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


Purim to Passover = Preparation

March 16, 2014
Passover will arrive when the moon is full again.

Passover will arrive when the moon is full again.

Purim is over! Put away the masks and take an aspirin if necessary: it’s time to prepare for Passover!

Passover in 2014 begins at sundown on April 14. That’s the “first night” or “first seder.”

Note: In this blog, I assume that my main audience are beginners: people who did not for whatever reason get a Jewish education as children and who are looking to engage with Jewish life as adults. If you are looking for directions for keeping a frum house for Pesach this blog is not for you. However, if you are not sure what “frum” and “Pesach” are, you are in the right place (and you can click the links to find out what those words mean.)

1. WHERE WILL YOU BE FOR SEDER? Traditionally, Jews attend at least one Passover seder every year during which we tell the story of the Exodus and make it fresh again. So, if you do not yet have plans for attending a seder, it’s time to seek one out. If this will be your first seder, do not try to host it. Check with your rabbi or synagogue office: who has a place at the table for you? If you have a mentor  or Jewish friends, you can ask them, too. There may be a communal seder you can join for a fee, but be aware: tickets sell out, so call early! If you will be a guest at the seder table, here is an article about that. If this is not your first Passover, and you are going to host your first seder, here is an article for you.

2. GET RID OF YOUR CHAMETZ! Cleaning for Passover is the main way we prepare for the holiday, and it is a part of the experience of the season. We have to get rid of all our chametz. Chametz is any product with wheat, oats, spelt, barley, or rye that might at some point have gotten wet and swelled. We deal with the “might have gotten wet” part by just getting rid of all products containing those five grains. For instructions on cleaning for Passover, read Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.

3. SHOP FOR MATZAH: One of the names for Passover is Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of Matzah. We eat matzah during Passover. If you don’t particularly like matzah, you can fulfill the obligation by eating it at the seder, but if you want to have some at home, it’s a good idea to grab a box before they sell out. You can learn more in this article: Passover Shopping Tips.

Some readers may be thinking, gee, party planning, housekeeping, and shopping: is this any way to prepare for a holy festival? Passover is the quintessential Jewish holiday, because the spiritual part is hidden within seemingly mundane tasks. Over the four weeks between now and Passover, I’m going to use this blog to uncover some of the spiritual growth possibilities hidden in those to-do lists.

In the meantime, trust the process! Prepare for Passover! And let’s see where we are when the moon is full again.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Klearchos Kapoutsis 


Passover Shopping Tips

March 11, 2014
The variety of Passover products can be dazzling.

The variety of Passover products can be dazzling.

Spring is on its way.

I know this because my friend Mark has begun stockpiling matzah. Ever since the Great Matzah Shortage of 5768, he has watched for the first kosher-for-Passover (KforP) matzah to appear in the stores and he snaps it up. He’s discriminating – he has his preferred brands – but he is not going to be caught short of matzah, because eating matzah is a commandment for Passover.

This weekend Linda mentioned to me that Mark found some matzah, so now I know it: spring is coming.

Since some of you may be wondering about shopping for Passover, I thought I’d pass along some basic tips. I hope that some readers will add their tips to the comments, too.

1. BUY MATZAH EARLY – You do not want to be looking for matzah at the last minute. It truly is a requirement for any seder, no matter how liberal or laid-back.  You also want to check the label carefully, because often the nice people at the secular grocery store don’t realize that there is matzah and then there is kosher-for-Passover matzah. Just because it has “Maneschewitz” on the box doesn’t mean it is OK for Passover. Somewhere on that box it must say “Kosher for Passover.” [Some people like to eat matzah year round; they buy regular matzah anytime.  Kosher for Passover matzah is made according to the laws of the season, and for more detail I will point you to the Orthodox Union page on the subject.] (Thank you to Rachel Fleming on Twitter for this tip.)

2. BUY KOSHER WINE EARLY – If you are hosting a seder, or if you are taking a bottle of KforP wine as a table gift to a seder, pick up your wine early. As with the matzah, it is a commandment to serve it or grape juice at the seder. Particularly if you crave “nice” kosher wine (not the cough syrup some of us traditionalists insist on buying) it may be hard to find in the days immediately before Passover.

3. DON’T GET CRAZY – If you shop in a Jewish store or in a city with lots of Jews, you may find the wild variety of processed KforP  food pretty dazzling. Particularly if you are a newcomer to the Jewish world, you may either be dumfounded or you may feel like you need “one of each.” Stop right there: step AWAY from the shopping cart!  All that stuff is still processed food and most of it is not particularly nutritious. If there’s something a family member particularly loves, of course that’s different. But truly, you don’t need to break the bank buying lots of mixes and faux-cornflakes. Passover is a great time to improve our diets by eating lots of fresh fruits and veggies, most of which are automatically kosher for Passover. If you enjoy cooking, get a Passover cookbook and get the ingredients you need for some interesting-sounding dishes.

