Four Cups

March 30, 2014

446337280_f4d7ba7a6c_zRabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in these four cups [of wine or grape juice on the first night of Passover], for they, too, were included in that miracle. – Pesachim 108a-b

Today I had the privilege of study with Sara Wolkenfeld of Sefaria.org (if you aren’t familiar with Sefaria, check it out – AWESOME source for Jewish study!) as part of a group from the Women’s Rabbinic Network. This was one of the texts she shared with us, talking about “women’s inclusion in the miracle” in texts from the tradition.

The entire teaching was marvelous and too complex for a single blog post, but I thought I would share this fragment with you. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was a 3rd century rabbi, teaching at Lydda (roughly where Ben Gurion airport stands outside Tel Aviv today.)

Traditionally, women are not obligated to perform all mitzvot [commandments.] Rabbi Yehoshua is saying here that one mitzvah women must perform is that of drinking the four cups at the Passover seder. He takes it as a given that men have this obligation, since often when the Talmud talks about “everyone” it really means “all men.”

So perhaps one could rephrase this: “Everyone is obligated in the four cups – yes, really EVERYONE.”

So, in this modern day and age — what?

The point of the four cups is participation in the seder. Everyone is there to take part in the enjoyment of the holiday. Everyone is there to tell the story, to feel as if he or she were personally delivered from Egypt. But if some people (women or men!) are back in the kitchen all evening, getting the next thing ready, making everything “perfect,” how will they fulfill their obligation of the four cups? It isn’t enough to “knock ‘em back” as you dash from table to kitchen – no, everyone must participate!

This raises some questions about our seders. It is easy to think of the seder as a performance: a beautiful ceremony that includes a beautiful meal, especially since there will be relatives and guests at the table. It is tempting to show off complicated dishes. But if our focus is strictly on a “performance,” what about the participation? When will the cook feel free from Egypt?

Remember, the first Passover did not involve “good china.” We stood around the table, our bags at the ready, munching the matzah and getting ready to run. This Passover, let’s plan our seders so everyone is free to recline, to enjoy the cups, to tell the story, to sing the songs — and if that means a slightly simpler menu, and everyone (or more of us) pitching in to help, then that is what we should do!

Image: CC Dan Zelazo some rights reserved.


Your Seat is Waiting!

March 26, 2014
Your place is waiting at a seder table somewhere.

Your place is waiting at a seder table somewhere.

Do you have your seat yet at a Passover seder table yet? Well, why not?

Possible reasons, and my replies:

1. I don’t think I can do this by myself. You are absolutely right, you cannot do this by yourself! And if this is your first seder, you definitely do not want to be the host. However, did you know that it is a mitzvah to have guests at one’s Passover table? Therefore, by making yourself available as a guest, you are making it possible for someone to do a mitzvah. So get cracking and find yourself a seat! (See directions below.)

2. I am shy, and inviting myself to someone’s house or going to a community seder feels weird. Yes, it will feel weird. The holiday of Passover is designed to feel weird. Think of it this way: Shyness is your personal Egypt. Allow the routines and traditions of Passover to lead you out of shyness, at least a little way. Like the horseradish, sometimes it will taste uncomfortable. Like the charoset, it will also be sweet. And it may be as messy as matzah crumbs. But it will be OK.

3. I hate family dinners with my relatives. OK, you have two choices: You can see if this year, you can bring some new aspect of yourself to the table, or see some new aspect of the relatives, and have a new Passover this year. OR you can go to a different seder and have a different experience. Both choices offer pluses and minuses, and only you can tally those, but either way, you need to make your plans!

4. I hate matzah, gefilte fish, and those Passover desserts. OK, here it is, right from the rabbi’s keyboard: you are required to eat a small piece of matzah and to drink the wine or grape juice. It is OK to pass on the gefilte fish and the desserts. Just be sure to compliment the cook on something at the meal, and offer to help clean up. Now stop kvetching and find yourself somewhere for seder!

5. Oy, oy, oy, those seders go on forever! Wow, another kvetcher! So this isn’t your first seder, and the ones you’ve been to were too long? Get some friends together and have your own seder! There are short Haggadahs* on the market. Or you can use a regular Haggadah and decide ahead of time what you are going to shorten. Or figure out what parts of the seder are really meaningful to the group of you, and do those. Then congratulate one another on having left the Egypt of seders that go on forever. No, I am not kidding.

