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Kadesh - Sanctifying Time:
 Anniversary of the Birth of FreedomWho Pours the Wine?Reclining to the Left: An Outmoded CustomThe Centrality of WomenDo Kids Need WineToday Everyone is a PriestDon't Cry Over Spilt Wine Havdalah: The Gift of FireCreating Wine-Stained HeirloomsThe First Thing God Wants Us to Know Remembering Our SlaveryHappy Birthday Dear IsraelFrom Rags to Riches: A Folktale

The Anniversary of the Birth of Freedom

IT SEEMS SOMEWHAT paradoxical that Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, occurs in the fall, while the first month of the Hebrew year is counted from Pesach, the spring holiday. The Jewish calendar reflects a double commitment -- a celebration of the Creation of the world (traditionally associated with the fall, the beginning of the rainy season in the Middle East) and a commemoration of national liberation (associated with the springtime Exodus from Egypt). The origins of life and freedom, the universal and the national, orient our values and our measurement of time. Freedom is a second birth, a watershed from which life begins again. top

Who Pours the Wine?

Roman and Rabbinic Table Manners and the Role of Women
     ON PESACH the Rabbis asked us to play a double role – remembering our slave status by eating the bread of poverty and bitter herbs, yet reiterating the freed status that we achieved on this very night in Egypt. How does one behave in a style befitting a free being?
     The Rabbis took their cues from Greco-Roman citizens, a privileged minority whose freedom and dignity were displayed in their participation in elegant symposia. Aristocratic dining meant reclining on cushioned couches, sipping excellent wines with hors d’œuvres dipped in appetizing sauces, eaten from one’s finest silver and ceramic dishes, while conducting a leisurely intellectual exchange of views according to a well-known format set by the host. (The term “school” derives from the Greek word for leisure -- “schole”).
     On seder night the Rabbis require this format from even the poorest Jews. Practically speaking, this means that the community tzedakah fund must provide at least four cups of wine for needy men and women. All must be able to celebrate their freedom with the same basic material comforts, because “all Israel are regarded as children of kings.” For that reason it is customary that someone else pour your wine for you, just as aristocrats are served while reclining.
     However, we must note the vigorous dissent from this custom, by Rabbi Y. M. Epstein (Poland, 19th C.). He feared it would lead to what a contemporary might call blatant sexism or the exploitation of women to pour wine for the men:
     “It is haughty and arrogant to order one’s wife to serve him wine. After all he is no more obligated to drink wine than she. Therefore, we ask that everyone pour for him or herself.”
     There is a simple solution to this problem. Participants may form pairs and each person pours for the other. top

Reclining to the Left: An Outmoded Custom?

ONE OF THE FOUR questions is: “Why on seder night must we eat reclining, while on all other nights we may eat either reclining or sitting up?” Clearly the question presupposes a social world in which as in the Greco-Roman nobility, meals were often taken while the guests reclined on their left arms on couches, leaving their right hand free to dip and taste. At each couch was a small table with individual portions, like today’s seder plate.
     However, since the European Middle Ages, it is no longer the way of nobility to recline. In fact, eating while reclining on pillows is the way of the sick. Avi HaEzri led the Ashkenazi tradition in declaring the commandment to recline, obsolete and no longer binding. (Rabbi Eliezer Ben Joel, 12th C. Germany).
     All things considered, we commend the view of Rabbi Y. M. Epstein that everyone should be provided with a pillow precisely because it is an outmoded and outlandish custom. For the point of the seder is to introduce changes into the meal, so the children will be aroused to ask: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” By the same token it would be ideal for everyone to have their own seder plate. top

The Centrality of Women on Pesach

RASHBAM (11th C., France) says women must be involved in the celebration of Pesach for they were the catalysts of the redemption by continuing to procreate and to hide their children in order to thwart Pharaoh’s genocidal plan. Therefore women are obligated to drink four cups of wine at the seder.
     In contrast to the traditional exemption of women from time-specific mitzvot, all the commandments of the seder night are their privilege and duty. The redemptive role of Moses’ mother Yocheved and sister Miriam, like that of Queen Esther in the Megillah, won women exceptional recognition on both Pesach and Purim. top

Do Kids Need Wine?

THE RABBIS were of two minds over the appropriateness of wine for children. The Talmud reports their dispute:
     “Everyone is obligated to drink four cups of wine: men, women and children ... But Rabbi Yehuda said: ’What good is wine for children? Give them popcorn* and peanuts on Pesach night in order to prevent them from falling asleep and in order to arouse them to ask questions” (T.B. Pesachim 108b).
     Now is an appropriate time to distribute to the children candies and nuts along with wine or grape juice. Some families fill the children’s cups with candies.
     *(Popcorn refers to toasted grains, permissible on Pesach according to the Talmud and eaten on Pesach by Sefaradim). top

Today Everyone Is A Priest

THE SEDERis no ordinary meal. It is a highly orchestrated rite of eating, questioning, telling, and singing. As Philo put it:
     “At this time the whole household takes on the sanctity of a temple. The sacrifice becomes a seder meal. The invited guests cleanse themselves in water. They come not to fill their gullets with wine and their stomachs with food as at other symposia, but to celebrate with song, prayer (and story).”
     “The whole people, old and young, ascend to the status of priests to conduct the holy service (the seder). For they all celebrate the great migration, when over 600,000 men and women happily exited from a land of cruelty and animosity towards strangers ...”
(Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws, the first Jewish philosopher). top

