Thursday, April 20, 2000
No, the Seder has nothing to do with Easter. And no, hiding the matzoh isn''t the same concept as hiding Easter eggs. Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum of the Congregation Beth Israel may be commended for his patience (and for not laughing out loud) when I recently approached him to see if I could make some rather Gentile-sounding culinary inquiries about the Jewish holiday of Passover. He kindly obliged. And, having grown up in a church where talking in tongues was not uncommon and gospel music could get almost as good as John Broadway Tucker at Sly McFly''s on a hot Saturday night in July, the rabbi was probably having to pinch himself to avoid a good guffaw.
Today marks the beginning of the eight-day Passover holiday, and the celebration begins with the Seder, or the traditional holiday meal. "The Seder literally means putting things in the right order," the rabbi explains. "It''s remembering our exodus from Egypt as slaves, and putting it into perspective by retelling the story. My family celebrates the first two nights in our household and we also have a large community seder with about 200 people on the second night, at Rancho Canada."
As I learned, there is an enormous amount of ritual that accompanies this time, the objective being to preserve the traditions in the most effective way--by exciting the interest and curiosity of children and encouraging their participation. Customs in various parts of the world may differ--Ashkenazi, or Eastern European Jews, probably won''t be planning the same menus as a Sephardic, or a Mediterranean Jewish family; and strictly Kosher practices tow the hard and fast line in comparison to reformist households--but one dietary restriction in particular holds forth. "We eat no yeast or bread during this seven or eight days," says Greenbaum. "Only matzoh, the unleavened bread that commemorates our exodus from Egypt as slaves." Matzoh, as the story goes, is the hard, unleavened cracker-like bread that resulted when, fleeing the Pharaoh with no time for their bread to rise, the Israelites baked their dough on hot stones in the desert.
At the Seder, three pieces of matzoh are placed at the center of the table in a matzoh cover, which resembles a cloth sleeve or envelope. After breaking the pieces in half, the halves that are not returned to the table are hidden throughout the house, becoming the object of a game of hide and seek for the children to discover.
Then there''s the Seder plate. "The Seder plate is the tool that we use, placed at the center of the table, with different items to be held up as symbols," the rabbi explains. It''s also during this gathering that stories are told, songs are sung, and readings are made from the Haggadah, the book of Exodus--Rabbi Greenbaum''s role at his family''s Seder table.
There are five items found on the plate: the haroseth, chopped walnuts mixed with wine, cinnamon and apples, to resemble the mortar that Jewish slaves used to mix for the Pharaoh''s bricks. There is a roasted egg along with parsley, to represent springtime. The parsley is dipped in salt water to honor the tears of their oppressed ancestors. The fourth item is a shank bone, commemorating the sacrificial lamb. And then there is a mix of bitter herbs that may include horseradish, to mark the affliction of slavery.
Also on the table are four cups of wine, representing the "redemption speeches" made by God in which He promised to free the Hebrews from slavery. One cup symbolizes freedom, one is for deliverance, a third for redemption and another for release. A fifth cup that no one is allowed to drink is for Elijah the Prophet, whom it is said will one day declare the coming of final salvation. And to invite Elijah in, the front door is left open.
And to be sure that all these rich traditions are passed on, it''s customary to have the youngest child ask the Four Questions: Why do we eat the matzoh during Passover? Why the bitter herbs? Why do we dip the parsley in salt water? And finally, why do we sit gathered, all leaning on pillows? The answer to the last question is poignantly rich; so that we may now be comfortable as we are reminded that we once were slaves.