Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Does the Term Passover Mean?

Dear Tanta Golda,
The Passover seders I've attended have been warm, family events.   The readings are about deliverance from slavery, freedom and  human survival. The name "Passover" however brings to mind the Biblical story of destruction in of crops and killing of animals, and many people in Egypt,  Is "Passover" a sound English translation for the name of this Holiday? Doubtful about Duality  

Dearest Duality,
The name "Pesach" (PAY-sahch, with a "ch" as in the Scottish "loch") comes from the Hebrew root Pei-Samekh-Cheit, meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the fact that G-d "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. So it would seem that the translation is indeed sound.

At the seders you've been to you undoubtedly also read the 10 plagues - where all the killing and destruction comes in. The final plague has to do with the slaying of the firstborn sons. The Hebrew slaves were instructed in advance to paint their doorposts with lamb's blood so that the angel of death would know to "pass over" their homes.

We don't so much 'celebrate' that part as remember it. In fact, you are supposed to have a full cup of wine in front of you when you begin to recite the 10 plagues. A full cup represents joy, and as we say each plague we are supposed to either spill or take a drop of wine out of the glass for each plague to remind us that while we got our freedom, others died, and our joy at our freedom is diminished by this.

A similar way of paying respect for the dead happens at Purim when we read Esther's story (not a shpiel, but the whole megillah.) Towards the end Haman's ten sons are hung on the gallows he built for the Jews. When the reader comes to the section where their names are read, he/she is supposed to read them quickly - in one breath - so as not to linger or prolong their fate. Once again we are celebrating freedom over tyranny, but we don't celebrate that others had to die in the process.

I hope that helps clarify your questions.

Thanks again for sending them my way. Tanta Golda is always looking for questions about any aspect of Judaism, so please feel free to send along any others you have!

More Passover Questions Answered

Dear readers - I recently put out a call for your questions about Passover, and a number of you responded - Thank you! I will answer some of them below.
Dear Tanta Golda
I'm planning a small senior's Seder with no children. Who asks the four questions when no children attend? Empty Nester Grandpa
Grandpa, a good question and one that our sages addressed in the Talmud no less! It would seem that initially the Four Questions were added to the Seder to keep the interest of young children who might otherwise drift off during the traditionally long Seder. Now they are codified as one of the 15 things we do in a Seder as part of the Maggid - telling the story. According to the (Babylonian) Talmud, tractate Pesachim, 116a - if there are no children present at the Seder, then the leader’s wife or any other participant may read the four questions. If all else fails, and a man is celebrating a Seder alone, he must ask himself the questions!
An interesting note, Tanta Golda discovered that in the Sephardic tradition the questions are asked by the the entire group as one. So it would seem that there really is no wrong way, as long as the questions are asked!
A related question:
Does a thirteen year old that has had their Bar or Bat Mitzvah still take part in asking the four questions?  Do they hide rather than seek the afikomen?  Is there any difference in how they take part in Passover seders?
As to the first part of your question, Tanta Golda would refer you to the answer above. Is the Bar or Bat Mitzvah the youngest who’s able to ask the questions? If so, they keep on keeping on, otherwise they should pass the haggadah.  Part 2, according to the Pasachim tractate 7:3 and 109a the hide and seek game with the afikomen, like the 4 questions, is also done to keep the kinder awake and involved in the service. In some families the leader hides the afikomen and the children search for it demanding ransom for its return, in others the children “steal” the afikomen and the leader must pay to get it back. As far as Tanta Golda could discern, it really is up to individual families to determine at what age someone is too old to be eligible to seek the reward. The same holds true for other aspects of the Seder, though when Tanta Golda was a girl, after her bat mitzvah she was allowed to have wine in her glass instead of grape juice. It would seem that as long as someone is asking the 4 questions, and everyone partakes of at least a small piece of the afikomen, the particulars are up to you!
Dear Tanta,
If we are attending a home seder, what is customary/appropriate as a host or hostess gift? Baffled in Etiquette. 
My darling Baffled, you pose a question that it would seem many in the far reaches of cyber space ask. Without knowing how strictly your hosts keep Pesach, here are some safe suggestions: flowers, fresh fruit and nuts, a Passover cookbook, or Kosher for Passover wine - here you have to look for wine that has a P as well as a K. Some will explicitly state on the bottle "Kosher for Passover". What makes these so special? Well, as Tanta Golda understands it, and I may be a little off, the vineyards have been guarded by rabbis to ensure that no yeast (leavening) has come in contact with the grapes. How they do this, I don’t know. Perhaps they’re Ninjas!
 Kedem can sometimes be found in the grocery store, but this will be a very sweet wine like Manischewitz - Not really a 'classy' hostess gift.
Dear Tanta Golda,
I was recently looking at an "Italian Jewish" cook book, and was surprised to find rice recipes for Passover.  It seem that the ashkenazic and sephardic approaches to kosher differ.  How could that be?  Are there other foods acceptable as kosher by the Sephardim? Rubbing my Forehead in the Kitchen.
Another excellent question! I've touched on this in past years but it's worth repeating. Chametz means ‘leaven’. It also refers to foods forbidden during Pesach. The five grains specifically prohibited by the Rabbis are: wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt. These are the five grains most commonly found in Europe that ferment when combined with water. Being Jews, there are now some who disagree over the prohibition of two of these grains (rye & spelt) since they are not native to Israel. But I digress. Ashkenazi Jews under the direction of The Smak - Rabbi Moshe of Kouchi in the 13th century added “kitniyot”.  Kitniyot are usually small fleshless seeds of annual plants such as rice, corn, peas, beans, chickpeas, soya,  and caraway that can be dried and ground into flour.

