodi, a Hebrew halakhic guide to the Seder, in which he provides the shiurim, or sizes, that found their way to the kezayit chart. Sometime after the book’s publication, Beth Medrash L’Torah V’Horoah—a Kollel directed by Rav Moshe in which his son Rav Dovid was also involved—created an English pamphlet titled, “Do It Right on Pesach Night! What? When? How Much?” containing Kol Dodi’s shiurim. This short guide appeared in many places, such as the Olomeinu children’s magazine from Torah Umesorah in 1974 and in Rabbi Blumenkrantz’s synagogue bulletin in 1977. These shiurim spread rapidly; they are now mentioned or relied on by many English Passover guides, from Blumenkrantz to the OU. Although the OU only started including the kezayit chart in its guide in 2014, several of the shiurim from Kol Dodi—such as the one for romaine lettuce leaves—have been noted by the OU since at least the 1980s. And even though there are guides that provide alternate measurements, they tend not to differ substantially from the shiurim in Kol Dodi.
Thus, the size of a kezayit is one area where there’s been little disagreement between the English guides. Certainly, there’s no evidence that the guides have been promoting larger and larger shiurim as the years have gone on. Yet there are new trends afoot. People are growing dissatisfied with the sizes in the guides because actual olives are a good deal smaller. In 2010, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, known as the “Zoo Rabbi,” published a monograph tracing the evolution of the size of a kezayit and arguing that even according to several contemporary poskim, one need not consume as much as the guides recommend. Others—including one writer in the OU’s 2020 Passover guide and even a writer in the Haredi community—have agreed. It’s hard to say whether these ideas are gaining traction at Seder tables, but Slifkin has noted that his kezayit article “seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published” online, which says a lot for someone whose views on creation and evolution have attracted attention throughout the Orthodox world. He’s even come up with his own kezayit chart, which—spoiler alert—is a picture of a single green olive.
- Thinking About Those Tiny Crumbs
The images of Passover cleaning indelibly seared into my brain are those from Yeshara Gold’s 1987 children’s classic Just a Week to Go about a young boy Raffi’s preparations in Jerusalem’s Old City. On one page, Raffi is blowing “out the tiniest crumbs” from between the pages of every book his father owns. On another, his little sister is searching for hametz under the carpet. All told, the family is “working for weeks.” And then there’s the song “Pesach Blues,” from Abie Rotenberg’s third Journeys album released in 1992. The stressed housewife in this somewhat irreverent lament (portrayed by a man, of course) is dreading Passover cleaning, particularly the miniscule size of the hametz pieces she must account for: “But my heart is pounding and my brain feels numb / Thinking about those tiny crumbs!”
At the time, the guides weren’t all that encouraging. In 1980, Rabbi Eider suggested that one ought to move the refrigerator and stove to check for hametz. Rabbi Blumenkrantz disagreed and allowed such hametz to be sold, and also assured readers that the only concern was “visible” hametz and not “microscopic crumbs or moldy substances which are probably inedible.” Nevertheless, he still said that hametz baked onto cookie sheets had to be covered with tape or burnt off, even if the dish was being put away for the holiday. In fact, in guides from the 1950s and 60s, the OU also said that all hametz dishes must be “thoroughly scoured and cleansed” before being locked away for Passover. Eider similarly cautioned his readers. Overall then, the fact that Blumenkrantz maintained that one need not inspect the carpet “strand by strand” was hardly heartening.
But in 1993, Rabbi Yosef Wikler’s Kashrus Magazine, an independent trade journal of sorts for the major kashrut agencies, which had been in circulation since 1980 and had an annual Passover issue, published an article titled “Clean for Pesach and Enjoy the Seder!” The article, based on the rulings of Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg in Israel, advocated a different approach. It notes that because modern families have larger homes than in previous generations but not the servants that were once commonly employed, “the pressure of pre-Pesach cleaning has reached unnecessary and overwhelming levels.” Since the brunt of this burden falls on women, they are exhausted and unable to properly enjoy the Seder. The article therefore proposes several new guidelines, among them that “if the chometz is sold, then washing the pots, pans and dishes which are going to be locked away is not necessary.” And if a crumb of hametz is both less than a kezayit and too dirty to eat, it’s of no concern. These are not new suggestions. The Mishnah Berurah notes, for example, that some say that pieces of hametz less than the size of a kezayit are a non-issue when it comes to cleaning. (Such a crumb still can’t be eaten on Passover, of course, so it would need to be removed from food areas.) Yet this article may be the first English resource that considers kezayit relevant to Passover cleaning. The piece was popular, and Kashrus Magazine reprinted it several times over the following years.
