Passover: Jews commemorate the Exodus with seders, matzo & prayers

Silver pewter cup with matzo crackers on white cloth with blue letters in Hebrew

A cup of wine and matzo for Passover. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 3—Jewish families around the world begin one of the most important holiday periods of the year, recalling the ancient liberation of the Jewish people in the Exodus. After having forced the ancient Israelites into slavery for many years, the Pharaoh of Egypt refused to obey God, and the consequential 10th plague was, quite literally, the occasion of the famous Passover. (The 10th plague killed firstborn children with the exception of the children in Jewish families, whose homes were passed over.)

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere. Attending a Passover seder is one of the most universal expressions of Judaism. The Passover period of 2015 ends at sundown on Saturday, April 11.

Want more on Passover food traditions? You’ll enjoy Bobbie Lewis’s FeedTheSpirit column—yes, with a recipe, too!

This year, holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton and Jewish scholar and author Joe Lewis are collaborating on our coverage. Next, here is …

JOE LEWIS ON PASSOVER

Passover is about skipping: “When I see the blood, I will skip over you” (Ex. 12:13). The Hebrew root for the word “skip” is P-S-Ch. It’s used for a limp (Lev. 21:18 and 2 Samuel 4:4), for wavering between two opinions (1 Kings 18:21) and for hip-hop dancing of a pagan sort (1 Kings 18:26; Robert Graves suggests that bird-like strutting was a feature of ancient ritual dance). But as any dancer knows, you have to know what to skip and what to stress.

So don’t skip on the preparations: a zealous spring cleaning to clear leaven from the house, and careful transfer of ownership of remaining leaven to someone who’s not Jewish.

Don’t skip the food: you give up pasta, flour, bread and edible breakfast cereal, but there are lots of ways to prepare matza (or matzah) from matza balls to matza bagels. There must be at least a hundred varieties of matza kugel, and if you only serve 99 at your seder, what’s wrong with you?

Plate with six compartments for egg, lettuce, bones, red sauce and pate

The Seder Plate contains symbolic items at the Passover seder table. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Don’t skip through the Hagadah (some people spell it with two gs or one h): although we’ve been reading the same book for centuries so some of us have it memorized; and although our true obligation is to discuss what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be free, rather than to read our service by rote; and although everybody is hungry before the Seder meal and a little tired and tipsy after it; and although it’s late and the kids will be unmanageable the next day; someone is sure to say—with good reason—“We mustn’t skip this next part.”

Don’t skip services. Every day of Passover is a special day in the synagogue, with extra sections added to the daily morning service, so you wouldn’t want to miss it.

But don’t go overboard! What happens if a little rodent should bring some leaven into the house, our sages asked in the Mishnah, the ancient compilation of Jewish tradition (Pesachim 1:2). Ah, they answer, if you worry about these possibilities that are beyond your control, there’s no end to it.

To Passover there is an end: after nightfall on the eighth day, the festival is over and we resume our usual diet.

STEPHANIE FENTON ON PASSOVER

Our long-time holidays columnist reports on the many ways men, women and children experience these festivals and milestones. This year, she spotted these news items and resources:

A Supreme Court justice recently penned a feminist reading of the Passover story, released by the American Jewish World Service and presented as something that could be used during the Passover seder. (Washington Post reported.) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of three women currently sitting on the United States Supreme Court, has more recently become known as the Notorious RBG—though her focus on gender equality is anything but new. The short essay, entitled “The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover,” highlights five imperative women of the Exodus story, including Moses’ mother, Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ sister.

Cook up memories with Australian Jewish Holocaust survivors, as is detailed in this recent story by ABC. After learning the heroic stories of three brave survivors, cook up the recipes—they’re included in the story. Passover cakes and more, along with videos of the inter-generational families, add depth of connection to Passover and the seder.

Looking for interactive resources, stories, recipes and hosting ideas for Passover? Check out Chabad.org, the Jewish Virtual Library, Aish.com, My Jewish Learning and Wikipedia.

PASSOVER AT A GLANCE

Following Moses, the Jewish people left Egypt so quickly that, tradition says, the bread they baked for the journey out of Egypt didn’t have time to rise—so Passover breads are unleavened.

