During the coronavirus outbreak, people have stocked up on shelf-stable items like beans, pasta and bread to sustain them through weeks of staying at home.
But, in an untimely coincidence, some Jews do not eat those foods during Passover, which starts Wednesday at sundown. Many are caught in a quandary: A pandemic pantry does limit potentially dangerous trips to the grocery store, but its contents are against tradition.
“There definitely is a cadre of people that are saying, ‘We don’t know how long this quarantine is going to last,’” said Rabbi Hara Person, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an organization of Reform rabbis in the United States and Canada. “‘We don’t know what food supplies are going to be, and so we don’t want to give our food away.’”
The holiday is a celebration of the Jewish people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt. In preparation, some people remove all leavened foods, or “chametz,” from their home, often by eating it or donating to people in need. (In certain communities, some of the last remaining morsels are burned.) Others keep some of it in their home, but sell it to a non-Jewish person, transferring ownership under Jewish law. With a wink and a nod, it’s theirs to reclaim when Passover ends.
In Zichron Yaakov, a town in Israel north of Tel Aviv, Jewish residents often sell their chametz to Christian neighbors. After one sale, a buyer joked with Rabbi Yair Silverman, a founder of the Moed community, that he might actually keep the food this year if he is running short on supplies. “That’s great,” Rabbi Silverman said. “Then it’s a real sale.”
This year, Chabad.org has seen an increase in people using its online platform to sell their chametz, to an estimated 250,000 sales from about 90,000 in 2019. Normally, this transaction is often carried out in person because it’s “contractual,” like closing a house, said Rabbi Eitan Rubin, of Great Neck, N.Y.
“Chametz” consists of just five grains — wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye — but in practice, the list of foods to avoid is often longer. Many Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors came from Europe, also do not eat “kitniyot,” which includes most legumes, corn and rice.
“We always followed the Ashkenazi tradition,” said Rachel Ringler, 64, a food writer and challah-baking instructor, who will be hosting her Seder over Zoom from Bridgehampton, N.Y., instead of with 30 people in her Manhattan apartment. “We never had rice. We never had lentils. We never even served string beans.”
But she has a son-in-law who is half-Syrian, so she follows different Passover customs.
“I said, ‘We are all Syrian this year,’ ” she said, laughing. “We are stocked with lentils, and so we are going to use those lentils for Passover.”
The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, has sanctioned eating kitniyot during Passover since 2015. The custom is widespread among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews with ancestors from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. In Israel, many follow suit.
This year, the assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards also offered alternatives for traditional foods on a Seder plate: a roasted beet and rice in place of a shank bone and egg, and any vegetable or fruit “that can bring a tear to the eye” if horseradish isn’t available.
The substitutions won’t be the only thing different on the first night of Passover, which is usually celebrated with a large communal meal with family and friends. Some families who cannot be in the same house plan to cook from the same recipes, as if they were together.
Self-isolating in various homes across the country, some observant Jews might need to embrace technology — normally a no-no — so they can celebrate together. (In Israel, which tightened travel restrictions specifically around the holiday, some are gathering before sundown to celebrate together via Skype or Zoom.)
“We’ve seen rabbis across the board — but especially in the Orthodox community — lowering the bar for Passover,” said Mishael Zion, an Orthodox rabbi who with his father, Noam, wrote “A Night to Remember,” the popular modern version of the Haggadah, the text that guides the Seder. This year, he said, “it’s like the matzo, which is just the basics of bread, water and flour.”
One ritual, burning chametz, has also been discouraged. Leaders of the Orthodox community in the United States have released a joint statement noting that without a controlled, communal fire, it can be risky, and overtax emergency responders. (In the past, some fires have gotten out of hand and caused injuries.)
Participating in a Seder is the most widely observed Jewish holiday custom in the United States, according to a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center. But this year, even more Americans are expected to host their own Seders, because they can’t gather with neighbors and friends, said Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad. He said the organization had prepared nearly 250,000 Seder to-go kits — packages with matzo and other holiday foods — to distribute nationwide.
For Jewish supermarkets, smaller Seders can be bad for business. On a normal year, Zabar’s, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is jammed in the days before Passover. That’s what the store prepared for this year. It placed its normal orders, hoping customers would still host large gatherings, but that has not been the case.
In-store traffic is down 40 to 50 percent, said Scott Goldshine, the general manager. Zabar’s usually caters about 400 Seders around the city each year, and ships another 400 dinners around the country. This year, he filled only about 300 orders in all.
“I am going to have tons of brisket to sell for the next two years,” he said.
Sagging sales might not have rippled up the supply chain, though. Most Passover orders are filled three months in advance, said Jonathan Buring, the vice president of Champion Foods, one of the leading kosher ingredient distributors in the country. And in January, no one in America was really thinking about the coronavirus, so there is a backlog.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek, an Orthodox rabbi in New York, has been reminding members of his community that the first Passover was also held in a quarantine of sorts, as Moses told Jews to stay home to protect their firstborn sons from the 10th plague, remembered during the holiday.
This year, many Jews are reframing how they celebrate. Instead of kosher-for-Passover macaroons, they’re embracing scarcity. Instead of eight pounds of brisket, they may roast a chicken. As in biblical times, staying home is not a form of passivity; it’s a way to protect a community from harm.
For Rabbi Zion, a co-writer of the popular Haggadah, the essence of Passover has long been about something deeper than dietary rules.
“In this moment of darkness and doubt,” he said, “we need that ‘next year in Jerusalem’ hope more than ever.”