By Barbara Perry Bind
Monday evening at sundown marks the start of Passover this year. The Citizen spoke with Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz of Temple Sholom in Greenwich about the true meaning of Passover, its history and the deep-seeded traditions that make it such a significant holiday.
Explain the significance of Passover.
Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is one the three major week-long festivals in Judaism. Its Biblical roots were both a celebration of spring and the remembering of the Israelites' redemption from Egyptian bondage. The festival received its name because God "passed-over" the homes of the Israelites when the angel of death struck the Egyptian first born as the final 10th plague.
Passover is a predominantly home-centered observance where the main ritual is the accompanied dinner called the seder. Seder means "order" because there is a rabbinically prescribed order to the "retelling" (Hagaddah) of the Jews redemption from Egyptian bondage.
How do current developments in the Middle East tie in with the meaning of Passover?
The predominant theological theme of Passover is Hope and Redemption. The story of Passover tells how God is engaged in human history and leads the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Passover is a Jewish map for how we understand God's involvement in our lives, and His Divine Will. We are to forever remember that "once we were slaves in Egypt" and thus remain vigilant in our desire to see justice for all. Recent events in the Middle East are scary because you worry that new totalitarian leadership might arise that is even more evil than present leaders. However, there is the hope that the seeds of desire for freedom and democracy will be nurtured and the Middle East will produce more democratic nations like Israel; presently the only democracy in the Middle East. Passover is a further reminder that evil needs to be effectively combated -- always with the intentions to bring more of God's light present into our world.
Describe a typical Passover Seder. The Seder plate is an important component of this special dinner. Can you explain the meaning of each item on the Seder plate?
The seder is a fully designed ritual lesson plan in which the seder participants are literally "eating" history. There are symbolic foods that are utilized. Matzah is the unleavened "bread of poverty and affliction;" a reminder also that when Pharaoh finally relented to let the Israelites go, we didn't even stay long enough for our bread to "rise." The shankbone on the seder plate is a reminder of the sacrifice that was made to God, and the lamb's blood that was placed on the Israelites home to alert the angel of death to "Pass-over." The karpas (green vegetable) is a symbol of spring and the egg a symbol of life. Maror is a bitter herb by which the bitterness of slavery is recalled. Haroset is a mixture of nuts, apples, cinnamon and sweet wine; we taste the sweetness of liberation, and yet the concoction looks like "mortar" by which we still recall our enslavement. The Hagaddah is the Passover liturgical book that takes participants through the actions of eating the Passover foods of history and shares liturgy that retells the Passover story and shares prayers of thanksgiving and hope for a better tomorrow.
In addition to the Seder plate, what typically makes up the meal?
The typical dinner that is in-between the Seder rituals often has menu items such as Matzah Ball soup, Gefillte Fish, Chopped Liver, Brisket, tzimmis (sweet potato dish), Kugel (Jewish stuffing), turkey, vegetables, fruit and special Passover candies. Many of the Passover dishes served were the luxury foods of our forefathers and foremothers. If Jews came from non-European countries, the menu will often take on the luxury foods of those countries. Unlike European Jews, Jews of Spanish descent will utilize rice and beans as permitted foods at a Passover Seder.
What does the cup of Elijah represent?
The origin of the cup of Elijah is different than how it is understood today. The Passover Seder was modeled after the ancient Greek Symposium. This was part of the rabbinic "trick" by which the ancient Romans thought the Jews were flattering them by imitating their practices, and yet Rome was being critiqued as a cruel country, much like Pharaoh's Egypt. The Haggadah cleverly hints at the criticisms of Rome, but because the Haggaddah is written in careful metaphor Roman censors didn't understand the critique and in fact thought their ancient enemy of Egypt was in fact the only villain of the "story". Because the Greek symposium had four cups of wine, the Passover ritual prescribes the same. However, the rabbis teach that the four cups symbolized the four different Biblical phrases by which God promised redemption. The problem was that there are in fact five biblical phrases that make this Divine promise. A Talmudic dispute arose centuries after the Seder had been ritually concretized, with rabbis arguing that a fifth cup of wine should be utilized. The rabbis couldn't agree, and taught that when Elijah the prophet comes to announce an era of peace he can settle the Jewish legal question on four cups vs. five. Thus, Elijah's cup was filled for the eventual messianic announcement. Today, few people recall the origin of Elijah's cup and see it solely as a hope for the messianic era of peace for all.
Finally, who makes, or made, the best Matzoh ball soup you've ever had?
The best matzah ball soup came from my childhood. My Bubbye, grandmother of blessed memory, had a magical recipe that she utilized. Everything from scratch -- the secret ingredient was her loving tears of both hope and sorrow. She came to America from Riga, after a Pogrom had resulted in the death of her oldest brother. Passover was a personal recollection of our family's redemption from bondage that brought us to the "Golden Medinah;" the modern land of freedom and hope that is America. Bubbye's Matzah Ball soup and her love is felt with my mother's utilizing her recipe, and my wife's doing the same. We sit at our Seder table and while we feel the presence of empty seats, we feel the spiritual presence of our loved ones who sit with us as we recall the powerful spiritual charge of our Passover celebration