Passover, the new year of Spring: the exodus from Egypt and one of the most important Jewish holidays
April 6, 2012 by Aviva Getschel
There are special foods for every Jewish holiday, but Passover’s is the one no one wants to eat.
Every year around April, aunts and uncles and cousins from three generations of the Blumberg family converge on my grandparent’s, Stanley and Marilyn, apartment in New York City. The entire week before Seder night, their kitchen is filled with women’s voices and delicious smells. Although the dry cracker that is matzah is bland by itself, women over the years have come up with ways to make the entire family look forward to dinner. The Seder is the meal and remembrance and celebration of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. It fulfills the commandments from the Torah (Old Testament) to tell the exodus story and eat matzah, unleavened bread made of wheat flour, salt, and water that cannot be baked for more than 18 minutes. Basically, matzah is a big, bland cracker that is the only wheat product we can eat for a week.
The Hebrew word “Seder” literally means “order,” and the first thing we do at the Seder is read the order of the Seder, a list of fourteen Hebrew words that describe the entire Seder. Singing the order is always one of my favorite parts. The order goes: Kaddish, urchatz, karpas, yachatz, maggid, rachtzah, motzi matzah, maror, korech, shulchan orech, tzafun, barech, Hallel, nirtzah. The Seder plate is another very important part of the celebration. It has matzah-unleavened bread, maror-bitter herbs (horseradish), chazeret-second bitter herb, optional (lettuce or endive), karpas-green vegetable (usually parsley), beitzah-roasted egg, zeroah-shank bone of a lamb, and charoset-mixture of apples, nuts, wine, and cinnamon, at least. It also has salt water and three large matzot (plural of matzah). The middle matzah is broken in half during the Seder and the larger half, called the Afikoman, is hidden from the young children to find at the end to eat the Afikoman as desert during “tzafun.” My grandfather always gives the hunters money if they find it, and always even if they don’t.
Although blessings, eating the matzah, telling the story of the exodus, and reading and answering the four questions are important parts of the Seder, everyone’s favorite part is shulchan orech, or the meal. Our menu goes like this:
Chicken soup with matzah balls
Brisket and/or roasted chicken with vegetables
Matzah kugel (casserole of matzah farfel (broken up piece of matzah) and vegetables)
Tzimmes (stew of sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes, and honey, often with flanken (Yiddish name for a cut of beef))
These are all traditional foods for the holiday, and the deserts are fairly traditional, too. Flourless chocolate cake, matzah chocolate mousse layer cake, apple sponge cake, matzah bark, (pieces of matzah dipped in caramel and chocolate) chocolate chip Mandelbrot, (the Jewish version of biscotti, softer and crumblier with cinnamon and chocolate) chocolate chip meringues, and fresh fruit.
The matzah layer cake holds special significance for my mother, because her birthday is April 3rd, and falls during Passover most years. When it does, this is her birthday cake. The meringues (called forgotten cookies) hold special meaning for my brother, Natan, because they are his responsibility to make. I often hear him saying the week before, “Don’t forget to remember the forgotten cookies!”
My favorite part of the preparations is making charoset, taught to me by my aunt Stacy, which is made of chopped apples (we use green and red), wine, chopped walnuts, cinnamon, and a special spice. Gathering around the kitchen bar and peeling the apples with my cousins and brother is a happy memory for me.
Each of the items on the Seder plate is symbolic. The maror for the bitterness of slavery, karpas (parsley) in saltwater for the tears we cried as our sons were drowned in the river Nile, zeroah for the blood put on the doorposts of the houses in Egypt so the Angel of Death would pass over the Hebrews, beitzah as a symbol of new life and birth and of the Passover offerings at the Temple, and charoset to mimic the mortar or bricks that the slaves made.
The order goes: Kaddish, urchatz, karpas, yachatz, maggid, rachtzah, motzi matzah, maror, korech, shulchan orech, tzafun, barech, Hallel, nirtzah.
Kaddish is the blessing over the wine, and urchatz is washing the hands ritually, but not saying the blessing.
Karpas is dipping the parsley in the salt water, and yachatz is breaking the middle matzah in two a putting aside the larger piece for use as the Afikoman.
Maggid is saying the traditional hospitality offer, “May who are hungry come and eat.” And asking the Four Questions, which is done by the youngest member at the Seder who is old enough to understand what they are asking.
Rachtzah is again washing the hands and saying the blessing. Usually, only the leader does this while representing the community.
Mozti Matzah is blessing and eating the smaller half of the middle matzah. Everyone must consume a kvutzah, or a piece the size of an olive, to fulfill the mitzvah to eat matzah.
Maror is the blessing and eating of the bitter herbs.
Korech is the ‘hillel sandwich’ or matzah, pesach lamb (the original sacrifice) and maror. Since the fall of the Second Temple, and as we are forbidden to offer sacrifices anywhere else, charoset is eaten in place of the meat.
Shulchan Orech is the festive meal, which is traditionally begun with hard-boiled egg soup, but since my family thinks this is disgusting, we just eat a hard-boiled egg, instead.
Tzafun is the finding of the Afikoman, which was hidden since Yachatz.
Barech is the grace after meals, and Hallel is singing psalms or hymns of praise.
The last step of the Seder is Nirtzah, meaning ‘acceptance,’ and we say, “Leshanah haba’ah beh-yerushalayim—Next year in Jerusalem.”
Passover is one of the few times a year that I get to see my entire family. Overall, it is the time for Jews to come together with their families and friends and celebrate the triumph of the Jews over adversity once more.