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March 24, 2010 > Passover, a joyous celebration

Passover, a joyous celebration

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Miriam G. Mazliach

The pursuit of freedom is what all people seek and hold dear. With that belief, family and friends will join together, in most Jewish households, to observe the beginning of the Passover holiday, beginning sundown on Monday, March 29 and continuing to April 7.

As described in the Old Testament, over 3,000 years ago, a succession of 10 plagues were inflicted upon the people of Egypt, until Pharaoh relented and "let the Israelites go." Thus, Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery and their exodus from the land of Egypt.

On each of the first two evenings of Passover, "a seder" or symbolic meal is held.

Rabbi Avi Schulman of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont explains, "The Passover seder is more than a ritualistic meal eaten on the night of the festival. It is a brilliant event filled with celebration, singing, and the consumption of special foods. The seder engages every age group from young to old. There is literally something for everyone."

Throughout the seder, participants take turns reading aloud from the "haggadah," a book written in English and Hebrew that recounts the story of the deliverance from slavery and also includes blessings, prayers and songs. The youngest person at the gathering is expected to ask "four questions" about how this evening is different from all other evenings.

Placed on the dining table, for the meal, is a platter containing three layers of "matzoh," large, flat and square-shaped crackers. These are eaten in place of bread during the eight days of Passover. For the duration of the holiday, observant Jews are not allowed to eat anything that contains leavening, which is a rising agent. Historically, when the Israelites departed hurriedly from Egypt, they could not wait for their bread dough to rise and thus matzoh (unleavened bread) resulted.

In addition, the holiday table traditionally holds a decorative seder plate filled with symbolic foods, to be eaten at specific times prior to the main meal.

Although "z'roa," a roasted chicken neck or a lamb shank bone, is on the seder plate, it is the one item not eaten, but rather serves as a representation of the many sacrifices the Jewish people have had to endure.

The first of the "appetizers" that are eaten is "maror" or bitter herbs, representing the harshness of slavery. A bit of grated horseradish is usually placed between two small pieces of matzoh. It definitely clears the sinuses!

"Charoset" is sampled next, a mixture of chopped walnuts, apples, wine and cinnamon. Usually a dollop is put inside a piece of lettuce and then enjoyed. The "charoset" is thought to look like the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the pyramids of Egypt.

A green vegetable/herb "karpas," follows next and is dipped into salt water for full effect. Most people use parsley, celery, or radishes. The salt water represents the tears shed and the sorrow felt by the Jewish people during slavery.

Last to be eaten prior to the meal is the "beitzah" or roasted egg. As a symbol of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a platter of hard-boiled eggs are distributed for dipping into salt water and then consumed.

Wine is re-filled four times throughout the seder meal, at specific intervals, as part of the reading of the haggadah.

About two-thirds of the way through the readings, there is a pause to stop and partake in the main meal. Delicious and tasty chicken soup, with homemade fluffy matzoh balls, is always a crowd pleaser. The next course might be lamb, roast chicken or even a scrumptious beef brisket.

Grace is recited at the conclusion of the meal. Before the reading of the haggadah is concluded, the "afikomen," a piece of matzo which had been hidden, is returned with a small reward given to its finder. Then everyone gets to break off and eat a piece of the afikomen for good luck.

The spirit of Elijah the prophet is welcomed in to drink from his special cup of wine. With the singing of traditional songs, the seder concludes for another year with best wishes and hopes for all.

"The Passover Seder links every person to the Jewish past, present, and future," says Rabbi Schulman. "We recount God's miracle in liberating us from Egypt. We rejoice in the flourishing of Jewish life in America and Israel and lastly, we anticipate an age when the whole world will be at peace."

Take the time to treasure family and friends and continue your own traditions by sharing a meal together.

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