Passover and the charination ritual

My law school friend David Markus wrote on Facebook that, as part of his Passover preparation, he had “charoset marinating.” A Facebook friend of his remarked: “Okay, so I haven’t been awake all that long, and I just spent a minute glancing dullishly at the screen wondering what a ‘marmoset charinating’ entailed.”

As a service to my Jewish friends, here’s what charination is and how it relates to the Passover holiday.

“Charinar” is a Ladino verb, a mixing of “chametz” (חָמֵץ‎) and “harina” (Sp. “flour”). It basically means “to make something into chametz by rolling it in flour.”

I know what you’re thinking, why would you want to charinate anything, let alone a marmoset? The roots of this are in the early 13th century, when the Judaeo-Catalan sage Nahmanides opined, in a widely circulated responsum, that just as it was mandatory to get rid of chametz in preparation for Passover, it was also forbidden to get rid of anything that was not chametz, as this would be improperly adding to the commandments (Deut. 12:32).

This view was ultimately rejected (of course today you can throw out doubtful items just in case), but for a brief time it put a premium on very precise categorization of what was and wasn’t chametz.

The trouble was that marmosets, which were a popular pet at the time, were definitely not chametz, and yet they had to be put outside because of the popular local superstition that marmosets were pleasing to Elijah (מרמוסט אליהו) and therefore had to be tied up outside to attract the prophet into the house.

So how do you get rid of a non-chametz marmoset? Make it chametz, of course, by charinating it. This led to the somewhat absurd spectacle of the small animals, all powdered in white, tied up outside houses in Jewish quarters. This provided fodder for numerous anti-Jewish polemics (of which Contra iudaeorum harinationem callithricum is the best known), until Nahmanides was forced to recant.

Nonetheless, some traditionalist families with Sephardic roots still engage in the practice, provided of course they have a marmoset.