Names of the Festival
Chag Ha-Matzot (Festival of the Unleavened Bread), reflects the centrality of matzah in the celebration of Pesach.
Chag Ha-Pesach (Festival of the Paschal Lamb Offering), recalls the offering that was brought to the Bet HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem in former times, even as the word Pesach (from the Hebrew, “to protect” or “to pass over”) links us to the biblical account of the tenth plague when our ancestors’ homes were “protected” when the Angel of Death by-passed (i.e. “passed over”) them.
Chag He-Aviv (Festival of the Semi-ripe Barley; in later Hebrew this name connotes Festival of Spring), reminds us of the agricultural dimensions and seasonal significance of the Festival.
Zeman Cheruteinu (Season of Our Freedom), marks the attainment of freedom from bondage by our ancestors. It is this name that is used in every Amidah (central prayer) and Birkat HaMazon (Blessing of Nourishment, or Grace after Meals) throughout Passover.
Ma-ot Chittim (Wheat Money)
Especially for Passover, care must be taken to provide for the poor, as the costs for Passover observance are greater than usual. The less fortunate, with all Jews, should be able to celebrate free of worry on the Festival of Freedom. The practice of distribution ma-ot chittim (also known as kimcha d’Pischa, literally “Passover flour”) was instituted so that the needs of the indigent might be met. This custom has given rise to the creation of special Passover funds in local communities. The money for selling one’s chametz (see below) is generally channeled into such a fund.
Any product that is fermented or that can cause fermentation may not be eaten. Only five grains are considered as included in the this prohibition: wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. (What does spelt looks like anyway?) Any food or drink made from one of these grains, or which contains one of these grains, even a most miniscule amount, is considered chametz. Obviously, matzah is made from one of these five grains, although careful tending has ensured that no leavening has occurred.
In addition, all utensils that came into contact with chametz may not be used during Pesach or even on the day preceding it. These and any non-Pesach foods we are saving are stored where we won’t see them or get into them. (The prohibition includes not seeing chametz in one’s domain.) The surfaces upon which we prepare food, cook food and eat food are scoured and usually covered for the duration of the Festival. The refrigerator is likewise cleaned to remove any trace of chametz. Many utensils may be “kashered” for Passover, that is, they might be rendered usable for the holy day by following the traditions for doing so.
Ashkenazi Jews have followed the minhag (custom) of treating rice, corn, peanuts or members of the pea family, as chametz because these products swell when cooked and so resemble a leavening process. According to the strictest application of this minhag, neither the grains nor any of the flours or oils made from the may be used. Some Ashkenazi commentators do allow the use of these products when in certain forms, such as oil. Sephardic tradition allows these products, in any form, to be eaten. No, one cannot declare oneself a Sephardic Jew for eight days a year!
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement has ruled unanimously in separate rulings that peanuts and string beans are not members of the pea family and hence should not fall under this minhag (and are hence acceptable for Passover use).
In addition, one cannot get any advantage from chametz. So, for example, Jewish bakeries often close during the week of Passover to not make money from chametz during the holy day.
Mechirat Chametz (Selling Chametz)
Since one must not own any chametz during Pesach, any chametz stored is sold for the duration of Pesach and then repurchased. The transaction is technically an actual sale: People sign a document appointing the Rabbi as their legal agent for this purpose. Food that is sold must be placed out of the way and covered, along with the year-round (chametz-dik) dishes, so that one does not encounter the chametz during Pesach itself. Some who do not change dishes nevertheless should consider selling their chametz. Those needing or desiring Rabbi Sacks’ help to accomplish this mitzvah should contact him as soon as possible.
Bedikat Chametz/Bi-Ur Chametz (Search for/Burning of Chametz)
After thoroughly cleaning one’s home, a search for leaven takes place on the evening before Pesach. So as not to make this search in vain, a few crumbs are conspicuously placed, searched for by candlelight and when “found,” swept onto a wooden spoon with a feather. (Obviously, it is helpful to count how many pieces of bread/candy/whatever you have conveniently placed throughout the house!) Children (of all ages) delight in this tradition.