Rabbi Scheinberg’s opinions spread to other guides as well, and are now nearly ubiquitous. Rabbi Pinchos Yehoshua Ellis wrote a book devoted to bedikat hametz (the search for hametz) in 2001, where he reprints a version of Scheinberg’s article and adopts his views. Around the year 2000, Aish.com published an article by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits with a folksy tone to “make Passover cleaning a little easier” and get people “to stop being frightened” because “Passover is not a monster.” He too concludes that pieces of hametz smaller than a kezayit that one would consider “garbage” (such as crumbs on the floor) do not need to be cleaned up, and that inedible “gook” smaller than a kezayit remaining on hametz dishes is of no concern.
Recent resources from the Religious Zionist community suggest similar approaches. Rabbi Melamed’s book makes clear that the Halakhah follows the lenient opinion that one need not look for crumbs smaller than a kezayit. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner agrees, insisting that Passover cleaning can be done “in less than one day.” And the language about thoroughly cleaning one’s hametz dishes before putting them away vanished from the OU guide years ago.
Women have also begun taking part in the conversation. In 2008, three women co-authored a self-help-style companion guide to Rabbi Ellis’ book with the subtitle, “You really CAN make Pesach with a SMILE!” It carries Rabbi Scheinberg’s approbation and incorporates his opinions. The book, “based on the successful positive experience of several Pesach preparation veterans,” is endlessly encouraging, noting that “Pesach cleaning can be a positive family experience” and “a wonderful time for a family to work together… and earn mitzvos to boot.” It contains a “personalized pre-Pesach calendar” and diagrams of the house where one can fill in the amount of time they plan to spend on cleaning each room. With the resources and charts in this book, one can schedule each day of preparations, make food shopping lists, and more.
The consistent message of these newer, more lenient materials is that it’s time to bid farewell to those “Pesach blues.”
- Is Quinoa Kitniyot? Why Worry About Kitniyot Anymore?
When I’ve spoken with people about how Passover has changed, they often mention that peanut oil, once a holiday staple, is now verboten. As I mentioned in the introduction, peanut oil’s demise (it’s now widely considered a forbidden kitniyot derivative) is a clear example of increasing stringency. Yet it’s worth noting that quinoa, another product that could have easily been written off as kitniyot, is still alive and well. Not only that, but in recent years, there’s been an uptick in those questioning whether Ashkenazi Jews in Israel ought to abstain from consuming kitniyot at all anymore.
Quinoa, a seed often substituted for grain, began being imported from South America during the 1980s. Some wanted to prohibit it as kitniyot because it is grown too close to grains, making cross-contamination with hametz a potential concern, or because it is too similar to a grain itself. Yet although the OU refused to permit it and Rabbi Blumenkrantz only recommended it to those with special dietary needs, the Star-K approved its use in 1997, which was enough for many people. It quickly became indispensable, to the point that when, in 2011, the Star-K issued a warning that the quinoa crop might have gotten mixed with other grains, and some stores relegated the product to the kitniyot section, the outcry was even covered by the New York Times. Some feared that quinoa would go the way of peanut oil. Yet the quinoa controversy was short-lived, and before Passover 2014, after “an intensive, multi-year investigation and an internal debate,” the OU changed its mind and decided to certify it for Passover too.
