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Decoding Pesach 2/2

According to rabbinic law, the practices of Pesach include: [i]

– The prohibition of consuming, possessing, profiting from, or seeing hametz;

– The obligation to eat matzot (unleavened bread made of water and wheat flour, without yeast and made in less than 18 minutes) and maror (bitter herbs symbolizing the hard life lived by the Hebrews in slavery in Egypt);

– The Seder [ii] (festive meal with an order of prayers to be respected) with the reading of the Haggadah (book telling the life of the Hebrews at the time of Pharaoh and the exit from Egypt), answering the four questions asked by the youngest children (in the form of a song: “My nichtana“?) and containing the story of the 10 plagues that afflicted the Egyptians; [iii]

-The four cups of wine, symbolizing the festive meal and freedom from slavery, the tray made of harosset (paste of dates, nuts, and grape juice) remindful of the mortar that the Hebrews, slaves of Pharaoh, used to make, bitter herbs (maror), a bone (zroha) symbolizing the strong arm with which God brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and an egg symbolizing the unity of the Jewish people.

Pesach means “passage”:

  • Passage of the angel of death over the houses of the children of Israel (thus passage from death to life);
  • The passage from slavery to freedom;
  • Passage through the Red Sea;
  • The passage from the non-existence of Israel to its constitution as a people, and;
  • The passage from winter to spring.

The celebration of Pesach

Pesach [iv] is divided into two parts:

(a) The first two days and the last two days (which commemorate the opening of the Red Sea) are days of full celebration. The festive candles are lit at night, and the Kidush is made followed by a festive meal on both nights and days. One does not go to work and refrains from driving, writing, or turning on and off electrical appliances. Cooking and carrying outside are permitted.

  1. b) The middle four days are called ‘Hol Hamoed, the half-holidays, “intermediate days”. Most work is permitted during these days.

To recall the unleavened bread that the Israelites consumed upon leaving Egypt, Jews must refrain from eating or even possessing any form of “hamzah” from mid-day on the eve of Pesach until the end of the holiday.

Hametz is a grain that has risen. It is therefore any food or drink containing even a trace of wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, or their derivatives that have not been supervised to prevent fermentation. This includes bread, cakes, cookies, cereals, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages. In addition, most manufactured food products are presumed to be hametz unless verified and certified otherwise. [v]

Clearing of homes of hametz is a meticulous job. It involves a thorough spring cleaning in the weeks leading up to Pesach and culminates in the ceremony of searching for hametz the night before Pesach. The next morning, the found hametz is burned to remove them completely. Hametz that cannot be disposed of may be sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. [vi]

The holiday begins with a seder (traditional meal) and continues for seven days during which no hametz (a leavened or fermented food) is eaten.

The Seder Tray (ke’ara) is a special utensil containing six dishes – symbolic elements for the Passover Seder.  Each of the six elements placed in the Seder tray has special meaning in the story of the Exodus from Egypt. They are: Z’roa, Beitzah, Maror, Harosset, Karpass, Hazeret. [vii] On this Seder table are represented all the symbols of Pesach to evoke its first moments dictated by God. It is the first Passover celebrated in Egypt.

The Pesach table has one seat not yet occupied, that of the prophet Elijah. [viii] To allow him to enter, the door is left open and a cup of wine is poured for him.

On this particular point, Rabbi Or Rose writes: [ix]

‘’The notion that Elijah will return at the end of days to usher in the Messianic age is based on the dramatic description of his departure from the earth in II Kings. While the Bible tells us that great figures like Abraham and Moses died, Elijah ascended to the heavens on a “fiery chariot” in a “whirlwind” (II Kings 2:11). This tradition also led to the development of a genre of folktales about Elijah’s role as an intercessory figure, who would appear—often incognito—to help those in need.

Elijah’s name is also invoked at various Jewish ritual moments, including intergenerational and other liminal times. Doing so brings us solace, strength, and hope as we move, often haltingly, between life experiences. At the seder, we welcome Elijah towards the end of the evening, as we turn our attention from the original redemption of our ancestors from Egypt to the future redemption. ‘’

The philosophy of Pesach

Tolerance is the essence of the Jewish Passover. The word “Pesach” means the mouth that tells. The ritual is based on a series of questions and answers, for the primary quality of man is to have the ability to question. Jews, therefore, celebrate the liberation of speech, the very foundation of tolerance and coexistence. [x]

However, the word “tolerance” can have a negative connotation. “Tolerating someone implies that the other feels superior“. “One has to go further. One must aim at recognition, at total respect for the other“. The term “tolerance” should be understood as the right to be different while respecting the life of the other.

