Passover in the Age of Fad Diets

Nowadays when a person avoids bread, one of the first explanations is the Atkins diet. Flour-less chocolate cake is likewise associated with a gluten free lifestyle. So what really differentiates the Jew observing Passover from the non-Jews trying desperately to improve their health and/or physical appearances?

The Passover diet is meant to mimic the condition of the Jews who raced millions of years ago out of Egypt before their bread could to rise, and on Passover the Jewish tradition teaches Jews to imagine that they personally made the journey out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land, Canaan. Some modern Hagaddot (Passover ritual guides) have slightly different teachings. They define the slavery in Egypt as “Mitzrayim” or “narrow passages.” Therefore, instead of pretending that we Jews were all personally slaves in Egypt, we at the Passover Seder table are instructed to think about a time when we were in dire straights, when we moved from a place of emotional slavery to one of freedom.

This could be anything from a change in career to a decision to end a relationship or a move to a new city. It can and has also been applied to the Black and Women’s equality movements, or even the current goings on in the Middle East. The list goes on. Not only does this modern interpretation make the Passover story relevant to the present day, but it also makes it apply to all of society—not just Jews. “This year, we are here, next year may we celebrate in the land of Israel,” are the words that end the Passover ritual. This can either be read as a literal hope that next year we will have our next Seder in Israel or a symbolic plan to be in a better place next year than we are this year.

It is because of Passover’s relevance to all people that it strikes me as significant that the Passover diet has become easier to keep in recent days. This is of course because many Americans are on some sort of wacky diet. It is now easy to find carb-less this and bread free that. I will sorrowfully admit that when I noticed the holiday was nearing, a small part of me thought, “oh good, this gives me a chance to cut back on my carbs.” Passover’s diet is very different from a no-carb diet though. It seems more mentally than physically healthy as, in the modern mindset, it is in place to remind us of our triumphs and to encourage us to plan for future successes. We do not follow it in order to improve our digestive systems. Anyone who has gone 8 days eating matzoh is well aware of that.

On the other hand, a diet meant to alter one’s health or appearance can be seen as physically healthy but not entirely mentally healthy. That sort of diet often reminds the dieter that he or she wants to change him or herself. The restrictions may help the dieter plan for future successes (lost weight, lower cholesteral, etc.) but they do not serve to celebrate past ones.

I have grown to better appreciate Pesach’s menu rules but there are certain things that bother me about them. Along with bread, peas and green beans are also prohibited, along with pasta, peanut butter, all grains, rice, and corn products. The reasons given for all these restrictions range from the fact that pasta expands in a similar way to how bread rises to that corn and other crops grow so close to wheat fields that it’s easy to mistake them for wheat. And why is it that Sephardic (Spanish) Jews can eat rice and legumes while Ashkenazim (Western and Central European Jews) cannot? I have never entirely understood how all of these rules could have been born out of one instance of under-baked bread.

But all criticism and questions aside, I think Passover is a very significant holiday: one in which we join together with family and friends, challenge our bodies, and examine the ways in which we and the rest of the world’s people are currently enslaved and the ways in which we are also free.


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