Passover: Virtual seders and gatherings create change in another year for Pesach

passover meal

Photo by ehpien, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SATURDAY, MARCH 27: Tonight, Jews begin the most widely observed of all Jewish traditions: the seven- or eight-day festival of Pesach, also known as Passover. (Jews in Israel observe seven days; Jews of the Diaspora observe eight). Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, which is recalled during an elaborate meal that takes place on the first night of Passover, known as the seder. While the first night of Passover would typically involve gathering for an in-person seder, continuing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions will prevent most families and friends from gathering in-person this year.

Fortunately—as many news sources are pointing out, ahead of the holiday—there is hope! Many who had little to no knowledge of the concept of virtual gathering have, since last year, gained hours of experience on these platforms. In 2020, worldwide pandemic lockdowns were in their infancy as Jews faced a unique Passover; in 2021, many have learned the ins and outs of these get-togethers.

This year, experts recommend assigning Haggadah reading roles ahead of Passover; swapping recipes weeks in advance of the feast, so that meal participants can enjoy the same foods; and coordinating virtual cooking sessions ahead of Pesach, so that culinary endeavors can turn out successfully. (Read more tips from Forbes.) Going a step further, Jewish Exponent suggests cooking dishes that appear bright and vibrant on-camera (recipes are in the article), and pre-arranging foods that won’t require a host or hostess to continue leaving the table.

PASSOVER: ONE YEAR IN, OUR VIRTUAL GATHERINGS HAVE EVOLVED

Matzo. Photo by Rebecca Siegel, courtesy of Flickr

Each Passover, Jews around the world ask the same question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year, that question will once again be answered in a rare manner, as social distancing restrictions continue. Yet in a positive light, this situation in some ways relates to the first Passover, as was written at Chabad.org: “On the very first Passover, in Ancient Egypt, each family was sequestered in its home. No one was permitted to step outside. Outdoors, a plague swept through the land, but in each Jewish home, there was light and hope.”

While stricter Jewish families may not participate in a virtual Passover seder, many Jews will be gathering in this way, this year.

While vaccinations are providing a sense of hope to many, most in-person gatherings are still discouraged. To prepare for a second Passover “in isolation,” Chabad.org offers a list of pro tips.

Freedom can still be celebrated at Passover in spite of the continuing pandemic, states an article in STL Jewish Light. For a commentary on the deeper meaning of freedom and Passover, check out the story here.

This year, Passover will begin just as Shabbat ends—leaving many in a difficult situation regarding Passover seder preparation. News sources such as Aish.com and Jewish Exponent are recommending preparing as much of the meal as possible ahead of time—with tips on how to do it.

For tips on creating a spring-inspired Passover table, plus access to free printable Passover conversation starters, check out these links: Passover table and conversation starters, from HGTV.com.

In memory of a man who, for more than 40 years, bought millions of dollars of New York’s leavened bread products before Passover—and passed away last month–the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has a tribute article.

EGYPT, SLAVERY AND CHAMETZ

 

Among the events in the biblical story recalled during the seder, Jews give thanks to G_d for “passing over” the homes of those whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood during the biblical Plague of the Firstborn, for helping them to escape safely from Egypt’s army and for eventually leading them to freedom.

Haggadahs are available in a variety of commentary themes, such as this edition, which is commented on by Elie Wiesel. Photo by Edsel Little, courtesy of Flickr

Why is it so important to get rid of leavened products during this time? According to Exodus, as the Israelites left Egypt they moved so quickly that their bread was not able to rise. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a staple element on seder tables and a symbol of this ancient festival.

As matzo is such an important element of Passover, many Jews are trying to revive the art of homemade matzo. Baking matzo is a challenge; only 18 minutes are allowed between the mixing of flour and water to the finishing of baking. Elaborate measures are taken to ensure the mixture does not rise.

FAST OF THE FIRSTBORN TO COUNTING OF THE OMER

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere.

Throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through readings from the Haggadah.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day of Passover, keeping track of the omer—an ancient unit of measure—marks the days from Passover to Shavuot.

