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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Friday, April 29, 2005

I Got To Be A Matzah Man

Traditionally, at the Passover seder, the youngest person at the table asks the Four Questions, a ritual reminder of what it is we're doing on Passover and why we're doing it. I made it back to Philly for my family's seder on the first night of Passover last weekend, and strangely, less than a month before my 24th birthday, I was the youngest at the table. I don't think I'd been the youngest since before my brother was born in 1983 and I was coming up on my second birthday, so it fell to me for the first time to read the questions. (It probably wasn't really the first time, but in theory, it should have been.)

So there I was, asking, in Hebrew, among other questions, "Why, on all other nights, do we eat either unleavened bread or matzah, but tonight we eat only matzah?" Good question.

Aside from the obvious problem with this question, which is that on all other nights there is no way in hell I'm eating matzah, the question remains: Why do we eat matzah on Passover?

I'm no religious scholar or historian, so bear with me if I make any mistakes - I'm just going with what I know (or think I know) about this holiday and Jewish dietary laws. However, the way I understand it is that we eat matzah on Passover in order to remember the Jews' Exodus from Egypt. As the story goes, the Jews got word that they were free to leave, and they were in such a hurry to get the hell out of Dodge that they didn't wait for their bread to rise; hence, they were left with crappy flatbread that tastes like cardboard and calls itself matzah. By eating matzah, we share in the ancient Jews' flight from Egypt.

Sometime between Moses and Moses Malone, this eight-day restriction on eating matzah and not leavened bread was broadened. Jews are technically not permitted to eat any foods containing corn syrup (most sodas and candies have this) or yeast (that means no beer, either). There's other stuff that you wouldn't think has anything to do with bread that you can't have on Passover, either, like some chocolates. I don't know when the change happened, and frankly, I have no idea why.

A semester of Constitutional Law has made me realize that I'm looking at this from the perspective of an originalist. In other words, what was the intent of the people who laid down the original law? (I know there's more to originalism than that.) As I understand it - and I don't have any legislative findings to back it up - the point of the dietary restriction on eating bread is so we can sympathize with the Jews who had to book it out of Egypt before their bread rose.

Maybe I was sleeping through this part of Hebrew school, but nowhere in the story of the Exodus do I recall the mention of corn syrup or beer. I'm pretty sure the Jews didn't have to take their unfinished cola mix with them or their still-to-be-brewed beer. And if they didn't have to deal with these restrictions, I'm not quite sure why we have to do this today. So I don't. I think by cutting bread out of my diet for eight days, I'm still complying with the spirit of the law.

On the other hand, there is a mini-industry that springs up around Passover time of fake bread products that are kosher for Passover. Bagels, cakes, cereal, chocolate, soda, you name it, there's a Passover version of it. Most of the stuff has the consistency and taste of unhardened cement. This, though, is just a way to cheat around the rules of the holiday. The idea is to give up certain food products, i.e., bread, in order to remember the Exodus. If you're eating cakes that happen to be made in some kosher way, are you really sympathizing with the Jews of millennia past? You're not eating matzah, you're eating a form of bread (a crappy one, at that). I'm pretty sure if they didn't have time for their bread to rise, they also didn't have time to bake faux cake and bagels. That kosher for Passover cake is merely a loophole in the dietary laws of Passover.

So tell me, who's obeying the spirit of the law - the guy who will drink a Coke while he eats his matzah, or the guy who's drinking corn syrup-less soda while he eats his kosher for Passover bagel? I say the former. If Moses didn't have time to make normal bread, he didn't have time to make kosher bagels, either. The guy parted the Red Sea and then ate matzah. And I'll do the same, minus the Red Sea-parting.

While I'm on the topic of Jewish dietary laws that don't make sense to me, there's another issue I want to address. Now, I'm not a strict kosher guy. I don't eat pork products, but aside from that, I don't really follow the rules. I'll eat a shellfish, beef, and cheese sandwich (in theory, not in practice). Anyway,the rule that you can't eat milk and meat together apparently comes from one of two reasons. First, way back in the day of roaming nomad Hebrews, it just wasn't sanitary to cook dairy and meat together. I understand this, even though it doesn't apply at all today and so the purpose of the law would no longer be valid. Second, there was a moral objection to cooking a kid in its mother's milk. Okay, now I understand the reasoning here too, even if I don't agree with it. But the restriction is grossly overinclusive. Why can't I eat a chicken cheesesteak? Poultry isn't producing milk.

One final story that is very tenuously related to Jewish food: In my Contracts class a few weeks ago, we studied a case called Parev Products Co. v. I. Rokeach & Sons. Anyone who grew up in a Jewish household will recognize Rokeach as one of the leading producers of kosher food. Around Passover, Rokeach is probably second only to Manischewitz. Eventually, Jewish kids learn that Rokeach is pronounced "roe-kay-ach," with the last syllable rhyming with Bach. Jewish kids also learn that "parev" is a term that describes foods that are neither meat nor dairy; they can be eaten at any meal. It's a descriptive term, just like "kosher."

My contracts professor, being a Canadian shiksa, had no idea about any of this. She pronounced the defendant as "roe-key-atch" (rhymed with "ho biatch") and referred to the owners of the plaintiff company as "the Parev Brothers." This amused me far more than it should have. It's like calling someone "the Kosher Twins."

And speaking of Contracts, I really need to get working on that outline. So forgive me if updates to the site are a little sporadic during the next couple of weeks. I have a semester of work to catch up on for finals.


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