Little Lessons

Since I sort of hung around Christian churches growing up (not exactly a regular attendee) and it was a mix of Methodist, Catholic, and Southern Baptist, I feel like I missed a lot of the basics. I know Christmas, Easter, Moses, the flood… important “big” stories…. and the stuff I’ve learned in college in religion classes. I know interesting Southern Baptist things like when to say amen. And Catholic things like the fact that I wasn’t supposed to take communion or what it meant when the priest sprinkled holy water on the “audience” as I used to refer to the congregation. (You can hear my relatives muttering among themselves what a heathen my parents raised.) I cannot even begin, however, to tell you how ignorant I am of Jewish traditions. (My best friend from college is Jewish, but prior to that I didn’t even really know what Hanukah was. I did not know a single Jewish person my entire growing up until I got to college.) I took a course on “World Religions” here at HDS that covered Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. But there is so much more to know. And I would really like to get the pagan/neopagan/wiccan holidays correct. So I thought that I would start a little series on here about important holidays that we should know about in world religious traditions.

I’ll start with Passover which just took place about a week ago. I was going to quote some parts of wikipedia’s entries on Passover and the Passover Seder, but the Union of Reform Judaism does a better and more concise job, or rather, it at least describes Passover as I have seen it celebrated here in the United States.

Pesach, known as Passover in English, is a major Jewish spring festival, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The ritual observance of this holiday centers around a special home service called the seder (meaning “order”) and a festive meal; the prohibition of chametz (leaven); and the eating of matzah (an unleavened bread). On the eve of the fifteenth day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, we read from a book called the hagaddah, meaning “telling,” which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings and songs for the Pesach seder. The Pesach seder is the only ritual meal in the Jewish calendar year for which such an order is prescribed, hence its name.

The seder has a number of scriptural bases. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-7, 13:8, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children. The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself.

This is my experience of how my friends and acquaintances who practice reform Judaism celebrate Passover. But, if you read the wikipedia article which seems to reflect a more traditional understanding of Passover as a 7 or 8 day holiday, you get a different picture where the Seder is only a small part of the big holiday. The following is an edited version of what wikipedia says about Passover.

Passover is a Jewish holiday and it begins on the 15th day of Nisan (Nisan is a month on the Hebrew calendar). Passover commemorates the Exodus and freedom of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. Passover marks the “birth” of the Jewish nation, as the Jews were freed from being slaves of Pharaoh and allowed to become servants of God instead.

In Israel, Passover is a 7-day holiday, with the first and last days celebrated as a full festival (involving abstention from work, special prayer services and holiday meals). Outside Israel, the holiday is celebrated for 8 days, with the first two days and last two days celebrated as full festivals (Reform Judaism only celebrates for 7 days, or in many cases, only a symbolic celebration by holding the Seder). The intervening days are known as Chol HaMoed (festival weekdays).

The primary symbol of Passover is the matzo, a flat, unleavened bread which recalls the bread that the Israelites ate after their hasty departure from Egypt. According to Halakha (Jewish Law), this bread is made from a dough of flour and water only, which has not been allowed to rise for more than 18–22 minutes. Many Jews observe the positive Torah commandment of eating matzo on the first night, as well as the Torah prohibition against eating or owning any leavened products — such as bread, cake, cookies, or pasta (anything whose dough has been mixed with a leavening agent or which has been left to rise more than 18–22 minutes) — for the duration of the holiday.

There you have it.

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