Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Passover
Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the story of the ancient Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt, begins March 30. And in the thousands of years since, Jews have celebrated the holiday in almost as many ways. TIME takes a look at some things you may not know about Passover
1. Whipping with Onions
The traditional Passover song “Dayenu” literally means “it would have been enough” and lists the 15 gifts and miracles (like parting the Red Sea) bestowed upon the Jewish people by God in the Book of Exodus. The idea that each blessing would be enough on its own, even without further or more profound blessings, is a central theme during the holiday.
“Dayenu” is sung throughout the diaspora during the seder, but Sephardic Jews from Iran and Afghanistan have a particularly lively custom in which they whip each other with oversize scallions. Before the song begins, each seder participant stands, takes a scallion and starts whacking the other members of the feast. In some families, one scallion is passed around the table while each person takes a turn whipping. There is some debate about where the custom originates. Many believe it is a way to mimic the whips of slave drivers in Egypt. But others say it’s a reference to Bamidbar 11:5-6, a passage that describes the Israelites’ longing for Egyptian onions while eating manna during their 40 years wandering in the desert. Seder participants whip one other as a way to scold one another for desiring any aspect of their lives of enslavement.
2. Crossing the Red Sea
In the Polish town of Gora Kalwaria, Hasidic Jews mark Passover by re-enacting the crossing of the Red Sea. To make it as realistic as they can, they pour water on the floor, lift up their coats and recite the names of the towns they would cross. They also make sure to raise a glass at each mention of a town and offer thanks to God for being able to reach their destination.
3. Ethiopian Passover
Many Ethiopian Jews, who for hundreds of years endured persecution in their homeland because of their unique religious rites, left Ethiopia in two secret airlifts in 1984 and 1991. During Passover, to commemorate their past and celebrate renewal, some Ethiopian Jews break all their dishes and cookware and make new ones. The tradition is in keeping with the hope for emancipation and redemption that the holiday signifies.
4. The Second Seder
The first night of Passover is thought to fall on the 15th day of Nisan, according to the Hebrew calendar, which is when the new moon rises and spring begins. But the date was originally based on the lunar cycle, which created a slightly different clock for Jews outside Israel when the tradition was instituted more than 2,000 years ago. Authorities in Jerusalem handed down the annual date, but it took days on end for the official word to spread throughout the world. In an effort to ensure that the international Jewish community didn’t miss the crucial seventh day of Passover, which commemorates Moses’ iconic parting of the Red Sea, an eighth day was added to the celebration, in case the new moon’s rising had been miscalculated.
While modern calendars and communication methods have cleared up all potential confusion, Yom Tov Sheni, roughly meaning “the second day of the holiday,” is still celebrated abroad in the Orthodox and Conservative traditions when a second feast is held. The Reform Judaism community abolished the eighth day in 1846, as improved communication methods made it redundant.
5. A Rugrats Passover
In an episode broadcast on April 13, 1995, Tommy Pickles (with a yarmulke planted firmly upon his bald head), Angelica and Chuckie learn the story of the Exodus when they find themselves trapped in the attic with Grandpa Boris during the family’s seder. As the story goes on, the babies imagine themselves in the roles of the biblical characters. Tommy is Moses, Chuckie appears as an abused Israelite slave and, appropriately, Angelica is cast as the pharaoh of Egypt. At the time it aired, the episode was the most watched episode in Nickelodeon’s history, but in 1997 it was supplanted by another Rugrats special called “The Turkey Who Came to Dinner” about Thanksgiving.
6. Coca-Cola Goes Kosher for Passover
If you’ve noticed Coca-Cola bottles with yellow-colored caps materialize each March and April, what you’re looking at is the result of a burgeoning market in kosher for Passover soda. Jews don’t eat products made from wheat, corn or many other grains during the eight days of Passover. So most commercial sodas, with their heavy doses of corn syrup and traces of alcohol from grain, are forbidden.