6. Insert your excuse here. Is there some other reason you do not yet know what you are doing for a Passover seder? Leave me a note in the comments!

* A Haggadah is a script for the Passover seder. It is not carved in stone, and there are many different ones on the market. You can treat it like Shakespeare and read every word, or you can have an Improv Seder. Up to you.

HOW TO FIND A PASSOVER SEDER

1.  Jewish Family  If you have Jewish relatives nearby, then there’s your seat. If they aren’t “doing seder” this year, ask if anyone’s interested. There may be someone who knows how to do it that was just waiting for you to ask.

2.  Jewish Friends Jews are obligated to observe Passover at the seder. It is socially acceptable to tell your Jewish friends that you are looking for a spot at a seder table. It is not socially acceptable to be noticeably picky about it. If you will be a guest at someone’s seder table, read Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Seder Guest. 

3. Call the Synagogue Many synagogues organize a matchmaking thing before Passover, and will match people with families who are willing to host. This tends to work better if you are already known at that synagogue, but it’s worth a try even if you aren’t. If it’s a liberal synagogue (Reform, etc) they may have a Community Seder to which you can purchase a ticket. Do not show up at a Community Seder expecting to buy a ticket at the door: they usually sell out, and often there is no way to handle money at the door on a holiday. CALL AHEAD – in fact, call NOW.

4. Call the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Center Like the synagogue, they may have a matchmaking service OR a Community Seder. Again, for communal seders you usually are expected to buy a ticket. If you really can’t afford the price, ask about discounted tickets.

5. No Federation or JCC nearby? Look for any local Jewish institutions, call and ask them for help.

With all these possibilities, the earlier you start looking, the likelier you are to find a place at the table. A good seder is worth the trouble, and as I said, guests at the table are a Passover mitzvah. Good hunting! (And don’t delay, time’s a-wasting!)

 

Image: “Passover 2013″ by Ellen Davis -Attribution-ShareAlike License


Making the Seder Count

March 22, 2013
US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read fr...

US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read from the Passover Hagaddah (prayer book) during the Passover Seder dinner in the wardroom aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We gather once a year around the seder table to eat matzah, to tell the Exodus story, and to fulfill the commandments. At some tables, it’s just that: a traditional trip down memory lane. But if we are going to take the words of the sages seriously, to rise from the table feeling as if we ourselves have been delivered from Egypt, if we want to make this experience count for something, we might want to think outside the limits of the bare minimum.

One thing we can do is to ask the “wicked child’s” question over and over again as we read through the Haggadah: What does this have to do with US? The sages criticize that child because of the way he asks the  question: he separates himself from the community. But what if we were to ask the same question in a different spirit, to say, “Where do we fit into this story?” Then more questions will open up:

  • When have I been a slave?
  • Am I now a slave to someone or something?
  • Have I enslaved someone?
  • Do I benefit from slave labor?
  • What is slavery? Does it still exist?
  • What is real freedom?
  • What are the plagues in my life?
  • Who is not welcome to come and eat at my table? Why?
  • Who is hungry within 5 miles of my house? 10 miles?

and the biggie:

• When I rise from the table, what am I personally going to do about my answers to any of those questions?

What questions are you going to ask around your seder table?  How will you make your seder count?


Where’s Your Seder?

March 16, 2013

Deutsch: Sedertisch. Festmahl zum jüdischen Pe...

The first night of Passover is March 25, 2013 – a week away! If you do not have a plan for what you are going to do about seder, now’s the time to figure it out.

For readers in the Bay Area of California, Dawn Kepler at Building Jewish Bridges has put together a very good directory to first and second night seders on her blog.

If you are not in that area, call a local synagogue or Jewish institution and ask them about community seders. Most of these will have a charge for attendance (after all, they have to pay for the food and often the venue) but financial assistance is often available. If you need it, ask for it. Call now, because later in the week the places at the table may be full.

If you will be a guest in someone’s home, here are Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Guest. If you are hosting your first seder, here are Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success. If you will be alone for Passover, here are some Tips for that.

However you “do” Passover, I wish you a joyful and hopeful passage from slavery to freedom.


Passover Vocabulary 102

March 11, 2013
Matzah Ball Soup

Matzah Ball Soup (Photo credit: mhaithaca)

After I posted Passover Vocabulary 101, my friend Ely Zimmerman offered some great suggestions, and I thought of more words and phrases a newcomer to Passover might want to know.  Here’s a new list (if you think of more, leave me a comment and I’ll add 103 to the blog!)