"Don't Cry Over Spilt Wine"

A PUBLIC MESSAGE from the Hosts to All Their Guests:“Don’t Cry over Spilt Wine.”
     Rabbi Akiba Eiger (Germany, 18th C.) used to be very strict about the mitzvah of hospitality especially on Pesach. Once when he was leading a large seder, one of the guests happened to spill a cup of wine. The clean white tablecloth was stained. Seeing the guest’s enormous embarrassment, Rabbi Eiger himself bumped the table spilling his own glass of wine. He exclaimed: “Oh, this table must be off-balance.”   top

Havdalah: The Gift of Fire

IF PESACH FALLS on Saturday eve, havdalah is recited over the Pesach candles (not over a special havdalah candle). This blessing over the light celebrates the technological revolution by which human beings learned to make fire and to illuminate the darkness. The Rabbis trace this advance to a gift of knowledge from God to Adam and Eve who were frightened by the dark that set in after the first Shabbat of creation.
     Since fire is a divine gift for human benefit, the blessing is recited over the use of the light. Often people examine their fingernails in the light of the candles when reciting Me-orei Ha-eish, the blessing over the “fire.”   top

Creating Wine-Stained Heirlooms

IT WAS AN OLD heirloom, with ancient wine stains. It had come down from the days of her grandfather. The book contained many boldly and brightly colored pictures. As a little girl, she had often looked at it so eagerly on Passover evenings.
 (Heinrich Heine, “The Rabbi of Bacherach,” German Romantic poet, 19th C.)   top

The First Thing God Wants Us To Know

THE VERY FIRST THING God tells us about Himself at Sinai is this: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” God tells us that, before telling us not to steal and not to kill, before telling us to observe the Sabbath day and not to worship other gods. It is as if God thinks we need to be reminded of the great favor done for us in order to be sure that we will reciprocate by observing God’s commandments.
     “I brought you out of the house of bondage” is the first of the Ten Commandments. It commands us to know for all time that our God is a God of freedom, that the commandments God offers us are gifts, not burdens, that the acceptance of those commandments is not a form of self-denial but a form of liberation. God does not want our gratitude; God wants us to understand that nothing matters to God more than our freedom, and then to teach us that freedom depends upon law.
     Tonight, at the great festival of our freedom, we are, all of us, from the youngest to the oldest, colleagues in the celebration of freedom.
     At the same time, we are partners in a seder - which means order. We might have chosen to celebrate and remember our liberation with noisy carnivals; others have. But we have been taught something different.
 (Leonard Fein, author, social activist, U.S.A.)   top

Remembering Our Slavery --
Zeicher Litziat Mitzrayim


IN THE KIDDUSH, Pesach is called the “time of our liberation.” Reading aloud one of the following stories may help us focus on the meaning behind the Kiddush on Passover.   top

"Happy Birthday Dear Israel"

ON JANUARY 27, 1990, the rabbi came to shul as usual to greet the older men who were his morning minyan regulars. One challenged the rabbi playfully: “Aren’t you going to wish me Happy Birthday?”
     “Sure, how old are you?” replied the rabbi.
     “Oh, I’m 45 today.”
     “Who are you kidding, you must be at least 75?”
     “No, today is the day I celebrate as my birthday. Forty-five years ago I was reborn when the Allies liberated me from Auschwitz. The gift of life and the gift of freedom are for me inseparable.”
In the same spirit as the story told above, the Torah calls on Israel to regard the spring month (Nisan), the month of its liberation, as its first month – starting over its life as a nation: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt. This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months. It shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Ex. 12:1-2).   top

From Rags to Riches: A Folktale

IRAQI JEWS tell the tale that in one country the king was always chosen in a special way. When the old king died, a bird called the “bird of good fortune” would be released. On whomsoever's head it landed, the people would place the crown making him their next ruler.
     Once the bird of good fortune landed on the head of a slave. That slave had been a simple musician who entertained at the master’s parties. His costume consisted of a feathered cap and a belt made of the hooves of sheep.
     When the slave became king, he moved into the palace and wore royal robes. However, he ordered that a shack (a kind of sukkah) be constructed next to the palace and that his old hat, belt and drum be stored there along with a giant mirror.
     The new king was known for his kindness and love for all his people – rich and poor, free and slave. Often he would disappear into his little shack. Once he left its door open and the cabinet ministers saw him don his feathered hat, put on his old belt and dance and drum before the mirror. They found this very strange and asked the king:
“After all, you are a king! You must maintain your dignity!”
     The king replied:
     “Once I was a slave and now I’ve become a king. From time to time I want to remind myself that I was once a slave lest I grow arrogant and treat with dis-dain my people and you, my ministers.”   top
     (The English term, “auspicious day” or “inauguration day” preserves an echo of the Roman custom of consulting the flight of birds as an “augur” for the future).