Passover: Jews gather ’round the seder table, share stories and history

Passover table set with candles, plates, glasses

A table set for Passover. Photo by April Killingsworth, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 22: Jewish families around the globe sit down to seder tables and remember the ancient, biblical story of freedom as Passover begins.

Recalling the liberation of the Jewish people in the Exodus, Passover is so named because of the 10th plague of ancient Egypt, which was, quite literally, a Passover. (The 10th plague killed firstborn children, but passed over the homes with Jewish children.) The Seder meal, undertaken after sunset, may also be attended by non-Jews or friends of Jews. The meal is replete with centuries-old rituals, stories, readings, songs and lively discussions. The Passover period of 2016 ends at sundown on Saturday, April 30.

Want fresh Passover recipes and more? Check out Bobbie Lewis’s FeedTheSpirit column, which features a mouthwatering take on charoset (plus a timely explanation of Passover’s annual date on the calendar).

Think Passover isn’t rooted in real food? Think again! A second FeedTheSpirit column features a guest columnist who grew up as a Jew on a sheep farm—and offers a real-food perspective that seamlessly links traditional perspectives with today’s most relevant issues.

Invited to a seder and not sure what to do? Learn about all of the Jewish holidays, what a seder looks like and so much more with Michigan State University’s recent release, 100 Questions & Answers about American Jews.

PASSOVER: CHAMETZ, ISRAEL AND THE SEDER

In the weeks and months before Passover, Jewish families meticulously clear their homes of any type of leavened grain, known as chametz. The removal of the final chametz can even be made into a fun ritual game, for which children often get involved. For the Passover meal, many Jews may cook with a separate set of cooking utensils and host dinners with a “clean” set of dishes—that is, items that are put aside especially for Passover and have never come into contact with chametz. Any leavened grains in the home may be temporarily sold to non-Jewish friends or neighbors.

Close-up matzah cracker, broken

A matzah cracker. Photo by Avital Pinnick, courtesy of Flickr

According to tradition, the Jewish people left ancient Egypt to follow Moses once they had been freed. They left in such a hurry, however, that the bread they baked for the journey out of Egypt didn’t have time to rise—and, thus, Passover breads are unleavened. Called matzah, the unleavened bread is consumed throughout Passover. In Israel today, Passover lasts seven days; outside of Israel, Passover is eight days.

Passover seders—typically, the most attended events of the Jewish year—last several hours or more. Table settings, foods served and even the ceremonial prayers used are precise and carefully selected. During the seder, the story of Exodus is commemorated through readings from the Haggadah. Multiple food courses are served during the meal, and children enjoy many of the songs and activities.

Did you know? The true intent of the Passover seder is to not only recall Jewish history, but to discuss the contemporary meaning of ancient Jewish wisdom, passing on that valuable information to the next generation of Jews.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day, the omer—a unit of measure—begins being used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

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Tu B’Shvat: Jews mark New Year for Trees; pontiff marks 50th of Nostra Aetate

A palm tree heavy with date fruits, both ripe and unripe

A fruit-bearing date tree. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET SUNDAY, JANUARY 24: It’s a New Year for Trees!

On the 15th day of the month of Shevat, Jews observe Tu Bishvat—an ancient commemoration of the start of the agricultural year—and, in 2016, that day begins on the evening of January 24. (Note that holiday spellings may vary.)

The Jewish calendar has four New Years, and in centuries past, farmers would mark the age of their trees in order to calculate their eligibility for fruit harvest and tithing. According to Leviticus 19:23-25, a tree’s fruit may only be eaten after its fifth year: in the first three years the fruit is forbidden, and in the fourth year, the fruit must be set apart for God. When the State of Israel was reestablished, in 1948, interest in the ancient festival surged. Jewish people were farmers, once again, and the fruits of the land of Israel were celebrated.

Today, the TuBishvat seder is observed in many Jewish households and synagogues. Many partake in the fruits and nuts of Israel, while reflecting on the need for sustainable agriculture. It is recognized that man depends upon the fruits of agriculture.

