The state senator from Bangor on Friday helped members of a local synagogue fulfill one of their Passover responsibilities: He “purchased” all the foods Jews can’t have during the eight-day holiday in a twist on a 17th-century concept.
Sen. Joe Baldacci, a Bangor Democrat and lawyer, inked the deal Friday, the day before Passover’s start, at his law office with Rabbi Bill Siemers of Congregation Beth Israel as well as the congregation’s president and vice president, Brian Kresge and Nori Kazdoy.
Baldacci’s purchase of the hametz — all products containing leavened grains, including bread, cereal and grain-based alcohol — helps out 30 families from Bangor’s Conservative synagogue.
Most non-Jews know that Passover commemorates the Jewish people’s flight out of Egypt and slavery. Many know that during the eight days of Passover, which begins at sundown Saturday, Jews eat matzah — unleavened bread — instead of bread made with yeast or another leavening agent.
Few are aware, however, that Jews are prohibited from owning or deriving any benefit from anything made out of five major grains — wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye — during the holiday.
Baldacci, a lawyer and a Roman Catholic, was familiar with matzah but had never heard of hametz and had never heard that Jews sell it each year.
Sharing the practices of Judaism is one of the reasons Siemers each year reaches out to a non-Jew in the Bangor community about buying the hametz.
“I asked Joe because of his support for the Bangor faith community and for the growing multicultural presence in Bangor,” Siemers said.
Each year before Passover, Jews thoroughly clean their homes to rid them of hametz and store what can’t be thrown out — flour, yeast, baking soda and all products made from grain including alcohol such as scotch — in a separate cabinet. They then sign a contract with their rabbis that allow their religious leaders to sell the hametz on their behalf to non-Jews for the eight days of Passover.
Technically, Baldacci signed an option to buy hametz that includes the ability to come to the rabbi’s home to examine it during Passover. The contract expires when Passover ends at sundown April 4. None of the hametz will actually move to Baldacci’s house.
The language in the contract is a bit flowery, as the sale of the hametz is a 17th-century concept and the language hasn’t been updated.
It covers all “hametz and hametz mixtures which those who have authorized me [to] have in partnership with a non-Jew, whether the hametz mentioned is truly their own, or that for which they are responsible, even if responsible only for negligence, whether the responsibility is according to Torah law or civil protocol, or by dint of lawlessness, whether the hametz is with them in the house, in the attic, in the cellar, or in a factory or store, whether on dry land or the waters, whether in wagons or the railroads, or in ships, or in airplanes.”
The contract is only binding under Jewish, not civil, law and the buyer “has the authority to do with the hametz whatever his pleasure: to sell, to gift, or to rent it without protest, and also the buyer has the authority to take home the aforementioned immediately.”
Baldacci, who paid $10 for the hametz, joked that he might stop by for “a few fingers” of the rabbi’s scotch but would not be interested in the rest of the hametz. He also said that he’d like to attend the synagogue’s community seder next year. Last year and this year, those events were canceled because of the pandemic.
The actual sale price was $3 but Baldacci, whose family operated a restaurant in the Queen City for decades, wanted to make sure Siemers got a “good tip.”
Because the pandemic has not abated enough since last year, Jews around the world again will conduct their Passover seders with friends and family remotely.
To commemorate their time as slaves and the freedom that followed, the seder includes eating matzah or unleavened bread because the Jews left Egypt in such haste there was no time to allow the bread to rise. The seder includes bitter foods, such as horseradish, to remind them of the bitter years in slavery, and charoset, a sweet mixture of fruit and red wine, to remind them of the sweet taste of freedom.
The seder ends with the words, “Next year in Israel.”
Siemers on Friday told Baldacci, “Next year at 144 York Street,” the synagogue’s address.