While the Torah prohibits leaven on Pesach, in the fifteenth century Ashkenazi Rabbis further prohibited an entire category of legumes and pulses, known as kitniyot, because they enabled creative cooks to serve dishes that resembled chametz too closely.
Yet despite the rabbis’ best efforts our culinary ingenuity cannot be stifled. Browse the isles of kosher supermarkets before Pesach and you can find an endless array of chametz look-alikes: anything from Kosher for Pesach pasta to pretzels, and even bagels.
Our supermarket displays would have left the fifteenth century rabbis aghast!
This creativity is also evident in the recipes showcased in the Passover editions of most Jewish publications.
I am always amazed to read how a humble potato can be whisked into some elaborate concoction, or how marvellously tall and airy sponge-cakes can be whipped almost literally out of thin air, with enough egg whites and sugar.
In the past I’ve been seduced by these promising recipes, and proceeded to cream, blend and froth various ingredients with great hope. While the end products came out of the oven puffy and promising, within the first five minutes on the cooling rack they sagged, slumped and languished disappointingly.
Chametz is illusory – it represents the colouring and additives we add to food to give it a particular appearance. Even a glossy green apple, the epitome of a healthy snack, is tinkered with and submitted to a beauty and anti-ageing treatment before it makes its way to our fridge.
Jamie Oliver reported in his recent TV series that, at one farm, up to ten tonnes of vegetables are rejected each week simply because they are not entirely blemish free, or their shape does not conform to our ideal image of healthy, fresh produce.
In contrast, Matza is unadorned and simple, even if it’s not pretty. It is modest, unpretentious food that serves its purpose, which is to nourish. It is authentic to its ingredients and doesn’t entice nor delude with false promises.
Passover invites us to get back to basics for eight days. The concept of eliminating chametz suggests that we let go of our impulse to manipulate, reconfigure and camouflage our food.
It calls us to redeem ourselves from the tyranny of trying to imitate chametz. It proposes the possibility of cooking with wholesome ingredients that retain their integrity.
Perhaps, through more simple and modest cooking, apart from a healthier body, we can emerge (from the kitchen!) redeemed, with time to study Torah to share at the Seder and the mental space to absorb the spiritual energy of Pesach.
Dina Brawer is the founder of JOFA UK and a student at Yeshivat Maharat, NY