Passover (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
PASSOVER. Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt in the second millennium B.C.E.as narrated in the Bible (Exod. 15). According to the Jewish calendar, the holiday begins on the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan, which falls in late March or early April. Passover is observed for seven days in Israel and eight days elsewhere. On the first one or two evenings of the holiday, Jews are required to recite the Exodus story (Exod. 13:8) at a family feast called the seder and to eat matzo, an unleavened flat bread. They are prohibited from eating foods containing leaven (hametz) during the entire holiday.
History of Passover
The eating of a sacrificial animal, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, was central to Passover observance until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. However, the paschal sacrifice and eating unleavened bread actually predate the Exodus, even in the Exodus account itself (Exod. 12:8), and are associated with two distinct holidays: Pesach, a pastoral holiday during which animals were sacrificed and eaten, probably as a propitiatory measure to protect the flocks; and Hag HaʼMatzoth, an agricultural festival associated with the beginning of the barley harvest, during which unleavened bread was eaten. The Bible distinguishes these two holidays (Lev. 23:5; Num. 28:167) and, in Exodus 12, juxtaposes them. The Samaritans still observe them as two separate events. Unleavened bread was also an ordinary bread made in haste. Sarah served it to guests (Gen. 18:6), and Lot offered it to the angels (Gen. 19:3). It is thought that eventually these two spring festivals were observed together and were later identified with the commemoration of a historical event, the Exodus, which also occurred in the spring.
According to the biblical account of the Exodus, God visited ten plagues on the Egyptians to persuade them to release the Israelites from bondage. Before the last plague, during which the firstborn in each household would be slaughtered, God told Moses to tell the Israelites to slaughter an unblemished yearling lamb or kid and smear the blood on their two door posts and lintel so their homes would be passed over and their firstborn spared. The Israelites, as instructed, roasted and ate the animals just before leaving Egypt but were in such a hurry that their bread had no time to rise (Exod. 12:18). Also symbolizing the food eaten by slaves and the poor, matzo is known as the bread of affliction or poverty (Deut. 16:3).
Passover became one of three pilgrimage festivals during which Israelites traveled to Jerusalem to make offerings, including the sacrifice of animals, at the Temple. They consumed parts of the roasted animal at a family feast. After the destruction of the Second Temple, animals could no longer be sacrificed, but the practice was remembered through symbols, such as the roasted shank bone placed on the seder table.
After the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. and the wide dispersal of the Jews, Passover was gradually codified, and many local variations developed. The laws concerning Passover are in the Bible (Exod. 125), Tractate Pesahim of the Mishnah and Toseftah (compilations of the Oral Law completed in about 200 C.E.), Talmud, and later works. The Shulhan Arukh, written by Joseph Caro (1488575), with glosses by Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles (1530572), is the basis for modern religious practice.
The story of the Exodus is recounted from the Haggadah, which means 'narrative' in Hebrew, at the seder, during which participants eat foods symbolizing the Exodus from Egypt. The traditional Haggadah, which contains passages from the Bible and the rabbinic literature, blessings, prayers, and songs, is based on a compilation that began to be assembled in the Second Temple period. With several core elements in place by 200 C.E., the Haggadah continued to evolve, as did the seder, whose form is set out in the Haggadah.
The diverse Jewish communities of the Diaspora have created thousands of distinctive Haggadahs and modified them to reflect such concerns as egalitarianism (removing masculinist language), feminism (emphasizing the role of women in the Exodus story and in Jewish history), environmentalism (adding pollution and other dangers to the list of plagues), oppression (expressing solidarity with African Americans, Soviet Jews, Tibetans, Palestinians), social justice (adding poverty, homelessness, and AIDS to the list of plagues), humanism (stressing the theme of freedom rather than divine intervention), personal liberation (freedom from addictions), and remembering the Holocaust. These texts have encouraged the creation of new kinds of seders, whether adaptations of the seders held on the first two nights of Passover or a special third seder, as well as new and newly interpreted symbolic foods and cuisines. For example, Tibetan food is served at interfaith and international seders for a free Tibet, whether on American university campuses or in Dharamshala, India, home of the Dali Lama in exile.