Tu B’Shvat: Plant a sapling, green the earth for the Jewish New Year for Trees

“In order to serve God, one needs access to the enjoyment of the beauties of nature—meadows full of flowers, majestic mountains, flowing rivers. For all these are essential to the spiritual development of even the holiest of people.”

-Rabbi Abraham ben Maimonides, cited by Rabbi David E. Stein in “A Garden of Choice Fruits,” Shomrei Adamah, 1991

Tu B'Shvat New Year trees

Trees in Israel. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27: Winter is still in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, but today in Israel, a vital component of nature is honored: It is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees. Known also as Jewish Arbor Day, it’s customary (in places where the ground isn’t frozen) for Jews to plant a tree today—and this tradition has done wonders for the Holy Land (keep reading to find out why). The purpose of Tu B’Shvat is to calculate the age of a tree for tithing and for eating.

Many observant Jews have long followed a passage from Leviticus that forbids the eating of a tree’s fruit for the first three years of its life, and so by following this easy-to-remember holiday, Jews can keep the biblical instructions. (Read more, plus lots of related articles, at Chabad.org.)

What do Jews do on this day dedicated to trees and fruit? Plant trees, and then eat plenty of fruit, of course! Customarily, devotees either eat a new fruit today or eat one of the Seven Species abundant in the land of Israel. Since the Seven Species consists primarily of grains and sweet fruits, today’s meal is usually a sweet one. For Jews who can’t plant trees today, the tradition of collecting money to plant trees in Israel is popular.

ISRAEL: A LAND ABUNDANT IN TREES

In modern-day Israel, Tu B’Shvat is celebrated as an ecological awareness day. Ecological organizations in Israel and the diaspora often promote environmental-awareness programs on this day, and trees are planted in celebration.

In the global green movement, Tu B’shvat has been attracting major media attention as Jews around the world remember, today, that “man is a tree of the field”—and non-Jews can take part in Tu B’shvat by reflecting on our connection with nature. (Green Prophet has an environmental perspective on Tu B’shvat.) A dedicated tradition of tree-planting can make a major difference. Israel was one of the few countries in the world to have more trees on its land at the end of the last century than it had at the beginning.

Hanukkah: Jews celebrate eight nights of light for the ‘miracle of the oil’

Menorahs Hanukkah

Menorahs lit for Hanukkah. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET THURSDAY, DECEMBER 10: Many world holiday traditions are being severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but Hanukkah may be an exception—after all, much of the rituals are performed at home! While most synagogues will not be open for in-person services, families can still gather around a menorah, fry latkes in the kitchen and play a festive game of dreidel.

The first night of Hanukkah ushers in at sunset on December 10, this year, and lasts for eight consecutive nights and days. Though not as religiously significant as some other Jewish holidays—Yom Kippur, Sukkot or Passover, just to name a few—Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.

Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families light menorah candles in honor of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Greeks, in the 2nd century BCE. As the traditional story is retold: Once the Second Temple had been reclaimed from the Greeks, purified and rededicated, there was only enough sacred oil found to burn for one day. Yet, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. In celebration, Jews today partake in foods fried in oil, light candles, play traditional games and sing songs.

THE MENORAH & THE DREIDEL

dreidel Hanukkah game

A dreidel. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Hanukkah is faithfully observed by most Jews with the lighting of candles in a nine-branched menorah, with one candle for each of the eight nights and one extra candle (the shamash), which is often placed separately from the others. The shamash must be used for “practical” purposes, so that the remaining candles may be used solely for publicizing the miracle of the oil.

While a menorah lights up a window, a game of dreidel is often played. The four-sided spinning top that is the centerpiece of the game has a Hebrew letter imprinted on each of its sides. The letters are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.” Candies, money or chocolate gelt (coins) are often wagered in a game of dreidel.

Meanwhile, the sound of spattering, hot oil fills the Jewish kitchen, as devotees cook latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyots (doughnuts) and other deep-fried foods.

NOT CHRISTMAS: The 8-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah is not like Christmas, so far-flung Jewish relatives don’t rush home for these holidays, as many Christians do for Christmas. However, parents and their children often enjoy the rituals together, to establish this tradition for future generations.

