Tag Archives: Passover

Permanent Passover Disease (a.k.a. Celiac)

Dear Josep,

So, as you know, one of the Distressing Things™ that happened in my family this summer was the discovery that my middle child probably has celiac. He underwent the endoscopy a week ago, and we won’t have definite results until they finish analyzing the biopsy (which will take another couple weeks), but in the meantime all the signs point to celiac and the doctor told us to commence a gluten-free diet.

Now, I have several family members who are not eating gluten, and Eitan actually tried it for a month earlier this year to see if it would help with his migraines. (Unfortunately, it didn’t.) So I had the basic idea of what would be involved and what we could do to replace gluten in R1’s diet. But here’s the thing: those family members don’t have celiac. They are just gluten sensitive.

What’s the difference?

Well, celiac is not a sensitivity, or a food allergy, or an intolerance. It is an autoimmune disease. The difference is kind of technical, but the point is that for a person with celiac, even the tiniest particle of gluten can trigger the autoimmune response that damages the intestines.

So it’s not just that R1 can’t eat things that contain gluten; he can’t eat things that contain traces of gluten, or even may contain traces of gluten. And you’d be surprised to learn how many things may contain traces of gluten!!! (Our favorite brand of hummus, for one. 🙁 🙁 🙁 ) We have to check all the labels. We have to be very careful not to contaminate things like peanut butter or hummus by spreading it on bread and then dipping the knife back in. And even seemingly innocent products like dried beans or rice can sometimes contain traces. (Fortunately, we can still use them if we check them over carefully and rinse them before cooking.) We had to strip our cast iron pans through high heat to burn off whatever gluten particles might be absorbed into them, and replace our wooden cutting board and cooking utensils.

Hmmmmmm. What does this all remind me of…?

…You should know the answer to this by now. 😛


(If you guess “kashrut,” you get half a point! 😉 )

As I’ve mentioned, the reason Passover involves such intensive preparation is the prohibition against eating chametz–leavened products (like bread) made out of one of the five grains.

All these--off limits!
All these–off limits!

We have to clean our houses and kasher our kitchens to assure that not a tiny speck of wheat, barley, etc., will find its way into our food. Sephardim, at least, are permitted to eat things like rice, corn, or beans, as long as these have been produced somewhere where they wouldn’t have any contact with wheat, and have been carefully checked and picked over for the presence of other, forbidden grains before the holiday.

The only differences, really, are that we are supposed to eat matzah on Passover (which is unleavened bread made from one of the five grains), and that the rules about Passover were developed before the advent of such modern cooking materials as stainless steel, and therefore are more strict about absorption. I can cook a piece of French toast in a stainless steel pan, and then scrub it clean and use it to cook an egg for R1 with no ill consequences. If I wanted to use it on Passover, however, I’d have to kasher it first.

…And also, Passover is just a week. Celiac is forever. :-/ :-/ :-/

The thing is, if you haven’t figured this out yet, Jews have a special relationship with food in general and with bread in particular. Bread has a special status in Jewish law: it has its own blessings for before and after eating; we must wash our hands before eating it; and its presence is required in to define a meal in halakhic terms (so if we are required to eat a meal, such as on Shabbat or holidays or at a wedding, the meal must contain bread to fulfill the mitzvah). I think this is because of its status as a staple food in this part of the world.

So this makes things a little tricky for religious Jewish celiacs. They can’t really eat anything that halakha defines as bread, and therefore they can’t fulfill the requirements for this mitzvah… with one notable exception.

Oats appear to be a bit of an anomaly both in terms of their chemical composition and their halakhic status. As my Catholic friend Jonathan so kindly pointed out to me, there is a rabbinic controversy over whether oats are what the Biblical text is referring to. Most authorities agree that oats are the fifth of the five grains. As far as gluten is concerned, they don’t actually contain gluten, but another protein that is similar to gluten, and it appears that there is some medical controversy over whether oats are a problem for celiacs or not. Because oats are often processed near wheat, they can often be gluten-contaminated, too. Apparently some people tolerate them well (when they are gluten-free) and some people don’t. The nutritionist told us to avoid them for the first year.

But! If R1 ends up tolerating gluten-free oats, that will mean that he can have proper matzah on Passover, as well as proper bread made of oat flour that he can eat on Shabbat and holidays and such. So here’s hoping.

I tell you, I was standing in his classroom waiting to meet his teacher on the first day of school, and she was handing out candies, and when she paused and looked up at me and said, “Is this okay for him?” I was suddenly my own mother trying to inform the non-Jewish camp counselors in Pittsburgh about our crazy dietary restrictions.

