Passover’s End: Rest, Reflection and Prayer

Image: Girl hiding her face behind two pieces of matzah. (Reznik/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

After a few days, the newness wears off. Matzah is pretty boring stuff when it’s the only choice. Sure, we have spent thousands of years figuring ways to make it interesting – but by the end of the week, almost everyone is longing for pasta or pizza or just a nice piece of toast.

Passover runs for a week, and unlike Sukkot, it is a week with limitations. It lasts long enough for us to tap into the feelings of the ancestors new to freedom, for whom freedom was delicious, but matzah got pretty old. (The manna didn’t start coming until they complained.)

Part of the wisdom of our tradition is that Passover doesn’t just fade out in a whisper of matzah crumbs. At the end of the week the Torah prescribes another chag [day of solemn celebration] and then, for those who observe a second day of chag, it repeats. We slow down again, to really feel the holiday. If we are observant, we rest, we reflect, we consider the miracles and the journey ahead.

For a great and readable explanation of why some Jews (Orthodox and Conservative Jews in the diaspora) observe two days of chag, see this article in Judaism 101. Reform Jews in the United States do not observe the second day of chagim. If you are wondering what you should do, check with your local Jewish community, and do whatever will keep you connected with them.

I like the fact that Passover ends with rest, reflection, and prayer. The days leading up to the first night are rushed. There’s a lot to get ready, cooking and guest lists and preparing the house. Just as with the Biblical Passover, there’s no time to think: we have to act. Once launched into the wilderness, there’s very little other than matzah crumbs and time to reflect: that’s good too.

I wish you a holy conclusion to this challenging holiday. May the final days be as meaningful as the first ones.

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Passover Blues?

Image: Handmade matzah. Sometimes “bread of affliction” is the right description. Photo by Yoninah.

The seder table is a roll call for some families and groups of friends. We gather every year, sit around the table together, and from Passover to Passover things change. Couples seem eternal, sitting in their accustomed spots. The kids grow up, go to college, come home again, bring their beloveds. Elders go from being a source of lore and recipes to being a frail treasured presence, and then it happens. Someone dies, and that place at the table is empty this year.

That’s one kind of Passover blues.

Then there’s the year that you’re in a strange town, all alone, and you intended to find a synagogue, but you didn’t, and you intended to find a seder, but you couldn’t, and now the calendar says it’s Passover and the matzah box stares accusingly. Nothing tastes right, and you’re lonely.

That’s another kind of Passover blues.

There’s the year that the baby is teething and the table didn’t get set on time and WHAT is wrong with the matzah balls? Where is the roasted shankbone? And what’s the burning smell? To top it off, Cousin You-Know-Who decided to tell you what she really thinks of your cooking, and all you want to do is run off and drink wine and cry.

That’s another kind of Passover blues.

Maybe you’ve had one of those years this year, or maybe you have a different sort of Passover blues. Be gentle with yourself, please.

So what can we do? How to fight back against the Passover blues?

