Early risers participate in tradition

Chametz: Hundreds of Jewish families gather at a city firehouse to burn leavened bread in the Passover ritual.

April 01, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As dawn broke yesterday over Northwest Baltimore, Bert Miller began stoking the flames in a line of oil drums set up on the lawn in front of the Glen Avenue firehouse in Mount Washington.

In a tradition dating to the origins of Judaism, a steady stream of Orthodox Jews brought the leftover loaves and crumbs of leavened bread they cleaned out of their homes in preparation for Passover for burning in fulfillment of the commandment set forth in the Torah.

"Jewish people have been practicing this ritual for over 3,000 years, since we left slavery in Egypt," said Miller, a math teacher at Owings Mills High School who supervises the burning of the leavened material known as chametz.

"One of the commandments from the Bible that is incumbent on the Jewish people on the holiday of Passover is to destroy any leavened material -- bread, sourdough, etc.," he said. "Not only are we forbidden from eating that material during Passover, we're also not per- mitted to own any."

During Passover, Jews eat unleavened bread in the form of matzo because during the Exodus, they had to leave so quickly that the dough they had prepared did not have time to rise. Ridding the house of chametz is a response to the biblical mandate in Exodus 12: 15: "Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall put away leaven outside of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel."

In the weeks preceding Passover, the house is systematically cleaned and chametz -- products that contain flour that has fermented, or dough made from wheat, barley, rye, spelt (a form of wheat common to southern Europe and western Asia used for livestock) or oats -- is removed.

On Tuesday night, the evening before Passover begins, the family searches the house to find any chametz that might have been overlooked.

"It is a custom for the wife to hide 10 pieces of bread so that the husband has something to search for," said Joseph Nelkin, the former chief inspector for the city's Kosher Meat and Food Control, who arrived in the early morning before most of the crowd. "My wife is very good at hiding them."

The leaven is burned the next morning. Many also bring lulav, the palm fronds used during the Festival of Tabernacles last autumn, to throw into the fire.

The fires began burning at 6: 30 a.m. in four drums. By 9 a.m., many of the expected 1,300 families had begun arriving and created gridlock around the triangular fire station property. Miller supervised, armed with a long metal pole for stoking the fires and outfitted in a yellow construction hat that contrasted with the black hats worn by many of the men.

Fathers, their children gathered around them, older men and couples walked up with bags of leavened bread, old pizza boxes, containers that held oatmeal, cereal or matzo, and tossed them into the flames. "Two points!" yelled Miller after a particularly good shot.

Until 1982, each Jewish family who observed the commandment to burn their chametz had to do it in their back yard.

Then Miller, who realized the elderly in high-rise apartments had a hard time finding anywhere to light a fire, hit on the idea of a communal inferno. It was held the first year in the parking lot of a synagogue, but created too much traffic. So it moved in 1983 to the Glen Avenue firehouse.

"It has become a community event," Miller said. "Instead of there being thousands of backyard fires in Northwest Baltimore, the Fire Department was delighted to cooperate with us to centralize the burning to maximize safety."

Dr. Warren Silver, a chiropractor from nearby Ranchleigh, brought his children and his brother's children who were visiting from New Jersey. "They were so excited when they woke up. They couldn't wait to get here," he said. "Everyone had to throw in a piece so they felt they all participated."

Aharon Myers of Pikesville looks forward to bringing his sons, Ezrie, 5, and Rafi, 3.

"It makes us see all our friends are doing the same thing," he said. "The children are able to see they're not the only ones doing this. Other people they recognize in the community are doing the same thing. It creates a sense of unity."

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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