The seder is organized around seven symbolic foods. They include three matzoth (two in some communities); four glasses of wine; a roasted bone (zeroa) symbolizing the Paschal animal sacrificed at the Temple; a green vegetable for spring; bitter herbs (maror) for the bitterness of slavery and for the ancient practice of eating hyssop with the Paschal offering; a roasted egg symbolizing a festival sacrifice once made at the Temple; and a mixture of fruit, nuts, spices, and wine or vinegar (haroset) for the mortar used by the enslaved Israelites.
Ashkenazim (Jews who derive from Germany and central and eastern Europe) present these foods on a special seder plate. Some Sephardim ( Jews who derive from the Iberian Peninsula and the places they settled after the Expulsion in 1492) place these foods in a basket. Yemenite Jews set little bowls on a table covered with leafy green vegetables. In the late twentieth century, vegetarians replaced the bone with a roasted beet, or "Paschal yam," to symbolize the blood of the Paschal lamb. Among the many new Passover traditions is an orange on the seder plate, a practice introduced in the early 1980s by Susannah Heschel as a gesture of solidarity with those who have been marginalized within the Jewish community, including lesbians, gay men, and widows.
The seder, which means 'order' in Hebrew, proceeds through a set sequence of fifteen elements. These include blessings on the wine, the matzoth, and other symbolic foods; blessings and ceremonial washing of the hands; recitation of the Haggadah; eating the festive meal; the afikoman (half of the second of two or three matzoth); grace before and after the meal; and concluding songs and poems.
Many customs vary. Toward the end of the seder, Ashkenazim set aside a special goblet of wine for the Prophet Elijah and open the door to allow him to enter. The arrival of the Prophet Elijah is believed to herald the coming of the Messiah. A feminist innovation is the addition of Miriam's goblet, which is filled with water because Miriam, the older sister of Moses, is called a prophetess in the Exodus account and is associated with a miraculous well (Exod. 15:20). According to Erich Brauer (The Jews of Kurdistan, 1993, first published in 1947), with the mention of each of the ten plagues, Jews from Ushnu dip a finger in wine and shake a drop into an empty eggshell, to which they add some arrack, tobacco, and bitter herbs. Then "one of the men takes the egg and in silence throws it on the doorstep of one known to hate the Jews, returns in silence, and washes his face and hands before taking any further part in the Seder" (Brauer, 1993, p. 288). During the song "Dayenu," in which the refrain "that would have been enough" follows a verse describing how God executed justice, some Sephardi, Afghani, and Persian Jews beat each other gently with scallions to symbolize the lashes of Egyptian taskmasters.
Haroset is eaten at points nine (maror) and ten (koreh) in the seder sequence, after which the meal proper commences. Many of the ingredients in haroset, which vary from one community to another, have symbolic significance. The spices stand for the straw that was mixed into the mortar, red wine refers to the plague of blood, sweetness signifies hope, apples are mentioned in the Song of Songs (8:5), and various fruits (figs, dates, raisins) are associated with Bible lands. Ashkenazim favor apples, nuts, cinnamon, and red wine. Yemenite Jews, who refer to haroset as dukeh, a Talmudic term that only they use, combine dates, raisins, dried figs, roasted sesame seeds, pomegranate, almonds, walnuts, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and a little wine vinegar. The Lopes family in Jamaica makes a paste of dates and sultanas soaked in orange juice and adds grated citron rind, port wine, and shredded coconut. The paste is shaped into little bricks and dusted with cinnamon (Michel, 1999).
The afikoman, a reminder of the Paschal sacrifice, is the last morsel consumed at the seder. The word afikoman derives from the Greek epikomion ('dessert') and epikomioi ('revelry'), which are associated with the final phases of the Greek symposium. While the seder resembles the Greek symposium in other ways, most importantly Socratic dialogue and learned discussion in the context of a festive meal (the symposium generally followed the meal), the rabbis stressed the differences between them because the symposium was associated with excessive drinking and licentious behavior. Many similarities between the seder and symposium (drinking wine, reclining, song) were characteristic of ancient banquets rather than unique to either of them, but these and other common practices (for example, dipping appetizers in a condiment) acquired special meaning in the Passover seder.