  1. Let reality be real. If there is a specific grief ruining your holiday this year, it may be that all you can do is accept it. Feel the emotions, don’t fight them. Be honest with anyone who asks. Stay away from people who demand cheer from you and hold close those who understand your particular pain.
  2. Count your blessings. Especially if the issue is more diffuse, notice the good things in your life. Instead of holiday cards, write thank you cards. Tell the people who have been good to you specifically why you are grateful for them. Choose to notice what’s right, instead of focusing on what’s wrong.
  3. Look outside yourself. Focus on what you can do for other people. Soup kitchens and shelters need extra volunteers on holidays, so that those who celebrate those days can do so with their families. Call around, and see who needs volunteers. (Remember, the Christians are celebrating Easter about the same time we celebrate Passover.) Say kind words to people who need kindness. If you have money, share it. If you have food, share that. Looking outside ourselves can break cycles of destructive thoughts.
  4. Take care of yourself. If you have health issues, do what you can to take care of yourself. Be sure to eat and sleep – but don’t live to eat or sleep. If you need to see a doctor, and that’s possible, then see a doctor. If you can’t afford to see a therapist, remember that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call 1-800-799-4889. It’s OK to call: You are the person they are waiting to help. And yes, if you take medications of any sort, take your meds!
  5. Take a chance. If there’s something you are sort of looking forward to and sort of not, take a chance and go. Reframe “it could be awful” as “it could be ok.” Then give yourself an out: it’s OK to leave quietly if it makes you miserable.
  6. Get some exercise. Move more than you have been moving. For some that might be a walk around the house. For others, that might be a six-mile run. Choose something do-able that will push you a bit. You will sleep better and feel better.
  7. Put on some happy music. Put on some music that YOU like. Maybe dance to it (see #6 above.)
  8. Meditate. When did you last try meditation? The website gaiam.com offers a nice primer for beginners which lists several ways to meditate. Meditation is good for body and soul; for some people, it’s like a “reset button” in their day. Even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past, what do you have to lose?
  9. Pray. One of the great resources for Jews, and for Christians as well, is the Book of Psalms. There are 150 of them, and they address every emotion of which a human being is capable, from quiet happiness to rage. Dig around in there and see if you can find words that express your feelings. Naming a feeling is powerful. Praying that feeling is even more powerful.
  10. Go to services. Unlike the High Holy Days, you don’t need a ticket for Jewish services in springtimes. See what the prayers have to say to you. Listen to the Torah portion (if it’s a daytime service) or the psalms in the evening service. Sing any songs you recognize, even if you are not a singer. Breathe with the congregation.
  11. Keep Shabbat. And keep on keeping it. Part of what happens to us with holidays is that we build up those expectations and load them onto one day, or one week a year. Then, as I pointed out above, they are doomed to fail. However, Shabbat comes to us every week with its warmth and light. Figure out what “keeping Shabbat” means to you, and practice it faithfully. Some weeks will be wonderful and others will be “meh.” Some may be a bust – but there’s another Shabbat right around the corner, there to give you rest.
  12. Seek good advice. If you have suffered a terrible loss and would like some advice on walking that path, I recommend a blog called On Grief & Recovery by Teresa Bruce. She is a wise woman who knows grief from the inside out.

I hope that you find some relief, and that you are able to receive it. May you find your way out of this particular Egypt soon, or if the journey is a long one, companions along the way.

My Favorite Seder

Image: The Temple Sinai Seder, 2014. Photo by R. Ruth Adar.

There are a number of favorite seders in my memory, but the one I look forward to every year is the community seder put on by the synagogue where I’m a member. It’s held on the second night of Passover, and led by one or two clergy in the congregation, this year by the cantor. I’ve led it a couple of times – that’s fun, too.

There are lots of old people, and lots of young families. There are regulars: the people who’ve been around for years, who are stalwarts on committees. There is a healthy sprinkling of people who found us through some directory, just looking for an open spot at a seder.

The seder is a journey, and we are a mixed multitude, just like the ragtag crowd in Exodus. A few minutes in, and I grow impatient: this is going to take forever, why do we hand that microphone around for the readings, augh! the haggadah is not a funeral! — and then I settle down for the ride, and enjoy myself thoroughly, listening to the familiar voices as the microphone circles the room from reader to reader.

It’s a fairly raucous crowd, never quite quiet, but we sing along enthusiastically with each song whether we know it or not. Some people are table-bangers, and others are clappers, and some people try to harmonize with mixed results. We sing the four questions, and the Great Jewish Earworm “Dayeinu,” and all the other familiar tunes.

Miracles happen. The matzah starts as the bread of affliction and turns into the bread of freedom. The horseradish looks innocent and tastes incendiary. There are enough vegetarian entrees for all the vegetarians. We talk about the well of Miriam and the cup of Elijah and the little kids keep starting up a chorus of Dayeinu at odd entervals. An old lady falls asleep for a while, and then wakes just as we reach the point (Shulcan Orech) when it’s time to eat and the caterer is miraculously ready. The flourless chocolate cake is always flawless.