Sephardic Jews, those whose ancestry was initially from the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), but now includes Jews who reside in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, follow much less stringent customs. Kitniyot, including corn, beans and rice* may be eaten after it has been checked  three times to make certain that it has not been contaminated by chametz. *Now, I must note that some Sephardim do not eat rice. As we find in both traditions, Passover foods depend in large part on where specifically you trace your ancestry from.
Thank you for your thoughtful questions my ever inquisitive ones! If I did not get to yours this time, rest assured I’ve saved it for next year.
Hope you have a joyous Pesach with friends or family - Tanta Golda

Why Are There Kosher for Passover Marshmallows?

your link to kosher for Passover marshmallows Candy matzah

(originally published 2010)
Dear Tanta Golda,
I know that Pesach is still a month away, but yesterday I saw matzah in the store and it got me wondering why there are special “kosher for Passover” marshmallows, and can I eat peas or not? (And really, why not!?)
Pesadically Perplexed
Ah my preciously perplexed,
You ask perfectly excellent questions. And what would Passover be without questions?
Let me start off by saying that what you “can” and cannot eat on Passover is largely dependent on your ancestry. It’s true! The Talmud only prohibits 5 grains: wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats. This makes sense as these were the main grains found in the Middle-East*. These are traditionally referred to as chametz. (*There is now some disagreement about this.)
However, as Jews spread in Diaspora (the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel), the rabbis adapted new customs based on local foods.
More than 80 percent of Jews today are Ashkenazim;  Jews of central or eastern European descent. Most of the customs you are probably familiar with, such as avoiding peas and corn, come from the Ashkenazi tradition. Kitniyot (translated as ‘small things’ ) are foods such as: corn, rice, beans, peas, lentils, and for some, peanuts. Now Tanta Golda has heard two different reasons for this. One is that since these foods are often grown or stored near chametz, it is difficult to be sure that they have not been contaminated. The other explanation is that these foods can be dried and ground up into flour which could be made into goods that look like chametz. How this applies to corn syrup, is beyond my ken. Tanta Golda has always thought it rather silly that one couldn’t eat foods, such as marshmallows cola, or most Candy  because they are normally made with corn syrup. Once it’s syrup, you can’t make it into bread! Obviously a rule made by men who never cook.
Sephardic Jews, those whose ancestry is from the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), follow much less stringent customs. Corn, beans and rice* may be eaten after it has been throughly checked to make certain that it has not been contaminated by chametz. * Now, some Sephardim do not eat rice, once again, it depends on where specifically you trace your ancestry from.
And of course my sweet, what would any discussion about Jewish customs be without disagreement! This one stems around gebrouchts, wet matzah  There are those who say, heaven forbid there might be an eentsy-weentsy bit of uncooked flour left in a matzot, that when mixed with water, begins to ferment, in other words, become chametz. therefore, gebrouchts is a no-no. There are other, saner people - those who like matzah balls for example, who say this is nonsense. Anyone who’s baked matzah knows that this just isn’t possible. Again, when you leave food rules to men...(TG is very grateful her husband cooks and understands this is silliness. What would Pesach be like without matzah balls?)
I hope I’ve clarified this a bit for you dearie. As Tanta Golda gets older she’s more inclined to follow biblical traditions and eat peas on Passover! 
Have a joyful seder. Love as always, Tanta Golda

your link to kosher for Passover marshmallows Candy matzah

What is Chametz? What Goes on the Seder Plate?

