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April 1, 2009 > A Passover primer

A Passover primer

By Miriam Mazliach

After sundown on Wednesday, April 8, family and friends in most Jewish households will gather in observance of the start of Passover. The eight-day holiday celebrates deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery and their exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago.

The Old Testament details a succession of 10 plagues that rained down upon Egypt until Pharaoh let the Israelites go. The final and most devastating one killed the firstborn male of every household. Jews marked their doors with the blood of a sacrificed lamb so that the Angel of Death would "pass over" their homes.

"The seder (meal) and re-telling of the story is a re-enactment of not only an ancient ritual, but a reconnection to timeless values: freedom and witnessing God's saving power," according to Rabbi Avi Schulman of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont.

This year, Passover begins on the evening of April 8 and ends on April 16. A seder is typically held on the first two evenings of the Passover holiday.

During the seder, a special book known as a "haggadah" is read, usually in English and Hebrew. It sets out the order of the seder, such as when certain prayers and blessings are recited, when the Passover story is read and discussed, what ritual foods are eaten, and finally which songs will be sung.

Usually everyone gets a chance to participate by reading a portion of the haggadah. Traditionally, the youngest in attendance has the honor of asking "the four questions," which focus on why this night is different from all other nights. The questions are answered by the head of household or leader of the seder.

A seder plate of symbolic foods is in the center of the table. These are eaten in small servings, such as an appetizer would be, at specific times during the reading of the haggadah and prior to the main meal. Additionally, cups of wine are filled symbolically four times throughout the seder.

A separate platter containing three layers of "matzoh," flat cracker-like squares, are covered and placed on the table. During the eight days of Passover, observant Jews are not allowed to eat bread or anything that contains leavening, a rising agent. This includes food made with wheat, rye, barley, spelt and oats. The reason is that when the Israelites left Egypt in such a hurry, they could not wait for their bread dough to rise, and thus matzoh resulted.

The first item on the seder plate is "maror," bitter herbs which symbolize the harshness of slavery. Today, grated horseradish is used as a stand-in for bitter herbs. Often this is paired with "chazeret" (lettuce).

The next item on the plate is "charoset." It represents the mortar used by Jewish slaves to construct the buildings and pyramids of Egypt. Usually, charoset is made by mixing chopped walnuts, grated apples, cinnamon and red wine.

"Karpas" is a vegetable or green herb to be dipped in salt water. Parsley, celery, even radishes are used. The salt water represents the tears and pain felt by the Jewish slaves in Egypt.

"Z'roa," either a roasted chicken neck or a lamb shank bone, is not eaten. Rather, it represents the many sacrifices Jewish people have had to endure.

The last symbolic item on the seder plate is the "beitzah," or roasted egg. This serves as a symbol of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Hard-boiled eggs are passed, dipped into salt water and eaten.

After all of this praying, nibbling and reading, the haggadah reaches a point where participants get to pause and partake in the main meal. The highlight is the wonderfully comforting chicken soup with homemade fluffy matzoh balls (similar to dumplings) or fresh egg noodles. Other typical holiday foods might include a delicious beef brisket, lamb or roast chicken. Special holiday desserts are sampled as well.

A blessing is said after the meal and then the haggadah is picked up once again to continue with the reading. The "afikomen," a piece of matzoh concealed earlier, is retrieved from its hiding place. Usually a small reward is given to the child who found it or took it in the first place. Then everyone breaks off and eats a piece of the afikomen.

A door is opened to welcome the spirit of Elijah the prophet to the seder table to "drink" from his cup of wine on the table. The seder concludes with the singing of traditional songs and best wishes for all those gathered.

Rabbi Schulman relates, "The Passover seder is colored by recalling times and places where we have celebrated in the past with loved ones. At the seder, we open our hearts in generosity, where everyone, including newcomers, has a place at the table and strangers become friends."

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