For many people, Passover (also known in Hebrew as Pesach) is all about the matzah.
Often a square-shaped cracker made simply of flour and water, matzah is the “bread of affliction” that Jews eat to remember the Exodus from Egypt and redemption from slavery. However, Passover is much more than avoiding leavened foods such as bread, pasta and cereal for eight days. It also combines several ancient festivals with the theme of rebirth to celebrate the transition to spring.
In the agrarian society wherein the Torah was written, spring was a time for the first lambs to be born and for the first grain to be harvested. Following the Exodus that comes at the end of the Passover story, the Jews began their journey as a nation to receive the laws on Mount Sinai. In the present day, spring is the time for cleaning, and Jewish families work very hard to remove all leavened foods, down to the smallest crumb.
“The celebration of the redemption of our ancient ancestors mingles with our embrace of spring,” said Rabbi Mary Zamore, associate rabbi at in Morristown. “This season is a time of renewal and as we feel the beauty of the season, watching the re-budding of our gardens, shaking free of the cold of winter, we sit at our Passover tables and remember the gift of freedom. In that moment, we recognize all of God’s blessings.”
The Passover seder literally means “order,” and this highly-choreographed meal is the holiday’s central observance and one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals. Passover takes place in the Jewish month of Nisan, traditionally considered to be the first month of the new year, and the seder is full of rich symbols related to the start of spring. Just as the flowers are beginning to bloom and the days are growing steadily longer, the Passover seder echoes what is happening in nature.
While the themes of springtime and renewal are a big part of Passover, the holiday is also about freedom and self-determination. “One of the ideas that stems from the story is that no human being should be allowed to be a tyrant over another person on culture,” said Rabbi David Nesson of . “Every turning point in world history follows this fundamental idea, and if you look around at the world today you see many revolutions against tyranny.”
Unlike Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays that center on the synagogue, Passover observances mostly take place in the home, with the seder being the primary ritual observance. “Parents have a unique opportunity to teach their children about the history and traditions and the haggadah (booklet telling the Passover story and rituals) is the ultimate instruction manual,” said Rabbi Zamore. “Parents are left with an important job; to engage their children, to model interest and excitement.”
Rabbi Zamore recommends parents look over the haggadah in advance to feel more comfortable and to plan for opportunities for the children participate by reading passages during the seder and creating spring-themed decorations for the table. There are plenty of great haggadahs and books for kids of all ages about Passover. Kveller, a Jewish parenting website, offers sample seders, recipes, activities and even songs on their Passover site, kveller.com/traditions/Holidays/Passover.shtml.
The seder plate features several elements related to springtime. First, the karpas (a green vegetable, usually parsley) quite literally represents the reawakening of the land as the long, cold winter finally ends, and many people plant seeds during the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees) in January, so that they have lots of parsley ready in time for Passover. Next, the z’roa, a roasted lamb shank bone, symbolizes both sacrifice the Jews made before leaving Egypt and the birth of the first lambs of the season. Finally, the beitzah, a roasted egg, is round and it signifies the cycle of life, much like the colorful eggs that are part of the Easter tradition. To commemorate both the z’roa and beitzah, families eat a hard-boiled egg and/or lamb during the Passover seder.
With its powerful themes of redemption and new beginnings, Passover provides an important lesson. “To me, Passover is a holiday with universal significance,” said Henry Bassman of Chavurat Lamdeinu in Madison. “The Exodus from Egypt led to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which constitutes the Five Books of Moses used by both Christians and Jews.”
Chavurat Lamdeinu will share a potluck seder with Drew Hillel on Tuesday, April 19 that is open to the public. Rabbi Ruth Gais and cantorial student Russ Jayne will lead the seder. Visit the synagogue’s website at www.chavuratlamdeinu.org to learn more. To RSVP for the seder, contact Hillel Director Rabbi Jon Golden at 973-408-3222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The public is invited to two events celebrating the publication of The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic, an exploration of the Jewish laws of kashrut (kosher) and current food issues, edited by Rabbi Zamore. On Friday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m., Rabbi Zamore will present “The Sacred Table: Why Now in Reform Jewish History?” during Shabbat services at Temple B’nai Or. Rabbi Zamore will discuss the book through the lens of Passover on Sunday, April 17, at 9 and 11:30 a.m. at the synagogue, located at 60 Overlook Road in Morristown. Copies of The Sacred Table will be available for purchase and signing.