Friday, April 6, 2012


Family Gathered for Their Seder Meal

Hello My Friend and Welcome.

As we learned in our recent post on the date of Easter, Holy Week and Easter are intimately connected to the week-long Jewish Feast of Pesach, or Passover. With this in mind, today we step aside from our Lenten-Easter posts to take a look at the Feast of Passover…more specifically we’ll be examining the Seder Meal.

In ancient times, Passover was the first of three great pilgrim feasts during which all Jews who were able would journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast in the Temple. We are told in the Gospels that Jesus made the annual trek to Jerusalem to participate in the festivities both as a child with Mary and Joseph, and as an adult with his disciples. It was during one such journey that he remained behind causing Mary and Joseph to leave the homebound caravan and return to Jerusalem to find him.

The first Passover occurred in Egypt when the first born of each family died. The Israelites were protected from this curse by slaughtering an unblemished lamb and painting their doorposts and lintel in its blood with a branch of the hyssop plant. (Exodus 12:1-13, 21-28, 43-49) Seeing this mark, the Angel of Death passed over their homes. They are then commanded to celebrate this feast as an annual memorial to the Lord’s salvation. The Bible gives specific instructions on how it is to be eaten…standing with staff in hand, etc.

By the First Century, the Pesach meal had evolved into a structured religious service with a defined form of conduct. The word seder, in fact, means order. And there is a particular order of prayers and responses to the Seder meal. Most people distribute prayer books, siddurs, so each family member can follow along and participate. Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach is the one most Christians are familiar with and also the most commonly observed, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the 1990 survey, more than 80% of Jews have attended a Pesach Seder.

Pesach was also known as the Feast of Unleaven Bread because it is forbidden to eat chametz, leaven, during Pesach. Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains…wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, which wasn’t completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water. Since all of these grains are commonly used to make bread, their use was prohibited to avoid any confusion. The most significant observance related to Pesach involves the removal of all leavened items from the home. This commemorates the Jews leaving Egypt in a hurry, and not having time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the puffiness —arrogance and pride— from one’s soul.

Commercial Matzah
The grain product eaten during Pesach is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread, made from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt. There are many inventive ways to use matzah. It is available in a variety of textures for cooking: matzah flour, finely ground for cakes and cookies, matzah meal, coarsely ground for use as a bread crumb substitute, matzah farfel, little chunks which serve as a noodle or bread cube substitute, and full-sized matzahs, the 10 inch square that serves as a bread substitute and is an integral part of the Seder meal.
The first thing that must be done for the meal is to prepare the Seder plate. There are many decrative plates available with a designated spot for each of the six items: The Charoset. a mixture of chopped walnuts, wine, cinnamon and apples that represents the mortar the Jewish slaves used to assemble for the Pharaoh's bricks. Chazeret, freshly grated horseradish to reflect the bitter affliction of slavery. Karpas, a vegetable, most often parsley, which is dipped in salt water as a reminder of the bitter tears the Jews shed while enslaved in Egypt. Betza, or hard-boiled egg. The egg is metaphoric. Like the egg that hardens the more one boils it, so the Israelites strengthened when faced with increasingly challenging situations. The round shape of the egg also reminds us of the cycle of life. The Zro-a, a shank bone symbolic of the sacrificial lamb. The Maror, or bitter herbs…typically Romaine or endive, a remembrance of the bitter affliction of slavery. Each person also receives a glass of wine or grape juice.
A Seder Plate with the Six Items
The order of the meal is best understood as a series of steps, each of which has both historical and symbolic meaning.

1. Kaddesh: The Sanctification. A blessing is said over wine in honor of the holiday, the wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.

2. Urechatz: The First Washing. A washing of the hands without a blessing in preparation for eating. 

3. Karpas: The vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. Parsley lends itself especially well for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears. 

4. Yachatz: The Breaking of the matzah. One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen for later use. 

5. Maggid: The Story. It begins when the youngest person in the room asks the first of the Mah Nishtanah…the four questions. “Why is this night different from all others?” The host or oldest person in the room then tells the story of the Exodus and the first Passover. At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk. 

6. Rachtzah: The Second Washing. A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for the eating the matzah. 

7. Motzi: The blessing over Grain Products. The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah. 

8. Matzah: A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten. 

9. Maror: The bitter herbs. A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable, usually raw horseradish, and it is eaten.

The Hillel Sanwich - Charoset Between Matzah
10. Korekh: The Hillel Sandwich. The Rabbi Hillel, who died a few years before Jesus was born, believed the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering. Since there are no more animal sacrifices, there is no paschal offering to eat. However, in Hillel’s memory, it’s customary to eat some maror with charoset between two pieces of matzah. 

If you search for Charoset recipes, you’ll find them with raisins, dates, cranberries, pears even mangoes. Here is a traditional recipe. For authenticity, you might want to consider sweetening it with honey since the First Century Jews didn’t have refined sugar.

6 apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
2/3 c chopped almonds
3 tbsp sugar, or to taste
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Grated rind of 1 lemon
4 tbsp sweet red wine

Combine all, mixing thoroughly. Add wine as need. Blend to desired texture —some like it coarse and crunchy, others prefer it ground to a paste. Makes about 3 Cups. Keeps in refrigerator

11. Shulchan Orekh: The Dinner. A festive meal is now served. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal except, of course, chametz cannot be eaten. 

12. Tzafun: The Afikomen. The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as dessert, the last food of the meal. Families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it and the children must find it. Either way, the goal seems to be to keep the children awake and attentive as they wait for this part. 

13. Barekh: Grace after Meals. The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Shabbat. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. A fourth cup is poured, including a cup reserved for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah. The door is opened for a while at this point. 

14. Hallel: The Praises. Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk. [By the way, this is where our word Hallelujah comes from.] 

15. Nirtzah: The Closing. A simple statement that the Seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, it may be celebrated in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). 

Many Christian churches celebrate a Seder meal as a remembrance of the Last Supper. If you have an opportunity to attend such a service, take it. You will find it both instructive and enlightening. 

Be sure to check in tomorrow for a traditional recipe that allows you to utilize a lot of those hard- boiled eggs you dyed with the kids. 

We’ll return on Monday to look at the rite of initiation used by the Early Church. 

Until then, we wish Peace and Blessings over the upcoming Easter/Passover weekend. 

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