One of the most important and transformative things the Jewish Sages did after the destruction of the Second Temple, was to transfer and transform Temple ideas to the home setting. Many symbols were created to not only keep the “memories” of Temple ritual alive, but to allow for the continuing development of Rabbinic Judaism as well. For example, on Shabbat, the table of the home becomes the new “altar’, the white tablecloth represents the Priest’s garments, the candles lit to usher in the Shabbat recalls the 7 branched menorah lit every evening outside the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The wine and the bread become substitutes for the blood and the meat of the sacrifices themselves, while the head of the household reciting the prayers is the “priest,” and on the Shabbat itself, people would gather to hear the words of the Torah and study the Creator’s wisdom in the synagogue instead of the Temple.
Between the years 200 BCE to 200 CE, the teachings of the Jewish Sages were gathered, organized and edited into a collection called the Mishnah, which in essence is Rabbinic Scripture. The Torah commands many things, but rarely explains how to do them, especially without a Temple, Sacrifices and Priesthood. The Mishnah presents the methods to celebrate the Festivals and Shabbat, the yearly cycle for reading the Torah, the Standardization of Jewish Prayers and other instructions, laws and interpretations. Even though this corpus was closed in 200 CE, the process of reinterpretation continued in Jewish history and still continues today in other forms. The Passover Seder grew out of this process.
In Jewish tradition, God should be worshipped not only through prayer, but also through study and learning. The Passover seder is set up as a lesson in which are mingled Jewish history, literature, rituals, customs, stories and songs. The small book we use as guide for the seder is called a Haggadah, which means, “The Telling“, is based upon Exodus 13:8 which says, “. . . and you shall tell your son.”
All printed Haggadahs have 15 words which trace the sequence of the seder service, written in rhyme as a mnemonic. The seder plate has mnemonic symbols, a Zero’a (shankbone), a Beitzah (hard boiled roasted egg), Maror (bitter herbs, usually grated horseradish), Haroset (chopped walnuts,apples, honey and wine, recipes vary) and Karpas (greenherb, usually parsley). Also on the table is Matzah, unleavened bread which is a remembrance of the Israelites having to leave Egypt in a hurry, before the bread had no time to rise.
The shankbone recalls the actual “Paschal Lamb” sacrifice, the egg can represent the roundness of life, no beginning and no end, roasted again can refer to the ancient Temple sacrifices, The bitter herb remembers the bitterness of servitude. The Haroset (chopped apples, nuts honey and wine) brings to mind the mudbricks used to build the storage cities of Pitom and Ramases. (The Israelites did not build the Pyramids, they were already thousands of years old when the Israelites were there.) The Karpas, green vegetable, dipped in salt water is a remembrance of the hyssop dipped in the blood of the Pesach over the doorways and gates as a protective device, and also the renewal of life in the spring when people dipped veggies in saltwater or other liquid when eating.
In ancient times, slaves and laborers ate hurriedly, squatting on the ground. On Passover, it is the custom to recline and eat on the left side which was the sign that the individual was a free person. There are blessings and ritual washing of the hands. Next, the youngest child or children start the seder by asking 4 questions which are answered as the seder moves along. This style of study is taken from Greek philosophy, where one student asks the Master a question and the rest of the session is devoted to answering that question.
Today, those of you who’ve never been to a sederor who are interested in doing one can find many sources online and in books. There are a lot more beautiful parts of the seder I’m leaving out, but I hope this explanation has been informative and peaked some interest. By the way, here is an interesting Passover fact. In the Torah, the Exodus revolves around the Giant Personality and actions of Moses. In the Haggadah, Moses is only mentioned once in passing. Why? The answer will be in my next installment of seder history.
Be Blessed, Choose Life & Do TOV!
Rabbi Jeffrey Leynor
Passover begins at sunset on Friday, April 3rd this year. There is probably no specific date for the creation of the Passover Seder, but as with many laws, customs, traditions and beliefs, it accrued over time.
The Hebrew word “seder” means “order” — a number of steps for the ritual meal. Today, there are a number of “seders.” Shavuot, the next Biblical Festival which comes 50 days after the first day of Passover, also has a seder. Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which is called the holiday of the trees. It celebrates fruits and other agricultural products of the Land of Israel. It’s seder was developed and practiced by the Kabbalists of Safed.
In the Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses, the festival Passover Festival is called “Pesach“, which is the Hebrew name of the sacrifice.
The Paschal Lamb (a rare occasion when meat was eaten by the common person because meat was expensive) was eaten at that time only by those who were in a state of ritual and spiritual purity. Along with the “Pesach” there was the Festival of Unleavened Bread which was 7 days long. Nothing with “leaven” was ever allowed on the Altar.
In the year 70 of our era, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans. Exodus 12 states Passover should be celebrated with the Pesach lamb being eaten at midnight along with bitter herbs and matzah, while we are standing up with our bags packed and our walking sticks in hand — and it should be eaten quickly. So? How do we celebrate this very important festival without a Temple, without a Pesach, without a functioning Priesthood?
After the Great Revolt against Rome (66-73 CE), those Jewish Sages and teachers who were left eventually came together at Yavneh and under the leadership of (Rabbi) Yochanan Ben Zakkai, began the arduous task of creating and collecting the rituals, prayers and customs that are the basis for the practices of Rabbinic Judaism. They were extremely insightful people. They enabled Judaism to grow and change according to the historical circumstances and reinterpreted the Torah’s instructions, creating a standard of practice. They transferred the emphasis of Temple Ritual to the home, family and community and established mnemonic devises, a way of remembering and recalling ancient Temple Rituals in symbolic ways and metaphors. A perfect example is The Seder Plate. It will be coming to a table near you in my next blog.
Be Blessed, Choose Life & Do TOV!