קנאַידעל – (NAY-dle) Knaidel  or kneydel is a matzah ball. That is, it’s a dumpling made of matzah meal and eggs, usually served in chicken broth. It’s also yummy. (Yiddish)

אפיקומן – (af-ee-KO-men) Afikomen is a piece of broken matzah, eaten at the end of the Passover meal. It is the last thing consumed. Often, if there are children present, the afikomen is hidden from them and a prize is given as “ransom” to the child who finds it. The seder cannot be finished until the afikomen is eaten.

מא נשתנה הלילה הזה – (Ma nish-ta-NAH ha-LYE-lah ha-ZEH) – Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh is the beginning of the part of the seder called “The Four Questions.” It means, “How is tonight different?” Many things in the seder are done in odd ways in order to get the participants to ask questions or to stimulate curiosity.

אליהו – (ee-LYE-jah or EH-li-AH-hu) Elijah is the name of a prophet during the reign of King Ahab of Israel. According to the Bible, he did not die but was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot. (2 Kings 2:9) Since Elijah’s mysterious disappearance, legends have circulated that he sometimes visits Jews, and that someday he will come to announce the arrival of a messiah.  Towards the end of the seder, we open a door just a bit, in case Elijah might visit our home.

חרוסת – (cha-RO-set or cha-RO-sis) Charoset is a mixture of chopped apples, chopped nuts, and a little wine (and sometimes other things, too) that we eat at Passover. It is a reminder of the mortar that the Hebrew used to make bricks. It is also a sweet taste to contrast with the bitter herbs.

געפילטע פיש – (geh-FILL-teh FISH) Gefilte Fish is traditional Passover and Shabbat food among Ashkenazi Jews. It’s usually served as balls of poached ground fish, and eaten with horseradish. (Yiddish)

מרור – (mah-ROAR) – Maror is a bitter herb, which we are commanded to eat at Passover. Often horseradish is served as maror; sometimes romaine lettuce or celery are used.


Seder Tips: Alone for Passover?

March 4, 2013
A Seder table setting

A Seder table setting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WordPress, the outfit that makes it possible for me to post this blog, also provides me with data about the Google searches that lead people here. Today one caught my eye and urges me to write: “how to have a seder alone.”

Jews generally celebrate everything in community. There are even some things we can’t do properly without a certain number of persons present:  say the Kaddish prayer, chant from the Torah, or get married, to name just a few. While there is no rule against reading through the Haggadah alone, “Seder” suggests a group of people around a table, telling the Exodus story together. It was designed by the ancient rabbis as an opportunity to learn and share with other Jews. Yet sometimes circumstances are such that it just isn’t possible to gather with friends for a seder. Here are some thoughts for dealing with Passover solo.

1. IT’S OK TO ASK.  In Western culture, it is generally considered impolite to “invite myself over” to someone’s house, especially for a meal. Passover meals are one of the exceptions to this rule. If you are going to be in a city but don’t know any of the Jews there, call a local Jewish institution (synagogue, the Federation) and tell them that you are alone for Passover and need somewhere to go for seder. Often they can provide a lead to a household where they look forward to keeping the mitzvah of a new person at the table. It’s a mitzvah for them, and a community for you, and you’ll almost certainly make some Jewish friends.  Good all around!  It is also ok, if you are a single in a Jewish community, to let others know that you don’t have a seder invitation. If you are a guest at someone’s seder table, be sure to read Seven Ways to be a Great Seder Guest.

2. COMMUNITY SEDERS. Many Jewish communities offer a second night seder at synagogues or a hotel for which guests sign up and pay a fee. My own community, Temple Sinai of Oakland, is offering such a seder this year (if you are going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up via this link.) Again, call local Jewish institutions and ask! This can be a more comfortable option if you feel shy about going to a seder at someone’s home.

3. TECHNOLOGY. If there is a group in another place with whom you have had the seder in the past, but you’ve relocated, what about Skype? Talk to your friends about setting up a computer near the table, so you can schmooze with the Jews, too.  If Skype is too much tech for you, consider a phone connection via a speakerphone on the distant table. No, it is not traditional or even halakhic, but it will provide an important connection on the holiday. Last year a number of Jews, including rabbis, found ways to use technology to enhance the seder, according to this Wall Street Journal article.