Prior to the start of Passover, all chametz (leavened grain) is removed from the house. The removal of chametz can be an intensive and precise ritual—and it’s a lot of fun if parents involve young children in the final hunt for chametz. Matzah (unleavened bread) is eaten at the Passover seder and throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through a recitation of the Haggadah.

Passover lasts for seven days in Israel, and eight days outside of Israel. During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. The omer, a unit of measure, is used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

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Categories: Jewish

Palm Sunday: Holy Week begins with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem

Children walking down aisle, palm fronds held by church members, bishop in background

Palm Sunday 2014 at Westminster Cathedral. Photo by Catholic Church England and Wales, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, MARCH 29: With Easter just one week away, Western Christians (Catholic and Protestant) begin preparations for the pivotal week to come. The liturgical calendar for Eastern Orthodox Christians is a week later for this season.

Holy Week commences with Palm Sunday, the feast commemorating Jesus’ ceremonial entry into Jerusalem. (Eastern Christians mark Palm Sunday on April 5, this year.) According to all four canonical Gospels, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. In joyful exultation, the crowds that had gathered in Jerusalem laid down clothing and small branches in his path. (Learn more from Catholic Culture.)

THE PALM BRANCH: YESTERDAY AND TODAY

Thousands of years ago, palm branches symbolized integrity and triumph. The palm-branche symbol sometimes showed up on coins and decorated important buildings and temples. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and many Protestant congregations, palm fronds are blessed and distributed on Palm Sunday. Though local species of branches may be substituted where palm fronds are unavailable—for example, box, yew, willow and olive branches are also used, among others—the branch most widely distributed is the palm. (Wikipedia has details.) In some parishes, a procession also occurs on this Sunday. The blessed palms, regarded as sacred objects in the Catholic Church, are often kept behind household crucifixes or holy pictures and, tradition says, these fronds could be burned at next year’s Ash Wednesday services.

PALM BRAIDING

Palms waving on Palm SundayEvery  year our readers ask for tips on palm braiding, so here are this year’s best tips: Watch tutorials on palm braiding, or use step-by-step instructions, with help from U.S. Catholic.org, YouTube, Catholic Inspired and Fish Eaters.

In countries where palm fronds are widely available, such as Spain and Mexico, the weaving of intricate designs and figures is common practice on Palm Sunday. In Latvia, pussy willows are blessed and, traditionally, used to swat children awake on the morning of Palm Sunday. In Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, Palm Sunday is an occasion for family and is extremely popular, complete with palm weaving, processions and a splashing of holy water. In the Philippines, Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem is reenacted.

Did you know? Aside from palm braiding, Palm Sunday is sometimes considered a customary time to eat figs, in light of Jesus’s interaction with a fig tree after his entry into Jerusalem. In addition, Palm Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are considered the ideal time to thoroughly clean the home, so that Thursday, Friday and Saturday may be set aside to focus on Christ’s passion and the home may be spotless for Easter.

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Categories: Christian

Ramayana Week: Hindus begin preparations for Ramanavami, read epic story

Depiction of battle scene with fighting humans and monkeys

A depiction of a battle scene within the Ramayana, during which the monkey army of Rama fights the demon king of Lanka. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, MARCH 21: With the birthday of Lord Rama on the horizon, millions of Hindus begin Ramayana Week to prepare for the occasion. During these auspicious days, devotees read the timeless epic, witness narrations of the exciting events in Rama’s life and fast for the deity. Though some fast only on the birthday of Lord Rama, many fast during the entirety of Ramayana Week. (Read more from Hindu blog.) During Ramayana Week, countless temples hold a non-stop recital of the epic Ramayana.

The story of Lord Rama is recorded in an ancient epic written by Valmiki, one of the first Sanskrit poets. Most historical references date the Ramayana to sometime between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, though scholars debate the date. Through the centuries, the Ramayana has taken on many versions—for which Wikipedia devoted an entire article—and the complex story incorporates thrilling battle scenes and climactic events. Through the year, the international initiative Read Ramayana brings the epic tales to the electronic devices of thousands across the globe. (Check out its Facebook page here.)