In some circles, the prohibition against kitniyot itself might be fading. It’s somewhat well-known that in 2015, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted, over a dissent, to permit kitniyot entirely. In Israel, similar thinking exists even in Orthodox circles. In 2007, Rabbi David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo permitted kitniyot for Ashkenazim in an effort to standardize Jewish practice in Israel and eliminate Diaspora innovations in light of the modern-day ingathering of the exiles. Although his ruling was widely criticized (perhaps rightly so—he went as far as to argue that kitniyot might have been adopted from Karaite practices), a 2009 article reported that in part because of the large Sephardic presence in Israel and the ubiquity of kitniyot products on supermarket shelves, some Ashkenazim were choosing to consume it. To address this concern, Rabbi Zvi Leshem of Efrat ruled in 2011 that Ashkenazim could purchase supermarket products when the kitniyot in them constituted less than a majority of the mixture and was not directly recognizable. While it’s highly unlikely that the prohibition against kitniyot in Ashkenazi Orthodox circles—particularly in the United States—will disappear anytime soon, these changes on the Israeli front are nonetheless remarkable.
Conclusion and Analysis: Texts and the Changing Face of Passover
Despite everything I’ve said, I don’t want to make it sound like there’s been a complete revolution in the Passover guides. There’s still a good deal of consistency among different handbooks, and stringency has always been part of this holiday in particular. Consuming hametz on Passover carries the penalty of karet, or spiritual excision. Rabbis are understandably reticent to promote leniencies when the consequences are so serious. The notion of humra de-hametz—adopting stringencies on Passover that one might not apply to other areas of religious life—is well-established in halakhic literature. Understandably then, one can also find counterexamples to the picture of increasing leniency I’ve sketched. The OU, for example, stopped providing a procedure for kashering a dishwasher in 2015, and it now suggests not to sell hametz gamur—bread and the like—to a non-Jew before Passover.
And yet, the overall trend in the new millennium is toward greater leniency. This is surprising, because it runs counter to the shift documented by Dr. Haym Soloveitchik in his famous 1994 essay “Rupture and Reconstruction.” There he suggests that in the wake of the Holocaust, Orthodox Jews’ abandonment of mimetic tradition and embrace of halakhic texts has led to greater punctiliousness, as people feel the need to literally live by the book to connect with God. This theory easily explains Rabbi Blumenkrantz’s popularity: his strict and comprehensive manual fed a burgeoning desire for new material written in the vernacular that could help nearly anyone, regardless of their level of Jewish education, achieve maximal halakhic compliance. But it does not explain more recent leniencies. The textual culture described by Soloveitchik remains ascendant, and yet, new texts and guides are relaxing some stringencies. How can we explain this change?
I’ll sketch a few possibilities, although there’s much more to be said.
In part, what’s occurring may actually be a consequence of the value we’ve placed on texts. Blumenkrantz, who was among the first to publish a guide, just happened to be unusually strict. As the thirst for English halakhic texts continues unabated, it’s no surprise that new and more moderate voices have joined the conversation too. And as recent reflections on Soloveitchik’s essay note, one can turn to texts to justify leniency as easily as stringency, which is happening with increasing frequency in recent years. It’s particularly true online, where, as Rabbi David Brofsky recently pointed out, “anyone and everyone can be a posek.” By providing accessibility to an astonishing variety of Jewish texts in multiple languages, the internet has lowered the barrier to entering the halakhic conversation. Leniency may thus just be another feature of textual engagement, not a bug.
Moreover, although newer guides sometimes propose more lenient approaches, this does not change the fact that these guides retain an element often associated with text-based humra: the notion that detail and precision matters. Modern Passover manuals are far more specific than their mid-twentieth century counterparts. In 1959, the OU said that a conventional oven and stove could be kashered if “thoroughly cleansed and scraped”—preferably with the assistance of a blowtorch—and then “heated to a glow.” This concise position lacks the level of detail found in the OU’s modern annual guides, which explain what surfaces need particular attention during cleaning, how long to heat the oven and stove, and the temperature required, among other things. (Nor does the OU mention anything about using a blowtorch anymore.) Greater specificity could itself be seen as a humra, as it more tightly scripts the range of acceptable behavior. On the other hand, comprehensive instructions can also draw attention to leniencies that one might otherwise have overlooked. The best example might be the recent popularization of the position that hametz less than the size of a kezayit is of little concern. It’s a leniency which assumes that people expect detail and nuance in halakhic guidance. Only in a time when texts are king must everything have a standard and everything need a size. So perhaps, even when modern books are more lenient, they have not drifted too far from Soloveitchik’s paradigm after all.