HANUKKAH: A LIFE PERSPECTIVE

In her inspiring book, This Jewish Life, Debra Darvick writes dozens of true stories about Jewish men and women experiencing the seasons in Judaism. In one section of her book, she explains the basics about Hanukkah’s commemoration:

“In 167 BC, Antiochus decreed the practice of Judaism to be an offense punishable by death. The Temple was desecrated, and the Syrians went so far as to sacrifice pigs in the Temple. A Jew named Mattathias and his five sons began a revolt not only against Antiochus, but against the Jews who were quite willing to take on the ways of the majority population and jettison Jewish practice. Three years later, the Maccabees (as the Jewish fighters were known) and their followers were victorious, and the Temple was once again in Jewish hands.”

She further explains:

“According to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was finally cleansed for re-dedication, there was but a single day’s supply of ritually pure oil for the ner tamid, the everlasting light that hangs in every synagogue as a symbol of God’s ever-presence. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to press and ritually purify additional oil for the ner tamid.”

EXTRA RESOURCES

Looking for ideas to decorate your home for Hanukkah? HGTV offers 50 “haute” decorating and entertaining ideas (even if you’re only entertaining your immediate family).

For something sweet, try baking a batch of dreidel sugar cookies. (Instructions are also included for royal-icing decoration.)

Turn up the elegance with 11 tips for a guest-impressing Hanukkah table setting (even if, this year, the only guest is your spouse.)

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: At home, Jews prepare feasts, sing and dance

Torah scroll opened

A Torah scroll. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, OCTOBER 9 and SUNSET SATURDAY, OCTOBER 10: The days of eating (and, for some families, sleeping) in the sukkah are coming to a close for many Jews, although some extend eating in the sukkah just one more day during this time, as all Jews celebrate Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. For Jews in Israel, these two holidays combine into one day; for Jews of the Diaspora, Shemini Atzeret is followed by Simchat Torah by one day.

Celebrating at home in 2020: As Jews around the world look for ways to mark these holidays at home this year, Chabad.org offers 10 tips for “an Amazing Simchat Torah @ Home.” Among their tips: prepare festive feasts, craft flags, parade around with a Chumash and get a head start on the year.

Traditionally, Jews begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret. The rainy season in Israel begins soon, and for agricultural purposes, the Musaf Amidah prayer is recited, for rain, on Shemini Atzeret.

Great happiness continues on Simchat Torah. Most years, synagogues around the world  hold processions that are followed by joyful dancing and singing. Torah scrolls are carried through the aisles, and even children join in by carrying toy or paper versions of the scrolls, making their way around the building in a series of seven circuits (hakafot). The primary celebration of Simchat Torah begins in the evening, when (traditionally), the ark is opened: congregation members sing and dance, and in many regions, the singing and dancing is taken to the streets and lasts many hours.

FOR MORE ON THESE HOLIDAYS: Enjoy this introduction by Debra Darvick, author of This Jewish Life.

Tisha B’Av: Jews practice safe fasting, more, on year’s saddest day

Western Wall prayer Tisha B'Av

A Jewish man at the Western Wall, the sole remaining portion of the Second Temple. Photo courtesy of PxHere

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, JULY 29: Three weeks of reflection prepare men and women for this, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar: the Ninth of Av, known as Tisha B’Av. (In 2020, The Three Weeks began on July 9.) Observant Jews who are healthy enough to undertake the 25-hour fast will follow five traditional prohibitions: No eating or drinking; no bathing; no use of creams or oils; no leather shoes; no marital relations. The final meal consumed before the start of the Tisha B’Av fast traditionally consists of a hard boiled egg and a piece of bread, dipped into ashes.

2020 update: This year, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the rituals and traditions of many religious and secular holidays. According to this article from the Times of Israel, there may be extra exceptions this year in regards to fasting for Tisha B’Av.

The desolate tone of Tisha B’Av is in recollection of the tragedies that befell the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av—including, most prominently, the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The ark—the cabinet where the Torah is kept, in the synagogue—is draped in black; the book of Lamentations may be read.

