Preparing for Passover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc). is the perfect laboratory for applying Zero Waste principles.
Opening the the cupboard, you stare in horror. Shelves of pasta, rice, flour… All kinds of pasta! Penne, fusilli, macaroni…. So many kinds of flour! White, wheat, whole wheat, even sorghum and tapioca flour when you’d baked a cake for gluten-free guests. Passover is suddenly three weeks away, and you haven’t looked at most of this food in months, some for years (and aren’t those expiration dates long passed? Those items must need to be thrown out?) Okay. You could schlep a few unopened packages and donate them to a food pantry, but really, who is going to want a sad-looking sack of sorghum flour?
That is Passover prep for many of us, full of work and self-recrimination about our food purchasing habits. As I’ve become more conscious of the profound wastefulness of our food system—30 to 40% of food is wasted from farm to stomach—I have focused on the “zero waste” concept, and begun making small changes in my consumption habits.
Preparing for Passover is the perfect laboratory for applying Zero Waste principles. After all, Judaism teaches us about the value of bal tashkhit, not being wasteful. How did Passover become such a wasteful holiday, then?
Here’s the ritual I (inadvertently) created for myself. I begin to assess my cupboards weeks, or even months, ahead. Who is paying attention to Passover at Valentines Day? But I have found that focusing on consuming the foods I have accumulated in my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer has become a powerful ritual preparation for Passover liberation. Indeed, after doing this for quite a few years, I notice it has become my defining Passover experience, and the rest is commentary.
Preparing for Passover traditionally involves ridding one’s household of chametz, leavened foods and ingredients that could be used in preparing leaved foods (flour). My family takes this seriously, despite my also thinking it’s a ridiculous commandment. Tying Passover preparation to mindful food preparation using what we already have is a big value-added for me.
For many of us, blessed with material comfort, it is way easier to accumulate food than to prepare and eat it.
Food donation bins have popped up in our communities over time, and it’s a nice thing to donate unused food if it meets the criteria. Usually packages need to be unopened. That doesn’t match most people’s purchasing habits—buying ingredients for a recipe, using what is called for, and stashing the balance on the pantry shelf; over time it migrates out of sight, as we add more useful items in front of it.
For many years my family grumbled about our weirdo pre-Passover dinners, a smorgasbord of random leftover carbs from the freezer, like stale hamburger buns with pasta and a side of potato kugel. The kvetching was practically a ritual by itself!
When I became interested in greener living and more conscious consumption, I took up the challenge of consuming our food stock rather than donating it or tossing them in the trash. I was curious how long it would it take. The first year I tried this, I was appalled to learn it took months. Why had I accumulated enough food for my small household to survive for a season or two when Weavers Way Coop is two blocks away? Previous generations felt relief when they made it through winters with enough food to avoid going hungry.
I now know, with quite a few years of experience behind me, that I need to seriously start eating out of the pantry/freezer/fridge about two months ahead of Passover. I remind myself that in the rare event the food is gone too early, guess what? They are still selling food. Mind you, this has never happened.
This ritual speaks to me in many ways:
- It helps me to really see what I already have.
- Those of us who never experience scarcity are less able to appreciate abundance. For many of us, the scale has become distorted, going from abundance to an overwhelming superabundance. Many people in the world don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Once my cupboard is bare, I am that much more grateful that soon I will fill it again.
- On a recent trip to Morocco, our delightful tour guide told us that in their culture, wasting food is a sacrilege, even a crust of bread. Let’s just stop thinking it is okay to waste food. It’s satisfying and creative to figure out how to turn odds and ends of food into tasty meals, as frugal cooks have always done.
- After a few months of disciplined consumption (and just saying no to trips to Trader Joe’s!), my cupboards are bare and my freezer is empty. It is always satisfying to accomplish a goal. This is a powerful moment of transition for me, looking at the open spaces gives me an enormous sense of freedom and lightness, moving from constriction to expansion. Nothing is weighing me down, I am ready to leave Egypt. Bring on Passover! I am starting over!
Betsy Teutsch has been writing about eco-sustainable life styles for a dozen years, including co-authoring a seminal article about Jewish Voluntary Simplicity. She lives in Philadelphia where she is an active member of The group of ten adult Jews needed to read from the Torah and to recite some of the most important communal prayers. In Orthodox communities, a quorum of ten men is traditionally required. Today, most liberal Jewish communities count all Jewish adults as part of a minyan. Dorshei Derekh and her local Buy Nothing Group. She recently completed writing a book on reducing global food loss and waste, titled 100 under $100: Tools for Reducing Postharvest Losses.