To continue with my educational portion of my blog, I will now expound upon that which was mentioned yesterday and explain what Passover means to me in this modern time. There are many sides and aspects and thoughts about this, so I promise I will do my best to not confuse or lose you in the thought processes, but I cannot be certain that I will be successful.
To begin, lets start with the Seder itself. Seder is the Hebrew word for “Order”, so when you hear somebody invite you to a Seder meal, they are inviting you to not only a Passover dinner, but to an Ordered Meal. Everything within the Seder has a place, a meaning, and a purpose. Sadly I do not know these steps and meanings off the top of my head and I did not pack a Hagaddah to bring with me when I moved. However, if you are curious about the ins and outs of every nuanced step of the Seder, you can find the information on the internet, or purchase a Hagaddah from any bookstore of any reputation.
Most of the Seder is the retelling of the story of the Exodus, please see yesterday’s post. There are other stories that are told depending upon your family’s traditions. On every table there is the Seder plate, the matzah plate, and a goblet of wine for Elijah. More recently, some families have started to add a goblet of Water to honor Miriam, Moses’s sister and a prophetess of her own right. Some say, but I won’t wade into that argument here.
This is my new Seder plate that my father bought for me and sent me here. It’s rather lovely, isn’t it. The squiggly looking letters are Hebrew, and the english translation is just under them. Starting at the top of the star and moving counter clockwise you have the Bitter Herbs, Egg, Parsley, Horseradish, Haroseth, and the Shank Bone.
This is an unusual plate, I actually believe it’s Sephardic* in origin because it places the Bitter Herbs and the Horseradish separately, whereas the Ashkenazic** Seder Plates usually combine those two together as Bitter herbs and the 6th place belongs to salt water. Each item has a symbolic reason for being on the plate, and each connects back to the story of the Exodus, and of the Jewish people.
- Bitter Herbs- Usually Horseradish, freshly ground, this recalls to us the bitterness of life in bondage. It is eaten twice during the Traditional seder, once by itself on Matzah, and then in a sandwich on Matzah with the Haroseth
- Egg- this is often hard boiled and then roasted in the oven, but that is purely for health safety sake, and also so that if it gets dropped, you don’t have egg yolk oozing everywhere. In Israel, and most of the world, Passover is a spring holiday, and Eggs symbolize new life, a new year, and a new beginning.
- Parsley- Or really any greens are acceptable. I have seen some people use lettuce leaves when they could not afford parsley. This also symbolizes spring, new life and growth. Parsley and other leafy greens also used to be used in the Temples of Israel to help spread blessings via smoke and water. During the Seder, the Parsley is dipped into the salt water and eaten.
- Salt Water- This is a vessel that is filled with a mixture of salt and water, enough salt to the point that it tastes of tears and the salt will not dissolve anymore. It is kept room temperature, or slightly warmer. The symbolism is clear enough that it is for the tears that the Jewish people have cried over the years. Not just in bondage and suffering, but also in Joy and Reverence. A reminder that one Emotion can be different from the other, but the reaction can be the same. Even in our sorrow, we can find Joy.
- Haroseth- Now, this is the fun one. Ashkenazic Jews usually make this mixture with apples, raisins, walnuts, and wine. Sephardic jews often use the raisins, walnuts, and wine, but instead of apples, they use dates. The different recipes for Haroseth numbers in the thousands, with every family having at least one of their own. From chunky to almost paste like. The symbolism is the mortar with which the Hebrews built the temples and pyramids for the Pharaohs while in bondage. It is mixed in a sandwich with the horseradish and matzah, once again to remind us of our time in slavery being both bitter, but also a bit sweet, as we who were a scattered people before Joseph led us into Egypt, we left with Moses a nation of people, bound together by suffering and belief.
- Shank bone- Usually the shank bone of a lamb, roasted in the oven. Sometimes, in lean times, it is permissible to use any bone you can find. I have admittedly used a chicken bone in the past. This is to symbolize both the new life that spring has given us in the fluffy little lambs, but also the sacrificial lamb that was killed to provide the blood for marking the lintel and posts of doors so that the Angel of Death may Pass over the houses of the Hebrews while enacting the 10th plague.
Also on the table is the plate of matzah, which is covered and consists of 3 slices or crackers of matzah. Why 3? Because according to Jewish Tradition there are currently only 3 Tribes of Israel left, Cohen, Levite, and Israelite. The Cohen (I know, you have friends with that last name) are the Priests, descendants of Aaron and the other Priests of the temples. Levites are the shepherds, Descendants of Moses and the other teachers and Rabbis. The Israelites are everybody else that’s leftover. After the Diaspora (the Babylonians invading Canaan and doing their typical uprooting the population and scattering them to the winds) it became difficult for most Jews to remember their Familial and Tribal ties, or to even hold to them. These people are the Israelites, the lost, the Tribeless. They’re not truly treated any differently save for a few ceremonial differences. Truth holds, the Israelites outnumber the Cohens and the Levites. By the way, it’s pronounced Coe-Hain, not the way you’re thinking it out in your head.
