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March 30, 2004 > Passover: A Celebration of Freedom

Passover: A Celebration of Freedom

by Praveena Raman

Between April 1st and April 6th a special kind of spring-cleaning will be taking place in Jewish households in the Tri-City area as they get ready for Passover celebrations. People will be cleaning out all the old food and everyday dishes, pots, pans and utensils will be put away. Kosher food will be bought and special Passover dishes are brought out to be used during the 8-day celebration.

Passover or Pesach starts on April 6th this year, during which, Jews celebrate the flight of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery in the 1200's B.C. According to the Book of Exodus, about 3000 years ago, Moses was asked by God to free the Israelites who were enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses II. The Pharoah did not listen to Moses' plea and would not set the Israelites free.

Ten different plagues, blood (Dahm), frogs (Tz'fardaya), lice (Kinim), beasts (Arov), cattle disease (Dever), boils (Sh'chin), hail (Barad), locusts (Arbeh), Darkness (Choshech) and Plague of the First Born (Makat B'chorot), were unleashed on the people of Egypt to punish them. Before the tenth plague, the plague of the first born, was unleashed, the Israelites were asked to mark their doors with the blood of lamb. The angel of death passed over these houses and unleashed the plague only in the houses of the Egyptian people killing their first-born child. From this "passing over" the holiday derives its name Passover or Pesach which in Hebrew means "Passing over" or "protection".

Seeing the suffering of his people, the Pharaoh finally set the Israelites free. The Israelites gathered whatever possessions they could carry with them and left so quickly that there was no time to even bake bread. They took raw dough with them and as they fled through the desert they baked the bread under the hot sun into hard dry crackers called matzohs. Though the Jews were free, they were not yet liberated since the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent soldiers after them through the desert to the Red Sea. When the Jews reached the Red Sea they saw that their escape was blocked.

Then, a miracle occurred and the Red Sea parted to let the Israelites cross over to the other side. As soon as they had crossed, the waters came back together, trapping the soldiers on the other side and sweeping those in their path away, thus liberating the Jews completely. This liberation is celebrated during Passover.

The first two nights of this holiday are celebrated with a lavish feast called a "Seder." During the Seder the history and stories about Passover are told and passed from generation to generation. The Torah commands the Jews to teach their children about Passover. The Talmud (which is a set of books about Moses) suggests four different ways children might react to this "telling." The Wise child might ask, "What is the meaning of the laws and rules which Adonai, our God, has commanded us?;" the Wicked child might ask "What does this service mean to you?"; The Simple child might ask "What is this all about?;" and there might be a child Who does not know enough to ask a question. The answers, explaining the meaning of Passover, should be modified according to the questions asked so that everybody can understand the reason for this celebration.

The rules surrounding Passover are strict and many, with only special foods, utensils and dishware allowed. Theoretically all chametz (non Passover foods or yeast foods) are either eaten before Passover begins or "sold" for a token amount to non-Jewish neighbors or friends. They, in turn, sell it back to the Jewish families after Passover.

Dr. Leslie Guterman, who grew up in a very traditional and orthodox Jewish family, talks of the differences between what was eaten when she was growing up and the kosher food that is now available for Passover. "When I was growing up we ate all the cereals that were there in the house before the first day and no new cereal was bought till after Passover. During Passover we ate a hot cereal that was made out of matzoh and it tasted like paste. When my father was a kid he lived on hard boiled eggs, bananas, sour cream, boiled chicken, string beans and matzoh. Now we get a good variety of kosher food and we can make delicious dishes for the Seder."

Seder means order. There is a special order for the different rituals that are done during a Seder. "In traditional homes like my grandmother's Seder starts at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. and ends at midnight." says Leslie. "Whereas here in my house, we start at 7:00 p.m. but it lasts only for a couple of hours." In the center of the Seder table is the Seder plate with its five traditional foods:
* BEITZAH or roasted egg (hard boiled eggs are also used) is a symbol of spring.
* KARPAS or parsley also symbolizing springtime. It is dipped in salt water to remind people of the tears of the Jewish slaves.
* Z'ROA or shank bone, Symbolic of the sacrificial lamb offering, the bone can come from whatever the family is eating, such as the leg bone of a roasted turkey. As a symbol on the Seder plate it reminds people that during the Tenth Plague Adonai passed over the homes of the Israelites and spared their first-born.
* CHAROSET or chopped apples and nuts symbolizing the mortar the Jewish slaves used to assemble the Pharaoh's bricks
* MAROR or bitter herb (whole or grated horseradish or romaine lettuce), reflecting the bitter affliction of slavery

In some households like Leslie's, an orange is added in the center. "There is a story that goes with it,"adds Leslie. The placing of an orange in the center originated from an incident that occurred when women were just becoming Rabbis. Susannah Heschel spoke in Florida about the emerging equality of women in Jewish life. After her talk, an irate man rose and shouted, "A woman belongs on the bimah (pulpit) like an orange belongs on the Seder plate!" By placing the orange on the center of the Seder plate people assert that women belong wherever Jews carry on a sacred life.

