Ask the Rabbi: Hostess gifts at Passover?

Ask the RabbiA reader asks: What can I bring as a gift to a Passover seder?

First and foremost, unless you are certain of your hosts’ Passover practices, don’t bring any food that is loose or homemade. While there are basic rules for Passover that apply in most households, no two families are exactly the same. Food marked “Kosher for Passover” in an sealed, unopened package is probably all right but for myself, I tend to avoid all food gifts at this time of year unless I have special knowledge of tastes and Jewish observance in that home.

Some good non-food items to bring:

  1. An interesting Haggadah is a nice gift. Some have beautiful illustrations, some have texts or commentary by famous rabbis, and some are just unusual.
  2. Small housewares are welcome this time of year: dish clothes, napkins, placemats, salt-and-pepper shakers, etc. Many families pack away their “regular” wares in favor of “Passover” things and so something new is particularly welcome at this time.
  3. Flowers are always lovely.
  4. If there are children in the house, bringing a Passover book, puzzle or toy for children is a very nice thing to do.
  5. Books or games are a fine idea.

If nothing on this list appeals to you, perhaps it has given you other ideas. Readers, can you suggest gifts you have given at Passover time that have been particularly welcome?

Welcome to Nisan!

A few blooms announce the arrival of spring.
It’s Nisan! It’s Spring!

This is a few hours early – Nisan doesn’t officially begin until sundown. But yes, Adar is almost gone and Nisan is upon us.

Nisan was counted as the first month of the year in the Biblical calendar, in which it is called “Aviv.” That is one reason that 1st Nisan is one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar.  Nisan is the Babylonian name for the month, which we brought back from Babylon when Cyrus the Great authorized the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and the Babylonian Exile ended. (Ezra 1:1-2)

Nisan has important holidays and observances:

  • 14 NisanFast of the Firstborn – falls on 12 Nisan when the 14th falls on Sabbath
  • 15-21 NisanPassover – also 22 Nisan in the Diaspora, except for Reform Jews.
  • 27 NisanYom HaShoah – falls on 26 Nisan or 28 Nisan when the 27th falls on Friday or Sunday respectively, interfering with Shabbat.

So now that it’s Nisan, time is very short to prepare for Passover! Some articles that may help:

Passover Preparation for Beginners (Good if you are feeling overwhelmed or confused)

Preparing for Passover: Six Ways to Prepare (Expands the possibilities a bit)

7  Facts about Passover (for very beginners)

Preparing for Exodus: Books  Books about Passover

Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success

Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

Seven Facts about Passover: for Beginners

1. Passover is the most-observed Jewish holiday.

2. Passover falls in the springtime. It begins on the 15th of Nisan.

3. Passover lasts for seven days (in Israel) and eight days (in the Diaspora.) Most Reform Jews follow the Israeli practice.

4. Passover is primarily a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. It is layered on an agricultural holiday celebrating the arrival of spring and planting time.

5. Observant Jews remove all products containing wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye from their homes. They prepare for Passover with a vigorous spring cleaning.

6. The primary observance of Passover is the Passover Seder, a meal and learning experience through which the foundational story of the Jews is learned and relearned. The script for the seder is called the Haggadah.

7. During the week of Passover, Jews eat matzah instead of leavened bread. Passover matzah is specially baked unleavened bread. This has resulted in an entire cuisine of Passover cooking.

Purim, Pi, Patrick, Passover!

OK, I admit it: I love alliteration, and that title was just too good to pass up. We just celebrated Purim. Pi Day is today (yay! Pie in the oven right now!) St. Patrick‘s Day is soon, and all this takes place in the midst of Passover preparations (there’s another P!)

This does have a point.

I celebrate Purim and Passover specifically because I’m a Jew. I understand myself to be obligated to celebrate them. They are required for me, optional for any Gentiles who wish to celebrate, although they are certainly welcome at my table.

I celebrate Pi Day with other members of my Jewish community. We celebrate it because (1) we love pie,  (2) we love puns and similar geekery and (3) some of us love math. I would never have met any of those friends were it not for the fact that we happen to go to the same synagogue. We weren’t friends before synagogue; we are dear friends now. Pi Day is neutral religiously, but it offers the added Jewish benefit of using up flour before Passover.