Somewhere along the evening, I am overcome with mushiness, and reach over to pat my wife’s hand. “I love you,” I say, “And I love this place.”

What is the Point of the Seder?

Image: A family seder in Israel, 2013. (Photo by Ofir.1970)

A seder is like an apple. For Jews, it is not exotic. It is officially required, implying that it’s “good for you.” Like a Red Delicious apple, many seders are routine and flavorless, generic. At its saddest, someone reads Hebrew aloud, everyone sits around and endures the flow of words until “Shulchan Orech” is announced: “Time to eat!”

In some families they just give up and skip the haggadah entirely.

In other seders, there are family activities that are both beloved (“we’ve been doing this for years!”) and frankly, ossified: the same stories and activities done so many years in a row that the juice is gone.

The seder is the primary educational event in a Jewish lifetime, repeated at annual intervals because as we go through our lives we change and grow. The world changes around us.

At a really great seder, we remember the Exodus, or some aspects of the story, and we look for insight on our current situation, whatever that might be.

As my colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes in his Martini Judaism column this week, it’s all about questions. Mind you, it is not about the answers: if the questions are good enough, the answers will not be simple or obvious. Sometimes there will be no answers, but by covering the terrain together, we can understand our moment in history (personal or public) a little better.

Rabbi Salkin offers a great set of questions: click the link above and check them out. I’ll offer some others:

  • In what part of your life do you feel enslaved? What does Exodus from that look like?
  • Everyone name a present-day plague. See if you can get to consensus on one plague you all hate the most.
  • The Haggadah doesn’t mention Moses. The Book of Exodus is practically ALL Moses. How important is leadership and what does leadership look like?
  • Is there someone who was a regular at our seder who has died since last Pesach? What are your best memories of them?
  • For each person: Tell a story about the time you personally escaped from an Egypt. Extra points if it is a story you haven’t told this group before. Let people ask questions about the stories.
  • Regarding the afikomen: Many of us, if not most of us, have “broken pieces” in our lives that we usually keep hidden. Anyone want to bring their “afikomen” to light and tell the story?
  • Who do you identify with in the Exodus story? Is there anyone you feel sorry for? Angry at?

If you ask many questions, your seder will be better.

If you use the haggadah as a set of suggestions for an improvised bit of performance art, your seder will be better.

If you share stories around the table your seder will be better.

If you make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk, and everyone listens to them talk, your seder will be better.

And remember, when someone spills a glass of wine, it’s an opportunity to re-enact the crossing of the Red Sea. Or the plague of blood, your choice.

Then your seder will be a Honeycrisp apple, a Macintosh, a Gala, a Braeburn – let us know how it went in the comments!

Passover Prep: We Begin in Egypt

Seven years ago I wrote a piece about Passover preparation titled “Begin in Egypt.” It addressed the situation of beginners when preparing for Passover. I repost it today, because it is my best shot on a subject that rolls around every year.

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 very 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.  But to any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice about almost everything 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 thePesah 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 made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) that have 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 may have been wet at one time.

In short, 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, no matter) 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. Sephardic Jews do not get rid of those things; Ashkenazim do.

If you are not sure which standard you follow, ask your community (the Jews with whom you spend the most time) what they do, and do that. The point is that you want to be able to eat in each other’s homes.

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 thechometz 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 you 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, and seek out those which are already made of recycled products if possible.

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 “CHOMETZThere are Jews who observe Passover by refraining from eating chometz, and who may or may not be meticulous about cleaning out their houses, but who take other understandings ofchometz very seriously.  To learn more, consider these articles on the web:

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, our ability to observe the mitzvah will change.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.

Pirkei Avot 2:16

When Will Passover be Over?

Image: Matzah! Matzah! Matzah! 

