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:
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 mezuzahin 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?
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:
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:
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.
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.
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 kneydelis 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.