This week, together with about 13 million Jews worldwide (yes, that’s all there are), our family will celebrate the Feast of Passover, perhaps the oldest continuously celebrated religious holiday in the world.
Passover is primarily a holiday of the home, not the synagogue. The preparations take days. We sit down to a table adorned with familiar objects: a silver cup for the Prophet Elijah, candlesticks, a lamb shank representing the sacrifice in Temple days, bitter herbs, matzo, parsley, eggs and salt water. We do the traditional “seder,” its choreographed rituals burnished by centuries of practice.
Everything is repeated on the second night, except in Israel, where only one night is observed. The traditional explanation for this repetition (other Jewish holidays are also repeated) is that after the dispersion of the Jews following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 of the Common Era, Jews in the Diaspora could not be certain exactly when the holiday dawned in Israel. So they performed the rituals twice, just to be safe.
The rabbis were nothing if not exacting. Then again, the 25-hour fasts of Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av and others are performed only once. Exacting, yes. Crazy, no.
Well, maybe a little crazy. After all, we now know to the nanosecond when Passover begins in Israel. So why not dispense with the second night? I suppose Tevya had the answer: tradition!
The Torah requires that we refrain from eating leavened bread for eight days. The rabbis saw this and raised it. Among the Ashkenazi (European Jews), the list of prohibited items fills volumes. No bread? Check. But also no breakfast cereal, beer, soft tacos, crackers (except for matzo), pasta, beans, corn, rice, wheat, barley, oats, spelt, bread crumbs, chips or anything made with corn syrup. Lately, there’s been debate about whether the grain quinoa is kosher for Passover. A friend accosted me in synagogue a few weeks ago to wail, “Have you heard? They’re taking away our quinoa!”
So is it a festival of denial? To a degree (no wonder there are only 13 million Jews). But as the holiday approaches, the pungent tastes, the glowing candles, the comfort of wine and the unmatched sense of historical continuity predominate.
The holiday commemorates God’s liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. As the story unfolds, we eat freshly ground horseradish to remember the bitterness of slavery and dip parsley in salt water to recall the tears of our ancestors and slaves everywhere. There are tricks to keep the youngsters engaged during the lengthy premeal ritual. It falls to the youngest child to recite, well, sing actually, the “four questions.” Later, the adults hide the “dessert matzo” (now there’s a concept!), and the kids spend the rest of the evening searching for it so as to be rewarded with a finder’s fee.
Telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt isn’t a jingoistic exercise. The name of Moses, for example, is scarcely mentioned (to discourage worship of a human being), and there are endless opportunities to reflect on the less-exalted aspects of human nature.
Why didn’t Potiphar have Joseph executed when his wife accused the servant of attempted rape? Probably because he knew his wife’s character. The Hebrews don’t come out smelling like roses either. We’re told that Pharaoh embittered the lives of the Hebrew slaves with hard labor, the separation of husbands and wives, and even with the murder of Jewish male babies. Yet we know that later, when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they pined for the “fleshpots” of Egypt.
One lesson: Ingratitude is a fixed aspect of human nature, as is a tendency to romanticize the past. Another lesson: Freedom is a precious gift, but it isn’t easy. Tradition teaches that the Israelites were made to wander the desert for 40 years because they needed time to shed their slave mentality.
There is another ritual – my favorite – that accompanies the recitation of the 10 plagues God inflicted upon the Egyptians. With the name of each plague, we remove a drop of our wine onto a plate, symbolically diminishing our joy because the Egyptians, “who are also God’s children,” suffered.
After dipping vegetables, reclining on pillows and reciting questions and answers, the festive meal begins. Centuries of Jewish cooks have devised ways to make us forget that our diet is limited, though it has been scientifically proved that eating matzo is never enjoyable. Still, the symbols, the stories, the songs and the flavors of Passover are indelible. They have been for 3,000 years.
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