Goodness I’ve rambled on some more. Alright, lets see if I can’t wrap this up a bit quickly.
During the course of the night, as the story is being told, 4 glasses of wine (or juice if you’re too young and your parents are sticks in the mud) are drunk. Except, almost. During the reading of the 10 plagues, we dip our pinkies into our wine and remove 10 drops of wine from the glass. Why? Symbolism. While we hold that the plagues were necessary for our freedom, a lot of innocent Egyptians suffered, those that did not have the power to set us free still suffered because of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. So, in a show of almost solidarity and sympathy, we remove ten drops of wine from our glasses, signifying that while we are happy to be free, our happiness is not complete, because of the suffering of others.
I don’t know if you noticed what I did there, but I moved the story into the present time. That’s something else about the Passover Seder and the telling of the story, it’s subtle and not a lot of people notice it. It’s almost second nature, but the story is to be told in the present tense. As though the Exodus was just the last week and we are retelling it to our new neighbors. This is just another way of connecting us here in the present to our ancestors in the past. Another Tradition. One thing you’ll notice is that the Jewish religion and people are filled and built upon Tradition after Tradition after Tradition.
After drinking our wine and feeling sorry for those that suffered in order for us to be free, the youngest child possible at the table asks 4 Questions. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we spend this night reclining, when on other nights we can either recline or sit up straight? Why do we dip our greens into the salt water? Why do we eat the bitter herbs?
All of this is answered during the story, other than the reclining. Reclining while eating was a privilege of the rich, of the Masters, not of the slaves. Slaves ate quickly and sitting up straight, always afraid of punishment. Now that we are free from our bonds, we have the freedom to eat however we please, but on this night, we recline to show that we do not take this freedom for granted.
Almost done, I promise.
There are a few things left to happen, including dinner. There is the breaking and hiding of the Afikomen, and the inviting Elijah in. Now, I do not know and have never really heard any symbolic meaning behind the Afikomen, so I will simply tell it as I know it. The Afikomen is the center matzah from the stack of 3 that is on the table. During the meal it is taken out to show the bread of Haste that we eat to remember our flight from egypt, and then it is broken into two pieces. One piece is placed back into the stack to be broken up and eaten from later, the other piece is, at some point during the meal, hidden. Why? I have no idea. But it is a big game for the young children to go and find the afikomen. There is usually a present for the child who finds it and brings it back to the table. The Afikomen is then divided up again and is used as the Dessert for the Meal.
Elijah is another deal. Throughout the night the goblet of wine is filled and waiting for Elijah to visit. Before dinner the children go to the door and invite in Elijah, and any others who may be outside and be hungry for dinner. By the time the kids get back to the table, the goblet of wine has been emptied by the Prophet while he stopped in briefly to enjoy the meal.
There are larger implications of Elijah’s visit, namely that if he actually does visit and stay, it will be to announce the coming of the Messiah within the next year. But that’s a completely different story for a completely different time.
You think it was long to read? A traditional Seder will last about 4 hours, not necessarily including dinner. Most modern families skip the longer parts by putting The Ten Commandments into the DVD player during the day, asking the 4 questions, singing a few songs, and then inviting in Elijah. My father and Uncle Brent could do the entire Seder in under 20 minutes. And then you eat.
Food is traditionally lamb or chicken, with matzah ball soup and other jewish side dishes that I have yet to learn how to make (although tzimmes is fantastic and I really need to perfect it..).
By the end of the night you are full, you are happy, and you are surrounded by family and friends. I am strengthened every year by the thoughts that everywhere in the world, everywhere from Israel, to new Zealand, to The US, to Iran, to Kenya there are Jews everywhere celebrating the holiday with me, singing the same songs, saying the same prayers, and waiting for Elijah.
And that connection to the greater world, the knowledge that no matter where I am, the traditions have been held onto and passed down and are being repeated everywhere makes me feel even more spiritual than insignificant. But explanations on my religion and my faith are not why you’re here. I promise, I’ll get back to more fun things like food and travel soon.
I hope you have enjoyed this two part explanation of yet another segment of the complex person that I am. I am considering making a whole section of this blog about Judaism, or at least My Judaism. I wonder if anybody would be interested in reading that? Let me know!
Although I’ll probably do it anyway.
Next Year In Jerusalem!
*Sephardic refers to the Jewish peoples from the Western European countries and the middle east (Iran, Iraq, Spain, morocco, etc)
** Ashkenazic refers to the Jewish peoples from Eastern Europe (poland, Ukraine) and Russia