When the festival of Pesach arrived, all work on the new settlement came to a halt in order to get ready for the Passover holiday. Tents had to be searched for chametz, and matzot had to be baked. As Tevye confided to Guttmacher, at least one thing about their new life in Olat HaShachar was easier than it had been in Russia.
“What’s that?” the undertaker asked.
“Searching for chametz.”
Guttmacher laughed. It was true. Their tents hardly had any furniture. Within minutes, all pieces of leaven and bread crumbs could be swept from the house. There were no sofas to move, no cabinets and dressers to clean, nor kitchens to scrub. But just the same, since the Master of the Universe had commanded them to remove all traces of leaven from the house during the seven day Passover holiday, they searched diligently just as Jews had been doing since the exodus from Egypt three-thousand years before. Tevye got down on his knees with a candle and feather to peer under the folds of the tent for crumbs. And sure enough, his love for the mitzvah was quickly rewarded. He didn’t find any traces of cake or bread, but he did find two curly-tailed scorpions whose sting was known to be deadly.
When it came to baking the matzot, the industrious scene could have passed for Anatevka. A special oven for baking the thin unleavened bread was made out of brick. Water from a nearby well had been stored overnight so that it would be cool at the time of the kneading, to be sure that the flour wouldn’t leaven. When the baking began, the men pounded the flour paste on top of tables and kneaded it without stopping until each batch of dough was ready. Once the flour and water were mixed, and the dough was flattened and slid into the oven, if more than eighteen minutes had passed, it had to be burned or fed to the animals before the holiday in fear that it had already leavened. Nachman was given the honor of separating the priest’s due, or challah, a mitzvah which was done only in Eretz Yisrael. Tevye, who was in charge of the kneading, made sure his workers kept shouting out, “L’sham matzah mitzvah-for the sake of the commandment of matzah.” By the middle of the frantic baking, everyone was sweating. The workers burst out in a spontaneous song.
“Just as God gathered us out from Egypt, he will gather us from the four corners of the earth!”
Surely, a Turkish passerby would have thought the Jews were crazy. What normal man became so ecstatic about baking such poor-looking bread? No outsider could ever understand the great secret of their joy. The joy of doing God’s will. The joy in knowing that the words which they were singing were sure to come true.
Shimon wanted the pioneer chalutzim to keep working during the intermediary days of the seven-day holiday. He maintained the commandment of settling the Land of Israel took pecedence the prohibition of working on Chol HaMoed, the intermediary days of the holiday, if the work was vital to the success of the yishuv. Of course, this ruling brought groans from the settlers, who were tired of the swamps, the ditch digging, and the planting of eucalyptus trees. Pesach was Pesach. In Russia, they hadn’t worked during the seven-day holiday. Why should they here? Nachman was prepared to side with Shimon, reasoning that the work of draining the swamps could save lives, and this justified working on the festival.
“Going into the swamps is what kills people,” Tevye argued, “not staying out of them.”
While his point was well-taken, it wasn’t completely correct. Dozens of settlers had fallen victim to yellow fever and malaria without actually descending into the swamps. Since the Morasha settlers had arrived, the swamps had claimed two further victims among the “Lovers of Zion.” A father and son who were working in the fields near the marshes at the other side of the settlement had come down with the fever and died. The disease-carrying mosquitoes could fly wherever they wished, making the whole vicinity a hazard. But since the overwhelming majority of settlers were in favor of rest, a vacation from work was declared. The mosquitoes could wait. Passover was the festival of freedom, and people were happy for a chance to forget about the dangerous labor of draining the swamps.