POPE FRANCIS MAKES LANDMARK VISIT TO JEWS IN ROME

Pope Francis’s recent visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue made him the third pontiff in history to visit the building—and, this time, at the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate. (Read more at Haaretz.com.) Last month, the Vatican released a document to mark the milestone anniversary of Nostra Aetate, with a text restating how Christianity is rooted in Judaism and emphasizing that the Church should not try to convert Jews. Pope Francis, who maintained a close relationship with the Jewish community during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, is aiming to convey a message of coexistence and mutual respect.

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Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: Celebrating rain and the Torah cycle

Rain drops building up on solid surface

On Shemini Atzeret, Jews begin to pray for rain—a practice that will continue until Passover. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET SUNDAY, OCTOBER 4 (and SUNSET MONDAY, OCTOBER 5): As the High Holidays draw to a close, Jewish families around the world mark Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, a time of “rejoicing in the Torah” and asking for G_d’s blessings. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah combine to make one holiday; outside of Israel, the holidays fall over the course of two days. Though Shemini Atzeret technically falls within Sukkot, none of the blessings associated with Sukkot are carried over onto this—separate—holiday. (Learn more from My Jewish Learning and Judaism 101.) Observant Jews don’t work on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Prayers for rain commence on Shemini Atzeret. On Simchat Torah, the annual cycle of the weekly Torah readings is complete. In synagogues and temples, portions of the Torah are read each week of the year. As the end is reached on Simchat Torah—Jews demonstrate the continuing cycle of life with the Torah by immediately re-rolling the scrolls and reading the first passage of Genesis.

To celebrate the Torah, lively processions around the synagogue take place with participants carrying Torah scrolls and singing and dancing. (Wikipedia has details.) As many adherents as possible are given the chance to recite a blessing over the Torah—even children.

Did you know? At the Western Wall in Israel, the night of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah is filled with dancing and live music. The festivities often last late into the night.

Though people today may not be as dependent on yearly rainfall for their sustenance, Shemini Atzeret serves as a reminder that human actions still effect the weather and environment—perhaps more now than ever. As one Jewish writer points out, it is on Shemini Atzeret that people must acknowledge both the obligation to take action—by respecting natural resources and cycles—and the faith necessary to realize that some systems are beyond human control. It is, she reports, “both a recognition and a release of power.”

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Yom Kippur: Jews ask forgiveness on Day of Atonement; final High Holidays

Red-draped tall wooden box with Jewish symbols

During the Ne’ilah services of Yom Kippur, the Torah ark is left open. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22: The High Holidays reach their spiritual peak on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Often described as the most significant date on the Jewish calendar, Jewish men and women traditionally prepare for Yom Kippur by asking forgiveness of anyone they have wronged in the past year. Then, Yom Kippur usually is spent in synagogue as each person reflects on the past year and prays to reconcile with both G_d and their community.

Fasting from food and drink is undertaken for 25 hours, while the color white is customarily worn to services. The Yom Kippur liturgy continues until nightfall, when services end with a long blast of the shofar.

YOM KIPPUR: KOL NIDRE TO THE ARK

The lengthy services of Yom Kippur use a special prayer book, the machzor, and the opening evening service is known as Kol Nidre, or “all vows.” During this service, the faithful ask G_d to annul personal vows they made during the next year—a great relief in past eras when Jews were forced to convert to other religions. The community asks forgiveness of collective sins, and the final service of Yom Kippur—Ne’ilah—is performed with the ark open. (Learn more from Judaism 101.) During this final service, it is often referenced as a “closing of the gates.”

Did you know? Traditionally, Yom Kippur is considered the date Moses received the second set of Ten Commandments. At this time, the Israelites were granted atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf.

In Israel today, Yom Kippur is a legal holiday. Public transportation, shops and businesses are closed, and there are no radio or television broadcasts. (Wikipedia has details.) Eating in public is strictly avoided on Yom Kippur. In recent years, however, young Israelis have taken to riding bicycles and in-line skating on the eve of Yom Kippur.

NEWS: 50 YEARS AGO …

In 1965, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax made the decision not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, as it fell on Yom Kippur. The decision made international headlines, creating buzz around the world as the conflicts between American culture and Jewish belief were discussed. Today, JTA reflects on how Koufax’s decision still resonates—and how it impacted Jews for the generations following.

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Categories: Jewish