Beside the Seder plate are three pieces of matzoh placed in a matzoh cover. There is a wine glass for Elijah, holiday candles, salt water for dipping, cup, basin and towel for washing hands, Haggadah for each person. Individual Seder plates for each person can also be set with an empty plate to remember the homeless. Leslie mentions that she also adds a special cup called Miriam's cup to remember Moses' sister who was a fountain of strength for the Jews during their flight. "It is said that as long as Miriam was with them the Jews always had water during their flight into the desert. However when she died, the water dried up with her." Miriam's cup is filled with water in her memory.

Before describing the Seder, an explanation of a Haggadah is necessary. Haggadah in Hebrew means the "telling". The Haggadah is known as the Seder text, which is 2,000 years old. It contains prayers, hymns and selections from the Mishnah and recent Haggadot have been printed with beautiful illustrations and in many languages. With the help of the Haggadah, the story of Passover is told during the Seder.

Before the Seder begins, the candles on the table are lit. The Seder starts with a KADDESH when the Kiddush is said. The first cup of wine is drunk at this time. Then the UR'CHATZ or washing of the hands take place. The hands are washed by pouring flowing water over the hands over a bowl at the table. After that the KARPAS or dipping of the parsley in salt water is done while saying the blessing. Next is YACHATZ when the middle matzah is broken and the larger half is hidden as an Afikomen. Following this is the MAGGID where the story of Passover is told. The following four questions are sung or recited by the youngest child.

* On all other nights we eat bread or matzah. On this night why do we eat only matzah?
* On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables. On this night why do we eat only maror?
* On all other nights we do not have to dip vegetables even once. On this night why do we dip them twice?
* On all other nights we eat our meals sitting any way we like. On this night why do we lean on pillows?

After these questions are asked, a second cup of wine is drunk. This is followed by the RACHTZAH or the washing of hands again and the saying of a blessing. Next comes the MOTZI or Matzah when the blessing for the matzah is recited. MAROR - bitter herb or horseradish - is then dipped in the charoset with another blessing. After the MAROR, there is the KORECH where a sandwich of matzah and bitter herbs is eaten. These symbolic foods lead to the main part of the Seder called SHULCHAN ORECH - eating the festive meal.

Traditional dishes that are not part of the ritualistic Seder are eaten at this time. The dishes cannot contain anything with corn or corn syrup, so everything is cooked in apple cider vinegar and only pure white sugar is used as a sweetener. Green peas are also not allowed in the Seder meal. Some of the food that is Kosher for Passover also depends on the country people come from. Middle Easterners can eat rice and rice products while East European Jews have potatoes as part of the Seder meal. Leslie mentions "We usually have a sweet potato casserole, hard boiled eggs dipped in salt water, gefilte fish with horseradish, matzah ball soup, baked stuffing with matzah and home made cranberry sauce among other dishes. In my grandmother's house, we used to have a salty soup with sliced eggs in it." Some of the special desserts that are eaten are macaroons and chocolate covered matzahs.

The meal is followed by TZAFUN where the hidden Afikomen is searched for and retrieved by a child who receives a prize after the Afikomen is eaten. Next is the BARECH where the blessing after the meal is said. A third cup of wine is drunk at this time and Elijah, the prophet, is welcomed to the Seder. A HALLEL or songs of praise are sung with a fourth cup of wine. After that is the NIRTZAH or the end of the Seder.

As part of the Seder four cups of wine are drunk, two before the feast and two after, representing the four stages of the Exodus:

Freedom: "I will bring you out"
Deliverance: "I will deliver you"
Redemption: "I will redeem you"
Release: "I will take you to be My people"

When drinking the wine, a finger is first dipped in the wine and a drop is spilled from the cup to remember the suffering of the Egyptians whose children died from the Pharaoh's evil ways.

Passover is an inclusive holiday and family and friends of all ages are invited to be part of the Seder. They are welcomed and encouraged to join in the songs and prayers.

The Temple Beth Torah at 42000 Paseo Padre Parkway in Fremont is having their Annual Community Passover Seder on Tuesday April 6th starting at 6:30 p.m. (doors will open at 6:00 p.m. The price for the Seder is Adults $18 and $10 for children ages 3-12. 2 and under are free. There will be a complete Seder including matzo ball soup, chicken, vegetable, potato kugel, eggs, matzos, charoset and dessert. The food will be prepared in kosher style. Seating is limited to the first 200 people. For more information call (510) 656-7141.

TCV wishes to thank Dr. Guterman for preparing a Seder plate and for the information about Passover and Seder. This reporter had attended a very traditional Seder in the late eighties in Massachusetts at a friend's home. The Seder started at 7:00 p.m. and ended at midnight. The Haggadah was read both in Hebrew and English. It was very enjoyable and she encourages anyone who would like to experience this colorful holiday to attend the community Seder.

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