Ashkenazim hide the afikoman and reward a child for finding it at the end of the meal. While neither Sephardic nor Yemenite Jews hide the afikoman, they do reenact the Exodus, consistent with the obligation stated in the Haggadah that one is obliged to see oneself as if one had personally left Egypt. Syrian Jews do this by wrapping the afikoman in a special embroidered napkin cover, throwing it over their shoulders, reciting Exodus 12:34, and then asking and answering the following questions in Arabic: Where are you coming from? (Egypt) Where are you going to? (Jerusalem) (Dobrinsky, 1986, p. 256). In some Mediterranean and Central Asian Jewish communities, a piece of the afikoman is saved as a protection against misfortune. It is also a Sephardic custom, when breaking the
Although matzo is required only during the seder, it is customary to eat matzo throughout the holiday. To mark the distinction, many Jews use guarded (shmurah) matzo for the seder and regular matzo on the remaining days, while others eat shmurah matzo throughout the holiday. To ensure that the grain never comes into contact with any water or trace of leaven, shmurah matzo is guarded from the moment the wheat is harvested until the matzo leaves the oven, whereas regular matzo (matzo peshutah) is made from wheat that has been supervised only from the point of milling. Of concern is the practice of tempering grain by moistening it with water before milling. The flour for shmurah matzo is mixed with mayim shelanu, water that has been drawn from a natural source after sunset and left to stand overnight in a cool place.
All matzo, to be kosher for Passover, must be made from dough mixed, kneaded, rolled, perforated, and baked at a high temperature within eighteen minutes. A rabbi supervises the process and checks that the matzoth are properly backed, with no bubbles, folds, or soft spots. Between each batch of matzoth, tables and tools are scrupulously cleaned to ensure that no traces of dough adhere to them. In Yemen, Jews used to bake matzoth during Passover in order to have fresh soft matzoth throughout the holiday. Baked directly on the walls of a clay oven, these matzoth were somewhat like pita. Yemenites served thick matzoth at the seder, as did medieval Jewish communities, and thin ones during the rest of the holiday.
A traditional rich matzo (matzo ashirah) is made with white grape juice or eggs rather than with water. Only those who have difficulty digesting regular matzo, including the sick, elderly, or young children, may eat this kind of matzo during Passover. The Talmud and later sources debate the permissibility of decorating matzoth, whether by pressing them into molds or perforating them to make patterns, because the extra time devoted to this process might cause the dough to ferment. Illustrated Haggadahs show, however, that matzoth were indeed ornamented. In 1942, matzoth in the shape of V, for victory, were baked in the United States.
Rolled by hand, shmurah matzoth are round, in contrast with the square matzoth made by machines introduced during the 1850s in Austria. Machine-made matzoth were controversial for several reasons. First, round matzoth were stamped out of sheets of dough. Because the scraps were reused, there was a delay between mixing and baking the dough, prompting concern that the dough would start to rise. Second, to fulfill the religious obligation of eating matzo during the seder, matzo must be made intentionally for that purpose. Whether or not the intentional starting of the machine is sufficient to meet this requirement has been debated, and steps have been taken to increase human involvement in the machine process.
In time, square matzoth made by machine came to be widely accepted, so much so that matzo companies, such as Manischewitz, established in Cincinnati in 1888, made every effort to diversify their matzo products and to create a market for them all year round. Since the 1930s, their cookbooks have provided recipes for how to use their matzo products in everything from tamales to strawberry shortcake. In the late twentieth century, Manischewitz added an apple cinnamon matzo to its product line. Chocolate-covered matzo has become popular.
The claim that Jews added a victim's blood to the matzo or drank the blood at the seder is a late addition to the long history of blood libels accusing Jews of kidnapping and killing a Christian, usually a child. Blood libels have led to the execution of accused Jews and the massacre of Jewish communities. In 2002 in Saudi Arabia, a blood libel accused Jews of using the blood of non-Jewish teenagers in their Purim pastries.
Whereas one is only obligated to eat matzo at the seder, hametz is prohibited during all eight days of Passover. Hametz refers to any of the five species of grain mentioned in the Bible (wheat, rye, oats, spelt, barley) that have come into contact with water after being harvested and allowed to ferment. These grains and anything that has come into contact with them or has been made from them cannot be eaten or be in one's possession during the holiday. Preparation for Passover entails a scrupulous cleaning of the home to remove every last trace of hametz, the "sale" to a non-Jew of any remaining hametz in one's possession (and repurchase following the holiday), the use of dishes and utensils dedicated exclusively to Passover or specially prepared for that purpose, and consumption of food that is kosher for Passover.
