The next few days are an intense intersection of self-denial; the beginning of Passover and the end of Lent. Easter and Passover both revolve around themes of sacrifice and redemption; it is interesting that Passover has its redemption first (the seder) and then its sacrifice (the kosher for Passover rules), while Easter does it in reverse (Lent, and then Easter Sunday). Interesting, but not relevant to the matter at hand, which is, what an opportunity this week is for observant Jews to go on a diet!
The basic reasoning behind not eating leavened products is to show solidarity with the enslaved Jews who fled Egypt without being able to wait for their bread to rise. Over the centuries, the restrictions were extended and variously adopted by different Jewish groups around the world. Pretty much every Jew is supposed to abstain from eating chometz (and here we’ll quote from infoplease): “anything that contains barley, wheat, rye, oats, and spelt, and is not cooked within 18 minutes after coming in contact with water. No leavening is allowed.”
That covers a lot of ground, doesn’t it (most beer, too). But the Ashkenazim (which is to say, Jews of eastern European ancestry who make up the vast majority of American Jewry) go a few steps further, and ban corn, rice, peanuts, and legumes, because it is possible to make bread with those ingredients.
Whether or not this misses the point of honoring the exodus is incidental to the following: if one also abstains from the one allowable grain product, matzah, then keeping kosher for Passover is a hell of a diet. You could lose an Atkins-worthy amount of weight in the eight days of observation! Think of it: honoring one’s heritage and cleansing the body all at once. Then again, maybe that is missing the point.