Speaking of “Don’t Get Crazy,” if you are feeling confused or crazed when you think about Passover cleaning, I wrote an essay a while back that may help: Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.

4. STORE YOUR PASSOVER FOOD. Until you get the kitchen and/or house ready for Passover, leave your Matzo and KforP wine in its wrappers and away from your regular food.  You don’t want them mixed in where someone may snack on them or get chametz in there. This is the reason the KforP matzah comes in a box that is also shrink wrapped: the manufacturer is not taking any chances.

5. PACE YOURSELF. I know, it’s easier to say it than to do it. Start early, go steadily, and do your best. Don’t be so busy getting ready for Passover that you fail to enjoy Purim. Always remember that human beings are more important than anything else.

Image: LicenseAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by tastytouring


Preparing for Passover, Early Edition

March 4, 2014

Are you already worrying about Passover? You and many other Jewish homemakers!

While it is traditional to begin Passover prep right after Purim, in truth it can take a bit longer, especially for those who work both outside and inside our homes.  After Purim, I’ll publish some new posts about Passover, but until then, these older posts may answer your questions and provide support:

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

Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt

Preparing for Passover – Online Resources

Six Ways to Prepare for Passover

Seder Tips: Alone for Passover?

Passover Vocabulary 101

Passover Vocabulary 102

Hungry for Passover?

That should give you plenty to chew on for now. Don’t forget to enjoy Purim!


Home Sweet Jewish Home

July 2, 2013
English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIX...

English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping a Jewish home is an important part of Jewish life.  Here are some reasons:

HOME RITUALS Many of Judaism’s key rituals take place in the home: Shabbat candle-lighting, Shabbat dinner, Passover seder, Chanukah candles.  Even one lifecycle event, the bris [ritual circumcision] is most often performed at home.

JEWISH IDENTITY Everywhere except in Israel, Judaism is a minority religion. Even in the United States, which has a number of large Jewish communities, we are only 2% of the population.  For Jews, home is the key place where Jewish identity is formed and nurtured, not only in children but in adults.

HOME MITZVOT – There are Jewish commandments that pertain specifically to the home.  We hang a mezuzah in the doorways of the home.  Cooking and meals have many different mitzvot [commandments] associated with them: blessings, dietary laws, even some rules for cooking. Those may occasionally be performed in a synagogue, but they most often are observed in the home. Even certain safety rules for the home are actually commandments from Torah.

MIKDASH ME’AT means “little sanctuary.” Ever since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D., our sages have regarded the home as a primary worship environment for Jews. Torah is a set of instructions for living our daily lives, and those lives take place at home, not at synagogue.

If a visitor came to your home, would he or she recognize that it is a Jewish home? What would be the tipoff?

How many different ways is your home identifiable as a Jewish home?


Hungry for Passover?

March 23, 2013
A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven.

A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

In a few days, we will read those words from the Haggadah.

 

Very soon, Jews all around the world will sit down to a seder meal, to listen to the story, to ask questions, to laugh, to share one another’s company, and to eat. Every family has its own favorite recipes: for my family, it is the brisket I slow-cook every year, 8 hours at least in a low, low oven, simmering with tomatoes and root vegetables until we all go crazy smelling it.

 

But there are other families, Jewish and not, where there will be no feast that first night of Passover, where the phrase “bread of poverty” is not simply a ritual observance. In 2011, over 50 million Americans lived in “food insecure households.” Stop and ponder: Fifty million Americans were unsure of their next meal last year. 

 

That means that if you live in the United States, somewhere within easy driving distance of your home, someone is going hungry.

 

I have learned, as a rabbi, as a person to whom people tell their secrets, that many of the hungry are not the stereotype in your mind. Some of them are your neighbors. Some of them do everything they can to keep their dignity, to not let on. But they line up for some free vegetables behind a church where they think no one will recognize them. They don’t tell their kids where the food came from.

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

How can we keep our words at the seder from being a cruel farce? In the long run, it will require political action, and we are yet to come to agreement about how to proceed about that as a nation. In the short run, there is much we can do, and it is easy to do. Find your local food bank (the link will lead you to an online tool). Send what you can afford. Food banks are organizations that do the buying and gathering of food for many local agencies, to make every dollar go the farthest. If you want your tzedakah dollar to go far, to be a “good investment,” give to your local food bank. It’s very easy to give: most food banks offer an online donation link.

 

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah, to give charity funds for the relief of suffering, before every holiday feast. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms, Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).  People in our neighborhoods suffer from food insecurity – they are not sure of their next meal. It is up to us to act. It is up to us to make sure that the words we read aloud from the Haggadah are true:

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat. 

 

 

 

 


How-To: Seder Plate Setup

March 19, 2013
Traditional arrangement of symbolic foods on a...

Traditional arrangement of symbolic foods on a Passover Seder Plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You are going to host a seder!  You’ve already read Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success.  Now you are getting ready to set the table, and realize you have to make a seder plate. Don’t panic! You can do this.

