April 22, 2005


Tomorrow night is Pesah (פסח) - Passover, which occurs on the 15th of Nisan, the month of spring:

שָׁמוֹר אֶת חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב וְעָשִׂיתָ פֶּסַח לַה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ
כִּי בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב הוֹצִיאֲךָ ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָיְלָה

Shamor et hodesh ha'aviv v`asita pesah laH' eloheykha
Ki b'hodesh ha'aviv hosiakha H' eloheykha mimisrayim layla

Keep the month of spring and make a Passover [sacrifice] to the Lord your God
Because in the month of spring the Lord your God took you out of Egypt at night

Deuteronomy 16:1 (also here)

Pesah is one of Judaism's three pilgrimage holidays or hagim, singular: hag (חג) - cognate of Arabic hajj. It is probably the biggest family holiday of the year. While Judaism, in general, is a home-oriented religion, on Pesah this is particularly true. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all:

 לֹא תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל עָלָיו מַצּוֹת לֶחֶם עֹנִי
כִּי בְחִפָּזוֹן יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

Lo' tokhal `alav hames shiv`at yamim tokhal `alav masot lehem `oni
Ki b'hipazon yasa'ta me'eres misrayim
L'ma`an tizkor et yom set'kha me'eres misrayim kol y'mey hayeykha

You will not eat on it leaven. For seven days you shall eat matzas, bread of affliction
Because in haste you went out from the land of Egypt
In order that you will remember the day of your going-out from Egypt all the days of your life

Deuteronomy 16:3 (also here)

Jews are not allowed to eat, or even own, any kind of leaven for the seven days of Pesah (eight days outside of Israel). Most observant Jews put a lot of effort into cleaning their houses for Pesah, getting rid of all bread, cake, cookies, pasta, and anything that's made from leaven. And lots of processed foods contain leaven, which is defined as any mixture of flour and water that is not cooked within 18 minutes. The hard, cracker-like matzas that we use today are actually a humra (חומרה) - an additional stricture that was taken on in order to be perfectly sure that no bits of the flour + water mixture remain uncooked (say, in the middle of the matza). It is clear from reading the Talmud that the matzas of that time were soft, i.e. they could be used to wrap food. Indeed, soft matzas are still in use in many S'fardi communities.

But more than the time spent cleaning the home, what makes Pesah such a home and family-based holiday is the Seder, when we gather to recall the story of the Exodus:

וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר
בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם

V'higadta l'vinkha bayom hahu le'mor
Ba`avor ze `asa H' li b'se'ti mimisrayim

And you will tell your son on that day saying
"Because of what the Lord did for me on my going-out from Egypt"

Exodus 13:8 (also here)

It is a festive meal, in which the extended family gathers around the table to tell story of the Exodus. It is certainly the most memorable yearly event of my childhood. There is an official text which is used, called the Hagada (הגדה) - the telling.  The Hagada opens as follows:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם
כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח
הָשַתָּא הָכָא, לְשָנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל
הָשַתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

Ha lahma `anya di akhalu avhatana b'ar`a d'misrayma
Kol dikhfin yeytey v'yeykhol, kol disrikh yeytey v'yifsah
Hashta hakha, l'shana haba'a b'ar`a d'yisra'el
Hashta `avdey, l'shana haba'a b'ney horin

This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt
All who are hungry - may they come and eat, all who are in need - may they come and make Passover
This year we are here, next year may we be in the land of Israel
This year we are slaves, next year may we be free men [literally: sons of freedom]

Does the Hebrew seem a little strange to you? If it does, it's probably because it's not Hebrew, but Aramaic. The instruction above the text in the Hagada that I linked to is:

מְגַלֶה אֶת הַמַצוֹת מַגְבִּיהַ אֶת הַקְעָרָה וְאוֹמֵר בְּקוֹל רָם:

M'gale et hamasot magbiha et haq`ara v'omer b'qol ram:

[The leader] uncovers the matzas, lifts up the plate [of matza] and says in a loud voice:

One of the commandments of Pesah is not to simply recall the Exodus, but to actually see yourself as coming out of Egypt. The opening of the Hagada recalls that time, as well as our present afflictions, whatever they may be.

However, the central misva (מצוה) - commandment of the Seder is to tell the story of the Exodus to the children. Thus, the hagada (הגדה) - telling of the Seder begins with a child's question:

מַה נִּשְּתַּנָה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת?

Ma nishtana halayla haze mikol haleylot?

Why is this night different from all other nights?

This question (it continues with four sub-questions, hence it is known as the "four questions") is traditionally asked by the youngest person present (who can). The rest of the Seder is the answer to this question.

More about Passover here.

I should point out that the traditional Hagada, as the story of the Exodus, is fairly impenetrable to one who is not familiar with it. So if you can, study it beforehand!

Pesah Kasher V'Sameah! (פסח כשר ושמח!) - May you have a happy and kosher Passover!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at April 22, 2005 05:18 AM
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