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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Passover—The Feast of Unleavened Bread, part 1

Jews making a Passover sacrifice; represented
in a 15th-century art piece.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Holidays sneak up on you, if you're not careful. In Christian tradition, they're mostly predictable; after all, our modern calendar is a Christian one, and therefore Easter is somewhat more predictable (or at least marked on more calendars.) Being (culturally) a Jew, I am not much on Easter celebrations, but I do celebrate passover with my family every year. Passover has a varying date, much more variable than Easter (though the dates are somewhat linked,) as the Jewish calendar is a lunar cycle-based calendar and doesn't always match up quite so nicely with the Gregorian calendar that most countries use to mark their time.

Passover is  holiday with great cultural significance for Jews. Simply, it is a commemoration of the flight of the Jews from slavery in Egypt sometime between 1550 and 1203 BCE. (These dates are cited on Wikipedia, and represent such a vast time period that most estimates are encompassed.) As a festival celebrating freedom, however, Passover contains much more than just a simple remembrance. Primary amongst these traditions is a meal rich with symbolism, possibly the most symbolic feast of any in Jewish canon; many holidays in Judaism have associated foods—I have previously discussed the use of oil during Hanukkah—but Passover is somewhat unique in that it has foods that are inherently part of the celebration of the holiday. (Think of it thus: Most holidays in Judaism have foods associated with them in the way that a nice big ham is associated with Easter dinner: It's mostly to do with tradition, and less to do with the actual religious aspect of the holiday—though there are notable exceptions—; Passover's foods are more like the wafers and wine involved in communion: they are actively part of the holiday's basic meaning.)
A 19th-century illustration of Ukranian Jews at a seder.
(Wikimedia Commons)
The Torah (the Jewish bible) says in Exodus 12:14-17:
And this day shall become a memorial for you, and you shall observe it as a festival for the lord, for your generations, as an eternal decree shall you observe it. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove the leaven from your homes ... you shall guard the unleavened bread, because on this very day I will take you out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal decree.
Biblically, we are commanded about our food choices for the holiday—but the food traditions do not stop with unleavened bread, and the meanings are manifold.

So what are these foods? What are the meanings? Read on.

On every table set for a Passover Seder you will find what is known as the Seder Plate, a combination of ritualistically significant food items. They are as follows:
A seder plate; visible are parsley and beet horseradish,
with the roasted egg in center back.
Photograph by Dara Skolnick
  • ביצה [beitzah]—The Roasted Egg: Traditionally, a hard-boiled egg that is then oiled and browned in the oven, to recall both the tradition of sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem that were part of the Passover feast before the destruction of that Temple, and the rebirth of the world coming of spring.
  •  זורה [z'roah]—The Lamb Bone: In my family, for many years, there was not a lamb's shankbone on the seder plate, but rather a chicken bone. From what I understand, this is remarkably common, as lamb is not always easily found or commonly enjoyed, for some reason or another. Regardless, this item commemorates the Passover Sacrifice, a tradition dating back to the days before the Egyptian enslavement, when Jews (like the Greeks) sacrificed animals at the altar to God; in addition, it recalls the lamb slaughtered for the purpose of marking the doorways of Jewish homes in Egypt with blood, a task undertaken to protect the residents of the home from the Angel of Death, on a mission from God to strike fear into the Egyptians with the death of their firstborn sons.
  • מרור, חזרת [maror, khazeres]—The Bitter Herbs: There are two bitter herbs placed on the Seder plate; oftentimes, one is almost always horseradish, but the other varies (a commonly used item is romaine lettuce.) The bitter herbs symbolize the bitter treatment of the Jews in their enslavement by the Egyptian Pharoah, and are eaten as part of the ceremony.
  • כרפס [karpas]—The Other Herb: In modern households, this is often Parsley (and in the age of Steam, I'm certain it was as well, given the incredible love for Parsley evident in every cookbook from the era...) The herb is dipped in one of several items, depending on the particular tradition of the observers: For Eastern European Jews, it is dipped in saltwater, symbolizing the tears of the enslaved Jews; for Sephardic Jews (those whose traditions originate in Spain, Portugal, and the Western areas of Europe) the dipping medium is Vinegar, to symbolize the bitter tears; in older traditions in various places, the herbs are dipped in the next item.
  • חרוסת [kharoses]—Charoses: This one lacks a good translation; it is a mixture of chopped nuts, fruit, wine/grape juice, honey, and spices. It is designed to look like the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses and monuments of the Egyptians. It is used to create one of the simplest parts of the Passover meal, the Hillel Sandwich (made of Matzah, horseradish, and charoses,) as well as being eaten on its own, with the other herbs, or with matzah.
  • מצה [matzah]—The Bread: A big, unsalted saltine cracker. No, really. These (commercially, at least) are giant crackers made of flour and water, with no flavoring but a bit of salt; docked and baked within 18 minutes from initial mixing, matzah is a simple but pleasurable part of passover meals. It recalls the flight of the Jewish slaves from Egypt; as they left, they did not have time to bake bread to provision their wanderings, and therefore they mixed their flour and water, placed it upon their backs, and began their trip. The sun baked it into crackers, and ever since we have eaten unleavened, crisp bread.
    All of these items have existed as components of the passover seder for many, many years. One of my early resources on Jewish food, a 1918 cookbook, says the following:
    Set the table as usual, have everything fresh and clean; a wineglass for each person, and an extra one placed near the platter of the man who conducts the seder. Then get a large napkin; fold it into four parts, set it on a plate, and in each fold put a perfect matzoh; that is, one that is not broken or unshapely; in short, one without a blemish. Then place the following articles on a platter: One hard-boiled egg, a lamb bone that has been roasted in ashes, the top of a nice stick of horse-radish (it must be fresh and green), a bunch of nice curly parsley and some bitter herb (the Germans call it lattig), and, also, a small vessel filled with salt water. Next to this platter place a small bowl filled with כרוסת [charoses] prepared as follows: Pare and chop up a few apples, add sugar, cinnamon, pounded almonds, some white wine and grated lemon peel, and mix thoroughly.
    It is evident that about 100 years ago, our modern conception of the seder plate was mostly extant. Jews from the Old Country would have brought these traditions to America, changed them slightly to suit the new foodstuffs that were available, and continued to honor the religiously significant culinary traditions of their families.

    Friday, my bread guy will have for you a post about making matzah. Forthcoming in part 2 of this entry will be a discussion of the traditional parts of the passover meal.

    1 comment:

    1. beets added to the horseradish make it unusable for the commandment of eating bitter herbs


    Your opinions and comments always are welcomed, but do be civil... this isn't a kitchen, after all.