Recent moves toward leniency may also be related to the way in which the Passover experience itself is changing. For one, more women and men alike are working outside the home, while at the same time, modern work culture is placing increasing demands on one’s time. Society is also beginning to realize the importance of mental health, and self-care has become a byword. Perhaps that’s why some guides have started to caution against stress-inducing practices. People ought to clean only what they must and no more, and they needn’t put two kezeitim in their mouth at once either.
On the other hand, it’s also not your bubby’s Passover anymore. Preparing for the holiday is getting a lot easier, and that itself may be driving leniency. Before I explain what I mean, I’ll provide some examples of how getting ready for Passover requires less effort nowadays.
As I pointed out, in the 1950s and 60s, OU guides recommended using a blowtorch to kasher one’s oven or purchasing an insert. This might be because the alternative was spending hours scrubbing every inch of the oven’s surface with a caustic and malodorous chemical called Easy-Off, and according to some opinions, even that was insufficient because the oven could not get hot enough on its own to properly kasher it. But, in 1963, General Electric invented the self-cleaning oven, which, in reaching nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit during its self-cleaning cycle, reduces residue to ash and kashers the oven without the need for additional cleaning.
Or consider the Passover diet. At one time, individuals subsisted on fresh food they prepared themselves or classics like jellied fruit-slice-shaped candies and sponge cake mix. The 1966 OU Passover products directory was 21 pages long, with only about 25 or 30 items listed on each page. The 2019 directory runs 43 pages, and there are around 250 items per page. Passover aisles and kosher stores throughout the United States are stocked to the brim with all kinds of products. In recent years, many restaurants even offer hamburgers or pizza on potato bread. In 1990, Rabbi Blumenkrantz noted that oat matzah “has become available in small quantities, from England” for those with gluten allergies. Now, the OU directory lists a host of low-gluten and gluten-free products.
And while kosher for Passover hotels date back to the early twentieth century, the OU supervised just 11 such resorts in 1966. In 2020, according to one guide, there were over 140 Passover programs scheduled worldwide before the outbreak of the coronavirus, some in exotic locations like Costa Rica or Thailand. Organizers stressed that participants will lack nothing; one email I received advertises a Florida resort “only minutes from Disney World” with a “shadchan on premises.” In the modern era, Passover hotels and resorts are luxury vacations that promise a worry-free holiday where everything comes easy.
People I’ve spoken with recall a time when Passover felt markedly different than the rest of the year. But as preparations for Passover get easier, and as the holiday becomes a time of abundance, it seems less distinct a season. For many, excessive humrot and inconveniences might seem more a part of the Passover of times past than a reflection of their own lived experiences. Thus, perhaps the very expectation that Passover will present fewer challenges encourages a move away from halakhic stringencies.
As the decades go on, American Orthodox Jews are trading one peculiar Passover institution—the Maxwell House Haggadah—for another—the glossy halakhic handbook. These new guides tell a different kind of Passover story than the Haggadah, one that lives in the details. Yet I wonder if the Haggadah and the guides are really all that different from one another. In a way, the Haggadah is the first Passover guidebook. It gives the Seder a shape and structure, teaching that the great dramas of history survive when they can be transformed into rituals. In that sense, modern Passover guides are merely the latest iteration of a living tradition. The ways in which we choose to interpret this ever-unfolding tradition—as well as how we react to forces that come to bear from the outside—will dictate how things change and stay the same in the years and decades to come.
I would like to thank everyone who helped me with this article, including: Shulamith Berger at Yeshiva University; Ann Brener at the Library of Congress; Ina Cohen at the Jewish Theological Seminary; reviewers Leah Cypess, Zev Eleff, Ari Elias-Bachrach, Chaim Saiman, and Yitzy Schreiber; the Lehrhaus editorial team; those who generously handed over their old Passover guides; and the many people who volunteered their Passover memories. Perhaps it goes without saying, but nothing in this article ought to be taken as normative halakhic advice. For that, consult your local rabbi, or, if I may say, your Passover guide of choice.