JERUSALEM – High-tech entered the realm of biblical-era Passover holiday observances in a big way this year as dozens of Internet sites offered Jews the option of symbolically selling off-limits foods over the Web.
The weeklong holiday, beginning at sundown Wednesday, commemorates the flight of the ancient Israelites from bondage in Egypt, as described in the Old Testament. Observant Jews eat matzo — unleavened bread — to illustrate how the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise as they fled.
Religious Jews who don't eat any leavened food during the holiday scour their homes and rid their pantries of the forbidden items.
Smoke wafted through the air of Jerusalem and other towns across the country Wednesday morning as people burned bread and other unleavened foods in communal bonfires, some reaching as high as 10 feet. Piles of charred bread were still smoldering in Jerusalem's Makor Baruch neighborhood in the early afternoon.
The Internet offered a wide variety of sites for those who put a premium on convenience when carrying out the ceremonial custom of "selling" nonperishable forbidden food to a non-Jew, for "repurchase" after the holiday. Faxing sale transaction requests through a religious intermediary was another option.
The government took the low-tech route. Israel's chief rabbis, in keeping with state tradition, sold the country's leavened foods to an Israeli Arab from a suburban Jerusalem town Tuesday for a $4,350 down payment. The man will sell the food back to the state after the holiday ends, and the buyer will have his money reimbursed.
High security alerts and deepening poverty clouded the Passover celebrations.
Police and military increased their forces throughout the country for fear of attacks by Palestinian militants and went on high alert, as is customary for major holidays. A month-old ban on Palestinians entering Israel was extended through the holiday to prevent attackers from infiltrating.
Four years ago, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 29 Israelis at a ritual Passover dinner in the coastal town of Netanya.
Ahead of the holiday, media reported heavily on the growing poverty in Israel, and soup kitchens and not-for-profit groups were busy Wednesday handing out the last of holiday meals to tens of thousands of destitute Israelis.
Israel's economy grew more than 5 percent in 2005, but many of Israel's disadvantaged, hurt by deep cuts in the government's social spending, didn't feel the upturn.