Saturday, April 11, 2009

Washing without the blessing

We wash our hands twice in the Passover seder—the first time without saying any blessing, and the second time with the conventional brachah. I wrote last year that the reason commonly giving for omitting a blessing at the first washing—so that someone will ask the reason—seems a bit silly.

I suggested then that the reason might be that the rabbis who compiled the haggadah might not have been sure that it was really a mitzvah to wash at that point. As a rule, if there is uncertainty about whether something really is a mitzvah or not, we perform the action but omit the blessing. In this case, just before the karpas, there could be doubt because we're not ready to eat bread (matzah) or the full meal; we're only eating a rather small amount of a vegetable.

Here's another thought. Perhaps we wash the first time, not to fulfill the mitzvah of netilat yadayim, but because of the requirement of our ancient priests to wash before performing certain sacred rituals. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis taught us that the family dining table would assume some of the functions of the altar, albeit without sacrifices. The Passover seder itself can be seen as a replacement for the Pesach sacrifice, which is specifically represented on the seder plate by the shankbone (zeroa).

If the seder is the replacement for the sacrifice, it follows that we ourselves are the stand-ins for the priests. Thus, it would make sense for us to wash at the beginning of the seder as a remembrance of the requirement for the priests to wash.

Simple food for Passover

I wrote this in 2004, while living in Los Angeles. Some of the prices I cited are no longer common, at least not where I live now, but the principle still applies.

In the course of my work I have a lot of opportunity to hear from people about how expensive Passover is. Some of them are just complaining for the fun of it; others are offering a justification for not observing it as fully as they think I think they should.

But the truth is that Passover doesn't have to be as expensive as that. True, there is some extra cost in a seder meal. That's because you're likely to spend more for any festive meal, and especially because of the wine. But you can exert some control over the seder menu, and the extras that you need specifically for a seder (karpas, maror, zeroa - greens, bitter herbs, and a shankbone - and the fruit, nuts, spice, and a bit of wine for charoset) aren't very expensive by themselves.

What is expensive is buying special Passover foods. Matzah itself is cheap, and, except for the requirements of the seder, matzah is the only special food that you really need for Passover. In some cities, chain groceries will give you 5 pounds of matzah free with a sufficient purchase.

Where I live, no store has a free matzah offer, but today it was possible to buy 5 pounds of matzah from Israel for 99 cents to $1.29, using store specials and a coupon from the newspaper. Manischewitz matzah would have been $3.99 for 5 pounds; if you buy Manischewitz products throughout the year, this could be a better value because of the coupons on the boxes.

If you want whole-wheat matzah or another special kind, it will cost more, but it's still not the price of matzah that ruins your budget.

The foods to avoid are the special Passover versions of regular food, such as kosher-for-Passover noodles, pizza mix, cake mixes, and so forth. Most of them aren't very good, and they're very expensive for what they are. Beware of Passsover breakfast cereal: it all tastes like matzah, so you might as well eat some of those 5 pounds of matzah. Skip the kosher-for-Passover mustard; it's basically library paste with mustard flavoring. Use horseradish instead.

But what else are you going to eat? Instead of using a lot of analogues of regular food, plan menus that are naturally kosher for Passover. While you're buying those 5 pounds of matzah, buy 5 pounds of potatoes, or 10, and serve potatoes instead of pasta or rice (if your observance doesn't allow rice).

Essentially, aim for simple cooking using fresh ingredients as much as possible. Simplicity is very much in the spirit of Passover, and nowadays cooking from scratch adds an element of festivity that expensive pseudo-foods can't match.

Now, desserts could require some effort, if your household expects anything other than fresh fruit. This week many stores have deals on macaroons at 99 cents/can, but how many macaroons do you want?

Nevertheless, the Passover cake mixes are barely satisfactory, and they make small cakes. For the price of one box of cake mix, you could buy both matzah cake meal and potato starch, enough to make any number of full-size cakes. Either way it will require a lot of eggs, but fortunately eggs are always on special right before Passover (because suppliers and stores manipulate the supply for Easter). So, if baked goods figure in your plans, it is worthwhile to buy the basic ingredients and invest some time in home baking.

For other special foods, all of which are optional, careful shopping can save some money. One chain store here has Manischewitz gefilte fish for $2.99/jar this week, and there was a $1.50 coupon in the newspaper. The coupon wasn't supposed to be doubled, but the store doubled $1 of it, so the net cost was 49 cents.

One thing you may find hard to obtain, depending where you live, is a kosher shankbone. Kosher butchers save them starting months in advance, but in smaller cities they may be unobtainable. Vegetarians have an advantage, because the traditional vegetarian substitute is a roasted beet. I am not vegetarian, but at my house we use a sweet potato, otherwise known as the Paschal yam.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Do As We Say, Not As We Do

There is a well-known textbook—not one that we use—in which the chapter on Passover states that the father leads the seder and the mother cooks the dinner.

That statement no longer reflects an inevitable reality, if it ever did. In our congregations, gender does not determine religious role, nor does gender necessarily determine other roles in our society. Accordingly, we prefer to adopt textbooks that define religious roles in the ways that we understand them.

It can be difficult to maintain a completely egalitarian point of view, especially when a textbook has illustrations. Until recently it was unusual to see an illustration of a woman reading from the Torah, even though women have done so for decades in many congregations, and it you are still unlikely to see an illustration of a man lighting Shabbat candles.

It is possible for issues like this to cause misunderstandings in class. For example, it would be correct to teach that it is appropriate for every Jew to light Shabbat candles—but if a child has seen this done only by a mother or grandmother, the teacher’s statement may not ring true. The student may be puzzled, may reject the lesson outright, or may accept the lesson and conclude that there is something wrong with the way his or her family does it.

This phenomenon goes by the exalted name of cognitive dissonance. As learners, we always measure what is being taught against our own experiences, and yet one of the roles of school is to introduce ideas that are outside the experiences of the students.

There are many opportunities for cognitive dissonance in a Jewish school. The pronunciation of Hebrew provides frequent examples, because the school teaches “American Sefardi” pronunciation, while some parents and many grandparents use Ashkenazi pronunciation. If family members help a student to practice Hebrew reading, they and the teacher may be pulling in opposite directions.

Even more opportunities for cognitive dissonance arise when specific observances are taught. Although our school’s policy is to respect the religious choices of each family, we teach the practices that are normative for the two congregations. Some families will choose not to carry out every observance that we teach, and some may find value in practices that we do not teach. Sometimes teaching in a way that does not create unnecessary tensions either in class or at home feels like a tightwire act.

An approach that I like is the one adopted by Reform rabbis in a series of handbooks published in the 1970s. Rather than stating that “everyone should” follow a certain practice, these books typically state “It is a mitzvah to….” This formulation leaves the choice of whether to adopt a particular practice, and how to carry it out, open for each individual or family, while stating clearly that, in the view of the authors, it is a mitzvah.