(originally published 2009)
My Kinder,
Since there is no community Seder this year, Tanta Golda has received several questions about observing Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew.) Among them: What exactly is chametz? I’m always leaving something out, what goes on the Seder plate? Will other crackers take the place of matzah? What must I have at a Seder? Do I have to eat matzah for eight days?
I don’t know if I can answer all of your questions in one column, but for you, I’ll try.
Chametz means ‘leaven’. It also refers to foods forbidden during Pesach. Five grains are specifically laid out in the Talmud: wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt. Ashkenazi Jews later added rice, corn, peas, beans and peanuts because these can be dried and ground into flour. This accounts for why many Jews will not partake of food or drinks that contain corn syrup, leading to kosher for Passover candy and Coke Cola. (Don’t get Tanta Golda started on this one…)  Back in the day, as the youngsters say, the penalty for eating, carrying or even owning chametz during Pesach was excommunication! Me, I’m grateful that rabbinic authorities have softened the penalties for this trespass.
Matzah seems to follow chametz naturally. So first: NO, other crackers can never take the place of matzah. Matzah is made from flour that is, at minimum, watched from the time of milling, to insure that it doesn’t come in contact with moisture or heat, until it is time to prepare it. Then, the entire process, from when water is added until it comes out of the oven as a finished product, must take no more than eighteen minutes for the matzah to be considered proper for Pesach. Longer than this and the dough is considered leaven.
Jewish law only requires matzah to be eaten during the Seder. It is optional the remainder of the holiday. However, one is not allowed to eat chametz until Passover has ended. So, if you want a PBJ or chopped chicken liver sandwich, you need to use matzah.
The Seder plate contains six symbolic foods. 1. roasted shankbone to remind us of the lamb’s blood painted on the doorposts of the homes of the Hebrew slaves so the angel of death would pass over them. 2. Maror (bitter herbs), usually horseradish, but some people use romaine lettuce, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. 3. Roasted egg symbolic of rebirth, as the slaves were reborn as a free people. 4. Charoset usually combination of apples, wine, walnuts and cinnamon. (The Sephardic recipe is quite different!) This signifies the mortar the slaves used to hold bricks together. 5. Karpas a green veggie, usually parsley, symbolic of spring, which is then dipped in 6. salt water to remind us of the tears our ancestors shed.
As for what must be at any Seder table: the symbolic foods on a plate (doesn’t have to be a fancy shmansy plate); three whole matzah, the top and bottom ones take the place of the two challah ordained for Shabbat, the middle is the one specifically for Pesach and is used for the afikoman (the one later hidden). A kiddush cup for everyone and enough wine or grape juice for each person to have four glasses of wine/juice. Festive candles, as on Shabbat. Elijah’s cup, as an expression of our hope for the betterment of society. And finally, a Haggadah, preferably one for each person, but sharing is certainly allowed! 
So, now my darlings, don’t be intimidated about hosting a Seder, and have a Happy Pesach! Tanta Golda

Thursday, March 3, 2011

History of Purim Shpiels

Dear Tanta Golda,
It’s almost Purim and I have a question about something that has been troubling me.  The synagogue I grew up in just chanted the ‘whole megillah’. However, the Shul I attend now always does a farcical version of the story – a shpiel. This seems a bit disrespectful. Am I just being a stick in the mud?

Dear Stick,
Well, yes.  
First, some background: The Book of Esther is not believed to have been written until well after the time it describes. It does reflect a number of important features of Persian culture which can be found in other writings. These however, were satirized in the Esther story – the mock representation of the Persian rites of gluttony, drinking, over the top display of wealth, and the whole bowing bit. So you see, the ‘whole megillah’ itself appears to be a satire.  How ironic that we do shpiels that mock a mockery!

Shpiel is a Yiddish word meaning ‘play’ or ‘skit’.  More learned people than Tanta Golda have looked into the origins of shpiels and found evidence of their existence since the 14th century. (Slightly before my time.) Initially these were silly monologues, rhymed paraphrases of the book of Esther, usually performed in people’s homes, or among Talmudic students in Yeshiva.

This idea of parody spread to the telling of stories of the Talmud, liturgy, Torah, and halakah (Jewish ritual law). One of Tanta Golda’s sources sited the ‘Tractate Peschim’ (a Talmudic discourse about Passover), where instead of bread being prohibited, water and other non-alcoholic beverages were banned!

Over time, some communities developed very rigid traditions surrounding these shpiels and held competitions. In other areas the shpiels became so raucous and vulgar that they were banned, and those found performing them, fined!  There was even heated debate among Talmudic sages about the appropriateness of men dressing in women’s clothing on this one day. Oy!

In Germany especially the plays began taking great liberties with the plot and how the characters were portrayed – perhaps making Haman (boo, hiss) a tragic figure and Mordecai a bumbling buffoon. Shpiels were a way for Jews to blow off steam and escape the harsh realities of everyday life.

Shpiels often poke fun at leaders and politics, whether they be on the world stage, or in the synagogue. Even in very Orthodox communities Purim can be a time to mock rabbis, cantors, and temple presidents.

The important thing to remember my sticky one is that we are told to retell the story. If it is done with humor, so be it. Jews are after all, known for their humor!
A happy and joyous Purim to you!