To prevent any possibility of violating the prohibition, "fences" have been created around these rules. Many Ashkenazim do not eat kitniyot (legumes, grains, and beans, including lentils, rice, corn, peas, millet, buckwheat, and anything made from them or their derivatives, such as oil, sweeteners, or grain alcohol). Sephardim generally eat fresh beans, and some groups eat rice. Most Hasidim do not eat gebrokts (matzo, whether whole, broken, or ground into meal, that has been mixed with water). Italian Jews do not consume milk during Passover, while Ethiopian Jews abstain from consuming fermented milk products. Many Jews do not conform to these restrictions, while some observe kashruth (Jewish dietary laws) during Passover but not during the rest of the year.
Passover dietary restrictions and requirements have prompted distinctive culinary responses. Signature dishes of the seder meal itself vary according to Jewish communities. While many are also served on the Sabbath and other holidays, some are specific to Passover.
Ashkenazim serve clear chicken broth with dumplings (kneydlakh) made from matzo meal and noodles made of egg and potato starch or matzo meal, gefilte fish (poached balls of ground fish), roasted fowl, stewed carrots, and nut tortes made without flour. Because of the limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in eastern Europe during late March and early April, carrots, beets, radishes, potatoes, and other root vegetables are important. Rosl, prepared weeks in advance by allowing raw beets covered with water to ferment, is the basis for a hot or cold borscht consumed during the week. Delicacies include beet or black radish preserves, khremslakh (pancakes made from matzo meal), sponge cakes, macaroons, and ingberlakh (candies made with grated carrot or small pieces of matzo and honey, nuts, and ginger).
Sephardim prepare haminados, eggs in their shells braised in water with red onion skins, vinegar, and saffron. Favorite Passover dishes among Moroccan Jews include dried fava bean soup with fresh coriander and stewed lamb with white truffles, which are harvested in February. Greek Jews feature artichokes with lemon, fish in rhubarb sauce, stuffed spinach leaves, leek croquettes, various dishes calling for lamb and lamb offal, and a baklava made with matzo. East European Jews traditionally made their own raisin wine for Passover, while Greek and Turkish Jews made raki, a liqueur derived from raisins through a process of distillation. Purchased wine must not only be kosher, which involves many strict religious regulations, but also kosher for Passover.
As if to demonstrate that Passover dietary restrictions are no impediment to innovation and variety, the kosher food industry has developed an astonishing array of Passover products. The historian Jenna Weissman Joselit, in "The Call of the Matzoh," notes that by 1900 Bloomingdales and Macy's featured Passover groceries, wine, and other holiday necessities (Joselit, 1994, p. 221). The most widely observed of the Jewish holidays, Passover occupies only 3 percent of the calendar, but generally accounts for 40 (and in some areas up to 60) percent of kosher food sales in the United States annually. This makes kosher for Passover products an estimated $2 billion industry. According to Kosher Today, a trade publication of the kosher food industry, more than six hundred new Passover products were introduced in 2001 alone, which gave consumers up to four thousand items from which to choose. However, in a world where almost everything is becoming kosher for Passover, from pizza to noodles, Passover may lose some of its culinary distinctiveness.
Whereas the seder is traditionally a family event, public and organizational seders arose even before the twentieth century in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere to meet the needs of Jewish soldiers away from home (for example, during the American Civil War and today in Israel); Jews confined in hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons; and the destitute. During the twentieth-century, the kibbutz, a collective agricultural settlement in Palestine and then in Israel, created its own Haggadahs and seders, consistent with the socialist and even atheistic tendencies of its founders and the practice of eating together in large public dining halls. During the Holocaust, Jews in Bergen-Belsen, separated from their families, organized to observe the holiday as best they could. Unable to obtain matzo, they determined that hametz was permitted and created a special prayer to say over it.
Even before World War I, seaside resorts in the United States attracted Jewish visitors who preferred to avoid the elaborate preparations for Passover and observe the holiday away from home. According to Kosher Today, over seventy-five thousand people participated in Passover programs in hotels during 2000 in the United States, and the Passover getaway business, which has grown in size and variety, hoped to fill thirty thousand rooms in 2002. In Israel, many orthodox families spend all eight days of the holiday at a hotel or kibbutz pension to avoid the considerable effort of preparing for Passover. Communal seders are also held in Europe. The first communal seder in Beijing took place in 1998. Caterers organize seders in banquet halls, and restaurants offer seders, in part as a response to the dispersal of families. Wolfgang Puck, at the prompting of his Jewish wife, began to host Passover seders at Spago, his Los Angeles restaurant, in 1985. The menu features such delicacies as roasted white Alaskan salmon (Panitz, 1999). Peter Hoffman, who has been hosting seders at his Mediterranean-style restaurant Savoy since 1994, created a seder inspired by Marrano traditions. Other restaurants may simply include matzo on the menu.
