Pesach 5771: A Discussion of Jewish Law in Regency England
by Marsha Altman with the help of Rabbi Belsky
Finally, something I can say about Judaism in actual connection to Regency England! The Regency situation wasn’t particular unique, but it raises an interesting proposition that is not common with Jewry today.
Jewish laws (halacha) states that a Jew may not own chametz on Pesach (Passover): “Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses; for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a sojourner, or one that is born in the land.” (Exodus 12:19)
Traditionally, perishables are eaten up or disposed of and long-term items liked stores of food and canned goods are sold to a gentile for the eight days of Pesach and then sold back via contract. This ancient tradition goes back thousands of years, but is still performed today. Today we sell our chametz to a rabbi, authorizing him to sell in bulk on his congregant’s behalf. You can even sell your chametz online (Tzemach Tzeddek, Orach Chaim 46; Aruch Hashulchan 448:28)
The selling of chametz is documented back to the Mishnah, a Jewish law code finished in the 2nd century AD. Issues about selling chametz are further detailed in the Gemara (8th century) and discussions continue today.
In these primary sources, most servants were slaves, as slavery was common in the Greco-Roman world. In Jewish law, slaves (Jewish) are not from the laws of Pesach. Non-Jewish indentured servants are, but that does not exempt their owners from Pesach. (Rabbi Belsky also pointed out that non-Jewish full-status “`eved kena`ani” slaves would go through a conversion process that makes them semi-Jews, obligated in all mitzvot except time-bound ones). Since an owners owns not only the slave but everything the slave owns, the slave cannot own any chametz, because it belongs to the owner, so slaves would also adhere to the laws of Pesach and only eat Pesach food.
Today, slavery is forbidden in Jewish law, so this is not an issue. Most Jews also live in a society where people do not have live-in servants, but servants who live elsewhere and come in to do paid work (except for in Israel, where the costs of labor are lower and many people employ foreign workers full-time). In Regency England, it was the norm to have a staff of servants living within the home who were not necessarily Jews.
- If the servant (non-Jewish) is given money by the Jewish householder to buy food for “the house” – that food is arguably “owned” by the householder even if only the servant consumes it.
- Regency servants typically did not have separate kitchens from their employers, and ate the leftovers from banquets of householders. Since Pesach food and chametz cannot be cooked in the same kitchen (it will make all the food chametz), the kitchen must be converted specifically for Pesach and the servants who eat from the kitchen must also obey the laws of Pesach when within the house.
- If there is a separate “servant house” which is not in the same building (or, arguably, wing of the house) and there is no cross-contamination of food, the servants could eat chametz in these areas if they used their own money from wages to purchase and cook the food.
- If a servant leaves the house, spends money they are given on food in a village or town, and consumes it there, this is obviously not problematic, but it is problematic if they bring back leftovers into the house.
Rabbi Belsky’s ruling would be that even though the Jew does not “own” the servants and therefore does not “own” their private belongings, the only possible way to insure that the owners does not accidentally own any chametz during Pesach is to sell all chametz and make the servants observe the laws of chametz when they are in the house, since there is too much confusion involving whether the servant “owns” food that is bought for the entire household.
In religious households today, particularly in Israel where full-time workers are employed, the entire house is cleaned out and everyone living in the house observes the laws concerning owning chametz, though presumably a worker could leave the house, buy some chametz, and consume it outside the house without problem.