AS RESPECTED EQUALS: JEWISH BELONGING FOR THOSE WHO NEED TO EAT CHAMETZ ON PESACH
By Sarah Osborne, Founder of A Mitzvah to Eat
As I prepare to eat chametz [leavened bread] on Pesach [Passover],
because I need chametz to survive,
may You help me find comfort.
May I truly feel what it means to be free,
as I fulfill the principle of pikuach nefesh [saving a life]…
In April 2022, I composed a prayer for those who care about the traditional observance of Pesach (Passover), but need to eat chametz (leavened products). Although Jewish law prohibits eating and even owning chametz for those who are able to survive without it, I had recently learned that some Jews who care about Jewish law need to eat chametz as an act of pikuach nefesh (life-saving). I understood how hard it could be to seem to go against normative tradition and practice. I wanted to support those facing this challenge.
When I finished writing the prayer, I posted it to the social media accounts for A Mitzvah to Eat, the project I originally founded to support those who must eat on fast days. The post received many positive reactions, reaching an audience of over 5000 people in just 36 hours.
The post also brought out immense confusion. Many people could not imagine a circumstance where one would need to eat chametz. While they were familiar with the idea that eating on Yom Kippur might be needed (and therefore permitted or even required under Jewish law), to many, needing to eat chametz on Pesach seemed inconceivable.
To bring some clarity to the situation, I would like to share a few of the experiences that members of our A Mitzvah to Eat community shared with me. But first, a note. When we surveyed our community about why they needed to eat on Yom Kippur, they gave close to thirty reasons. Similarly, there are many reasons to need to eat chametz. This article is not an exhaustive list of all of the reasons, and any reason not mentioned here is just as valid.
*All stories are shared with consent. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Suzanne described the immunological symptoms of her MCAS, mast cell activation syndrome. While some foods cause reactions for people with MCAS as a whole, such as fermented foods and foods high in histamines, each person also has their own individual trigger foods. Suzanne described the severity of her case: “I can no longer eat legumes, fruits, most spices, almost all vegetables, some herbs, anything tinned, anything shelf-stable except for some dried foods that need cooking to be edible, almost all nuts and seeds, anything fermented, slow-cooked, or preserved, cheese, almost all protein sources…” As Suzanne said, she is able to eat too few foods to eliminate chametz.
Dini shared the intense sensory distress she experiences when eating Pesach food. She described an unbearable and excruciating sensation that something is very off, which can ultimately become life-threatening. To save her life and protect herself from harm, she needs to eat pasta on Pesach.
When Dini spoke about her experience of needing to eat chametz on Pesach, community members seemed to think that eating chametz was wrong even when someone’s life was at risk. She said, “I’ve been told by Modern Orthodox [people]…that I’d be due for kareit (the spiritual punishment of being expelled from the Jewish community).”
Dini shared, “I would just add that eating chametz on Pesach, even just one kind in one pot, is infinitely more isolating than eating on Yom Kippur… There is no community of the sick or disabled who, albeit in whispers (before [A Mitzvah to Eat]), sympathized with each other….It’s like a community of one.”
Portia is Autistic, and additionally mentioned having mental health issues. Her sensory needs limit the foods she is able to eat. She said, “When I was a child I could eat one full meal – plain pasta with shredded parmesan. For breakfast I ate cinnamon Life cereal – no milk of course. That was basically it.” Portia added that her food options expanded in adulthood.
Portia did not observe Yom Kippur or Passover traditionally as a child, and became more observant as an adult. She tried to fast on Yom Kippur but found fasting harmful to her mental health. She hoped that not eating chametz on Passover would be fine, but found that not to be the case. As she said, “When I …have a high sensory day or just plain shut down, I need to eat. And what I need to eat is the simplest “safe foods” I eat, which in this case is exactly what I ate as a child. Without [this specific] food my symptoms get much much worse.”