According to the Torah, each human being is created in the image of God and for this reason, each one is worthy. [xi] This is the basis of Jewish philosophy. One must help the other person out of the conditions that deny his or her dignity.

Pesach conveys five concepts that have become truly sacred formulas for living a productive and successful life. [xii] These are five essential concepts to know about the holiday and to integrate into one’s daily life. Because they have animated the soul of the Jewish people for thousands of years, these concepts have earned them the privilege of fulfilling, to a large extent, the prophetic role entrusted to them: “To be a light among the nations“.[xiii]

Here are, then, five words that describe the most beautiful contributions Jews have made to humanity: remembrance, optimism, faith, family, and responsibility towards others.

  • The importance of memory

Upset by the way the Jewish people have literally transformed the world, an incredible answer is evident in many Torah texts. Because they were slaves in Egypt, then they must empathize with the oppressed of every generation. Because they were slaves in Egypt, they must be concerned about the rights of foreigners, the homeless, and the poor. Because they have known oppression, then they, more than any other nation, must understand the pain of the oppressed.

Their tragic encounter with Egyptian injustice was meant, in large measure, to prepare them to serve as spokespersons for future generations, so that they can identify with anyone who is suffering. Undoubtedly, the concept of history is one of the most important Jewish inventions. “Remember that you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,” and “Remember that God brought you out of slavery.” Memory is a biblical injunction that apparently interested no other people than the Jews. And it is the story of Pesach that is the source of this duty to remember.

  • The importance of optimism

The story of Pesach makes one realize that the most difficult task that Moses had to face was not to get the Jews out of Egypt but to get Egypt out of the Jews. They were so used to living as slaves that they had lost all hope of changing their fate.

The real miracle of Pesach – and its impact across generations – is the powerful message that with God’s help, no difficulty is insurmountable. A tyrant like Pharaoh can be dethroned. A nation as powerful as Egypt can be defeated. Slaves can become free men. The oppressed can break the chains of captivity. Everything is possible if one only dares to dream the impossible.

  • The importance of faith

It is said that the pessimist is the one who does not believe in an “invisible help”.

The Jewish optimist, on the other hand, firmly believes in the help that comes “from above”, from a caring God. It is this faith in a benevolent God that gives one confidence in oneself, in one’s future, and in one’s ability to change the world.

The God of Sinai did not say “I am the Lord your God who created heaven and earth” but “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In theory, the God of Creation could have forsaken this world once his task was done. But the God of the Exodus made it clear that He is constantly involved in the history of Jews and that He is committed to their survival.

  • The importance of the family

Pesach teaches another great truth: perfecting the world begins at home, with one’s own family.

God built his nation not by commanding hundreds of thousands of people to gather in a public square, but by asking Jews to turn their homes into a place of family worship and to do so around a seder whose central activity is to answer the children’s questions.

This is obvious! Children are the future. They are the ones who need attention the most. And the home is the first place where they form their identity and values.

  • The importance of responsibility towards others

An important question must be asked as one celebrates one’s divine deliverance from Egyptian bondage. One must thank God for delivering him, but why did God allow Jews to become victims of such mistreatment?

An incredible answer is evident in many Torah texts. Because Jews were slaves in Egypt, then they must empathize with the oppressed of every generation. Because they were slaves in Egypt, they must be concerned about the rights of foreigners, the homeless, and the poor. Because they have known oppression, then, they, more than any other nation, must understand the pain of the oppressed.

The Jews’ tragic encounter with Egyptian injustice was meant, in large measure, to prepare them to serve as spokespersons for future generations, so that they can identify with anyone who is suffering.

Final word

The holiday of Pesach, which celebrates the greatest series of miracles, is a time to rise above nature to reach the miraculous dimension of existence. But how are miracles accomplished? Take matzah for example: flat and tasteless, it embodies humility. By ridding oneself of oversized egos, one becomes able to tap into the miraculous source of divine energy that all humans have in their souls.