I had another “flashback” to what it’s like to keep kosher in the USA when I pointed out the “gluten-free” symbol to R1 on the bag of potato chips I bought him after the endoscopy. And another when I walked into the supermarket and started examining all the products I’m used to buying to see whether they have traces of gluten. And another when I was reading the official list of restaurants with approved gluten-free menus on the Israeli Celiac Association website.

When I moved to Israel, my culinary world expanded tremendously. As a child living in the USA, there was only a small handful of options when it came to eating out. I was used to not being able to eat most places and carefully checking the labels of packaged stuff. After moving here, suddenly I could eat practically anywhere, and the entire supermarket was mine to enjoy.

After two decades, I became rather used to this glorious reality.

Now, with like a third of the supermarket off-limits and a mere handful of restaurants where I can take my son without having to worry about gluten contamination… it feels very limiting. I’ve become so spoiled!

I really shouldn’t complain; thank God, because of the whole gluten-free fad there are tons of products available that R1 can have. (And I was surprised and relieved to find that they’re not always obscenely expensive.)

I am grateful to live in a modern age where we have access to such a wide variety of foods and don’t need to rely on wheat to provide nutrition. But this is going to be more of an adjustment than I anticipated. :-/

In the meantime, R1 seems to be taking it quite well. I think he’s looking forward to not having constant stomach pain.



The Kitniyot Wars: A Peek into One of the Most Ridiculous Internal Jewish Controversies

Dear Josep,

Because of all its restrictions, Passover is a time wrought with tension over the topic of food. Food may seem to be a trivial thing to have tensions over, but hey, we’re Jews. Our lives revolve around food!

As I’ve elaborated in the past, “Passover kashrut” is even crazier than regular kashrut in every possible sense; for seven (or outside Israel–eight) days, we can’t eat any product made of one of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats) that isn’t matzah, and the restriction is so severe that we have to actually kasher our kitchens and use special dishes and utensils for Passover to avoid even the tiniest amount of chametz (leavened grain) being found in our food.

Our community rabbi and another man kashering pots in a huge vat of boiling water last week.
Kashering pots in a huge vat of boiling water last week.

For those of us of Ashkenazi origin, however, there’s a whole additional layer. You see, because the five grains used to be stored together with things like corn, rice, and legumes, and processed in the same manner, my dear ill-advised ancestors were concerned that some of the forbidden grains might get mixed up with those other products, and therefore forbade the consumption of all of them, just to be sure. These other products are referred to as “kitniyot,” which in modern Hebrew refers to legumes.

And of course, there is a long-standing debate as to what exactly counts as kitniyot and what does not. There are two main opinions: one is that it’s only what was included in the original list of restrictions, and one is that it’s anything that can be ground into a flour that could theoretically make something resembling a grain product. The weird thing is that most rabbinical authorities hold somewhere in between. Here in Israel, bakeries and restaurants have excelled at Passover culinary innovation, creating breads and cakes and cookies from potato flour that truly resemble the real thing, and most authorities accept these as being perfectly permissible. These photos were taken by my friend Ari Moshkovski at the English Cake bakery chain shortly before Passover, and believe it or not, none of these products contain even the smallest trace of wheat, corn, or rice:

Believe it or not, these are made of potato flour and contain no wheat, corn, or rice whatsoever.

english cake pizzas

They even taste half-decent when fresh.

On the other hand, there are things considered kitniyot you would never have imagined anyone would associate with wheat. Like mustard seeds. Peanuts. Pumpkin seeds. Sesame seeds. Some people even include canola oil and quinoa. (Thank God, in our family, we don’t.)

So without bread or other grain products, and without flours or oils derived from common ingredients like corn, soy, and rice, it makes our culinary options on Passover quite limited.

And hell hath no fury like a hungry Jew.

Now, there are some Ashkenazim who have an established custom of eating derivatives of kitniyot. This opens up the possibility of eating things with oils or starches made from kitniyot, and that makes life a lot easier.

In the USA, where the vast majority of the Jewish population is Ashkenazi, most of the kosher-for-Passover products available cater to the Ashkenazi population and are therefore kitniyot-free. But in Israel, half the population is non-Ashkenazi, and the majority of the Ashkenazim are not religious and don’t particularly care about the kitniyot restriction. There are a few communities from Morocco that don’t eat kitniyot either, but even so, that leaves a rather small subset of us who won’t consume kitniyot during Passover. The factories and restaurants, particularly in areas without large concentrations of religious Ashkenazim, have little incentive to cater to our needs, so the majority of products on the shelves are non-kitniyot-free and therefore off-limits to us.