Thirsty Passover observers have an Atlanta-based Orthodox rabbi, Tobias Geffen, to thank. In the 1930s, Geffen was given Coca-Cola’s famously secret list of ingredients and managed to persuade the company to create a real-sugar alternative for his congregants. “Because Coca-Cola has already been accepted by the general public in this country and Canada and because it has become an insurmountable problem to induce the great majority of Jews to refrain from partaking of this drink, I have tried earnestly to find a method of permitting its usage,” he said.
According to one of the leading kosher certifiers, OU Kosher, Passover Coke will be available this year throughout the New York City metropolitan area, Boston, Baltimore-Washington, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. And since some foodies think cane-sugar-sweetened sodas taste better anyway, it isn’t just the devout who stock up. Not wanting to be left out, Pepsi, Sprite, Sierra Mist and many others are now available in kosher form for Passover.
7. Haggadoth for All
As boisterous as some seders may get — seder is Hebrew for order, and the Haggadah (the telling) is the book that attempts to maintain it — that doesn’t mean you can’t have variations on the freedom theme. There are thousands of Haggadoth available, and even if you know several, there are bound to be some you’re not familiar with. Interfaith, lesbian, secular/humanistic, vegetarian, a recovering alcoholic? There’s a Haggadah for that (i.e., Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb and The Anonymous Haggadah: A Synthesis of the Passover Ritual and Liturgy with the Twelve Steps of Recovery).
In 1946, Holocaust survivors put together A Survivors’ Haggadah; in the 1970s, The Women’s Haggadah was first published in Ms. magazine. While some may prefer The Santa Cruz Haggadah, which has a hippie-inspired figure on its cover, others may long for the pre–printing press days of the illuminated Birds’ Head Haggadah. Some may be content with Maxwell House editions, published since the early 1930s. Of course, you can always compile your own version, and today you can do so online, using sites like the Open Source Haggadah.
8. The Orange on the Seder Plate
The Passover seder is laden with symbols, many of which — like the bitter herbs (horseradish) that represent the bitterness of enslavement and the vegetable (usually parsley) that’s dipped in saltwater to remind us of the tears of slaves — are found on the seder plate. In recent decades, there’s been a new food on many a progressive platter: an orange.
Some may consider the orange a symbol of women’s rights, derived from a man supposedly telling Professor Susannah Heschel that “a woman belongs on the bimah [in a leadership position in the congregation, or reading from the Torah] as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.” But Heschel herself has said that no such exchange took place, and the orange has a different meaning. Reflecting on when she added the orange to her seder plate in the 1980s, she says it was to be eaten “as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community,” including widows. The seeds, symbolizing homophobia, were to be spat out. Bottom line: There’s room for more symbols on the seder plate — and room for more participants around the seder table.
9. Freedom Seders
As Jews celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt, African Americans note a stark comparison with their own embattled past. The Freedom Seder emerged in the mid–20th century as a joint celebration for both ethnic groups, and others generally caught up in union or leftist political struggles, to come together to celebrate the mythic promise of emancipation. At the height of the civil rights movement, blacks and Jews gathered at the seder to share food and stories from their respective histories in an event popular at universities and youth centers across the U.S. Representing empowerment and equality, the Freedom Seder has become especially poignant among other ethnic groups: Native Americans, Muslims and, particularly for this year, those supporting democracy in the Middle East.
10. Passover Desserts
For those who observe kosher Passover laws, sweet-tooth cravings must be met without the use of flour because of the ban of chametz. Chametz, Hebrew for leavening, is forbidden at seder dinners, which means grains like wheat, rye, barley, spelt and oats are out during Passover. Because meat and dairy cannot be eaten together during the same meal, seder desserts must be flour- and dairy-free — not an easy challenge for cooks. It would make sense, then, that desserts wouldn’t necessarily be the highlight of Passover, but surpassing its obstacles has become a point of pride for some seder cooks who specialize in fashioning desserts that don’t taste like they’re not made with flour. Cookbooks and scores of websites are dedicated to helping hosts find the perfect Passover dessert recipes, and they seem to become fancier every year. Going to seder this year? You might see chocolate pavlovas with honeyed strawberries or even a caramelized pecan-praline roulade, all made without dairy or flour — that is, if you’re lucky.
Article by Allie Townsend reprinted from TIME
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