The current world is shaken by frequent crises: they are social, economic, climatic, and now sanitary. Or perhaps it is the same crisis that is expressed in different forms? One is shaken, one suffers, one is in danger. What solutions can one bring to this? Nobody knows. Probably nobody has a ready-made solution. But one can do as the Sages in the Haggadah did: open one’s mouth, talk about it, think together, build the chains of thought that will deliver humanity from the present chains which are binding it. Like the Sages in Bnei Braq, [xiv] humans must have the spark of genius that will bring them true freedom, the freedom that increases their joy of living and the hope for a better future for humanity.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

Endnotes:

[i] Klein,Isaac. ‘’The Laws of Passover’’, JTS, February 11, 2013. https://www.jtsa.edu/torah/the-laws-of-passover/

[ii] The seder (Hebrew: סדר “order”) is a highly symbolic Jewish ritual specific to the festival of Pesach, aimed at making its participants, especially the children, relive the sudden accession to freedom after the years of slavery in Egypt of the children of Israel.

Celebrated on the evening of the 14th of Nissan in the Land of Israel, and on the evenings of the 14th and 15th of Nissan outside the Land of Israel because of the second holiday of the Diaspora communities, it is the result of a continuous, centuries-old elaboration of the Haggadah. Its core dates back to the Mishna and seems to show Greco-Roman influences; it was then enveloped in various Babylonian customs during the period of the Amoraim and the Gueonim, was the subject of various codifications during the Middle Ages, and was enriched with numerous songs around the 16th century. Finally, it has undergone various recent reinterpretations, both Zionist and communist.

[iii] Sicker, Martin. A Passover Seder Companion and Analytic Introduction to the Haggadah. Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2004.

The Passover Seder, the most popular and widely celebrated occasion on the annual Jewish calendar, and its Haggadah, which is a unique combination of liturgy, biblical exegesis, and rabbinic lore, have both delighted and confounded celebrants for nearly two thousand years. Over time, the traditional Haggadah has become increasingly obscure as the distance between the authors and readers, in both chronological and cultural terms, widens over time. This is because the Haggadah is essentially a rabbinic work, much of which is written in a style similar to that found in the classic works of Rabbinic Judaism such as the Talmud and Midrash, works that demand much more from those who would understand them than casual perusal.

Although some good translations of the Haggadah have appeared over the years, even the best is necessarily an interpretation as well and may tend to obscure some of the nuances in the original language of composition that permit alternative explanations of the author’s intent. The problem of maintaining fidelity to the original has become exacerbated as efforts to make the text more relevant to the modern reader have in some instances introduced assertions that, while essentially meaningful, bear little direct relation to the language and likely intent of the original work. This book strives to unravel the mysteries of the traditional text of the Haggadah and provide the reader insight into the highly sophisticated thought of its authors.

[iv] Bokser, Baruch M. “Unleavened Bread and Passover, Feasts of”, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday), 1992, 6:755–765.

[v] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/why-do-some-jews-burn-hametz/

[vi] https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/157761?lang=bi

[vii] https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1998/jewish/The-Seder-Plate.htm

[viii] Rose, Rabbi Or. ‘’Elijah the Prophet and the Passover Seder: Intergenerational Questions and Connections’’, Hebrew College, April 14, 2O2O. https://hebrewcollege.edu/blog/elijah-the-prophet-the-passover-seder-intergenerational-questions-connections/

[ix] Ibid.

[x]  Goltzberg, Stefan. “Three Moments in Jewish Philosophy”, Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, 22, 2011, http://journals.openedition.org/bcrfj/6615

[xi] Altmann, Alexander. “‘Homo Imago Dei’ in Jewish and Christian Theology.” The Journal of Religion, vol. 48, no. 3, 1968, pp. 235–59, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1202149

[xii] Cahill, Thomas. The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (The Hinges of History). New York: Anchor Books/Nan A Talese, 1999.

The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies–a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence–and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today. As Thomas Cahill narrates this momentous shift, he also explains the real significance of such Biblical figures as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Pharaoh, Joshua, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

[xiii] Hugenholtz, Rabbi Esther. “’A Light unto the Nations’ Proposals of Missionary Judaism”, Academia.edu, 2013. https://www.academia.edu/36141574/A_Light_unto_the_Nations_Proposals_of_Missionary_Judaism

[xiv] Dimbert, Seth. ‘’The Sages in Benei Brak (The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, 107-117)”, Sefaria. https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/104631?lang=bi

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.
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