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Eight Questions for Passover

avatar by Deborah Fineblum / JNS.org

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A Passover Seder table. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – Why is this year going to be different from all other years? Because this year, you can stump your guests with the meaning behind many of the mysterious rites that comprise the Passover Seder.

Let’s face it, you finally wrap up those frenzied days of cleaning and cooking. Then your guests arrive (Passover is an even bigger family reunion than Rosh Hashanah). And by the time you pass out the Haggadahs and the Seder actually begins, you often slog through it on autopilot.

Passover is celebrated for eight days outside of Israel, with Seders held on the first and second nights of the holiday. Israelis celebrate for seven days, and hold just one Seder the first night. This year, Passover begins after sundown on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, correlating to Friday, March 30, which is also Shabbat.

But Pesach, or Passover in English, which refers to G-d “passing over” the households of the Hebrews in Egypt during the deadly 10th plague (the killing of the first-born), has its fair share of mind-boggling traditions. Here are eight customs, one for each day of the holiday:

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1. The Burning of the Chametz. It’s not enough to trash the chametz (leavened food). We are commanded to actually burn it in a formal bi’ur ceremony the morning before the first Seder (having searched for it the evening before with a candle and feather). “We learn that chametz represents our haughtiness, and setting it aflame is a dramatic way of excising that puffed-up part of us, which we replace with a humble matzah,” says Rabbi Ron Fish. “But the truth is, by then we’ve finished with all the exhausting preparations and are feeling pretty joyous.”

At some synagogues, including Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., where Fish serves as senior rabbi, the tradition is to burn the chametz with last year’s Sukkot lulavs, which keeps the fire burning bright.

2. Reclining on Pillows. The Gemara teaches us to lie back on pillows at the Seder, a reminder that we have been freed from slavery. “I love it most when we recline to eat that first taste of the matzah,” says Rabbi Avraham Sutton, an author and meditation teacher based in Kiryat Ye’arim, Israel. “We wait for this moment the whole night.”

3. Seder Plate. Bitter herbs? A burnt egg? Ground-up apples and nuts? A bone? Not your typical meal. But each of the foods on the Seder plate teaches us something.

Shira Smiles, an author who teaches Torah around Jerusalem, credits Rav Pincus with the thought that the six items on the Seder plate — shank bone, egg, bitter herbs, karpas (green vegetable), charoset (made of nuts, apples, wine and cinnamon), and chazeret (often romaine lettuce) — correspond to six qualities, from compassion to accepting our own pain, that are needed for growth.

“Pesach enables us to have a deeper understanding that it is only with challenges that we can become whom [God] envisions us to be,” she says. “The Seder plate is a visual aid of how we need to emulate [God] and develop more kindness, set boundaries, and appreciate the beauty in the struggles of life.”

4. Hillel Sandwich. After what seems like an eternity, we nibble some matzah and then build an ancient sandwich — a tradition traced to the first-century sage Hillel, who no doubt included the Pascal lamb (korban or “sacrifice”) in his version.

“But in our post-Temple times, we are left with the bitter herbs and matzah with a little charoset,” says Rabbi Shneur Zalman Bendet, co-director of Chabad of Greater St. Paul in Minnesota. “Matzah represents the ability to break free from our shackles, the bitter herbs represent suffering, and charoset symbolizes the cement — the elbow grease it takes to serve God.”

5. The Four Cups. Each cup of wine is designed not to increase inebriation, but to serve as signposts along the Seder journey. The number four is a motif throughout the Seder, according to Rabbi Elan Adler, formerly of Baltimore and now teaching Torah in Jerusalem.

One of the lesser-known fours comes from Exodus 6:6-8, where God promises four things: “I will take you out, I will rescue you, I will redeem you, and I will take you as my nation.” Adler says that “as we bless each cup, we thank God for actualizing each of His words with such majesty, letting us know that freedom is a process which doesn’t happen overnight.”

6. The Four Questions. Known as a way to get kids to ask about the dramatic story of God’s rescue of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, the questions remind Rabbanit Y. Sara Cohen, of Torahanytime.com, of a moment in her history.

When her community was hit with several tragedies, a young man asked: “Rabbi, what’s going on here? These young children, the parents … how could this have happened to such innocent people?” The rabbi replied: “Bring me a Pesach Haggadah.” He opened it up, and handed it to the young man, who replied that “these are the four questions.” The rabbi responded: “Exactly! In Judaism, we’re allowed to ask four questions: why we lean, why we eat bitter herbs, why we’re dipping, and why we’re eating matzah — these are in the Haggadah. But yours is the fifth question, and some questions have to be stored away in the realm of emunah.”

7. Opening the door for Elijah. Hopefully, some of your guests will remain awake long enough to welcome the prophet before the drinking of the fourth cup of wine. Welcoming Elijah can be traced to post-Crusades 12th-century France, a time of danger for the Ashkenazi world. Ruth Langer, professor of Jewish studies and associate director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, says, “The prayer reminds us that it’s God, and not us, who takes vengeance on our enemies. There is excitement and hope in opening the door for Elijah, showing our faith that God the redeemer is also our protector.”

8. The Afikoman. Half a matzah broken early in the Seder, the afikoman, is divvied up and served as the very last thing eaten at the Seder. Over the generations, this humble bit of matzah has often gained star status as an “evil eye” deterrent, or a segula (“charm”) for long life. In some families, the children steal and hide the afikoman, and the leader must find (or buy back) the prized possession, without which no Passover Seder can be completed. In other homes, the leader hides the afikoman.

That’s the way Daniel Dressin’s family operates, and the 10-year-old from Owings Mills, Maryland, is gearing up for some successful negotiating this year. “It’s fun competing against my brothers and cousins to try to find it,” says Daniel.

By the way, here is a bonus question for your guests.

What exactly is that mysterious (and expensive) round, crisp shmurah matzah? It is matzah monitored (“guarded”) throughout the entire making and baking process by an observant person (and not a machine) to ensure that no leavening transpires.

Celebrity Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan weighs in: “These so-called ‘watched’ matzah that we can buy today … used to be all matzah before the Age of Industrialization, when Manischewitz created a machine-made square matzah in the [United] States and earlier in France. Before Passover, people would go to a matzah oven, either in the synagogue or the community. And wealthy homeowners even had their own matzah ovens!”

Deborah Fineblum is an award-winning writer and publicist for Jewish nonprofits who also conducts LifeJourney Books Memoir-Writing “Boot Camps” in New England, Florida, and Israel.

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