MOURNING AND GRIEF: ACROSS THE MILLENNIA

Today, the observance of Tisha B’Av gets mixed response, as modern-day Jewish families balance the demands of contemporary life with this call from the past.

Author Debra Darvick wrote in a column: “Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning that falls during the summer, marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. … I have attended services sporadically, more out of a sense of responsibility than any feeling of true mourning. How do I mourn something absent from Jewish experience for nearly two millennia?” (Debra also wrote about the holiday for her book, This Jewish Life.)

9 AV: FROM THE FIRST TEMPLE TO THE FINAL SOLUTION

Historically, the First Temple was destroyed on 9 Av 586 BCE; the Second, on 9 Av 70 CE. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians; the Second Temple, by the Romans. According to Jewish tradition, 9 Av is associated with other tragic milestones, as well, which have been added to this annual day of remembrance.

Also on 9 Av: The Romans quashed Bar Kokhba’s revolt and destroyed the city of Betar, killing more than 500,000 Jewish civilians; Jews were expelled from England in 1290 CE; Germany entered World War I, the aftermath of which led to the Holocaust; and SS commander Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.”

Passover: Jews prepare seders for a Pesach ‘different from all other nights’

Passover seder table

A table set for a Passover seder. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, APRIL 8: Tonight, Jews begin the joyous festival of Passoverthe most widely observed of all Jewish traditions. Yet while families traditionally observe the first night of Passover with family and friends over a seder, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Jews to celebrate differently this year.

PASSOVER AMID THE 2020 PANDEMIC

Each Passover, Jews around the world ask the same question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year that question will be answered in a unique way, as social distancing and “shelter in place” restrictions are causing seders to be more simple, basic and small. In a positive light, this situation in some ways relates to the first Passover, as was written recently at Chabad.org: “On the very first Passover, in Ancient Egypt, each family was sequestered in its home. No one was permitted to step outside. Outdoors, a plague swept through the land, but in each Jewish home, there was light and hope.”

Are virtual seders permitted during this year, during the world’s pandemic? Well—yes and no. In Orthodox practice, the use of electronic devices is forbidden on yom tov, or religious holidays, yet many rabbis are granting permission for this year’s Passover. In Israel, a group of Sephardic Orthodox rabbis issued a letter that approved videoconferencing programs for this year, but several Orthodox rabbis are opposing this, saying that the answer to this question is still “no.” Branches within Judaism vary opinion on this issue, but to learn more, check out this article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency or this story in the Jerusalem Post. 

Leaders of six major Orthodox organization released a joint statement asking Jews to limit preparations for Passover to only essentials, and to limit rituals such as getting haircuts and purchasing new clothing. Read more in the Jewish News Syndicate.

Some Passover tasks are encouraged this year—such as thorough cleaning—while others, such as shopping for specific menu items in overcrowded stores, are discouraged. Fox News interviewed a rabbi and has the story.

Many Jews will share a seder over Zoom or other video-chat services, and while traditional meal preparations cannot be shared, words still can. Read more in the story from Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Get tips on hosting a virtual Passover seder, from USA Today and Forbes.

Hosting a solo seder? Get how-to tips from My Jewish Learning.

Public seders are prohibited in Israel this year, but many mega-seder hosts—such as Colel Chabad, the oldest continuously operating charitable organization in Israel—will instead deliver complete seders and Haggadahs to the needy, homebound and to those in forced isolation. Read this story, and more, at Chabad.org.

The London Beth Din has broken hundreds of years of tradition by telling British Jews that they can use some regular products for Passover this year, in efforts to help struggling or homebound Jewish families who are unable to shop for or find “kosher-for-Passover” items. The religious court published a list of products that can be used this year, instead. Read more at JewishNews.com.

