On Passover, this most observed of all Jewish holidays, there is one practice that I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say, not one Jew in the world will put his mind to it. That’s a pretty big statement, I know, especially when Jews all over the world who might not keep kosher all year long are nonetheless turning over their kitchens and going to great lengths to avoid the consumption of the smallest amount of bread or other leaven on Passover.
The inattention to the particular practice I’ll tell you about is not based on indifference to Passover or on some change in the Passover practices. It’s something else entirely. It’s an opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of an abstraction: Life can shape law. In this case, social and economic change can render a Passover law moot.
The law in question concerns the requirement to search for leaven in one’s home the night before Passover, and to do so specifically with a candle with a single wick. Not with a flashlight. Not with a “torch” (a candle with more than one wick), and not earlier in the day (or early the next day) by sunlight.
Why a candle? For anyone who has ever done this, it is evident that a single flame, deployed at night, better illuminates cracks and crevices in which leaven might still be left over than any other kind of light.
The idea, of course, is that by the time the night before Passover rolls around, this search will not turn up much, if any, leaven. The idea is that this is a last-minute check, just to make certain that there is no leaven left over from one’s exhaustive Passover cleaning in the days and weeks before Passover eve.
Well, the law in question, classified as 433:7 in the Code of Jewish Law, “Laws of Daily Life,” is this:
“When there is a hole in the wall between the home of a Jew and . . . a non-Jew, the Jew is not required to examine the hole for leaven at all. This is because there is a fear that the non-Jew may accuse the Jew of using witchcraft against him [what with the candle deployed at night] and the Jew will thus come to danger.”*
Rather, says a commentator on the law, Mishneh Berurah, in this case the search in the hole in the wall is best left to the next day by sunlight.
While I admit that the invocation of witchcraft is fascinating (I’ll return to it below), what strikes me about this law above all is the radically different economic circumstances that, yes, I dare say, all Jews live in today.
Whose home is so ramshackle that his walls are not even solid, and which adjoins a non-Jewish neighbor’s home?
Perhaps walls with holes in them obtain in war zones, such as the last redoubts of ISIS, but is there a single Jew hidden amidst the terrorists of ISIS who is observing Passover? Or perhaps these conditions obtain in disaster zones, such as earthquakes, but is there a single Jew still living in a corrugated hut, adjoined to another corrugated hut, in Haiti or Turkey or Iran, if there were even a single Jew there to begin with when the earthquakes recently struck?
The poverty that this law in the Code of Jewish Law takes for granted — Jews living with adjoining, perforated walls as a matter of course — is simply beyond our imagination. Even in the most rudimentary living conditions — one might summon the tiny government-provided apartments in the old Soviet Union, for example — one did not take perforated walls for granted (listening devices, yes; holes, no).
This law takes adjoining perforated walls for granted.
It is not that the law changed; it’s that social progress rendered the law moot in this case. It must be kept on the books just in case, under extreme circumstances, the economic and cultural change of recent centuries is permanently or temporarily reversed.
Then look at the witchcraft. The fear of witchcraft being deployed by a Jew against his neighbor assumes that daily communication between Jews and non-Jews is so radically absent that such a fear is realistic. I suppose that in anti-Semitic societies today this is possible. But think, for a moment, of life pretty much everywhere else.
There is a public awareness of major holidays and practices of every religion. Jews, for example, may be entirely removed emotionally and theologically from Christmas, but we know about it. We expect at least some of our neighbors, be they in North America, Europe or elsewhere, to honor this holiday. We are not surprised by its practices.
Except in very remote regions, the same is true of non-Jews who know about major Jewish holidays, however emotionally and theologically they may be removed from them. And again, how many — if any — Jews who are busy searching for their leaven the night before Passover are also living in very remote regions? I dare say, none.
Jews have urbanized virtually everwhere. The days of Jews living in small villages in crowded housing, cheek by jowl, amidst hostile non-Jewish neighbors, have passed.
The idea that a Jew today could rouse fears of witchcraft by putting a candle in a perforated wall shared with a gentile is, I make bold, non-existent. If I am wrong and some 100 Jews out of 16 million still live in this abject poverty and still need to fear for accusations of witchcraft, the point remains the same: Social and economic change can render a Passover law moot.
Now, there is an assumption here, namely, that dispensing with the search with a candle at night in favor of a search by sunlight the next day is OK. This is possible only because it was the Sages who instituted the search via candlelight, and only because any Jewish law (except three), even a law based on the Torah (not instituted by the sages), should be suspended if one’s life is endangered. It is not that with any social change Jewish law is adjusted. There are definitions (risk to life, piku’ach nefesh) and distinctions (between rabbinic and Torah law) built into the law itself.
Even so, the point that emerges from this law is how radically different Jewish society is today, how our definition of “poverty” has radically changed, how much more we expect any person and every family to have, at a minimum level. No one suggests today that putting a person in a corrugated hut, that is, a living quarters with perforated walls, meets the minimum criteria of human dignity.
We also assume a far greater level of interchange between Jew and non-Jew, and far more cultural tolerance, than our ancestors found in Christian Europe some 500 years ago, when fears about witchcraft and holes in the walls between homes of Jew and non-Jews required the decisors of Jewish law to figure out what to do the night before Passover.
Within one simple subsection of one chapter in the Code of Jewish Law, worlds of differences are revealed between contemporary society and centuries past.
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