Jews are crazy. These crazy people get together for a dinner party. It sounds nice, yes? They sit together and have a nice glass of wine, good. Then they eat some parsley. After that little bite of food they talk and they talk and they talk. They ask questions, they tell stories, they sing songs (what’s to sing about on an empty stomach) they might even act out a play. On and on it goes. Finally, when your stomach is growling, as you smell the food cooking, and your head is nodding from the second glass of wine, they announce the meal. They put some food in front of you. Don’t be fooled. First they give you a dry cracker. Then they put a large hunk of vegetable in front of you. Be warned! They call it a bitter herb. They aren’t kidding. It is bitter, tears pour from your eyes as they announce that you can eat a sandwich. Guess what! The sandwich is more of the cracker and more of that bitter herb. And just when your taste buds are on fire, a feast is served. The food is good and you relax. They even tell you how to relax. You have to lean on one side. Finally, when you have stuffed yourself, they announce dessert. Amazingly it is more of the cracker business. More wine more talk and finally you can go home. Jews are crazy.
No, Jews aren’t crazy, we are tribal and we wish to tap into that mystical mystery of life. And what has been described is the Seder, from the point of view of someone closed to the mystery and who stands outside the tribal camp. For those who are willing to open their hearts and minds and souls, the Seder becomes a ‘soul transporter.’ It takes us back to a time of slavery and liberation. It challenges us to become aware of our tribal roots and our mystical branches. We ‘return to those exciting days of yesteryear’ when we first discovered that freedom is not free. We travel through ages to share moments filled with tyrants and torments, teachers and transcendental times. We taste fear and freedom in the Matzah that we eat. We re-turn, re-experience, re-view re-live and re-new that mystical moment when we burst the bonds of slavery and entered into holy service to our G, our world, to our fellow human beings and to our spiritual selves. Not a bad way to spend an evening really.
A Friendly, Simple PESAH GUIDE
Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesah is the one most commonly observed, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. Pesah begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavuot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday. The primary observances of Pesah are related to the Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery. This story is told in Exodus, Ch. 1-15. Many of the Pesah observances are instituted in Chs. 12-15.
The name “Pesah comes from the Hebrew root Peh Sameh Het <!– PrintEnglish("(“); PrintHebrew(“פסח”); PrintEnglish(“) “); // –>
meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the fact that G “passed over” the houses of the Jews when slaying the firstborn of Egypt. “Pesah” is also the name of the sacrifice (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is also referred to as Hag he-Aviv (the Spring Festival), Hag ha-Matzoth <!– PrintEnglish("(“); PrintHebrew(“חַג הַמַּצּוֹת”); PrintEnglish(“) “); // –>
(the Festival of Matzot), both refer to the agricultural holiday with which the historical holiday, Pesah was blended with Z’man Herutenu <!– PrintEnglish("(“); PrintHebrew(“זְמַן חֵרוּתֵנוּ”); PrintEnglish(“) “); // –>
(the Time of Our Freedom). One of the most significant observance related to Pesah involves the removal of hametz from our homes. Traditionally this commemorates the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. Yet it also refers to the meal eaten on the first Pesah which was held before we left Eqypt. It also symbolizes the end of winter and eating the last of the winter stores. In a symbolic way, the of removing the Hametz is the challenge to remove the “puffiness” (arrogance, pride) from our souls.
Hametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water. Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazi background also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes (beans) as if they were hametz. All of these items are commonly used to make bread, thus use of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion. Such additional items are referred to as “kitniyot.” In my family a great miracle happens just before Pesah every year. We become Sefardic and therefore kitniyot are found in our home.
According to Halacha (The Jewish Path) we may not eat hametz during Pesah; we may not even own it or derive benefit from it. We may not even feed it to our pets or cattle. All hametz, including utensils used to cook hametz, must either be disposed of or sold to a non-Jew (they can be repurchased after the holiday). Pets’ diets must be changed for the holiday, or the pets must be sold to a non-Jew (like the food and utensils, the pets can be repurchased after the holiday ends). You can sell your hametz online at http://www.chabadcenter.org/ or through me (a form is included). From the gentile’s perspective, the purchase functions much like the buying and selling of futures on the stock market: even though he does not take physical possession of the goods, his temporary legal ownership of those goods is very real. It is a wonderful way to share this holiday with our neighbors. In years past I have sold my Hametz to ministers, priests, the chief of police, the mayor and other public officials.