Bailey shared needing to drink a nutritional formula that does not have kosher for Passover certification. As she said, “I’m on…a formula similar to a protein drink but way more intense. These were prescribed by my gastroenterologist for me to have protein that my body can digest.” She added, “According to the OU (Orthodox Union), these are acceptable for medical reasons but people still look at me funny when I’m drinking them.”
Jorah shared that they have gastroparesis and methylmalonic acidemia with homocystinuria. They were able to eat normally in the past, but said that their current symptoms have changed that. As Jorah said, “I can have some soft, easy to digest food once a day if I’m lucky but the rest of the time I need supplemental [nutritional formulas].” They added, “[Nutritional formulas] are the only way to get enough calories to survive at the moment.”
Jorah shared that there are very few formulas that meet their nutritional needs, and that the one that meets their needs contains oat milk. In addition, because there is currently a global shortage of formulas, Jorah needs to water down a different formula than the one that they would typically use. While their typical formula is on the Orthodox Union’s (OU) list of acceptable formulas, this replacement is not on the list.
Comments on Bailey and Jorah’s experiences:
Because Bailey referenced the Orthodox Union’s position on using nutritional formulas on Pesach, I went to their website to see for myself. There, I found a long list of nutritional shakes that are considered acceptable for Pesach. It is unclear whether brands not listed are unacceptable or simply not researched, and I was unable to clarify prior to publication. The OU writes, “A few – not all – of the Ensure, Glucerna, Pediasure and Jevity products contain oat fiber; the OU has determined that the fiber is not Chametz, and the products are permitted to be consumed on Passover. The product brands listed below are not certified kosher for passover by the OU. Nonetheless the OU has identified these products as halachically acceptable for infants/babies and those who are ill.”
Unfortunately, it appears that this information is not widely known. Last year, I spoke with someone who needed nutritional supplements but avoided drinking them due to the lack of Passover certification, and got seriously ill. Therefore, I would encourage all of us to help publicize this OU list so that those who depend on nutritional supplements and formulas do not hesitate to drink them during Pesach.
Mason is converting to Judaism. He shared his excitement about observing Pesach for the first time last year. But once Pesach began, he found that the restrictions awoke memories from his past of other food restrictions. He could hear his grandmother’s voice criticizing his eating, “Did I really need all that cheese on the matzah lasagna?” Mason shared, “[Soon] I was back to my old ways of counting every calorie in every food and passing moral judgments on all consumables.”
Mason reflected on feeling surprised that the restrictions of Pesach food had had this impact on him. After all, years had passed since he had related to food in that way. He shared that he reached out, distraught, to his rabbi. She taught him about pikuach nefesh, and also committed to raising awareness about how Pesach could affect those with eating disorders. Still, this experience has had a lasting effect on Mason. He shared, “There were only a couple days left to Pesach when I stopped the restriction, but it still made me feel like a failure and like I couldn’t be Jewish.”
As Mason considers this coming Pesach, he says, “It’s roughly a year later and I’m going into my second Pesach knowing I can’t avoid chametz and still afraid of having that conversation with others… I’m still recovering from the backslide last year sent me into and I can’t risk making it worse by trying again.” He added, “Online resources and accounts like [A Mitzvah to Eat] make me feel less alone and ashamed and more like I can handle this.”
As you can see, there are many reasons Jews who care deeply about Jewish practice and tradition might need to eat chametz on Pesach. But what can you do with that knowledge? The awareness that there are committed Jews who need to eat chametz can be a starting point.
There are many further steps that one might take. You could consider changing your language around the prohibition of chametz, and say that chametz is forbidden “to those who can survive without it.” Perhaps you will give public support to those who need to drink nutritional supplements or eat chametz.
An additional step might be to think about how we make space for those who need to eat chametz in our communities. Are we tempted to treat them with pity? It’s not enough to act kindly if we’re not treating them as full members of the Jewish community.
It is time to welcome committed Jews who need to eat chametz on Pesach as respected equals within our communities. Together, let’s build a world where what we are (or aren’t) able to do does not define our Jewish belonging.