This makes a lot of Ashkenazim in Israel get their panties in a wad. Every single year around Passover time there is much grumbling and gnashing of teeth over this, and calls to cancel the kitniyot restriction once and for all. After all, it’s an old-fashioned restriction–a custom that achieved halakhic status because it was so widely observed in the community, but nonetheless, with relatively little halakhic weight. We know this because we do not treat kitniyot like chametz at all. We are allowed to cook it and feed it to our Sephardic guests in the same utensils we use for our food on Passover. Halakhically speaking, kitniyot can be “nullified,” not in sixty as with the rules about regular kashrut, but in a majority. Meaning if more than half the product is something else, and the taste of the kitniyot product is not easily discernible, it doesn’t count as kitniyot.

So we know that it’s not really chametz, and the holiday is restrictive enough when it comes to food, and it’s annoying, and why must our lives be needlessly made difficult?

But honestly, I think the whole argument is pretty ridiculous.

Yes, it’s a custom that may no longer have relevance, and yes, it does make our lives a little difficult.

But it’s just a week.

One week.

The principle that binds us to the custom is “minhag avoteinu b’yadenu”–the custom of our forefathers must be observed by us, unless there is a truly compelling reason to cancel it. And as much as everyone complains, there really is no compelling reason. You can live perfectly well on fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meats, eggs, and dairy for a week. Matzah, potatoes and sweet potatoes are perfectly acceptable sources of carbohydrates. Those who have particularly restrictive diets due to food allergies, veganism/vegetarianism, or illness can easily be granted permission to eat kitniyot on a case-by-case basis. My mother-in-law is here for Passover, and she is vegetarian and allergic to wheat, corn, and all kinds of nuts. My husband–as a rabbi–granted her halakhic permission to eat kitniyot, but she hasn’t needed to take advantage of it.

I think there are two issues that drive people to make a big deal over this. One, I think, is that the Rabbinate is overly careful at best–lazy at worst–about product labeling. A few years ago I bought a can of applesauce that listed its ingredients as 100% apples, and the kashrut stamp said it was “for consumers of kitniyot only.”

Seriously? Even if a tiny bit of corn or soy or whatever somehow got mixed in, it is surely nullified in the majority. I was so annoyed about this that I forced Eitan to ask a senior rabbi about it, and the rabbi told us it was fine for us to eat. Even in cases where there are actually kitniyot derivatives in the product on purpose, they may often be nullified in the majority. But the Rabbinate marks anything that may have any derivative of kitniyot in it as being kitniyot-only. And because we non-experts don’t actually know enough details to know whether the kitniyot is nullified or not, we just don’t eat all of them, leaving us with a relatively narrow selection of products to choose from. We feel like an oppressed minority, forced to look on as our Sephardic brethren happily consume products we might actually be able to eat but can’t because the Rabbinate couldn’t be bothered to label them accurately.

The second issue is that people eat a lot of processed foods and feel at a loss when most of those foods are suddenly off-limits to them. We don’t eat a whole lot of processed food in my home, but there are a few things that we use regularly, like mayonnaise or canned tomato sauce, that are hard to find kitniyot-free (because they are usually made with soybean or corn oil), and it’s annoying.

But you know, Lubavitcher Hassidim have even more extreme restrictions. In addition to kitniyot, they can’t eat any fruit or vegetable that hasn’t been peeled first (and therefore can’t have fruits or vegetables that can’t be peeled), and they can’t eat matzah (or any product made of matzah meal) that has come into contact with liquid. This rules out the precious matzah ball dumplings that are the one redeeming feature of traditional Ashkenazi Passover cuisine.

Thank God I'm not a Chabadnik...
They don’t look like much, but trust me, they are amazing.

So it’s pretty much eggs, chicken, and (peeled) potatoes all week. And are they complaining?!

(Well, probably. It’s our #1 coping mechanism, after all. But still.)

Basically, it comes down to this: it’s an annoying restriction that may not really be necessary, and maybe one day in the future when we have a strong enough halakhic authority that the vast majority of Jews accept (…basically, the Messiah. 😛 ) we might cancel it once and for all.

But in the meantime… it’s not really that big a deal. I know this may be hard for people to believe, but they’re not gonna die from a week without hummus.