This year, the birthday of Lord Rama—Ramanavami—will fall on March 28.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Equinox: Spring brings Nowruz New Year, Hindu Ugadi and Pagan Ostara

Pink flower spring tree buds against blue sky

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

FRIDAY, MARCH 20 and SATURDAY, MARCH 21: All across the Northern Hemisphere, men, women and children are longing for spring, marked by the vernal equinox. This ancient cycle fuels celebrations worldwide:

  • In many parts of the Middle East and Asia, the ancient holiday is known as Nowruz. For Bahai’s, it’s Naw-Ruz.
  • For many Hindus, it’s Ugadi.
  • For Pagans and Wiccans, it’s Ostara.

Though the names and specific rituals may differ, the theme is joy in the promises of new life that comes in the spring season. As the darkness of winter lifts, communities rejoice. Whether it’s Kurds in Turkey jumping over fires, Iranians sprouting grains or Wiccans discussing the symbolism of the egg, all embrace the rejuvenation of the season.

VERNAL EQUINOX: SPRING IN THE NORTH

On March 20 at 22:45 UTC, the 2015 vernal equinox will occur—and for those in the Northern Hemisphere, that signals springtime. Though day and night are not exactly equal in duration on the equinox—that event is known as equilux, and varies by location—the plane of the Earth’s Equator passes the center of the sun on the equinoxes. During the equinox, length of daylight is (theoretically) the same at all points on the Earth.

In Chinese belief, spring is associated with a green dragon and the direction east: the green dragon for the green sprouts of spring, and east as the direction of sunrise and the beginning of each day. This year, a special astronomical event will occur on the equinox: a solar eclipse, estimated to be visible across Northern Africa, Europe and Northern Asia. (The UK’s Mirror reported.) The solar eclipse is expected to be the largest since August 1999.

NOWRUZ: IRANIANS, ZOROASTRIANS AND THE HAFT-SIN TABLE

Table in dark room with lit candles, covered in varied objects such as apples, garlic and golden eggs

A Haft-Sin table. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Spellings vary widely, but across much of the Middle East, Central and South Asia—Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and more—as well as by Zoroastrians and other religious and ethnic groups, the vernal equinox marks Nowruz, the New Year holiday.

Classified among UNESCO’s Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Iranian/Persian New Year dates back hundreds of years BCE. Many believe that Nowruz is rooted in Zoroastrianism and was started by Zarathustra, though some place the festival’s origin centuries before Zoroaster.

Nowruz dawns as the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar. Nowruz is a very important holiday in Iran and for Zoroastrians. Extensive spring cleaning begins a month prior to Nowruz, and new clothing is bought in anticipation of the 12-day celebrations that include numerous visits to family and friends. Prior and sometimes during the festival, fires are lit that reflect the Zoroastrian perspective on light’s victory over darkness. Many Iranians put up a Haft Sin table, covered with seven symbolic items. Items vary slightly but may include apples, mirrors, candles, sprouted wheat or barley, painted eggs, rose water, dried fruit, garlic, vinegar, coins and a holy book. (Wikipedia has details.) Parsi Zoroastrians set up a “sesh” tray, filled with rose water, a betel nut, raw rice, raw sugar, flowers, a wick in a glass and a picture of Zarathustra. On the 13th day of the New Year festival, families head outdoors for picnics, music and dancing.

NAW-RUZ: BAHA’I NEW YEAR

Baha’is have been fasting for the past month, and after sunset on March 19, that fast is broken—for Naw-Ruz, the Baha’i New Year. One of nine holy days of the month, Naw-Ruz was instituted by Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, as a time for great joy. No set rituals exist for Naw-Ruz, and most Baha’is gather for a community meal and read sacred Baha’i writings. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, described the equinox as a symbol of the messengers of God, with their message as the spiritual springtime that is Naw-Ruz. This year, for the first time, the New Year will begin on the day of the vernal equinox, and not fixed on March 21. (Previously, Naw-Ruz was fixed on March 21 for Baha’is living outside of the Middle East.)

UGADI: RELIGIOUS FORECAST; SIX TASTES

Bunches of green leaves tied unto string, hanging, with Hindu structure in background

Garlands of tied mango leaves are strung for Ugadi. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For Hindus and the people of the Deccan region of India, March 21 means (Y)ugadi, derived from Sanskrit as “the beginning of a new age.” Names for the festival vary by region, but across India, Ugadi specifically refers to the start of our current age, Kali Yuga. According to Hindu legend, Kali Yuga began in 3102 BCE, at the moment Lord Krishna left the world. On Yugadi, people traditionally gather to listen to the recitation of the religious almanac of the new year—or, in other words, a forecast of the coming year. Hindus used to gather in temples to hear the Ugadi forecast, but today, priest-scholar recitations can be viewed on television or the almanac might be read by an elder in other settings.