Rabbi Jeffrey Leynor
PS – If you found this information useful:
(1) Go to the TOV Center Facebook Page and “Like It” — click here
(2) Share this blog with others on your Facebook Page, Twitter, Email, etc.
(3) Support the TOV Center by contributing – click here.
Picture this: I am sitting in my wheelchair with my cellphone glued to my ear, on hold to Super Shuttle, in the Ladies Room of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. I’ve been on hold for ten minutes. Toilets are flushing, women are washing their hands under loud sprays of water, and the washroom attendant is banging the stall doors shut as she cleans out each empty stall. I can hardly hear a man’s voice who identifies himself as Michael and asks me how he could help. I ask where the Super Shuttle pick-up area is and give him my confirmation number. I hear a pause, then he says he cannot find my reservation. That confirmation number was for the pick-up at my hotel to take me to the airport in Miami where I came from. He had no record of a reservation from DFW to my home in Dallas. My tension level was growing.
I had to redo my reservation after my flight was canceled due to ice and snow causing me to extend my time in Miami two more days. I knew I made a reservation because I went over it three times with the reservation clerk making sure he got it all correct. Michael put me on hold to see what he could do. In the meantime my bladder is urging me but I cannot put the phone down and wheel myself into a stall to take care of business without fear of dropping the phone in the toilet.
Michael finally came back on to tell me he still cannot find a record of me. I had already been traveling eight hours due to delays. I should have been home within four hours. I was exhausted, frustrated, and had to pee. I was put back on hold while Michael checked on the availability of the next wheelchair van pick-up time. From behind, a young woman with dark brown hair and kind eyes appears. She leans down and asks if I was all right. She said the American Airlines attendant was still waiting outside the Ladies Room for me and asked her to check to see if something happened to me. Still on hold, I tell her my dilemma.
She said, “I’d be happy to push you back out there.”
I replied with a pained look on my face, “But I haven’t gone to the bathroom yet because I couldn’t put the phone down and I’m waiting for Michael.”
What happened next was inspired angelic behavior on her part.
“How about if I hold the phone for you while you go to the bathroom,” she suggested pointing to the handicapped stall.
I looked at her with shear gratitude for her creative solution and headed for the stall. Relieved and put back together, I headed for the sink where she handed me a paper towel, helped me start the water flowing, and squirted soap onto my hands from the soap dispenser, all while still on hold to Michael. Just as she dropped the used paper towel in the trash hole Michael came back. His timing was perfect. She handed me the phone, and gestured that she could push me in my wheelchair back out to the lobby if I wanted her to. I nodded yes while hearing the news that the best he could do was a wheelchair accessible van in four hours or wait fifteen minutes for one that does not provide a lift. I asked him to wait a moment while I greeted my pusher with apologies for holding him up and said goodbye to my sweet young woman helper with a big hug and kiss for her kindness.
The end of the story is: I thanked Michael for his effort on my behalf but told him I will take a taxi. My attendant pushed me to baggage claim, we picked up my two bags, and headed for the taxi stand. It was 47 degrees outside with a sharp wind. I had a thin warm-up suit on because I came from 78 degrees in the tropics. I just wanted to get home in the quickest way possible and didn’t care how much it would cost while explaining to the taxi driver how to take my wheelchair apart and stuff the parts along with me in his back seat.
That young woman was the last unexpected gift in a long list of such incidences that happened that week when I was most in need of help or simply given a kindness by a stranger. I often say that I am a magnet for strange and interesting people, and now I know that I provide a way for people to fulfill a mitzvah.
The Hebrew word Mitzvah means, a commandment, used in rabbinical Judaism to refer to the 613 commandments given in the Torah at Biblical Mt. Sinai and 7 more given later. (The Ten Commandments are a part of them.) Mitzvahs are deeds or religious duties, like reciting a blessing for each enjoyment, ritual washing hands before breaking bread, singing particular psalms on holy days, and so on. Mitzvah can also mean an act of human kindness done simply for the pleasure of it.
May each of us perform our daily Mitzvahs and be open to receive them.
I am grateful for all that has been given to me; for my family past and present steeped in the values of duty and service to others, for my Catholic education emphasizing living a life of integrity before God, and for friends along the way who support my very being. For all of this, I am humbled.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.
I am grateful that I am shy. It keeps me from being too egotistical. I’m just one of many who hope to inherit the Promised Land, who seek meaning and purpose beyond money and power.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
I am grateful for the grace that comes with sorrow, the time off from busyness, and the solace offered from those who care for me. It is not easy to grow old and live with seemingly perpetual mourning.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice: for they shall have their fill.
I am grateful for my desire and pursuit of social equality for those less able to advocate for themselves. I hope my life makes a difference for the good. That is my fulfillment.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
I am grateful for all the times I have been forgiven for my misdeeds and mistakes. I strive to be a person who takes absolute responsibility for all my thoughts, words, and actions. There is no need then to forgive others.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
I am grateful for the promise of “seeing God” in the completion of the heavenly kingdom, but being clean of heart alludes me. I am human. I carry rancor, disgust, complaining, despair and ill-will in my heart. Is good intention enough?
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
I am grateful that I learned diplomacy and peacemaking in my sometimes chaotic family life. My parents were rarely at peace. Our world does not respect or encourage peace. There is a Department of Defense but why not a Department of Peace among our United States government agencies? This beatitude implies we cannot be the progeny of God until we make peace with each other.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I am grateful I have not suffered outright persecution for being a woman, for my race, for my disability and for my beliefs. However, I have felt persecution in sympathy with others in my work as a counselor and disability rights advocate.
Jesus, the Christ, laid out before us a plan for perfection and a promise of heaven on earth if we practiced these blessings. May you be especially blessed during this holy time of year.