Happy Passover!



The Real Freedom of Passover

Dear Josep,

So there was a bus bombing in Jerusalem yesterday. In an area both Eitan and I drive through very often. We are all safe, thank God.

The bomb went off on an empty bus, setting it and a few neighboring vehicles (including another bus) on fire, injuring dozens, but thankfully, miraculously, no one was killed. It sounds like it was a fairly amateur attempt that did not go as planned.

In the terror attacks in Europe and the USA of late, I’ve noticed that it takes a long time before they declare it a terror attack. We’re not used to that here in Israel; usually we know the instant it happens that it was a terror attack. But in this case it took the police a few hours. It was pretty ridiculous, actually. When they were still deliberating, there was a sub-headline on the Times of Israel that read “Mayor says explosion from small bomb on back of vehicle, but police maintain unclear if terror attack or accident.” I was like, “Oh really? They’re investigating the possibility that someone ‘accidentally’ planted a bomb on the back of the bus…? My taxes are paying for this?”

About ten minutes later, the news reported that the police had confirmed a terror attack, and quoted the Jerusalem police chief as saying, “When a bomb explodes on a bus, it is a terror attack.”


I assume part of the confusion was that they had no intelligence about it whatsoever–which apparently means they usually do, which is both reassuring and extremely not reassuring–and the fact that no terrorist organization rushed to claim responsibility. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their ilk are usually more than happy to gloat about it as soon as they can, but they did not claim responsibility, they just praised it.


I had just been noting, rather cautiously, that the wave of stabbings seemed to have ebbed a little bit. You know, just in time for us to uncover some new Hamas tunnels. Well, it’s that time of year, and we’re due for a war, right? It’s been two years since the last one.


Well… thank God for Passover. Seder night is this coming Friday, and while this holiday may drive the Jewish people collectively insane, it has its advantages. One, we are too busy panicking about getting our houses, kitchens, and pantries ready for the holiday to put much thought into what it means that someone managed to bomb a bus in Jerusalem, or to dwell on the memories from the Second Intifada such an image might invoke.

Two: Passover is a holiday of perspective.

Because when we sit down to tell the story of the Exodus, we zoom out of our current situation and the turmoil we are dealing with now, and we see it for what it is: yet another small blip in the 3,000-year-long story of the Jewish people, fraught with suffering but crowned with triumph.

Recounting the Exodus is about changing our mindset.

For so much of history my ancestors performed the Seder ceremony huddled over meager tables, saying the verses in hushed tones, strangers in strange lands under the shadow of the massacres so common around Easter time. “We were slaves, but now we are free,” they whispered, hiding from the watchful eyes of the Roman soldiers, or the spies of the Inquisition, or the Nazis. How did they live with this paradox? How could they celebrate their freedom when they were anything but free?

But they were free.

Because the kind of freedom we celebrate on Passover is a deeper kind of freedom than simply not being slaves, or enjoying equal rights, or having the opportunity to pursue our own destiny. It is a profound inner freedom, a freedom that cannot be shackled by any kind of chain. It is an inherent sense of knowing who you are, recognizing your place and your role in the grand scheme of things, and knowing that you matter. It is the courage to remain who you are in the face of threat and great pressure to abandon your identity. It is the faith that you are part of a story that will have a happy ending one day.

Before the tenth and final plague in Egypt, God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb. Tie the lamb outside your house for three days, He commanded, and then slaughter it and paint its blood on your doorpost. That night, I will smite every firstborn in Egypt. But I will pass over the houses whose doorposts are painted with the lamb’s blood, and let your firstborns live.

That’s the source of the name “Passover.”

But why this whole ceremony? Didn’t God know whose firstborns He should kill without needing to “check” the doorpost?!

So here’s the thing. Egyptians worshiped sheep. They saw them as Divine beings. So God commanded us to take this Egyptian god, tie it up in front of our homes for three days, and then slaughter it, eat it, and smear its blood on our doorposts–all out in the open.

I tell you, our lives have gone seriously downhill since these Israelites started with their whole “one God” thing.

This was a supreme act of defiance. One who was willing to perform this act was demonstrating that he no longer subscribed to the belief that the Egyptians and their culture held any power over him. He answered to one authority only: God.

That act, the paschal sacrifice–and the Seder that evolved around it–has become the ultimate symbol of what it means for us to be free. And we have continued performing it year after year, even under the worst of conditions, to continue to remind ourselves of that freedom, that no one can take away from us.