Calendar-wise, Passover is complicated.

Some Jews will finish Passover at sundown after the seventh day. Others finish at sundown after the eighth day.  Why?

Inside the land of Israel (the geographic area, not the State) we celebrate 7 days of Passover, with one yom tov on the first day, and one at the end.

In the Diaspora (outside the Land) most Jews celebrate 8 days of Passover, with two days of yom tov at the beginning and at the end. The exception to that is that some Reform congregations (but not all) follow the Israeli practice.

Why the difference? When the Temple still stood the calendar, was set by astronomical observation from the Temple Mount. Signal fires were lit to let Jewish communities farther away from Jerusalem know that the holiday had occurred. Since long distances were involved (think Jerusalem to Babylon, Jerusalem to Rome, Jerusalem to Spain) the second day was added for the Diaspora. Later on, the calendar was set by mathematical calculation, and we could have gone back to one day of yom tov for everyone, but by then the custom was set. Local custom (minhag hamakom) is a powerful element in halakhah (the Jewish way,) so the double yom tov was set for most Diaspora Jews.

That’s why some Jews are a little vague about the end of Passover. To be sure about it, check with your local community, your congregation.

Whether they end Passover on the seventh or eighth night, one thing remains constant: by then the matzah has gotten a little stale and everyone is looking forward to eating bread and other chametz. I don’t know what percentage of Jewish families will be eating pasta or pizza on that first night after Passover, but I know there will be many!

Are you tired of matzah? What are your favorite things to eat during the week of Passover? What are you looking forward to eating when it’s over?

What does “Chol HaMoed” mean?

Image: On Chol HaMoed Pesach, many Israeli families visit the beach in Tel Aviv. (Some rights reserved, via wikimedia.)

Two Jewish holidays run for a week, or eight days, depending on how you do them. One is Sukkot, the other is Passover.  Those days begin and end with special days, and the chol hamoed are the “ordinary” days in between.

The holidays begin and end with a yom tov (literally “a good day,” but in reality a very special day.) Those days are very similar to Shabbat: they are days of rest, days to spend in joyful observance and study. Ideally we do no work on those days, nor do we handle money, run errands, etc. They are days of enjoyment, with good food and friends. They are also days of celebration: we celebrate the holiday at hand.

Outside the Land of Israel, we celebrate yom tov in pairs, 2 at the beginning of Passover, and two at the end. Inside the Land, we celebrate only a single day of yom tov at the beginning and end of Passover. (If you are curious about why, see Why Some Holidays Last Longer Outside of Israel.) The exception to this rule is the practice of Reform Jews in the United States, many of whom follow the custom of the Land of Israel. (For what your congregation or community does, ask your rabbi.)

The days in between the yamim tovim (plural) are called chol hamoed, meaning “ordinary days of the festival.” We still celebrate the holiday (during Passover, we eat matzah and refrain from eating chametz) but even the most observant Jew can drive the car, handle money, and so on. In Israel, schools and many businesses are closed during chol hamoed, so it is a time for family vacations. In the Diaspora, we may go to work, but we still make time for the spirit of the holiday.

Now you may be reading this, thinking, “I can’t do all that!” and perhaps feeling a little guilty. The truth is that not all of us have yet reached this ideal of celebration. Especially outside of Israel, it’s hard to do, because the secular world around us doesn’t stop to celebrate Passover or Sukkot. Please don’t beat up on yourself or feel bad about it – and don’t give up on it as an ideal. Perhaps not this year, perhaps not next year, but sometime in your life you may have the opportunity to take some vacation time and truly inhabit the holiday.

Jewish observance is not a pass-fail test, even though some people may talk about it that way. Ideally, if we observe the Jewish year to its fullest, we will reap spiritual rewards – but as the saying goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it! Instead, focus on doing what you can do to experience the holiday to the fullest level available to you.

May you have a meaningful holiday, and grow daily as a  member of your community and Am Yisrael, the Jewish People!