Guide to the observance of the fast with reflections on the day’s meaning from our friends at the IRF
In a few days the Jewish people will celebrate the holiday of Passover. The central observance of Passover is the seder meal with matza (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs), a festive meal, four cups of wine, readings related to the Biblical exodus from Egypt 3500 years ago, and above all, dialogue including questions, answers and discussion.
The Bible itself frames the seder this way: “When your child shall ask you, “What is this service to you?” You shall answer, “With a strong hand did G-d take us out of Egypt.”” It is a meal of interaction, of questions, of hearing each other out, of family, and of connection.
According to Jewish tradition the function of this meal is to reenact the exodus from Egypt every year. But why is this so important? There seem to be other moments in Jewish history that could have been equally, if not more, significant.
The Rabbis tell us that the lamb which the Jewish people were told in the book of Exodus to slaughter that night before leaving Egypt, and to put its blood on their doorposts, was actually an Egyptian God. In fact the lamb is the zodiac sign for the month during which Passover always falls, Aries. This nation of Jewish slaves is told in the Bible that they should take this lamb and tie it up for 4 days, then roast it in fire and eat it in groups.
This was a meal like none other that the Jewish slaves had ever eaten. Slow roasted meat, eaten in pre-invited groups, consuming the deity of their captors. This is a meal of rebellion and unity. A meal of connected, free people, no longer acting like slaves. The Jewish people through this passover meal, are born together in rebellion.
Many claim that something more though is going on here. The Jewish people went down to Egypt because at the end of the book of Genesis Joseph’s brothers violently threw him in a pit. They took his coat of many colors from him, which Jacob their father had given him as a sign of his love, dipped the coat in blood and sold Joseph to a caravan bound for Egypt. They brought the coat to their father claiming that Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal.
Joseph ends up becoming the viceroy to Egypt and is there to provide food for his brothers when they come to Egypt during a drought, since due to the Nile Egypt always had crops. Ultimately it is the the hatred of Joseph’s brothers for him that lands the Jewish people in Egyptian slavery for 210 years and from which they are now being redeemed.
The vegetable that we dip in salt water at the beginning of the seder meal is called in Hebrew “carpas,” which is also the word for a fancy colored garment, a coat of many colors! This is a meal of dialogue, of sons all talking together, a meal with blood only on the doorpost outside.
A large group must come together to exactly finish the lamb, no bone of the lamb may be broken, it is a meal of freedom that unifies. That brings together the slave children of Abraham in Egypt as a united nation that can be redeemed. This meal of redemption and discussion, of unity and hearing each other out, of dipping but not in blood, recalls for us, and perhaps in the process attempts to repair, the rift among Jacob’s 12 sons that produced the exile to begin with.
In Christianity, a particular 1st century Passover seder that was had by 12 men and their leader is a central motif. A meal in which blood was, or became, a profoundly important spiritual theme. Could this perhaps also have emerged from the hidden meaning of the Passover seder, the unifying of and atonement for, Jacob’s 12 sons’ sin of “spilling” Joseph’s blood, ultimately the seminal event from which emerged the entire Biblical exile and redemption?
With Contributions by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Rabbi Barry Dolinger, Rabbi Jon Kelsen, and Rabbi Menashe East
Many Orthodox synagogues have women’s prayer groups, with one of the main features being the reading of the Torah. The halakhic issues with regard to this practice have been discussed and debated at length and I do not wish to rehash them here. However, since Simḥat Torah is coming up, I wanted to offer a suggested solution to one sticky point that remains.
Since a group of ten or more women is generally not considered a minyan (halakhically recognized prayer quorum) in Orthodox communities, what is to be done with the blessings over the Torah reading? These blessings are considered devarim she-be-qedushah, prayers that are only to be recited in a minyan. Although some have suggested that the women skip their own recitation of the blessing over the Torah in the morning, and recite it when called up to the Torah, I am not personally comfortable with that solution. There is a hint of something almost misleading about affecting to do one thing (recite the public Torah blessing) while actually doing something else (reciting the personal Torah blessing).
Years ago, when my oldest daughter was being bat-mitzvahed, and we decided to do a minḥah bat mitzvah with Torah reading at our home, we were faced with this problem. Although a number of women’s prayer groups simply skip the berakhah entirely, we did not want to do this. Instead, I wrote an alternative set of blessings. (Others, like Rachel Levmore, have done this as well.) These were designed to approximate the form of the berakhot as they appear in the standard Torah reading service, but without actually being technical berakhot in the narrow halakhic sense.
None of the words in the berakhot are mine; they were all taken from biblical verses. I tried to find verses that were relevant to the theme of blessing God or thanking God for the Torah. Furthermore, I made use of some verses that were recited by women in the biblical texts, in this case Deborah and Hannah. The main part of the opening berakhah was taken from an alternative form of birkat ha-Torah found in a genizah fragment and no longer in use.
Finally, the “ḥatimot” (endings) of each blessing make use of the two verses in Tanakh which begin with barukh atta a-donai, which allows for the form of the berakhah to approximate standard berakhot, but without bringing up any halakhic problems of berakha she-einu tzerikha (unnecessary blessings) or berakhah le-vatala (blessings recited in vain).