Whereas only one seder is required in Israel (and among some Reform Jews) and two seders in the Diaspora, a Lubavitcher tradition holds that the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism, a pietist movement, instituted a Messiah's Feast, mirroring the seder with matzo and wine, on the afternoon of the eighth day of Passover. During the 1920s, Zionist groups and members of the Jewish Labor movement organized third seders, although radical secular Haggadahs, which stressed human agency over divine intervention, were printed as early as the 1880s. In 2002 the Workmen's Circle, which is associated with the Jewish Labor movement, celebrated fifty years of its annual Third Seder, recently renamed A Cultural Seder. Their special Yiddish Haggadah, which makes no mention of God, focuses on liberation struggles and Yiddish cultural achievements. In the late twentieth century, they incorporated elements of the traditional seder for those who only observe this one seder. Other groups, prompted by such crises as Israeli soldiers missing in action and AIDS, also have created a third seder.
The Christian Seder
There is disagreement as to whether the Last Supper took place during the evening of the fourteenth of Nissan, after the Paschal sacrifice, in the form of a Passover meal (synoptic Gospels), or on the afternoon of the preceding day as an ordinary meal (Gospel of John). Consistent with the former, some Christians reenact the Last Supper as a seder, usually on Holy Thursday, based on practices thought to have been followed at the time of Christ. The Christian seder typically includes lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, haroset, karpas (raw vegetables), and wine; washing of hands and feet; reclining at the table; recitation of appropriate blessings and passages from Exodus, and singing of Psalms. As Gillian Feeley-Harnik explains in The Lord's Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity (1981), the Last Supper, as a sacrificial meal, "most closely resembles the passover, but every critical element in the passover is reversed: the time, the place, the community, the sacrifice, and ultimately the significance of the meal" (Feeley-Harnik, 1981, p. 19).
In some communities, a special meal ushers out the holiday or otherwise marks the return to everyday life. Moroccan Jews celebrate the Mimouna after sundown on the last day of Passover and on the following day with a great variety of post-Passover foods, music, and dance. The earliest record of the holiday dates from the eighteenth century. While the etymology of Mimouna remains unclear, some find a connection with maimouna (Arabic, meaning 'wealth', 'good fortune'), emunah (Hebrew, meaning 'faith'), and mammon (Hebrew-Aramaic, meaning 'riches', 'prosperity'). Some link the timing of the Mimouna with the anniversary of the death of the revered Rabbi Maimon, father of Moses Maimonides, who moved from Cordoba to Fez in 1159/1160. Moroccan Jews believe the holiday originated in Fez.
The evening holiday is traditionally celebrated at home, with doors open to relatives and friends. Ears of wheat and flowers are placed on the table and around the room. A lavish table is set with a white cloth, and depending on the community, symbolic foods may include flour, yeast, wine, five coins, five beans, five dates, five eggs, sweets, nuts, fruits, milk, buttermilk, butter, a live fish, and mofleta, the first leavened food eaten after Passover. Mofleta is a yeast-risen pancake fried in a skillet, spread with butter and honey, and rolled. In Morocco, where Jews "sold" their hametz to their Muslim neighbors before Passover, the Muslims brought the wheat, flowers, dairy products, and other foods to the Jews during the afternoon of the last day of Passover. After Passover, Muslims returned the hametz and were rewarded, in addition to receiving a piece a matzo, believed to bring good fortune. The day following Passover is a time for family excursions and picnics. During the Mimouna, a time of courtship, young people dressed in their finery, and betrothed couples exchanged gifts. With the immigration of North African Jews to Israel, other Maghrebi and Levantine Jews also celebrate the Mimouna, which has become a large public event.
See also Bible, Food in the; Christianity; Fasting and Abstinence; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Islam; Judaism; Last Supper; Middle East; Religion and Food; United States: Ethnic Cuisines.
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