Food for the Chag Hamatzot

The week of Passover (the Chag Hamatzot) is the most important holiday in the Jewish year, and like most other Jewish holidays, involves commandments and customs regarding food. While Rabbinic Jews shun leavened bread and grains during their Passover week, except for wheat grown and blessed especially for making matzot, Karaites do things a little differently, in that we observe the Torah as it is written.
The following description reflects personal practice and Karaite trends.

Of course, Karaites do not eat leavened bread during the week of Pessah, but we do not avoid grains. The biblical commandment says to destroy leavening agents and not to be seen with leavened foods. It also says to eat unleavened bread (matzot). So, for us (in our household), pasta is fair game. Our grains do not have to be special, Passover grains either. We don’t need to buy matza flour for baking. In our household we don’t bother with non-food items, although most Karaites do. Yes, many lotions and salves include rubbing alcohol, but the Law clearly refers to food and I’m not planning on serving anything with a side of rubbing alcohol anytime soon. For me, it seems very silly to see bleach marked as “Kosher L’Pessah” in Israeli grocery stores. That makes keeping this festival easier, right? Wrong.

When we are unsure whether something is or can be fermented, we use Scripture, common sense, personal conviction, and science as our guides in finding an answer. Thus there is considerable variation from one family to the next as to what is permissible. For Karaites (and some say this is a tradition, rather than a commandment, so not all Karaites do it) anything fermented is also out of the running during the Chag Hamatzot. No wine. No vinegar. No cheese. No yoghurt. Rather than having wine at our Seders, we make grape or raisin “smoothies” to pour in our wine glasses. We avoid soy sauce; cooking with alcohol; mustard; catsup; black bean sauce; and anything involving cheese, sour cream, yoghurt, kefir, etc. We also have to be careful about chocolate, as some kinds include liqueurs. Some Karaites also abstain from carbonated beverages during this week, as those contain a derivative of baking soda to achieve carbonation.

This practice can make cleaning out the kitchen before Pessah very difficult, because many processed foods contain items that we avoid in unexpected places. Last year, for example, we were surprised to learn that the prepackaged burritos in the freezer listed soy sauce among their ingredients, and so were eaten in haste before the Chag. For highly processed foods, ingredient lists can also include chemical names that are hard to decipher. Anything ending in “-hol” I purged.

When I say “purged,” though, don’t get any ideas about wanton wastefulness. Passover is like Shabbat, and should not be entered in a stressed or hurried state. Especially since, as the Karaite calendar is variable and based on the sighting of natural phenomena, we start preparing our homes about a month in advance. We try to consume as much of our leavened and fermented goods as possible and use up our leavening. We also avoid buying large quantities of leavened goods in the late winter.

The Chag Hamatzot is not about conspicuous consumption. After all, we are commanded to remember that we were once slaves! We do not engage in the practice of temporarily “selling” leavened and fermented goods to non-Jews (a common Rabbinic practice). But since we are not to be seen with leavened goods, many Karaites, rather than throwing away what cannot be consumed in advance, will keep these goods out of sight, in their basement or locked in a closet. Last year, my husband and I had an ice chest in a corner of our back porch, for example. Leavening agents do have to be thrown out, though, because the commandment is to destroy leavening and not be seen with anything leavened.

While we don’t include non-food items in purging the house of leavening, Karaites do take the opportunity to expand the spring cleaning from the kitchen and dining room to all the other parts of the house. No, we don’t think we’ll find bread crumbs in the bath tub, but it can’t hurt to give it a good scrub–especially if you’re hosting a Seder. As a matter of organization and maintaining sanity, this in-depth cleaning is also best done over an extended period of time.

The Karaite Seder, much like the Israeli Rabbinic Seder, is a joyful experience. It’s a feast, celebrating the new-found freedom of the ancient Israelites. However, our Haggadah is very short by comparison (it only tells the Exodus story), and we do not use a symbolic plate. We do serve roast lamb, rather than the charred bone (in memory of the Temple) found at Rabbinic Seders, and maror (bitter herbs) serves as the salad course for us, rather than parsley dipped in salt water. We also do not feel bound to include traditions about Eliahu (Elijah) in our service. See our article on the Origins of the Rabbinic Seder for more information.

Karaite Seders often feature homemade matzot. Unlike the kind bought at the store, ours have more in common with Wheat Thins than with Saltines and are not subject to the same restrictions as Rabbinic matzot. Some women use oil or butter in them, in addition to flour and water (and maybe some salt), giving them a rich texture. Different people use different recipes. However, a common Karaite tradition is to flavor the dough with coriander, because the Scripture says that the manna given to the Israelites in the desert was shaped like coriander. It’s a delicious tradition (for a recipe, follow this link).

But I think the most important difference between the Rabbinic and Karaite celebrations of the Chag Hamatzot are found in our Haggadah (Seder prayer service said at the table). As I said above, Karaites eschew many of the traditions found in the Rabbinic service that are unrelated to the Exodus story. We tell the story, and then we eat. It is a feast! A celebration! We celebrate what happened and then share in community and fellowship, because a people have no unity when they have no community, and it’s important not to lose that in the midst of religious tradition. The Israelites survived their time in the desert, not only through Divine guidance, but through cohesiveness as a group. Every time the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land was threatened, it was through community discord. Every year, the cycle of holidays serve to bring G-d’s people back to the same page, and the Chag Hamatzot emphasizes the importance of that unity by kicking off the new year in a grand fashion.

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