Over the years, people have written me on occasion asking for a copy, so I decided that this year I would post them and make them publicly available. They are posted below with a translation and some annotation.
Ḥag Sameaḥ to all,
Rabbi Zev Farber
Opening Berakhah over the Torah
לִבִּי לְחוֹקְקֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמִּתְנַדְּבִים בָּעָם בָּרְכוּ יְ-הֹוָה.
|My heart is with the leaders of Israel, with the dedicated of the people – Bless the Lord!|
בָּרוּךְ יְ-הֹוָה לְעוֹלָם אָמֵן וְאָמֵן.
|Barukh A-donai le-olam amen ve-amen.|
|Blessed be the Lord eternally, amen and amen!|
|Our God brought a vine up from Egypt, and planted it. He nourished it with water from Sinai and liquids from Horeb. Blessed are you Lord, teach me your laws.|
|There is no one holy like the Lord, for there is none like You, and there is no rock like our God. Blessed are you Lord, God of our father Israel, from eternity to eternity.|
 For more on the topic, see: Avraham Weiss, Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups (revised edition; Ktav, 2001).
 This is not the place to discuss Rav Shlomo Goren’s responsum, which claims that women can make their own quorum, nor is this the place to discuss the possibility that a quorum for Torah reading may be something different than a quorum for other prayers—both worthy topics but beyond the scope of this short post.
 Some have gone so far as to call this “ziyuf ha-Torah” (falsifying the Torah) but I think that is going too far.
 In fact, the Rabbis suggest that if one has begun a blessing and realizes that it will be in vain, he or she should switch the blessing into a recitation of one of these verses to avoid inadvertently sinning.
 From the Song of Deborah; Judges 5:9
 Psalms 89:53
 Adapted from Psalms 80:9
 This was originally an alternative version of the Ahava Rabbah/Ahavat Olam prayer mentioned in a genizah fragment. It ended with the standard “Ohev (amo) Yisrael”.
 Psalms 119:12
 From the song of Channah; 1 Samuel 2:2
 1 Chronicles 29:10
I recently listened to a shiur on the subject of Pesach wherein the Rabbi insisted that currently we celebrate the spiritual freedom of Pesach (Mitcheila Ovdei Avodah Zara HaYu Avoteinu) and not the physical freedom expressed in the Haggadah (Avadim HeYeinu L’Paroh B’Mitzrayim). He noted that since we are under the jurisdiction of others, we cannot celebrate physical freedom.
I was dismayed at this outlook and wondered how, after the establishment of the State of Israel that someone could suggest that we celebrate Pesach in 5773 the same way we did in 1933, or during anytime since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.
I felt better after reading Ruth Wisse’s column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal
But the most inspiring incarnation of the exodus has been the one that reversed it: the recovery of the Jewish homeland from foreign occupiers after millennia of exile. Not by the hands of an angel and not by the hands of a messenger, but by the self-reliance that their ancestors had practiced for millennia, and by keeping faith with their vow to return to Jerusalem, the settlers of Israel accomplished one of the greatest national feats in history.
Jews reclaimed their political independence in the land of Israel in the same decade that witnessed the genocidal slaughter of one-third of their people. They did so not only by mobilizing skills honed through centuries of adaptation to foreign rule but by reactivating powers that were dormant for centuries.
Can the legendary crossing of the Red Sea compare with the marvel of several million Jewish migrants and refugees from lands as disparate as Ethiopia and Latvia forging a common, democratic Jewish state? Are the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to “let my people go” or the miracles in the desert as stunning as Israel’s ability to withstand the preposterously asymmetrical Arab aggression against it? The revival of Hebrew from sacral high status into national vernacular is an unparalleled linguistic feat. Entrepreneurship in Israel has won it the title of “start-up nation.”
The traditional Passover Seder concludes with the pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which the British poet William Blake nationalized in the vow not to rest “Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.” Yet modern Israel represents an immense human accomplishment that may even go beyond the prophetic vision. Passover today includes a story of national liberation at least the equal of the one in the Book of Exodus that served as its inspiration.
Ruth Wisse understands that history changes the way we think about and experience history.
Rabbi Menachem Mendle Kasher, among others, considers this approach a simple matter of Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good that God has done. To celebrate Pesach as if there is no State of Israel is to ignore the favors that God has bestowed on us.
Rabbi Kasher recommends adding a fifth cup corresponding the the final word of redemption – V’Heiveiti – “and I will
…and our fathers have told us—we will not hide it from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Eternal, and His strength, and His wondrous works that He hath done.” Also, it is said: “Let them give thanks unto the Eternal for His mercy, and for His wondrous works for the children of men.”
And now, in our own time, when we have been privileged to behold the mercies of the Holy Name, blessed is He, and His salvation over us, in the establishment of the State of Israel, which is the beginning of redemption and salvation from the exile of Edom, even as it is written: “And I shall bring you into the land, the same which I have lifted my hand to give unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, and I have given it unto you as an inheritance: I am the Eternal”—it is fitting and proper that we observe this pious act, the drinking of the fifth cup, as a form of thanksgiving.