The following morning before 10 AM or so (consult the Rabbi if more specificity is required), these last crumbs are burned (in some places, flushed or thrown in the outside garbage can). A short declaration is recited both evening and morning, which can be found in most haggadot (plural of haggadah, the seder booklet).
Any other chametz found in the house is then considered to be “mere dust” and not food (and hence, the household is still considered to be fully kosher for Pesach for the family that worked so hard. A humane remedy if there ever was one!!!) Many modern young families have now incorporated this ritual in whole or in part as a feature of their family’s preparation for Pesach even in homes which will not be traditionally kosher for Pesach.
This year the first seder takes place on Saturday night. Both searching for chametz and the burning of chametz are inappropriate on Shabbat. Thus this year the search for chametz takes place on Thursday evening, April 17, with the burning of chametz on Friday morning.
On Matzah and Matzah Sh’murah (Watched Matzah)
One may eat matzah at any time during Passover (and during the year), but the mitzvah (commandment) regarding matzah applies only to the seder on the first night—and even then one only needs to eat matzah immediately following the recitation of the blessing for matzah recited as part of the seder.
One finds many types of matzah. Most common is the plain square or rectangular matzah, packaged in boxes. Egg matzah, yokeless or regular, because it is not pure but an admixture is popular, but NOT acceptable for making the special blessing of “al achilat matzah” during the seder ritual.
The requirement of supervision of matzah is sh’murah mish’at t’china, “supervised from the time the grain is milled (into flour).” From that point on, it is to be stored in cool conditions and kept away from water or moisture until the time for baking it into matzah.
Some have the custom, especially for seder evenings, of applying a stricter level of supervision called sh’murah mish’at k’tzirah, “supervised from the time of reaping.” The grain for this matzah is thus watched from the time it is harvested to ensure that no
moisture has affected it. Such a stricture is apparently post-Talmudic. Chassidim use only this matzah sh’murah for all of Pesach. Many of us, however, enhance our own s’darim (plural of seder) with it.
Matzah sh’murah usually comes in large round cakes, with a different taste and texture. It probably comes much closer to what our ancestors actually ate in haste when they were leaving Egypt. Although one can also find this matzah in the square or rectangular prepackaged format like the more common plain matzah as well, we prefer the round, handmade kind specifically to recall the original Exodus experience.
Anyone who wishes matzah sh’murah should contact Rabbi Sacks, and we will obtain some for you. He will bring it to the Community Seder. If you are not joining us for the Community Seder, please make arrangements for someone to pick it up for you.
Ta’anit B’chorim (Fast of the Firstborn)
Firstborn Jews fast from sunrise the day before Passover, i.e. the morning preceding the first seder according to custom. This fast, Ta’anit B’chorim, commemorates the miracle that the firstborn Jews were spared from the tenth plague that killed every firstborn Egyptian. While in many quarters the mitzvah applied to males only, in some places firstborn women were encouraged to fast as well, since their birth spared a life and thus contributed to the survival of our people. And although in general a female never acquires the status of firstborn in Jewish law, we in the Conservative Movement promote equality of women and men, and hence we adopt the approach that all firstborns should fast.
Many who observe this fast use a Jewish legal principle pertaining to the importance of Talmud Torah (Torah study) to supersede and cut short a fast. A siyyum (conclusion) is the study of the final lines of a body of study one is completing. Usually held immediately after shacharit (morning) services, a siyyum is followed by a se’udat mitzvah, a mandatory “feast” to celebrate. This brings any fast observed up to that point to an abrupt end for all who are present.
Many firstborn choose to fast not only to connect with this piece of history and tradition but in order to heighten the taste, both gastronomic and spiritual, of the seder—or, alternatively, to commemorate the three-day fast in the time of Queen Esther which took place at Passover time (and not at Purim!). If so, these firstborn would not attend a siyyum.