Which brings me to the other P: Patrick. St. Patrick’s Day is a bit more complicated. Start with the “Saint” bit. First, Jews do not celebrate saints’ days. Not our tradition. There are people in our past whom we revere, but we tend to call them tzaddik (righteous person) or chasid (pious person) or we use their names with a certain hush. Second, Christian saints in past centuries were often hostile to the Jews, to put it mildly: see the writings of Ambrose or John Chrysostom. Third, certain Christian holidays became days with excuses for being nasty to Jews: that’s where Patrick gets into the mix.

I am a Jew of Irish-American descent. That ancestry is an important slice of my identity, as important in its own way as “Californian” or “expatriate Southerner” or “queer.”  It’s so important that had one of my sons been a daughter, she’d have been named Bridget. My grandmother’s stories, handed down from her grandmother, about the Famine and our arrival in America were key narratives in my childhood. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day is the day to celebrate that heritage.

Unfortunately, when I wear my bit of green on March 17, I am sure to hear a story or three from Jewish friends and colleagues about their childhood experiences of St. Patrick’s Day. Their memories are of hostility from Irish-Americans that day: pinching (“Where’s your green?”) and excuses for the ongoing antisemitism of the schoolyard: people throwing pennies at the Jew, etc. I don’t recall ever witnessing such as a kid, but since I was part of the majority (at school, not in the culture) I may well have overlooked it.

I still wear green on March 17. I embrace the contradictions, because face it, I embody them. I eschew the leprechauns and green beer because they only play into the worst stereotypes: there is more to Irishness than superstition and alcohol. I don’t celebrate the conversion of Ireland, but I celebrate Irish culture, Irish art, and Irish literature. I celebrate Irish-American grit, and stubbornness, and enterprise. I celebrate my grandmother and her stories and her love.

And yes, as a Jew, it’s complicated, that particular P.

Pi, anyone?

Preparing for Exodus: Books

For Jews, the month before Passover is busy, busy, busy. We have a house to clean, seders to plan, lists to check. The same old decorations may be getting a little shabby – time to spruce things up!

In just the same way, the knowledge of Passover acquired in Hebrew school might not really meet our needs as adults. The same old thoughts are feeling, well, same and old. If you’d like to refresh the inside of your head as well as the inside of your house (or if this whole thing is new to you) it might be the time to check out some pre-Passover reading.

If you are struggling to come up with the right “hostess gift” to take to a seder, a good book is always a welcome addition to a Jewish home. Some of these are inexpensive, some are extremely so, but any would make a lovely gift.

About the Seder

Steingroot, Ira, Keeping Passover – This is a personal favorite of mine. The book is simple enough for beginners and informative enough for those looking to deepen their practice. I like that he encourages freedom in producing a very personal seder for your family.

Arnow, David,  Creating Lively Passover Seders Arnow offers wonderful suggestions for enriching your seder.

Arnow, David and others, My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts & Modern Commentaries, (2 vols) These volumes, like those from the popular series My People’s Prayer Book open up the haggadah in multiple ways for learners.

Tabory, Joseph and Stern, David: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah. This is a heavy-duty scholarly commentary on the haggadah, not for beginners or the faint of heart, but very satisfying for some.

Art Haggadot

The tradition of making beautiful illuminated haggadot goes back centuries. We can learn from texts, sure, but we can also learn from illustrations.

The Moss Haggadah: A Complete Reproduction of the Haggadah Written and Illuminated by David Moss for Richard and Beatrice Levy, with the Commentary of the Artist. This haggadah was originally produced as a private commission. Linda and I were given a copy as a wedding present, and it is one of our most treasured possessions.

The Szyk Haggadah, by Arthur Szyk. This haggadah was illustrated and published by a Polish artist during the rise of Hitler. It is one of the great treasures of the Jewish people.

Epstein, Mark, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination. This art book will give you a glimpse of four of the beautiful medieval haggadot, all produced between 1300 and 1340 in Europe. The art is accompanied by commentary by Mark Epstein, a historian who puts them all in context.

There are many other beautiful art haggadot. The way to see them is to find a bookstore with a seder display and usually the art haggadot are its stars.

For information about regular haggadot for use at the table, see Which Haggadah, Rabbi?

Passover Cookbooks!

Passover cooking is a miracle of its own. Imagine cooking completely without chametz: products of wheat, rye, oats, spelt or barley!  For Ashenazim (Jews of Eastern European traditions) add kitniyot (rice, legumes, corn, etc.) to that list. Perhaps because of the strictures, Pesadik (kosher for Passover) recipes have become an art form.