On this auspicious day, extended families gather and ritual baths are taken before prayers. Carefully cleaned homes welcome visitors with an entrance draped in fresh mango leaves. (Wikipedia has details.) In many regions, a dish of six tastes is partaken with a symbolism that represents the varied experiences of life. Most commonly, neem buds and flowers symbolize sadness; jaggery and banana signify happiness; green chili peppers represent anger; salt indicates fear; taramind juice symbolizes disgust; and unripened mango translates to surprise. This year, transportation corporations and railways have announced the necessity of hundreds of extra trains and buses for Ugadi crowds.

OSTARA: PAGANS AND WICCANS CELEBRATE

Symbols of eggs and rabbits illustrate the Pagan and Wiccan holiday of Ostara, known also for the goddess of spring by the same name. Ostara, or Eostre, is the ancient goddess of spring and dawn who presides over fertility, conception and pollination. Symbols of eggs and rabbits represent the fertility of springtime, and in centuries past, these symbols were often used in fertility rituals. The next full moon, also called Ostara, is known as a time of increased births.

As the trees begin to bud and new plants emerge, modern Pagans and Wiccans fast from winter’s heavy foods and partake in the fresh vegetables and herbs of springtime. (Learn more from Wicca.com.) Traditional foods for this time are leafy green vegetables, dairy foods, nuts and sprouts; favored activities include planting a garden and taking a walk in nature.

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Categories: Baha'iFaiths of IndiaHinduInterfaithInternational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

St. Patrick’s Day: Delve into Irish culture with the saint of Emerald Isle

Girl with red hair in traditional Irish dress in dark blue

An Irish dancer at the 2014 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in San Francisco. Photo by Mark, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, MARCH 17: Tender corned beef, cold brews and plenty of green sweep across the globe today, as the world turns to the Emerald Isle for St. Patrick’s Day.

From New York City’s legendary parade to Dublin’s four-day festival; from Montreal’s shamrock pride to New Zealand’s green Sky Tower, there’s no shortage of Irish culture anywhere. This year, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny is scheduled to spend St. Pat’s in Washington with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, discussing global issues and participating together in the annual Shamrock Ceremony. Elsewhere, the Irish and Irish-at-heart will be marching in parades, wishing on four-leaf clovers and remembering that early Christian saint known as St. Patrick.

A DREAM AND A SHAMROCK

The legendary patron saint of Ireland began life c. 385 CE, in Roman Britain. With a wealthy family whose patron was a deacon, St. Patrick led a comfortable life until his teenage years, when he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During his six years in Ireland, Patrick gained a deeper Christian faith. When he dreamed that God told him to flee to the coast, Patrick did so—and traveled home to become a priest. (Wikipedia has details.) Following ordination, however, another dream prompted Patrick to do what no one expected: to return to Ireland.

As a Christian in Ireland, Patrick worked to convert the pagan Irish. With a three-leaved shamrock in hand to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans, St. Patrick converted many. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 at Downpatrick.

PATRICK: IN THE CHURCH & AROUND THE WORLD

Surprisingly, the most widely known saint from Ireland was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church. Since no formal canonization process existed in the Church’s first millennium, St. Patrick was deemed a saint only by popular acclaim and local approval. Nonetheless, St. Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day by the early 17th century, observed by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and members of the Church of Ireland. Today, countries the world over offer citizens and tourists Irish-themed foods, drinks and culture on March 17. Dances, processions, performances and more illustrate the vibrancy of Irish history—all set against the very Irish color of green.

