Dear Jew in the City,
I saw in Unorthodox a kitchen covered in tin foil. Why do Orthodox Jews do this?
Thanks for your question. Whenever I receive a question that starts “Why do Orthodox Jews…,” my initial reaction is, “They don’t” because such questions usually represent gross generalizations. This was probably never more true than in the case of “Why do Orthodox Jewish women shave their heads?” Of course, the overwhelming majority don’t, it’s just that the few who do stand out.
In the case of covering kitchens, you may be on to something, but it has to be qualified. 51 weeks of the year, you won’t find Jews covering their kitchens. The remaining week you will, though not necessarily with foil.
That week, which occurs in the Jewish month of Nisan (roughly corresponding to April), is the holiday of Pesach (Passover), which is seven-days long in Israel and eight days long everywhere else. On Pesach, we’re not allowed to eat leaven or anything leavened, which is why we eat matzah, a cracker-like unleavened bread. (And yes, I know, Sephardic Jews eat soft matzah. Most of us here, however, are familiar with the crunchy stuff that leaves a lot of crumbs.) The prohibition against chometz (leaven) is extremely stringent, so we guard against even the smallest volume. Accordingly, our kitchens must be kashered (“kosherized”). Things that can’t be koshered must be put away or (wait for it…) covered.
If you visit different houses, you may notice different things covered or uncovered. This is because, not only are there different opinions as to what can and cannot be kashered, but people also own different things.
The most obvious thing is probably countertops. Some types of counter, like granite and stainless steel, can be kashered. These, therefore, need not be covered. Other counters might be made of a non-kasherable material and would therefore have to be covered. This might be with foil but it could also be with something else. Some people use contact paper. I have corrugated plastic cut to fit my countertops. Some people have custom countertops that they swap out for Pesach. In the latter case, you wouldn’t even notice that the counters were made “kosher for Passover.”
There are other things in the kitchen that one might cover for Pesach. For example, stainless steel sinks can be kashered but porcelain sinks can’t be. Again, some may use foil, others may use contact paper. My family has a fitted sink insert, which is like a sink within a sink.
Other things that you might see covered include range tops, the grates (upon which the pots rest when on the stove) and the inside of an oven – but you won’t necessarily see them covered everywhere because, again, there are some differences of opinion as to what can be effectively kashered, and the material of which something is made often makes a difference. (And, just like I have a sink insert, some people have an oven insert.)
One thing that doesn’t have to be covered is the walls, though even this has an exception. There area behind the stove where cooking food tends to splash is called the splashback. Splashbacks must be cleaned, and preferably covered so that hot Pesach cooking pots don’t touch these surfaces.
There are so many variables at play that everyone’s kitchen can look very different. I knew a guy who had a kitchen with a sink and a stove, plus a center island. Come Pesach, special countertops covered his sink and stove, while the countertop came off the center island, revealing his Pesach sink and stove. His kitchen looked perfectly normal, just different from its year-round configuration. On the other hand, some people choose to go nuts with the foil. Either they’re unaware that certain things don’t need to be covered or they just don’t care. Chometz on Pesach is such a serious matter that many people choose to go beyond the letter of the law; this is considered praiseworthy. One way or the other, you can’t judge a book by its cover and you can’t judge a kitchen by its foil.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent
PS – Don’t believe everything you see on TV!