THE PLATE – The plate may be your great-grandmother’s silver seder-plate, or it can be a paper plate from the grocery store.  Truly.  If you have a large, pretty plate, great, and if you don’t, just use a plate or platter or something.  The point is to arrange some mysterious objects that will spur conversation and questions. If it’s pretty, good. If it is actually a bit weird, that’s not bad, either.

Things to go on the Plate:

Note: the things you put on the plate are to look at, and to provoke discussion. Those foods which you will eat, serve in regular serving bowls that can be handed around. The loaded seder plate will be a disaster waiting to happen if you try to pass it around.  Think of it as a centerpiece, or conversation piece.

KARPAS – Karpas is a green vegetable.  It is supposed to remind people of spring. Parsley is often used for karpas; get a big bundle of it, put some on the seder plate, and put some in water glasses (sort of as you would flowers) to pass out, because the group will need to “dip” the greens into salt water at one point in the seder. The water will keep the parsley crisp, and it will be drippy with the salt water, anyhow. For more about the symbolism of parsley, read this.

CHAROSET – (also pronounced ha-RO-set or cha-RO-sis).There are lots of good recipes for charoset. It’s nuts chopped with apples and sweet wine plus whatever you want. If you have guests who are allergic to nuts, have chopped apples with cinnamon. Put a spoonful on the seder plate.  Since it is there to remind us of the hard work of slavery, you can shape it into a little pyramid if you like. (If your charoset is too runny to do this, you are putting too much wine in it.) Again, put the charoset to serve in bowls, and make more than you think you will need, because some of your guests will want lots.

MAROR – Maror (mah-ROAR) is a bitter herb, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery and to fulfill the commandment to eat bitter herbs with the matzah.  Many Jews use horseradish for this. Put either a spoonful of ground horseradish on the plate, or a chunk of horseradish root. You will want to have another bowl of horseradish to hand around to actually eat from.

ZEROA – Zeroa is a roasted lamb shank bone.  You can get these from a kosher butcher (and often from other butchers) right before Passover.  Or you can save one from the last time you had lamb for dinner, clean it, and keep it in the freezer.  This is in memory of the Passover sacrifice, back when we had the Temple. It is only for show. Vegetarians may opt to replace the actual bone with a beet root.

EGG – Technically, this egg should be roasted. I have seen people do it by holding the egg, with tongs, in a gas flame until the egg turned odd colors (grey, brown streaks).  I have also heard of people boiling the egg with some onion skins to give it color.  Leave it in the shell.  This egg is not fit to eat, it is just for show. It reminds us of the hagigah sacrifice, and of springtime. Many families eat hard boiled eggs as part of the Passover meal.

HAZERET – This one is optional. Some families do it, some do not. It’s an additional bitter vegetable, usually romaine lettuce,  for the Hillel sandwich.  Families who do not put hazeret on the plate use the horseradish for the Hillel sandwich.

That is the traditional seder plate. (See photo at the top of this article.)

In modern times, there have been several additions, which you may or may not choose to have:

The (non-Kosher) Passover Seder Plate

An orange on the seder plate (Photo credit: akseabird)

ORANGE – Some people put an orange on the seder plate as a protest against sexism in Judaism. You may hear a poignant tale about the daughter of a famous rabbi, who was not allowed to say kaddish for her father. That story is not true.  For the true story, read this article.

BREAD – Some have suggested putting a piece of bread on the seder plate to protest discrimination against homosexuals. Bread is used precisely because it is forbidden by the laws of Passover, just as Leviticus is interpreted to forbid homosexuality. However, this may be extremely problematic to anyone who expects there to be no chametz in the house, much less in the centerpiece. It might be more effective instead to have a discussion about marriage diversity at the table.

TOMATO – Some put a tomato on their seder plate, in solidarity with agricultural workers in the U.S. who do not have to imagine what slavery is like.  This article from the Jewish Week says more about that practice, and lists other objects which some people put on the seder plate.

An editorial note:  If you consider putting one of these protest items on your seder plate, please also take some actual action on behalf of the people who suffer. Putting a tomato on the seder plate is nice, but it by itself does not do anything for farm workers. Send a little tzedakah (charitable gift) to an organization that works for freedom of those workers, or works to relieve their suffering.

The purpose of almost everything at the seder, but especially the seder plate itself, is to inspire questions and stimulate conversation. There are no “right” answers — perhaps in your discussion this year, you will think of a new way that one of these objects illuminates the story of the passage of a people from slavery to freedom.

I wish you a Pesach sameach – a happy Passover!


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.


Lechem Oni / Matzah

March 16, 2013

Matzah

 

Matzah is the paradox
at the heart of Passover.

At the center of our Passover feast,
this poor bread, lechem oni, scatters crumbs everywhere.

We place it among mounds of food:
poverty in the midst of plenty.
Now who among us has seen that?

Surely God called us out of Egypt
For something better.


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