Just as we have been privileged to see the first realization of ” And I shall bring them,” so may we be worthy of witnessing the perfect and complete redemption, the coming of the Messiah. May we witness fulfillment of the vision of the prophets, that “evil shall disappear as smoke in the wind, and that all the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God.
Even if one does not subscribe to Rabbi Kasher’s messianic overtones, there is still reason to approach Pesach differently than our grandparents did. It’s called Dayeinu.
Each step of that famous song represents an incomplete redemption. Would it really have “been enough” had God brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah?
Well, it depends on what we are asking. If we are asking, would it have been enough to be considered a complete redemption, then the answer is no. But, if the question is: Would it have been enough to offer thank to God, then the answer us yes. The answer is yes, because imperfect and incomplete redemptions are also worthy of praise and thanksgiving.
Rabbi Yehuda Amital notes this approach when discussing celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut
How can we not thank the Almighty for all the kindness that He has showered upon us? First and foremost, the State of Israel serves as a safe haven for five million Jews. After the nightmare of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees wandered around the globe, finding a home and refuge only in Israel. The State has contributed an incalculable amount to the restoration of Jewish pride after the devastating chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) caused by the Holocaust. Today, too, the State plays an enormous role in the Jewish identity of our brethren throughout the world. For so many of them, the emotional attachment to the State remains the final thread connecting them to the Jewish people and to the God of Israel.
I spoke earlier of Rav Kook’s inability to come to terms with the establishment of a state that would not bring to fruition the ultimate destiny of redemption. This led him to claim that the impending State of Israel was to be the ideal State of the period of ge’ula (redemption). But don’t all the critical functions fulfilled by the State of Israel (as listed above) justify its existence, even if it has not developed into the ideal community? After the traumatic destruction of the Holocaust, which Rav Kook could not possibly have foreseen, the State played a critical role in the restoration and revitalization of the Jewish people. It is hard to imagine what the Jewish nation would look like today if, Heaven forbid, the State of Israel had not emerged.
I experienced the horror of the destruction of European Jewry, and I can thus appreciate the great miracle of Jewish rebirth in our homeland. Are we not obligated to thank the Almighty for His kindness towards us? Unquestionably! And not just on Yom Ha-atzma’ut; each day we must recite Hallel seven times for the wonders and miracles He has performed on our behalf: “I praise you seven times each day!” (Tehillim 119:164).
Are things perfect? No. Could things be better? Yes. Would it be that the Messiah would arrive and that all of Israel’s enemies were no longer. But we must not confuse Pesach 5773, being celebrated in a world with a State of Israel with Pesach in the Warsaw Ghetto.
“One is obligated to see themselves on the Seder night as if they are actually now leaving Egypt.” -Maimonides
“The child at the Seder asks: “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread but on this night only unleavened. On all other nights we eat regular vegetables but on this night bitter herbs….”” -The Talmud
If the Passover Seder meal is one of remembering that God redeemed the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, why not do precisely that? Read the Biblical account of the Exodus (which we do not); ask about slavery and freedom, divinely brought plagues and miracles, nationhood and history. Why all the questions about why this night is different?
Children live in the present, their questions straight forward; they observe and ask, observe and ask. According to some Jewish sources we do strange actions at the Seder meal, like dipping our food, drinking many cups of wine and delaying the meal, precisely so that the children will notice and ask: “Why is this night different?”
“When your child shall ask you: “What is all of this ritual?” Then you shall answer them, “With a strong hand did God take us out of Egypt.”” -Exodus 13:14
God did not take “us” out of Egypt, God took our ancestors out, and that was over 3500 years ago.
The past is long gone, yet always at hand. Only the present is real, yet always a product of our past. The Passover Seder is paradoxical, a meal of recalling the 3500 year old Exodus, an experience very much lived in the present: “Why is this night different?” It is the child, who always lives in the present from whom we must learn this.
One hundred years ago Sigmund Freud and his circle of psychoanalysts discovered that though we live in the present, we do so almost entirely conditioned by experiences we have had, and ways we have lived, in the past. The past can not really be integrated or changed through remembering what is past; it must be experienced and understood in the powerful present. The past is formative but, as a memory, impotent. The present integrates our past. The here and now is colored by our past but much more powerful. Thus the present can lead us to insights about the past and about whom we are, more so that remembering and analyzing past experience.
The Passover Seder is like the process of psychotherapy. Its function is to understand, to clarify, to integrate the exodus of the past in our present lives, yet this can only be accomplished in any real way, though living in the present.
We do not ask: Why did we leave Egypt? How did we leave? What did it mean to leave Egypt? Why did God think it so important that the Jews be enslaved and redeemed? Such would only be an intellectual process of remembering the past.
Instead it is the child who asks: Why are we dipping twice now? Why are we reclining now when we eat? Why the flat unleavened bread?
Children know how to be in the present. All they have is now. On Passover we must all be children. Living the past in the fully present we must leave Egypt in our lives now -a gift from the past.