Nathan, Joan. Joan Nathan’s Holiday Cookbook. This is a cookbook with commentary. The recipes are great (and include more than Passover!) but there are also stories and information to help you enjoy the holidays. This book is a classic.

Amster, Linda, ed. The New York Times Passover Cookbook: More than 200 Holiday Recipes from Top Cooks and Writers. Another classic, now in a second edition.


Which Haggadah, Rabbi?

One of my students asked this evening about suggestions for Passover Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) and books about Passover. What a great idea!

Keep in mind that the Haggadah is merely a script for the evening. What you choose to do with it is up to you: do everything, do only some parts, add favorite bits from other haggadot, do parts of it as skits, interpretive dance, whatever. OK, I was mostly kidding about the interpretive dance. But if that idea excites you, please send video! My point is, it’s your seder, do it in a way that will be meaningful for you and the people at your table!

A complete set of haggadot can be a considerable investment, unless you inherit some or use the free ones that some grocery stores in big cities give away. The absolute best way to buy one is to go to a real bookstore and browse them: hold them in your hands, see how the pages turn, feel the weight, imagine them on your table. Look at the pictures or lack thereof, look at the text. If you must buy via the Internet, then buy one or two and try them out before you take the plunge.

The other possibility is that maybe you want to collect haggadot and mix and match the contents for your own seder. More about that in another post.

Haggadot (hah-gah-DOTE)

ChildrensHA Children’s Haggadah, Text by Rabbi Howard Bogot and Rabbi Robert Orkand, Illustrated and designed by Devis Grebu. I especially like this one when there are going to be children and/or folks who are new to the seder. It’s very well done but also quite simple.

goldbergPassover Haggadah, by Nathan Goldberg. A traditional haggadah text, with both English and Hebrew. Pages and lines are numbered which will help after two glasses of wine. (“Where are we now?”)

HaggadahCCARA Passover Haggadah,  Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, ed. Illustrated by Leonard Baskin. This classic has been around many seder tables for years.


diffnighthA Different Night, the Family Participation Haggadah, by David Dishon and Noam Zion. This book changed my whole approach to the seder. I used to feel bound by the seder and terribly anxious if we skipped anything. This book made me feel free to tailor the seder to the group at the table, and seders have been much better ever since. There is also a “compact edition” of this that you can buy to have at each place at the table (less expensive, and easier to handle.) The “leader’s edition” really qualifies not only as a Haggadah but also as a book about Passover.

santacruzhThe Santa Cruz Haggadah, by Karen G.R. Rockard. Affectionately known at my house as “that hippie haggadah,” this is another personal favorite. Besides the bizarro name (it was written in 1991 in Santa Cruz, CA – there are no “holy crosses” in it, I promise!) it has cartoony illustrations and lots of alternative readings about tikkun olam, our responsibility to heal the world. You’ll either love it or hate it. It, too, comes in a “leaders edition” and a “participant’s version.”

Beautiful Haggadot

Some haggadot are gorgeous art books and not really intended for the table. OR they are commentaries on the haggadah, intended more for the study table in the weeks leading up to the seder. Either way, they can be wonderful to own in addition to the regular haggadot you will stain with wine and brisket gravy. Trust me: you do not want to juggle an art book or a ten pound commentary at the seder table!

I have mentioned a few of my personal favorite haggadot. I’d like your help in expanding this list: what’s your favorite haggadah to actually use at the seder table? Please tell us about it in the comments with enough information for readers to find a copy!

Happy preparations, everyone!


Passover Preparation, for Beginners

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [Pirkei Avot 2:16]

It is tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers, and we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  To any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey! If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  What can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by the Pesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing)  is a product that is both made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) and has been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that has been wet at one time for more than 18 minutes.

Anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it on purpose or by accident is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot] because those things often behave like the forbidden grains.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of what I call “big chometz.”  Set aside all the chometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

Another possibility is to buy a package of paper plates. This is less wasteful if there is some way to compost them instead of putting them in the landfill after use. During Passover, I use more disposable products than at other times of the year, but I try to use them responsibly.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for  all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down.  Dust everywhere.  Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZ  Some thinkers have suggested that chometz can be spiritual rather than physical. If this idea intrigues you, here are some articles that explore it:
7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, the way we observe the mitzvah may shift.
Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.
This is an update of a post from 2012.