Tuesday, April 3, 2007

An Adventure in the Rituals of Making a Seder

Yesterday, we had an unusual adventure while we were preparing for the first Passover Seder, which was observed last night.

One of the rituals for preparing for the Seder is Biur Chametz--the ritual of total destruction of the levening that was found in the Bedikat Chametz ritual that happened on Sunday evening.

The ritual involves burning the Chametz (levening) while reciting a legal formula that goes as follows:

"All chametz in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have removed it or not, is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the wind."

The formula is recited in Aramaic and in the language of the place--here English. I am reciting the formula as I sit next to the firepit N. dug. I need the book to remember the Aramaic!

N. has become my right-hand man for conducting this ritual of Pesach preparation. He has learned how to lay a small fire and get it started and keep it going in Boy Scouts. We do not need lighter fluid anymore!
N. is also very conscientious about putting a fire completely out safely. More on this later--it is part of the unusual thing that happened yesterday.

Here is N., getting ready to put the first of the ten pieces of chametz to the fire. This year we had crackers left--we had eaten all the bread alreay. I wrapped each cracker into a small sandwich bag in order to minimize crumbs when I hide the chametz for the search.
You can see the fire in a small hole--to keep it below the wind--and ringed with stones, on cleared ground near the asphalt driveway--which was downwind from the fire yesterday.

So, I recited the legal formula declaring that we were at the end of the process of removing chametz from our lives for the next eight days.

N. placed the chametz on the wooden spoon we had used to collect it during the search.
In the process of burning the chametz, the spoon is also burned, as is the feather used to sweep it onto the spoon, and anything else that came in contact with it.

I interpreted this liberally yesterday. There was a small wind, and I did not want to burn the paper bag, which risked blowing sparks across the driveway. I never burn the plastic, either, as it produces potentially toxic fumes. The Torah says "you shall live by them (the laws)," which the Rabbis of the Talmud interpreted to mean "you shall live by them, not die by them." I did not want to begin Pesach by burning down the entire forest--only the Chametz. I did not want to annoy the neighbors with toxic fumes, either. So we completed the ritual of Biur Chametz safely and without incident.

N. smothered the fire with dirt, buried it completely, making sure that no smoldering sticks remained even partially unburied, and covered the area with stones.

I went back into the house, got the matzah ball dough out of the refrigerator, and commenced making matzah balls.

The ritual of making kneidlach, as matzah balls are called in Yiddish, is not commanded anywhere, but it is an important ritual in the Ashkenazi (Yiddish-speaking) Jewish kitchen. My recipe includes only well-beaten eggs, matzah meal and salt. I do not use chicken fat or any modern substitute. This makes them very light, if the eggs are well whipped, and they rise up in the soup quickly and expand readily in the boiling liquid. Here they are boiling and steaming the kitchen with a delicious smell.

As I was forming the matzah balls, the dogs began barking and I thought I heard a vehicle on our street. Since the dogs stopped readily, I continued with what I was doing. It is hard to be interrupted when shaping matzah balls, because the dough is very sticky on the hands. I coat my hands with a little olive oil (kosher for Pesach, of course), so cleaning them would be a pain. But then the dogs started barking again. This time it was their urgent, "somebody is in our yard" bark. So I reluctantly washed my hands, and carrying the towel as I dried them, went to the front of the house to determine what the ruckus was about.

A Bernalillo County fire department truck was parked on the road above our driveway, and two firemen were walking along the edge of the driveway!
After stilling my rapidly beating heart, I went out to see what was going on. As I opened the door, I heard one fireman say to the other: "Are you sure this is the right address? I don't see anything at all!"

Naturally, I greeted them and asked them what was up. It turns out that a neighbor had seen the smoke from the burning chametz--a little fire burning bread makes a lot of white smoke--and had called the fire department, thinking our house was burning down. I explained that it was the beginning of Passover and that we had burned ten crackers near the driveway. I then asked if there were fire-restrictions that I had not heard about.
The fireman said, no restrictions, but they had gotten a call and came to check it out.
I explained that the fire was small, placed in a protective area and below wind level.
The fireman said it was alright--certainly religious rituals are allowed in Bernalillo County as long as safe practices are observed. Then he said: "We weren't even sure we had come to the right place, there is no evidence that you burned anything at all."
I explained that my 13-year old son is a Boy Scout and has all the fire safety training down and that he is always extremely careful.
They said they could see that he is skilled, since there was absolutely no evidence of any fire, not even a charred stick. One of them then said: "Have a good holiday," and they said good-bye and left.

I went back to my kneidlach, contemplating the incident. Maybe we should have used the grill? But that is well above wind-level. It appears we have some nervous neighbors. Understandable, and probably a good thing, overall.

What is funny, though, it that we burned our chametz every year in the city. No one every expressed any concern at all. Only out here, where the houses are further away, and much more private, have we ever had a problem with it.

I suppose I could put out a general e-mail to the HOA list, explaining the ritual.
Or maybe just let it go until next year.


1 comment:

Beth said...

I'm so glad that there wasn't a dangerous fire -- you had me worried at the start of your post! I am also glad that there wasn't any difficulties with the fire department!