4. INVITE NON-JEWISH FRIENDS. OK, so you are in the middle of nowhere, no Jews around, and Skyping with old friends is not an option. What about getting some matzah, getting out the Haggadah, and inviting some Gentile friends over to share the story of the Exodus?

5. SEDER SOLO. If none of the above will work for you, the real necessities for your seder are some matzah, some wine or grape juice, and a copy of the Haggadah. If you have no Haggadah, a Bible will do.  Read the story. Eat unleavened bread. And then begin to make plans for next year, either in Jerusalem, or with some friends.


Preparing for Passover: Six Ways to Prepare

February 26, 2013
housekeeping

(Photo credit: pucci.it)

Traditionally, Jews spend the month after Purim preparing for Passover. A lot of the holiday is in the preparation: the seder and the week that follows are the fruit of what we’ve put in the month before. I thought it might be helpful to look at the various ways we prepare for Passover.  If this is your first year observing Passover, don’t try to do everything at once. Choose one or two, and get all that you can out of them.

 

1. HOUSE CLEANING. Yes, literal house cleaning! For more on this, and a sane way to approach it in the spirit of learning something (as opposed to merely making yourself exhausted and crazy) here’s an article I wrote last year. One of the things about the physical cleaning is that you can pursue it while you think about some of the more brain-intensive possibilities below.

 

2. PONDERING A PERSONAL PASSOVER. Passover is the festival of telling the story about “deliverance from Egypt.” If you are truly to experience deliverance, it helps to notice from what you need deliverance. Spend some time, between now and Passover, thinking about your own personal Egypt(s). The name for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim,” which also means “a narrow place, a tight spot.” Questions to ask myself: Where in my life am I stuck? To what am I a slave? In what parts of my life am I Pharaoh? Do I depend on the slavery of others? What would freedom look like, in any of these cases? What would freedom cost? What is freedom worth?

 

3. PLANNING FOR SEDER.  Notice that I don’t say “planning A seder.” I covered that last year in the post, “Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success.”  The question is, what am I going to do about attending seder this year? Participation at seder is not optional: Jews are supposed to be at a seder the first night of Passover (in some understandings, the first two nights of Passover.) This does NOT mean that each of us have to host a seder, however. Now is the time to make seder plans, to touch base with the family with whom you always have seder (are we observing together this year?) or to make your own  list of guests, or to find out what’s available to you.  If you are reading this and thinking, “But I don’t know anyone!” then you need to get busy. Phone your synagogue and tell them that you need a seder invitation (yes, this is perfectly OK, if you belong to a synagogue.) OR phone almost any local Jewish organization and ask them to point you to a seder you can attend for a fee. If this makes you feel incredibly anxious, watch for upcoming posts on this blog about being a seder novice with “nowhere to go.” I’m going to write about it.

 

4. PLANNING FOR THE WEEK. When I was first learning about Passover, I got so excited about the cleaning and the meal, I forgot that Passover goes on for a whole week.  Plan what you will eat during that time: lots of matzah? Special recipes? Or use the time to “renew your diet” by moving away from processed foods and spending a week eating fresh fruits and vegetables? If you are going to buy special products for Passover, now is the time to buy them (and to find them in the store.)

 

5. PONDERING CHAMETZ. Another thing to think about, as Passover approaches, is chametz. It’s what we clean out of the house (see the link in #1 above.) Technically speaking, chametz is any product of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt) that may have gotten wet. (What? you say, I thought it had something to do with leaven? And the answer to that, is that in Bible times, leaven was all by sourdough method: if grain got wet, sometimes it got infected with yeast and swelled.) In pondering chametz, the questions are: what in my life is crummy? What has gotten swelled up, out of proportion? What is stale? And now that I’ve identified those things, what am I going to do about them?

 

6. TZEDAKAH. Tzedakah is the Jewish term for charitable giving, which we are commanded to do. At Passover, the story reminds me of slaves and refugees, both of which the present world has in miserable quantity. This is a great time to give tzedakah to relieve their suffering. This, too, takes planning!

 

So, enjoy your planning! Get all the “juice” out of this fruitful time of the Jewish year!

 


Preparing for Passover – Resources

February 15, 2013
Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I have noticed in the past few days that suddenly lots of people are looking to Google for help preparing for Passover. Traditionally, Passover prep begins at Purim, but in fact, many people start a bit earlier, because it can be a big job.

But… don’t forget to celebrate Purim!  More about that in the days to come.


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