Rabbi Chaim Weiner on how communities have preserved their history through Pesach customs
Passover is a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. But religious rituals do not survive solely as historical reminders. Rituals that endure over time embody eternal truths that capture the imagination over time and space. The real power of Passover is that it is a celebration of freedom. It marks the struggle of a people to escape slavery and to determine their own destiny.
The Jews took Passover with them as they moved around the globe. Our history is marked with repeated episodes of oppression — and the lesson of Passover was ever relevant. I am always moved when I read the commentary of Don Isaac Abravenel. It fell upon Abravenel to plead before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for the safety of the Jews at the time of the exile from Spain in 1492. When commenting on the statement of the Haggadah, that if it were not for the Exodus, each and every one of us would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, Abravenel asks as poignantly: “What benefit do we, who live in exile, derive from the Exodus? Would it not be better to endure the slavery of Egypt than the suffering of the exile in Spain?”
Jewish communities lived and relived the story of the Exodus, creating new interpretations and customs to suit their circumstances. Let me introduce you to introduce some of the more interesting customs I have encountered travelling in Europe.
I will start in Belmonte, in Northern Portugal. Owing to its remote location, a small community of Crypto-Jews — who outwardly adopted Christianity rather than go into exile — managed to preserve its identity for 500 years. They converted back to Judaism, opened a synagogue and re-established a Jewish community in 1996. I spent a Shabbat in the village several years ago.
The hidden Jews had little knowledge of Jewish observance and no access to a Jewish calendar. First they commemorated Passover on the night of the full moon that landed in the month of April. This, however, proved to be too dangerous and aroused the suspicions of the Inquisition. They eventually moved the celebration to the full moon that landed two days after the full moon of March.
On the day of their Passover, they would go to the river that runs near the town and cut branches from the trees. They would then wade across the water at a shallow ford, waving the branches in front of them as they moved. This ritual, which looks nothing like a traditional Jewish observance, was a re-enactment of the crossing of the Red Sea — a scene that resonated with the children of the forced converts, who anticipated their own redemption daily.
Moving east, we can take up the story in the village of Pitigliano, high in the mountains of Tuscany, in Italy. Pitigliano offered relative freedom to its Jews, who came to live here throughout the Middle Ages. At times as much as a quarter of its population was Jewish. Pitigliano absorbed many of the Spanish exiles and Crypto-Jews who brought with them their fear of living an open Jewish life.
One of the most remarkable finds in Pitigliano is a matzah bakery built underground, carved into the rock deep under the synagogue. The caves include an underground mikveh and slaughterhouse. The Jews of Pitigliano had a special round matzah for Passover. Although Jews no longer live in the town, it is still possible to buy the special matzah at the old bakery together with Jewish cakes and even kosher wine from a nearby winery — a testament to a once thriving community.
Further east, we move into a new cultural area — that of the Ashkenazi Jews. A feature of Ashkenazi Jewry is its many unique customs. One of the best known is the custom of Ashkenazim to refrain from eating rice, corn and legumes on Passover. This custom has no roots in the Talmud — but this should not surprise us, as the Ashkenazi Jews have preserved many ancient customs that have no Talmudic roots.
This is because many of the customs originated in ancient Israel — rather than in Babylon, the source of the Talmud. In earlier times, eating lentils was a sign of mourning. It has been suggested that this custom was first established as a general prohibition against consuming lentils during all festivals. The customs survived only at Passover, because it has so many special rules about food.
Many Anglo-Jews can trace their roots to Eastern Europe. A big influence on the development of Jewish practice in Eastern Europe was its climate. It was easy to transport Jewish festivals from Israel to countries like Spain, Morocco and Italy. Moving them to Eastern Europe was a challenge. Our very sweet kiddush wine was a way to compensate for the sour grapes that grow in this cold clime.
The climate also had an impact on our seder table. One of the rituals of the evening is eating bitter herbs. Illuminated manuscripts of the haggadah show this as being lettuce. In Eastern Europe, however, the lettuce turned into horseradish. Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (17th century), commenting on the use of horseradish writes: “People in the regions of Germany and Poland… use chrein, horseradish. This has had detrimental results, because many people eat less than the required amount because of the pungent flavour … and the meticulously observant Jews … are endangering their health.”
Passover is a vital festival with a timeless and universal theme. The many variations of practice are a testament to the vitality and the enduring nature of the Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Weiner is director of the European Masorti Beth Din and of Jewish Journeys, specialising in educational tourism