Looking at things from that perspective, we can find some comfort and hope. Because the truth is that our situation now is better than it ever was. With all the hatred and all the turmoil around us, we have a thriving Jewish state. With all the terror and warfare, we are still suffering a lot less violence from our nasty neighbors than we did in years past.

“And it is [that promise] that has stood for our ancestors and ourselves, for not only one has risen to destroy us, but in every generation, they rise up to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.”

That is the most poignant line from the Passover Haggadah. In this version of the song by Yonatan Razel, he changes the words to present and future tense, because of how relevant they still are, two thousand years after they were first written.

Not only one rises to destroy us… and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will save us from their hands

Amen, may it be His will.

A joyful and peaceful Passover to all.

Much love,


Passover, Part II: Seder Night 101

Dear Josep,

In Part I, I mentioned that the Seder (and Passover in general) are all about interactive and experiential learning that is usually directed towards the next generation: the kids. This actually does not begin on Seder night, but on the night before, with a special ritual we call bedikat chametz.

Bedikat Chametz

In the weeks and days before Passover, as mentioned in Part I, we thoroughly clean and check our homes for any recognizable traces of chametz (leavened products; see part I for explanation). On the evening before Passover, we hold a special ritual to symbolically finish this task, called bedikat chametz, “checking for chametz”. We make a blessing, and then turn off all the lights in the house, and by the light of candles and flashlights, search for little pieces of chametz that were intentionally hidden by one of the family members (traditionally it’s 10 pieces). Obviously, this would be an extremely inefficient way to actually check for chametz; this is more symbolic than anything else, and it’s a fun game for the kids, kind of like a treasure hunt in the dark! When all the pieces of chametz have been found, we recite a passage in Aramaic that effectively nullifies any chametz that we have missed in our search. We declare that if there is any chametz left, to us it will be like “the dust of the earth”.

The following day, any remaining chametz (that will not be sold) must be burned or otherwise destroyed in a way that makes it unusable (such as pouring bleach all over it).

(True story: I cleaned, searched, vacuumed, and scrubbed my house top to bottom, and first day of Passover this year, I discovered two granola bars of dust in my purse. Thanks to the above declaration, it’s all good–I simply destroyed the evidence and removed it from the premises. 😛 )

The Seder

The holiday begins with lighting candles at sundown, as with every other Biblical holiday. A service is held at the synagogue, and then all families return to their homes to begin the Seder. It is a very strong tradition to have the Seder with lots of people, generally with one’s extended family, and/or lots of guests. When an Israeli asks me what I’m doing for Seder this year and I say, “Just the five of us,” s/he gives me a look that is halfway between pity and horror. Even Jews with very little connection to tradition and halakha tend to attend some kind of Seder. I guess the parallel would be like how Christmas is celebrated so widely even by people who don’t really consider themselves Christian. We like to have quiet, intimate Seders, so there is room for discussion but things don’t drag out too long, and especially when our kids got old enough to participate, we really want to keep their attention as long as possible. Back in the USA, we generally had our Seders with my dad’s parents in New York and whatever aunts and uncles were around.

The word “Seder” means “order”, referring to the ten steps to the ritual meal that must be carried out in order. The Haggadah, briefly mentioned in the entry about the Jewish holy books, guides us through these steps, which mostly involve reading the passages aloud and eating symbolic foods that help us commemorate those events. The symbolic foods are arranged at the center of the table on the Seder plate:

Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.
Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.

We also set three matzot on the table in a pile and covered by a cloth.

The table is set, the kids and guests are seated, and we begin:

Kadesh (Sanctification)

The leader of the Seder (usually the head of the household) recites the kiddush over a cup of wine. This is the same kind of “declaration” of the sanctity of the day that we perform on Shabbat and other holidays. If the Seder falls on a Friday night (as it did this year), the kiddush for Shabbat is recited as well. Then, we all drink our first cup of wine while reclining. This is symbolic of our freedom, as royals used to eat while reclining. (Yes, I said “first” cup of wine. There are four. It’s gonna be a long night. 😉 ) (Grape juice is okay for those of us who would rather remain sober…)

Urchatz (Washing)

We wash our hands as though for bread, but without the blessing. We are not about to eat bread, but there is a custom to wash our hands this way before eating a food that is dipped in liquid.

Karpas (Green Vegetable)

We eat a green vegetable, usually parsley or celery, dipped in salt water. The green vegetable symbolizes spring, and the salt water symbolizes the tears we shed under the oppression of slavery. The Polish tradition is to do this with potato, which is not a green vegetable, but good luck finding anything green in Poland at this time of year 😛

Yachatz (Splitting in Half)

The leader of the Seder takes the middle matza from the pile and breaks it in half. The bigger half is hidden away as the afikoman, which will be eaten later.