This year the day of the first seder is Shabbat. Other than Yom Kippur, no fast can take place on Shabbat. We cannot move the fast to Friday since one cannot be expected to both fast and adequately prepare for Shabbat. Thus this year Ta’anit B’chorim starts at sunrise on April 17and continues until the after sundown that evening.
Sefirat Ha-Omer (Counting of the Omer)
The Torah commands us to count seven full weeks from the time we bring the omer. On the fiftieth day we are to bring an offering of new grain to the Holy One (Leviticus 23;15-16). An omer was a sheaf or a dry measure of barley from the new spring harvest that was brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover. We still count these seven weeks.
The purpose of the counting, according to the Kabbalists (mystics), is to join Passover, the festival of physical redemption and emancipation, with Shavuot, the festival when the Israelites entered into the brit, the covenant with God (and receiving the Torah), making it the festival of spiritual freedom. In this understanding, the purpose of the Exodus was to get to Mount Sinai. While it is true that without Pesach, there would not have been Shavuot, it is equally clear that without the goal of Shavuot, Pesach would not be necessary, for it would be divested of significance. Thus the days between the two festivals are anxiously and expectantly counted, just as one awaits a close friend by counting the days until her or his arrival.
Starting on the second night of Passover (Sunday, April 20), during the second seder, until the evening of Shavuot, we count the omer by reciting a special benediction concerning the counting of the Omer and then enumerate what day of the omer period we are in. We do so using two methods: by the exact number of days (e.g. the twenty-third day) and by the number of weeks (three weeks and two days). Enumerating in both methods helps avoid any confusion.
Among North African and Turkish Jews, Passover is somewhat extended by celebrating the day after Pesach (evening and next day) as Maimuna. According to tradition it is the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of Maimon ben Joseph, the father of Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or (by using the boldfaced initials) Rambam, twelfth century).
Coins, candy and grass are thrown to the children upon returning from synagogue. The coins and candy represent the wealth and food that the Israelites brought out of Egypt on their way to freedom, and the grass symbolizes the reeds of the Red Sea (The Red Sea will again part: However, in this case someone must sweep up the grass!)
The table is set with various types of good luck symbols: pitchers of milk, garlands of leaves and flowers, branches of fig tress, ears of wheat, a plate of fresh flour with a coin, a jar of honey, various greens and a fish bowl complete with (raw, fresh) fish, the latter an obvious and common symbol of fertility. The menu consists of an array of sweets, including coconut macaroons, marzipan stuffed dates and walnut pancakes known as muflita. (Since the sweets were prepared during Chol ha-Moed, the intermediate days of Pesach, they are prepared with attention to the laws of Pesach food preparation.)
Traditionally, Maimuna is the time for matchmaking among the young. In Israel, Maimuna takes place outdoors in a picnic-like atmosphere characterized by (what else?) much eating, drinking and singing. Both how this festival originated and its connection with Maimon are obscure—though interestingly, Maimuna reflects an immediate transition to the agricultural themes and dairy foods of the Omer period and Shavuot respectively.
When Passover Begins on Saturday Night
When Passover begins on Saturday night, the best procedure is to arrange for the koshering of both home and Synagogue on Thursday and the preparing for the first Seder on Friday. This will give cooks some rest on Shabbat before the seder and avoid not only Shabbat desecration but the problem of having chametz meals throughout Shabbat just as seder preparations are normally in full swing.
We discussed Ta’anit B’chorim (“Fast of the Firstborn”) and Bedikat Chametz/Bi’ur Chametz (“The Search and Burning of Chametz”) above in the appropriate sections. As for Shabbat meals, it is preferable to eat food that is kosher l’Pesach. This means no chametz of any kind, including challah. However, since one should not eat regular matzah the day before the seder in anticipation of it, the motzi at Shabbat meals and at Oneg Shabbat/Kiddush should be made over egg matzah, which is considered in a different category from regular matzah (and is therefore not used on seder night for reciting the blessings).