EGYPT, SLAVERY AND CHAMETZ

Matzah ball soup, seder, Passover

A bowl of matzah ball soup for Passover. Photo courtesy of Vandenberg Air Force Base

Tonight begins the seven- or eight-day festival (Jews in Israel observe seven days; Jews of the Diaspora observe eight), as Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Among the events in the biblical story recalled during the seder, Jews give thanks to G_d for “passing over” the homes of those whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood during the biblical Plague of the Firstborn, for helping them to escape safely from Egypt’s army and for eventually leading them to freedom.

 

Why is it so important to get rid of leavened products during this time? According to Exodus, as the Israelites left Egypt they moved so quickly that their bread was not able to rise. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a staple element on seder tables and a symbol of this ancient festival.

Did you know? Matzo is made from flour and water that is mixed and baked in 18 minutes. As matzo is such an important element of Passover, many Jews are trying to revive the art of homemade matzo. Baking matzo is a challenge; only 18 minutes are allowed between the mixing of flour and water to the finishing of baking. Elaborate measures are taken to ensure the mixture does not rise.

FAST OF THE FIRSTBORN—TO SEDER

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere.

Throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through readings from the Haggadah.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day of Passover, keeping track of the omer—an ancient unit of measure—marks the days from Passover to Shavuot.

Hanukkah: Menorahs, latkes and dreidels mark Jewish season of light

Nine lit candles on a menorah, close-up from low perspective

A menorah lit for Hanukkah. Photo by saildancer, courtesy of pixabay

SUNSET SUNDAY, DECEMBER 22: The first night of Hanukkah arrives for million Jews worldwide. Although not as religiously significant as some other Jewish holidays—Yom Kippur, Sukkot or Passover, just to name a few—Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.

Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families light candles on a menorah in honor of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE.

As the traditional story is retold: Once the Second Temple had been reclaimed from the Greeks, purified and rededicated, there was only enough sacred oil found to burn for one day—but, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. In celebration, Jews today partake in foods fried in oil, light candles, play traditional games and sing songs.

Stack of gifts in white paper with Hanukkah-themed tags, nighttime cityscape outside window in background

Gifts for Hanukkah. Photo by Heather Jessica, courtesy of Flickr

MENORAH IN THE WINDOW; LATKES ON THE TABLE

Hanukkah is faithfully observed by most Jews with the lighting of candles in a nine-branched Menorah, with one candle for each of the eight nights and one extra candle (the shamash), which is often placed separately from the others. The shamash must be used for “practical” purposes, so that the remaining candles may be used solely for publicizing the miracle of the oil.

During Hanukkah, families often enjoy playing a game of dreidel. The four-sided spinning top that is the centerpiece of the game has a Hebrew letter imprinted on each of its sides. The letters are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.” Candies, money or chocolate gelt (coins) are often wagered in a game of dreidel.

Meanwhile, the sound of spattering, hot oil fills the Jewish kitchen, as devotees cook latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (doughnuts) and other deep-fried foods.

NOT CHRISTMAS: The 8-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah is not like Christmas. For example, far-flung Jewish relatives don’t rush home for these holidays as Christian families migrate for Christmas day. However, the whole point of lighting the Hanukkah candles, each night, is to remember connections stretching back thousands of years. Often, parents and their children enjoy the ritual together to establish this tradition for future generations.

HANUKKAH: AN AUTHOR’S PERSPECTIVE

In her inspiring book, This Jewish Life, Debra Darvick writes dozens of true stories about Jewish men and women experiencing the seasons in Judaism. In one section of her book, she explains the basics about Hanukkah’s commemoration:

“In 167 BC, Antiochus decreed the practice of Judaism to be an offense punishable by death. The Temple was desecrated, and the Syrians went so far as to sacrifice pigs in the Temple. A Jew named Mattathias and his five sons began a revolt not only against Antiochus, but against the Jews who were quite willing to take on the ways of the majority population and jettison Jewish practice. Three years later, the Maccabees, as the Jewish fighters were known, and their followers, were victorious and the Temple was once again in Jewish hands.”

She further explains:

“According to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was finally cleansed for re-dedication, there was but a single day’s supply of ritually pure oil for the ner tamid, the everlasting light that hangs in every synagogue as a symbol of God’s ever-presence. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to press and ritually purify additional oil for the ner tamid.”