Maggid (Retelling)

Maggid is the centerpiece of the Haggadah; the section that actually contains the retelling of the story of the Exodus. There is no way I’m going to cover all its contents here. For that, you’ll have to actually read a Haggadah. (Conveniently, Chabad has a full English version here.) You’ll notice that it doesn’t really follow the narrative the way you would expect. To understand why… well, you’ll just have to come to our Seder someday, and we can discuss it long into the night–as per the tradition. 🙂

So by this point in the evening, if you have never been to a Seder before, you are going to be really confused. What is going on? Why are we eating these weird things? Why is this holiday so different from other holidays?

Well, that’s how Maggid kicks off the story. The smallest child at the table recites the Four Questions: Why is this night different from all the other nights–that on all other nights, we eat chametz and matza, but on this night, only matza? That on all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night, we eat bitter herbs? That on all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, but on this night, we dip it twice? That on all other nights, we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline?

The idea of the Seder is to make the children curious so they will ask questions like these.

The answer to those questions comes right away: Once, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and God saved us from their hands. The text then dwells a little on the concept of retelling the story and educating our children about the Exodus, and then goes on to describe the story of the Exodus and interpretations of the passages and events by various sages. (Remember, the Haggadah is an extremely old text that was written around the time of the Talmud, so the passages reflect rabbinic discourse of that period.)

The most poignant part of the Seder, in my view, is the following passage, recited in the middle of Maggid: “And it is [that promise] that has stood for our fathers and for us, for not only one has arisen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they arise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” This line, written so many centuries ago, has rung true at every single Seder since. This is a beautiful version composed by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Yonatan Razel, who here changes some of the lyrics to present and future tense to emphasize how relevant this ancient passage still feels.

Rachtza (Washing)

We wash our hands again, this time actually for bread–that is, for…

Motzi Matza

That first word refers to the blessing we make over bread, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, “…who brings bread out of the ground”. We make two blessings over the matza–one for the enjoyment of food, and one for the mitzva–and eat the proscribed amount of it while reclining.

Maror (Bitter Herbs)

These are eaten to represent the bitterness of slavery. We usually eat either romaine lettuce or horseradish or some mixture of both. (The horseradish on the plate is that purple stuff. It’s purple because it’s mixed with… la remolatxa1. 😛 That is how it’s usually served with the famous (or is it infamous…?) gefilte fish.) We first dip the lettuce or horseradish into that brown mush, which is called charoset, and represents the mortar used by the slaves to make the bricks. It is traditionally made with apples, wine, nuts, and/or dates, and is supposed to be sweet, so it sweetens the bitterness of the herb representing slavery.

Apparently Ben & Jerry’s produced a charoset-flavored ice cream this year. o.O

Korech (Sandwich)

Now we follow a tradition established by Hillel the Elder in the days of the Second Temple. Tradition has it that Hillel sandwiched all the symbolic foods of Passover–the matza, the maror, the charoset, and the Passover sacrifice (a lamb)–and ate them together. Since we have no Temple, we cannot make the sacrifice, so we leave out the lamb. BTW, if you’re still wondering about the shankbone and the egg on the plate–the bone represents the Passover sacrifice, and the egg represents the Chagiga (holiday) sacrifice.

Shulchan Orech (Setting the Table)

This is where we have the feast! Everybody’s favorite part. 😛 Traditional foods include knaidlach, or matza balls, dumplings made of ground matza, in chicken soup; the aforementioned gefilte fish, which are balls of ground fish, usually carp; and lamb, in commemoration of the sacrifice. (I happen to dislike lamb. So, beef or chicken it is. As to gefilte fish, usually I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy it as a special Passover thing.)

Tzafun (Hidden)

So remember the piece of matza the leader of the Seder hid away way back before Maggid? Now is the time to find it: it’s the afikoman (that word apparently comes from the ancient Greek for “dessert”). We are required to have a proscribed amount of it as the last thing we eat. But first, the kids have to find it! Another treasure hunt. 🙂 This is a great way to keep them awake and engaged. Another tradition developed out of this that the children then hold the afikoman “captive”, thereby indefinitely delaying the end of the Seder, and “bargaining” to give it back in return for a gift or a treat.

