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At this week's Passover Seders, Jews around the world lay out ceremonial meals. There's parsley or radishes to represent spring rebirth and horseradish to show the bitterness of slavery. According to some Orthodox rabbis, these fresh vegetables, especially if they're organic, bring their own theological issues: bugs.
From Portland, Oregon, Deena Prichep reports.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: At the People's Farmers' Market in southeast Portland, a handful of stands sell local, organic produce. It's too early for asparagus, but they've got kale, lettuce, radishes. And as Orthodox Rabbi Tzvi Fischer shows me, a few other things.
RABBI TZVI FISCHER: So if you look right down there, on the spinach, a little bug, right there. And there's another one right there.
PRICHEP: To be clear, Rabbi Fischer thinks these bugs - aphids, mites and little green thrips - are totally natural. They're what you expect when you buy food that grows in the ground, especially without pesticides. But for some religious Jews, like him, they do pose a problem.
FISCHER: In Leviticus, in discussion of which animals are kosher and which shall not be eaten, it says sheretz, which means, basically the runny things, things that crawl around.
PRICHEP: And it's not because they're unhealthy or unclean in a sanitary sense.
FISCHER: It's a spiritual concept.
PRICHEP: There is some debate about the details, but basically, if you're keeping to this spiritual definition, you've got to get the bugs out. Kosher certification groups, like the one Rabbi Fischer works with, teach classes on how to spot tiny insects and how to wash them off. But not every Jew feels the same measure of obligation. Rabbi Joey Wolf heads Portland's reconstructionist congregation.
RABBI JOEY WOLF: Whenever you're involved in spiritual practice, you're saying to yourself am I doing this because I'm trying to keep the rhythm, and if I break the rhythm, all hell, literally, could break loose? Or am I trying to do this because if I keep the rhythm, in some way, it will connect me profoundly to the heartbeat of the universe?
PRICHEP: For Wolf, religiously checking for bugs doesn't really qualify - it's kind of a nonissue. But he understands why people do it.
WOLF: The fact that something is archaic does not necessarily mean that it doesn't have a pulse. I'll give you an example. A great many religious Jews put on tefillin.
PRICHEP: Little boxes with Torah scrolls that are strapped to your head and your arm while you pray.
WOLF: Now, that looks incredibly archaic. But when you're doing it, it's an absolutely spectacular ritual. So it's not by dint of things being peculiar that you should rule them out. It's just that at some point people are going to say here's where I begin, and here's where I end. And it's as simple as that.
PRICHEP: Different Jewish movements - conservative, reform and reconstructionist - begin and end in different places on what it means to be observant. And for many Orthodox, like Rabbi Fischer, this issue matters.
FISCHER: I sent an email on a project that was due, but I left out the dot before dot-com in the email address. So when the issue is important, it doesn't make a difference if it's tiny and a dot, and in this case, small as a bug. If it's important, it's important. And it's a verse in the Torah, so to us, it's important.
PRICHEP: And, Fischer says, it's especially important on Passover.
FISCHER: People didn't get lettuce and parsley very often in the shtetl back in Europe, where they could hardly afford a loaf of bread. So pre-Passover vegetable washing is something that has actually been a part of the Jewish community for many, many years.
PRICHEP: While Rabbi Fischer and Rabbi Wolf may disagree on some of the theological details, they'll both be sitting down to celebrate Passover - with fresh vegetables on their tables - on Friday night. For NPR news, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Oregon.
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