Pesach, or Passover, is celebrated every spring for eight days, starting on the 15th of Nisan (this year on the evening of Wednesday, April 8). Pesach is a home-based freedom festival. The Israelites’ exodus from Egypt led by Moses and out of bondage 3,000 years ago is commemorated in prayer, song, and eating. The name of the holiday came from the act of the angel passing over the home of the enslaved Israelites on the night before they left Egypt, sparing their first-born sons.
Pesach is one of three pilgrimage festivals which brought caravans to Jerusalem; the other two are Shavuoth (when the Jews entered into a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai) and Sukkot (when the Jews camped in desert in portable, thatched huts (see Oct. 12 post).
The celebration of Pesach was developed after the destruction of the Temple when two holidays were merged. The Festival of the Paschal Lamb, Hag Ha’Pesach, was an ancient spring festival celebrated by nomadic Jewish shepherds who ceremonially sacrificed the first lambs of season; Abraham celebrated the Paschal sacrifice. In the time of the Temple, the Jews gathered in Jerusalem where each family sacrificed a lamb in commemoration of the sacrifice eaten the night before the Exodus. Some blood was given to the priests to put at the base of the altar and the roasted meat was eaten afterwards with unleavened bread. The Festival of Unleavened Bread, Hag Ha’Matzot, was when agricultural Jews discarded the old bread that was connected with the previous year’s harvest. Eventually nomadic and agricultural festivals were joined together and linked to exodus from Egypt.
Pesach is celebrated with a seder– the recitation of the Haggadah and a meal. After the dispersion at 70 C.E., Jews created the seder to recall the ancient Temple sacrifice. Today’s seder was codified in the early Middle Ages. It might be a rabbinic reinterpretation of the first century Greco-Roman ritualized meal, the symposium. The symposium started with wine and appetizers, like vegetables dipped in vinegar, then a meal of meats, bread, and wine. Guests were served reclining on couches. More wine was served after the meal. In the Jewish Passover ritual, vegetables are dipped in vinegar (or salt water), participants symbolically recline, and four glasses of wine are served.
Two of the 613 commandments in the Torah are intrinsic to the seder. First is the need to educate children while including them in the Pesach experience – “…tell your children the story of Pesach” (Ex. 13:8). Second is the obligation to recall the story of the Exodus “remember the day of your leaving Egypt each of the days of your life” (Deut. 16:3).
Food for Thought – Seder means order in Hebrew; the order of the seder is presented in the Haggadah, the written compendium of stories, prayers, commentary, and hymns associated with the Passover seder. The seder plate is placed in front of the head of the household. In some communities, a separate seder plate is made for each adult male family member. In some places a basket is used and it is passed over the heads of all present, reminders of the flight of the Israelites.
Different foods on the seder plate have symbolic significance. They recall what hardships the ancient Israelites endured. There are also connections with spring – Pesach like Easter is a springtime festival. The foods are tasted during the reading of the Haggadah and also at the start of the Pesah meal. The observance of Pesach and the performance of rituals and the eating of traditional foods reinforce its meaning and makes the events of the past into living experiences.
Baysah/baytsa (egg – Aramaic) – a hard-boiled or roasted egg; recalls the Festival offering brought to the Temple; it’s also a symbol of mourning of the destruction of Temple; the egg also represents the cyclical nature of life; and the egg in the shell symbolizes procreation and continuity of Jewish life.
Huevos haminados* – eggs simmered for a long time to create brown caste to the white epitomize Sephardi food, it’s also eaten on the Sabbath, at all live cycle events, at the end of Kippur and Pesach.
* I boil my eggs with onion skins in the water; other cooks bake them in the oven to get the brown color.
Maror (bitter herb) – horseradish/endive, escarole – a reminder of the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. Hazeret is another bitter herb, horseradish, watercress, romaine, the plural word “herbs” appears in the Torah; it is optional.
Haroset (clay) – a sweet spread of fruit, nuts, and wine; symbolizes the mortar and mud bricks used by the ancient Israelites to build the pyramids; it is one of most unusual foods prepared for the seder and was probably one of those appetizers from the Roman symposium. There are many, many variations to this dish and, of course, everyone thinks there is the best!
Karpas (green vegetable) – parsley/celery/potato dipped in salt water/vinegar in memory of the tears shed by enslaved Israelites; also symbolizes the new growth of spring, or sometimes the green that was dipped in the blood of the Paschal lamb to mark the doorways of the Israelites before the Exodus. In Eastern Europe, where spring came late, a potato was used.
Zeroah (forearm) – roasted shank bone* or chicken neck; symbolic of the Passover sacrifice in the Temple; it is not eaten, but is explained as the outstretched arm of God when he delivered the Israelites from Egypt.
*Note, I keep my bone wrapped up in the freezer and reuse it from year to year.
Three matzot – in memory of the haste with which the Children of Israel left Egypt, came to represent bread of affliction; may also represent the three religious divisions of the early House of Israel – Kohan, Levite & Israelite. A fourth – matzah of hope – is added by some families as a reminder of other Jews held captive – Russia, Ethiopia.
During the reading of the Haggadah, part of the middle matzah (afikoman) is hidden. At the end of the seder, children try to find it and it is the last food eaten; a reminder of the Pesach sacrifice which was eaten at the end of the Pesach meal.
New symbols on the seder plate. Orange – represents women participating in the seder, or gay and lesbian Jews as participants. Potato shavings – added by some families to recall the deprivations of the Holocaust.