Barech (Bless)

Now we recite Grace After Meals, over a third cup of wine (the second was drunk at the end of Maggid), and then drink that cup and recite the blessing after drinking wine. The final cup of wine is poured.

Hallel (Praise)

Hallel is a special prayer recited on holidays, comprised of Psalms 113-118. The first part of Hallel is recited at the synagogue, and it is continued here, and then we go on to read additional Psalms along the same general theme of God being awesome. The final cup of wine is now drunk. (And if it’s really wine, so are we. 😛 )

Nirtzah (Acceptance)

The name is referring to God accepting our completion of the Seder. This is when the Seder officially ends. (There are opinions that this is not a distinct section of the Seder, but that this and the previous are one section–“Hallel Nirtza”.) We sing l’shana haba’ah b’yirushalayim habnuya–next year in rebuilt Jerusalem! Then there are a few more traditional Passover songs, which are generally fun and lively and get everybody’s energy up for the final leg of the Seder. (Great for keeping the kids awake, too.)

The very last song of the Seder, at least in Ashkenazi tradition… you’d think it would be something profound, about freedom, or the purpose of the Jewish people, or maybe even about the holiday itself. But it’s this:

A cumulative song in Aramaic about a little goat that Dad bought for two zuzim (units of money), which gets eaten by a cat, which gets bit by a dog, which gets hit by a stick, which gets burned by a fire, which gets doused by water, which gets drunk by an ox, which gets slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), who gets killed by the Angel of Death, who gets destroyed by the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

(And you betcha we sing it with sound effects. 😛 )

…I know. Why on earth are we ending the Seder with this silly little ditty?

Obviously, as with everything in the Seder, because it is has important symbolism. The idea of the song is that there is justice in the world, even if we don’t see it at the time; that every action has a consequence, and that, as the Talmud says: “There is justice and there is a Judge“.

Believe it or not, this silly animal song contains the deepest, most fundamental message of the Seder.

Why is it so important for us to remember that God freed us from slavery and brought us out of Egypt?

Because we must remember that there is justice, and there is a Judge, and even when the world seems unjust and terrible things are happening to good people, there is a reason for everything, and it’s all for the ultimate good. Even when we’re at the profoundest depths of despair, God’s redemption can occur in the blink of an eye.

That is the message of the Seder, and that is why the tradition of the Seder has carried us through many other “Egypts” throughout history.

So… that’s the Seder, in a nutshell. Outside of Israel, you “get” to do the whole thing all over again the following night. (I’m sure there are advantages to this, but to me it just sounds exhausting and I am grateful to be here!)

A blessed and happy Passover!



1. La remolatxa is “beet” in Catalan. The only reason I know this word is because I served a Moroccan beet salad to Josep when he was here for Shabbat, and he asked me what it was, but we did not have a common language in which we both knew the word for this vegetable. 😛 After Shabbat I Googled it, and now I’ll never forget. (When I clarified, he was like, “Not something I eat every day!” Was that a polite way to tell me he hated it? 😛 I decided not to press the issue.)

Passover, Part I: Freedom, Education, and National Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Dear Josep,

So I figured out why I never sent you an e-mail specifically about Passover, even back in 2007 when I would get concerned notes from you wondering if something was wrong because you hadn’t heard from me in 5 days.

(…Yes, apparently that happened.)


The reason is that it is just not possible to capture Passover in a single e-mail. No, not even a Daniella Standard Size e-mail.

So what we’re gonna do is make it a series. In Part I, I will discuss the general concepts of the holiday. In Part II, I will go into detail about the Seder night and the Haggadah.

To begin, let us turn to the age-old template for Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. Does it apply here? Why, yes it does. 🙂

As you probably know, Passover is the celebration commemorating our freedom from slavery in Egypt, also known as the Exodus.

You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.
You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.

It begins on the 15th of Nisan, which is the day the Israelites left Egypt, and lasts seven days in Israel. This year it falls on this coming Friday night through the following Friday. It is one of the three “Regalim”, holidays mentioned in the Torah, on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. (“Regel” means “foot”.)

All Regalim, unlike rabbinic holidays, are celebrated similarly to Shabbat, with the same types of restrictions, barring a few differences with regards to the preparation of food. Such a day is known as a “Yom Tov” (literally “good day”). In the case of Passover, it begins and ends with one Yom Tov in Israel (two each outside of Israel), with five days of “chol ha’moed” (“the mundane of the holiday”=days that are still part of the holiday, but with much fewer restrictions) in between. That’s a total of seven days in Israel, and eight outside of Israel. (Why is it different outside of Israel? A reason that is long, complicated, and not so interesting in my opinion. 😛 But if you insist, Wikipedia keeps it simple.)