The process of cleaning the home of all hametz in preparation for Pesah is an enormous task. To do it according to Halacha, you must prepare for several weeks and spend several days scrubbing everything down, going over the edges of your stove and fridge with a toothpick and a Q-Tip, covering all surfaces that come in contact with foil or shelf-liner, etc., etc., etc. After the cleaning is completed, the morning before the Seder, a formal search of the house for hametz is undertaken, and any remaining hametz is burned. In my family it is the time for spring cleaning and, of course, to look through our stores and eat up all the Hametz the we can before Pesah, much weight is gained at this time.
Matzah is unleavened bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly (under 18 minutes according to Halacha). This is the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt. It is also the reminder of the harvest festival known as Hag HaMatzot.
The day before Pesah is the Fast of the First Born a minor fast for all firstborn, commemorating the fact that the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final plague.
On the first night of Pesah (first two nights for traditional Jews outside Israel), we have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind us of the significance of the holiday. This meal is called a Seder, from a Hebrew root word meaning “order,” because there is a specific set of information that must be discussed in a specific order. It is the same root from which we derive the word “siddur” <!– PrintEnglish("(“); PrintHebrew(“סִדּוּר”); PrintEnglish(“) “); // –>
(prayer book). An overview of a traditional Seder is included below.
Pesah lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The first and last days of the holiday (first two and last two outside of Israel) are ‘Hag’, days on which no work is permitted according to Halacha. Work is permitted on the intermediate days. These intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred to as Hol Ha-Mo’ed, as are the intermediate days of Pesah.
The Pesah Seder
The text of the Pesah Seder is written in a book called the Haggadah. The content of the Seder are as follows:
Now, what does that mean?
A blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured
A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the Karpas
A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes springtime; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.
The middle of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned, the other part is set aside for the afikoman (see below).
Maggid: The Story
A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesah. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the Seder. The Four Questions are also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why is it different?), which are the first words of the Four Questions. This is often sung. The Maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise one, who wants to know the all the details and the deep spiritual meanings; the wicked one, who excludes himself (and the punishment IS the crime); the simple one, who needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn’t even know enough to know what he needs to know. At the end of the Maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk
A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
Motzi: Blessing over Bread
The Motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten
Maror: Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. (Note that there are two bitter herbs on the Seder plate: one labeled Maror and one labeled Hazeret. The one labeled Maror should be used for Maror and the one labeled Hazeret may be used in the Korech).
Korech: The Sandwich
Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the Maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some Maror on a piece of matzah, with some Haroset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery. The Hillel sandwich originally contained lamb instead of Haroset. But since the destruction of the 2nd Temple we do not sacrifice animals, so there is no paschal offering to eat (though that must have been a great sandwich).
Shulchan Oreh: Dinner
A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, that hametz cannot be eaten). Among Ashkenazic Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the meal. Roast chicken or turkey are common as a main course, as is beef brisket.
Tzafun: The Afikoman
The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as “ the desert dessert,” the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikoman. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.
Barech: Grace after Meals
The third cup of wine is poured, and Birkat Ha-Mazon (grace after meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Shabbat. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Mashiah. Our hope every Pesah is that the time of Mashiah (or the Messianic age for the modernists) will come about during this time. The door is opened for a while at this point for Elijah. On a historical note, Jews were accused of heinous crimes such as putting the blood of Christian babies into the matzah. In fear of oppression and false accusations we opened the door to show our Christian neighbors that we were innocent of their blood libel. A curse against our accusers accompanied the opening of the door. But today we open the door and offer welcome to all who are hungry and in need, turning a custom that was a response to fear and prejudice into a sacred moment of openness and tzedaka).
Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Pesah in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). This is followed by various hymns and stories.
May your Pesah be filling and fulfilling this year. May we, Members of the Tribe and Friends of the Tribe and even enemies of the Tribe, learn and grow and aim for a world filled with Peace.