The approach of Passover can mean frantic scouring and dusting, shopping and cooking, but in a custom less widely known, the eve of the festive eight-day holiday also calls firstborns to fast. The obligation commemorates the miracle that spared firstborn Israelites from the 10th plague, the slaying of the firstborn.
"It's a minor fast day, from sunrise to sunset, in recollection of the fact that it was the firstborn of the Egyptians that suffered to make our freedom a reality,'' said Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg.
In establishing the fast, he said, "Our sages taught us a sensitivity for all life.''
The rabbis of old also established a way to shorten the fast. Firstborns who participate in a siyum (completion of the study of a religious text) the morning before the beginning of Passover are exempt from the obligation. At Congregation B'nai Israel, Luski, himself a firstborn, has arranged a siyum for Friday morning. Passover begins at sundown.
"With the conclusion of the morning service, I will review a tractate of the laws of Passover and invite the firstborns to join in a celebratory meal of lox and bagels," Luski said.
Traditions vary. Some customs say only firstborn males should fast, while others include males and females, an obligation that begins with the religious coming of age at 12 for girls and 13 for boys.
The fast is not generally observed in the Reform movement, said Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation in St. Petersburg.
"Many of our members make a serious effort to get ready for Passover by both removing chametz (unleavened products) from their homes and by preparing to observe it in a way that is meaningful for them and their families,'' Torop said.
The removal of chametz referred to by Torop is an important Passover ritual. The rigorous cleaning common before the holiday is meant to purge homes of every trace of unleavened items, which includes anything containing wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. In certain traditions, chametz also includes rice, corn, peanuts and beans.
"The perspective that I try to offer to our members is to understand that there is a kind of spiritual metaphor that imbues the ritual with a meaning, that is, the teaching that reminds us that chametz can represent the stuff in our lives that we need to get rid of, the things that hold us back," Torop said.
In addition to the deep cleaning, the removal of chametz also includes a special ceremony, Luski said.
After the house is cleaned, he said, a few pieces of bread are reserved and placed in various rooms. The night before Passover a ritual search is made for the chametz, using a candle, or even a flashlight, a feather and paper bag. The chametz is collected in the paper bag and burned the following morning.
The burning juxtaposes chametz and matzah, winter and spring, evil inclination and the desire for good things, Luski said.
Like Luski and Torop, Rabbi Danielle Upbin of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater emphasized the spiritual lessons in the search for chametz.
"You're seeking out chametz by the smallest flame in every crevice of your home . . . and while we're looking in our house, there's really a mirror experience of looking within,'' she said.
"What we're doing externally reflects what we're doing internally. I call it a spring cleaning for the soul."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.