The first night (or two nights outside of Israel) is the crux of the holiday: the Seder night. You may have heard of the Seder; it is believed to have been Jesus’s “last supper” (hence the proximity to Easter). As mentioned, we will elaborate on the Seder in Part II.

But first: why is the Exodus such an important event in the history of our people?

There is a vast amount of rabbinic literature that addresses this question, but here’s the simple answer: the Exodus marks the birth of the nation of Israel. The narrative of the Bible, up until that point, follows a number of individuals, or at most a family, and their interactions with God. We became a multitude under slavery; we became a nation, with a destiny and a purpose, when God gave us our freedom.

It is said that God wanted us to be slaves before giving us the Torah to develop our sense of empathy and justice. You can never really understand someone until you’ve experienced his pain. And you can never know and appreciate the true value of freedom if you have never been a slave. Our purpose is to be a “light unto the nations”, to spread kindness, compassion and justice throughout a corrupt world. We could not have done this without first knowing pain, cruelty, and injustice.

The goal of the Seder night is for every one of us to relive the experience of being freed from slavery. It is a multi-sensory, hands-on educational production, and it revolves around passing the message to the next generation. As we’ve discussed, educating children is a very important mitzvah, and the purpose of some of the strange customs on Seder night is to provoke the children to ask questions. Raising questions is a classic Jewish educational method. We even tend to like excellent questions better than we like excellent answers. 😉

So, that’s freedom, and education. “National obsessive-compulsive disorder”?!

Well… yeah. This is another thing that makes Passover so special, and also such a pain in the neck. Over the seven days of Passover, we are not allowed to eat or possess “chametz“. Chametz means leavened products. That is, any product made out of grain (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) and water that was cooked over 18 minutes after the flour came in contact with the water–therefore beginning the process of fermentation that causes the dough to rise and become puffy.

Um… wait, you say. Is there any type of grain product that is baked in under 18 minutes?!

Why yes there is. It’s called… matza.

"Shmura Matzo". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Appetizing, I know.
Shmura Matzo“. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the bread of Passover, referred to in the Haggadah as the “bread of affliction”. Apt, because it tastes like cardboard, and we are required to eat a fair amount of it on Seder night. (Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s like a very plain cracker.)

So what’s the deal with unleavened bread?

(Good, good, keep up the questions! 😉 )

The practical answer is that the Israelites were granted their freedom very quickly and they did not have time to get ready for their trip out of Egypt. The Torah says that they did not have time to let their dough rise for bread, so they made matzot to take on their journey. The prohibition against eating chametz, and the mitzva of eating matza, are both in commemoration of that. There is also an idea that chametz represents the ego, and that on Passover we clean it out of our homes and souls.

So the thing is, you know how obsessive-compulsive Jewish law is about things we’re not allowed to eat… and this applies to chametz too. In fact, it is even more strict than the laws of kashrut. This means that we have to literally kasher our kitchens before the holiday. (Which, as I’ve been trying to tell you all these years, is not nearly as fun as you think it is. 😛 ) Most of us have an entirely different set of dishes and cookware set aside specifically for Passover, because not everything can be kashered, and because, again, kashering pots and pans can be a serious pain.

We are also not allowed to own any chametz, which means we have to clean our houses thoroughly (especially us parents of toddlers…) to make sure no bits of crackers/cereal/bread are in accessible places. People (by which I mean “crazy Jewish housewives”) often take this to the extreme and use it as an opportunity to do a very thorough “spring cleaning”… but much of this is not really necessary.

The prohibition against eating chametz also gave way to the most famous of legal fictions in Jewish law. Obviously, getting rid of all one’s chametz can be impractical at best and financially damaging at worst, especially for stores and factories. So we have a rather silly solution: we “sell” the chametz to a non-Jew during the seven days of Passover, keep it covered/hidden during the holiday, and “buy” it back afterwards.

…By the way, can I interest you in some instant oatmeal and maybe a few pitas? 😛

(I kid, I kid. These days we can sell our chametz very easily through rabbis who centralize the “sales” and sell them to a designated non-Jew. We can do this through our synagogue or even on the Internet.)

Well, that’s Passover in a nutshell. Stay tuned for Part II, in which we will discuss the details of the aforementioned multi-sensory, hands-on educational production we call the Seder. 😉

Bona Pasqua!