Four Cups of Wine commemorate the four expressions of God’s divine redemption (Ex.6:6): I shall bring them forth; I shall deliver them; I shall redeem them; and I shall take them unto me as a nation. They could also represent the four cups of Pharoah or the four kingdoms of oppressed Israel. They could also represent the four cups of Pharoah or the four kingdoms of oppressed Israel. Drinking of the wine gives a taste of freedom.
Numbers have a significant role in Jewish folk belief. In general, odd numbers are lucky. There are three archangels – Michael, Gabriel, Rafael. Even numbers, on the other hand, are actually dangerous. But four glasses of wine are drunk at Passover because “it is a night that is guarded for all time from evil spirits.”
Threes and fours are associated with Pesach. There are three major pilgrimage festivals and three cities of refuge listed in the Torah, Jerusalem, Tiberias, Sfat. Threes are also repeated during the seder. The three symbols (shank bone, matzah, bitter herbs) on the seder plate and three matzahs on the table are explained. After the recitation of the plagues, three mnemonic words are said to remember them. Then there are the three fours, glasses of wine, sons, and questions.
More Food for Thought – Pesach is considered by some as the culinary high point of the Jewish ritual year. Several elements are in effect. The entire celebration revolves around either eating or not eating specific foodstuffs.For example, for observant Jews no foods in everyday use in kitchen are used during Pesach.
What not to Eat. In preparation for the week-long holiday, houses are cleaned, pantries emptied, daily cookware and serving ware are put away and the special Pesach wares are brought out. My mother had separate pots and pans and dishes for Pesach. I don’t remember cutlery, maybe we used the real silverware that week (I remember polishing it!). I don’t follow this tradition.
On the night before Pesach, hametz or leaven (any grain that ferments on decomposition including the five grains named in the Torah – wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats – and beans, i.e. kidney, lima, garbanzo, etc.) are ritually removed from the house. All the family goes with the head of household on the ritual search. Usually ten pieces of bread are placed around the house to be found. With a candle, a feather, and a wooden spoon it is all collected. The next morning (before the holiday begins), the hametz is burned.
What’s not acceptable? Lots – no leavening – baking powder, soda, yeast; no ordinary grain of any kind; no grain based malt liquors; no legumes (kitniyot) – peas, beans, lentils, corn. But some Sephardic Jews eat beans, peas, rice; no fermenting agents – the 5 grains named above. Some do not eat garlic, the reason for this is unknown. Customs (minhagim) surrounding the use of kitniyot vary greatly among (and sometimes even within) different communities. Some Sephardim who eat rice, others do not! Quinoa is neither a “grain” (able to become hametz) nor kitniyot, and so it has entered the repertoire of many Pesach cooks.
What’s acceptable? Lots – fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, meats, milk, and milk products. And the huge number of foods specially prepared for Pesach; the list grows longer every year! My Greek grandmother believed that if a food was not around in the time of Moses, you should not each it now. That meant no chocolate!
The seder meal. In Ashkenazi homes it’s usually started with a hard- boiled egg dipped in salt water, gefilte fish topped with a carrot coin, chopped liver, and matzah ball soup. The main course may be brisket in Ashkenazi homes or fish or lamb in Sephardic homes.*
* I was sitting recently with fellow volunteer ushers at the symphony and they discussed their Passover plans. Brisket was each of their traditional main courses. Not in our Greek-Jewish home; we start with fish or lamb.
Lots of foods made with matzah. Like sweet matzah fritters – chremlach (glorified latkes – w/rusell beets, honey, ginger, nuts & wine), kremsel, gremlinsh, gremsjelies (Dutch), bimuelos (Sephardic), fonkuchen (pancake) w/ potato, w/cheese, w/egg (matzah brei) •matzah pudding/kugel w/w/out gribenes, w/apples, w/carrots •matzah meal – helzel (stuffed poultry neck), blintzes, knaidlach (dumplings) – supposed to be feathery light – w/ liver, w/potatoes, mashed
Lots of spring vegetables. Like leek patties •Celeriac in a variety of ways, artichokes, fritada/quiche •Vegetable & fruit casseroles
•Minas/pasteles – matsah lasagne – w/spinach & tomato, or ground meat and leek, and more
Desserts – made with lots of eggs to make them rise – •Sponge cake – Pan de Espagne •Macaroons •Eingemachts – preserves – beets, black radishes, carrots, served w/a special plate & spoon for each guest and a cup of tea •Confections – w/nuts, sesame seeds, •Matsah farfel – ingeberlach/ ing’b’lach (little ginger fingers) •Wine (mead) – honey wine
Macaroons originated in Naples. During the Renaissance, Catherine de Medici’s chef visited France, where he shared these confections and started the craze for macaroons.
My cooking starts on Tuesday. On the menu … haroset, brown eggs, gefilte fish from a package, chopped liver, chicken soup with matsah balls, roast fish, vegetables/kugel as I find in the market, pecan cake. I’ll share the process with you all then.
In the meantime, stay in, take care, and be well.
Thank you Annette! A very Happy and Healthy Passover to you and to Everyone!
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And to you Sylvia …
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This is fascinating, Annette – I knew the broad outlines of the Seder feast at Pesach but it is great to read all the detail. Happy cooking! And I hope you and your family stay safe and well.
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One day you’ll have to join us! Inshallah!
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