Skillet pan with pot pie vegetables and meat in gravy and potatoes braised and mashed on top

Beef and lamb shepherd’s pie for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Dennis Wilkinson, courtesy of Flickr

RECIPES, CRAFT IDEAS AND MORE

Who doesn’t dream of hearty Irish stews, hot Reuben sandwiches and cold drinks on St. Patrick’s Day? Get into the Irish spirit with these recipe ideas (and some crafts, to boot):

  • A plethora of easy-to-follow recipes, from brisket to soda bread, is at AllRecipes.
  • Kids can get into the spirit of the Irish with craft ideas from PBS and Parenting.com.
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Categories: Christian

Mothering Sunday: Mums honored by Brits and across the United Kingdom

“I’ll to thee a Simnel bring,
Gainst thou go’st a Mothering.”
Poet Robert Herrick, 17th century

Mother in white brim hat smiling with baby, looking at camera, on beach

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNDAY, MARCH 15: It’s Mother’s Day in the style of Downton Abbey—across Britain and the United Kingdom, the beloved tradition known as Mothering Sunday commences. Centuries ago, the fourth Sunday of Lent was a time for families separated by work to reunite and visit the mother church, or main cathedral in the area; children often picked wildflowers on the journey home to present to their mums.

Mums across the UK are still showered with bouquets on Mothering Sunday, though greeting cards, tea houses, spas, restaurants and even horse races now also cater to the honored women.

FOR DOWNTON ABBEY FANS …

Mothering Sunday may not have found a spot yet in the plot of the internationally acclaimed Downton Abbey series, but that doesn’t mean the Downton cast and crew isn’t well aware of the tradition: Phyllis Logan (aka “Mrs. Hughes”) was recently interviewed about her hopes for this year’s Mothering Sunday. The culinary historian who writes this food blog, with all things in the name of the Abbey, also prominently featured a recipe for Simnel cake—a popular treat for Easter and Mothering Sunday.

Slice of raisin-filled cake on plate with fork

A slice of Simnel cake. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MOTHERING SUNDAY HISTORY

In 16th century England, children who worked as domestic servants were customarily granted the fourth Sunday of Lent as a day off, so that families could take this Sunday to visit the “mother” church. (Wikipedia has details.) Lenten rules were relaxed, families spent the day together and, as a result, this Sunday was alternatively called Refreshment Sunday.

Did you know? In the Bible readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent, there are references to Jerusalem being the “mother of us all.”

By the early 20th century, the American Mother’s Day advocate Anna Jarvis was gaining international attention. Inspired by Jarvis’s work, British activist Constance Penswick-Smith penned a booklet that attempted to revive Mothering Sunday, but with a twist: This time, she suggested, Mothering Sunday should be focused on honoring Mum instead of on visiting the “mother” church. By 1938, Mothering Sunday was recognized in almost every parish in Britain, as well as by children—young and old—across the nation. (The Children’s Society, a UK organization, offers sermon ideas for Mothering Sunday.) By 1950, the holiday had spread across the UK.

Simnel cake: Though sweet buns were the treat of choice in the 16th century, the Simnel cake has since come to be associated with Easter and Mothering Sunday. A fruit cake with layers of almond paste, the traditional Simnel cake is sometimes decorated with 11 balls of marzipan, representing the 11 disciples (excluding Judas). The BBC has an authentic recipe of this cake, as does Food.com.

What do the British do for Mum? Cards and flowers aside, countless pubs, restaurants and spas bring out their best services for Mothering Sunday. News reports are offering top-choice lists of places to take Mum, with opportunities from Manchester to Wales. Liverpool Cathedral has also announced a special service and lunch in honor of—who else?—wonderful Mum.

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Categories: Christian

L. Ron Hubbard: Scientologists observe birthday of religion’s founder

FRIDAY, MARCH 13: Scientologists pour into Clearwater, Florida, for a birthday celebration for their founder, as thousands more perform community service in their own locales for the birth anniversary of L. Ron Hubbard. Born in Nebraska in 1911, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard gained attention for his science fiction and fantasy books before launching the Dianetics self-help system, which was released in printed form in 1950. (Wikipedia has details.) As Dianetics expanded, Hubbard developed a set of doctrines and rituals, which led to the new religious movement known as Scientology.

Several aspects of Hubbard’s life are controversial, but the group continues to expand. At the 2014 LRH Birthday Celebration in Clearwater, expansion was discussed—with particular mention made of the first Ideal Advanced Organization, in Denmark, and the Ideal Pacifica Bridge in Los Angeles.

Additional controversy is stirring in the midst of the new HBO-funded documentary, “Going Clear,” which recently was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. (The Huffington Post reported.) Based on Lawrence Wrights’s 560-page book, the documentary has spurred legal action from the group. Nonetheless, L. Ron Hubbard remains one of the 100 most influential Americans of all time—at least, according to Smithsonian magazine.

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Categories: Scientology