During the last several weeks, the regular weekly reading of the Torah was accompanied by a series of special readings, starting with Parshat Shekalim that announces the annual obligation to pay the ritual half shekel tax for the maintenance of the Temple. In so doing, these readings proclaim that this year's holy season of Passover has begun.

In practical terms, in every Jewish home, this is the time to clean house. Chametz, or leavening, permitted throughout the year, suddenly becomes a thing of dread -- forbidden in any quantity. At an increasing pace, culminating on the night before Passover, Jewish households search out even the smallest speck of Chametz and cast it out. This week, a neighbor removed the seats and mats from his car, practically to the rocker panels, thoroughly cleaning all traces of cookies, chips, and cake left by his children to and from school.

Most of us, however, wait until after Purim. Purim provides an opportunity to get rid of lots of Chametz -- cakes, cookies, pasta, cereal, whiskey -- anything with a leavening agent has got to go. We even give it away to our neighbors as "gifts of food". This is a perfect time for a celebration because, at least in my house, after Purim it all gets tossed.

The dietary restriction on eating leavened products extends beyond "bread" per se, and attaches to the active ingredient, the leavening agent referred to as Chametz. Often defined as a souring or fermenting ingredient in food, Chametz is permitted throughout the year in everything. From noon on the day before Passover begins, continuing for the next seven days, Chametz becomes forbidden.

Moreover, the prohibition of Chametz is not just with respect to food items but with anything with which Chametz has come in contact. Pots, pans, utensils, shelves, storage bins, computer keyboards, clothing and any location where family members are likely to take food made with leavening requires thorough cleaning.

Spiritual Cleansing

From a spiritual perspective, this period of time before the Holy Festival of Passover, a time of preparation, is itself sacred . Holy times demand some sort of spiritual separation from everyday work and play. To demarcate the approach of sacred space and time, it is necessary to prepare our households as well as our selves.

Perhaps this is the reason that Chametz is invested with so much meaning and interpretation. More than simply a thing, Chametz is a process. At the surface level, Chametz is the process of fermentation when moisture comes in contact with grain and grain products. It is a souring agent that has many wonderful properties: one causes bread to rise and another improves the flavor of that combination of flour, water, oil and salt.

Yet, Chametz is also associated with craving and excess. During sacred time and space, the goal is to pull back from personal desires and drives and focus on the spiritual side of existence. While fermentation creates wine, too much produces vinegar-in Hebrew, the lengthening of the vowel "a" transforms Chametz to Chometz -- vinegar.

My wife's view is that adding Chametz to bread causes it to swell symbolic of pride, an ingredient in daily life that a little goes a long way. In small doses, pride manifests as self esteem; too much pride becomes arrogance -- a souring agent in any social setting. During Passover, however, through eating the Bread of Affliction, we learn from the poor, who are without pride, in order to acquire a taste for humility.

Separation from Idol Worship

Underlying all of the explanations for the Passover process there remains one central question: Why do we celebrate the Passover? Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz, the author of the book The Two Tablets of the Covenant, directs our attention to Exodus 34: 17-18.

You shall make for yourself no molten gods. The Feast of Unleavened Bread shall you keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, in the time of the month Aviv; for in the month Aviv you came out from Egypt.