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Asking the Clergy: What is the significance of food during Passover?

Rabbi Ben Herman, Jericho Jewish Center

Rabbi Ben Herman, Jericho Jewish Center Credit: Ellen Dubin

Why is food central to Passover?

The eight-day festival of Passover begins Friday evening. This week’s clergy discuss the role of food in the traditional Passover seder meal.

Rabbi Ben Herman

Jericho Jewish Center

The joke about Jewish holidays is that they can be summed up in one phrase: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” No holiday has food as a more central component than Passover. On the first two nights of Passover, we have a meal called the seder in which we make a plate with foods representing our ancestors being slaves in Egypt and their eventual redemption. Items on the seder plate are maror or bitter herbs, representing the bitterness of slavery; haroset, symbolizing the mortar used to make the bricks; saltwater, the tears our ancestors cried while enslaved; zeroa, a shank bone; and the Paschal lamb sacrificed by our ancestors and signifying that God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand. Also, an egg, representing the communal hagigah sacrifice; and karpas, a vegetable, generally green, representing that spring has come — the season in which the exodus from Egypt occurred. Let us not forget the matzoh, the unleavened bread our ancestors ate because they were in such a rush to leave Egypt that they didn’t have time for it to rise. As a result, we do not eat any substance which has leavened, and actually wipe away all traces of leavened substances, cleaning out our refrigerators, kitchens, offices and even automobiles, needing to get rid of every crumb. This massive ordeal is done in part to eat simpler foods (many subsist on matzoh, fruits and vegetables during this holiday) and in so doing emulating our ancestors’ experience of living in the desert. By focusing on the food we eat and giving symbolic meaning to much of it, we get the sense we fulfill the commandment to relive the Exodus from Egypt.

Rabbi Sam Pollak

The Community Synagogue, Port Washington

Food is essential to Passover because it brings the story to life. We could simply retell the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom or watch others re-enact it, but eating foods that symbolize the story’s parts engages the rest of our five senses. At the Passover seder, we feel the ridges of the rough matzoh, we smell the pungency of the maror or bitter herbs, and taste the sweetness of the haroset, a mixture of fruit and nuts. Tasting the food transports us into the Passover story as we tell it, as if we ourselves are going free from Egypt. Seeing ourselves as part of the story is the central goal of the holiday. It’s also why the Talmud tells us to keep ourselves awake by snacking on nuts and seeds in between tasting the symbolic foods. After all, we can’t experience the Exodus from Egypt if we’re asleep! Food also connects us with one another, and around it we gather for the seder with family and friends. Additionally, food carries memory. Many have special family recipes they prepare only for the Passover seder: a father’s potato kugel, an aunt’s brisket, a husband’s flourless chocolate cake. Tasting our loved ones’ recipes helps us feel close to those who are far away, and it keeps alive the memories of those who have died. Special Passover foods connect us with those who came before, with those in our lives now, and with those yet to come.

Rabbi Tuvia Teldon

Regional director, Chabad Lubavitch of Long Island

One of the reasons Passover is so unique is because what we don’t eat is as central to the holiday as what we do eat. When the Jews left Egypt, God commanded us not to eat, or even own, any leavened products. Can you imagine what they thought at the time? Here they are, getting ready to travel into a desert, not knowing what their future would be, and God adds this additional stress! Bread in its original form was simply flour and water, like matzoh. However, when yeast is added, during baking it expands, rises and fills with hot air. Our sages explain that the ego works just like the leavening process. When our ego is healthy and in touch with reality, then it is like the matzoh — free of hot air. However, when we add yeast, the ego gets bloated and blown up out of proportion. Arrogance acts like yeast and detaches us from the reality of who we really are. It can be the greatest slavery and the opposite of personal freedom when we are out of touch with our true selves, and we strive to be someone or something we are not. God’s message on that first day of the Exodus was clear and eternal. He can take our body out of Egypt and slavery, but we need to take responsibility for taking ourselves out of our internal slavery — emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Our constant attention to the demands of an inflated ego, or the need to build it up with things, can be a modern form of slavery. So after eight days of cleaning up our internal leavening, we are ready to go back to eating normal bread and living with a healthy ego.

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