Shabbat Goy: A Pessah glossary

Explaining the Festival of Unleavened Bread to the uninitiated.

By AKIN AYAJI
April 2, 2010 16:14
seder plate 88

seder plate 88. (photo credit: )

 
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A non-Jewish friend asked me to explain Pessah the other day. This is what I said: Pessah – The seven-day Jewish holiday of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The first and last days are holy days; traditionally, little work is done during the intervening period, Hol Hamoed. Any attempt to conduct business during this period will be rebuffed with the injunction “After the holidays.” However, the holidays in question remain unspecified; in some government departments this period apparently extends until Shavuot.

Seder – The family meal celebrated on the first night of Pessah, to commemorate the flight of the Israelites from the cruel yoke of the wicked Egyptian Pharaoh (see below). Given the multiplicity and diversity of family life in modern Israel, the actual venue for the family meal is commonly settled only after intense negotiation, emotional blackmail and the occasional threat against life and property. 

According to Exodus 12:11, the meal should be eaten “with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste...” This custom is not followed today, as it could be misinterpreted as adverse comment concerning the hospitality on offer.

Hametz – Grain products that are either fermented or capable of fermentation; in short, bread and whisky. Since observant Jews are obliged to abstain from such products during this period, all traces of hametz are removed from the home in advance of the festival, and food products made from same are generally unavailable for purchase*.

This is a long-standing problem for me, since my diet consists largely of variants of either one or the other.

Hametz may either be burnt, or “sold” – for a symbolic fee – to a non-Jew. In this respect, I am happy to volunteer my services, particularly with regard to alcoholic hametz. (But see wine, below.)

Bedikat hametz – The symbolic check conducted, usually by the head of the household, on the night before Pessah to ensure that all traces of the offending hametz have been cleaned away. The check is customarily conducted with a feather; given that the head of the household – invariably – does not participate in the actual job of cleaning, some consider this yet another example of the antediluvian yoke under which Jewish women are obliged to live, along with traveling at the back of the bus, and so on. But then, who would trust a man to clean properly?



Matza – In essence, unleavened bread. No matter how it is dressed up, it always tastes the same: like ashes in one’s mouth. Understandably, given the lack of either taste or apparent nutritional value, some Jews consider matza a symbolic reminder of the Israelites’ period of servitude in Egypt.

Food is an integral aspect of most Jewish holidays; taking into account the length of the Pessah holiday, matza is probably the only thing standing in the way of the Jewish State becoming the Obese State.

The Haggada – a religious text that sets out the order of the Seder. Whilst the heart of the Haggada – the narrative of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt – remains constant, there have been various additions and elaborations made over the years. There are believed to be several thousand editions of the Haggada in existence today, of varying lengths; this is significant because most arguments over the Seder table erupt over the brevity – or otherwise – of the edition chosen for the evening.

Sa’adia Gaon – The compiler of the oldest known Haggada, a task Gaon undertook sometime in the 10th century. (Also the name of a small side street in Tel Aviv housing a multi-story car park in which I lost my sister-in-law’s car last Tuesday. If anyone has spotted a blue Peugeot 206....)

Wine – A requirement of the Seder is for four cups of wine to be drunk during the course of the meal. This was something that I was delighted to hear ahead of my first Pessah meal a decade or so ago; however, I was not warned that the eating thereof would not commence until after a considerable portion of the Seder had been completed. Unwisely, I had skipped lunch that day in order to save myself for the the glorious Jewish repast I had been promised; in the event, I slid off my chair inelegantly after three glasses on an empty stomach.

Ma Nishtana – Small children are customarily encouraged to participate in the Seder by being prompted to ask questions about the significance of the night – the Ma Nishtana (“What has changed?”) The questions, intended to prompt explanations of the unique quality of the night, are usually sung; this entertainment doubles as crowd control for fractious children during the course of a long evening.

The Afikoman – As above, intended to engage the children and stave off terminal boredom. A piece of matza is hidden and the children sent off to find it, with the inducement of a prize for its safe return. On any other day of the year, this would correctly be described as a bribe in return for good behavior; that said, tears and tantrums are inevitable if there is more than one child at the table and only one prize has been provided. One way around this is to have a series of bribes, but this can be expensive; another is for the weary parents to threaten recalcitrant children with their very own version of the 10 plagues if they don’t button up.

Pharaoh – The villain of the piece: He kept the Israelites in bondage, released them begrudgingly and then tried – unsuccessfully – to renege on his word. The whole evening, it has been noted, would be pointless without his contribution.

Perhaps this is what MK Ya’acov Katz (National Union) had in mind when he recently proposed a modern form of slavery (I paraphrase slightly) as the solution to the refugee and asylum seeker situation. Either that, or he hasn’t read his Bible too closely recently; I would recommend a rereading of Leviticus 19.

Hag Sameah!
*Metropolitian Tel Aviv excluded.


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