Spring here in Israel feels like it arrived a few weeks ago, but Israelis really know the warmer weather is upon them when they’re preparing for Passover. This year, the spring holiday began on the evening of Monday 10th April, when most of the country (it’s estimated to be about 94%) attended a traditional meal, known as ‘the Seder.’
‘Seder,’ which means ‘order’ in Hebrew is a ritual Jewish meal, attended by generations of families, or whole communities, and re-enacts the story of the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Customs include drinking four cups of wine, eating matzo (unleavened bread), singing songs, eating symbolic foods (which are all arranged on a a “Seder” plate) and reclining – as a way of celebrating freedom.
What makes the Seder particularly extraordinary, however, that is it’s carried out not just by Jews in Israel but in communities across the globe – and more-or-less follows the same format. Whether young or old, religious or secular, it is a ritual that many Jews feel deeply connected to – because it brings back childhood memories, reaffirms identity or is a means by which we can be grateful for our freedom.
Indeed, in the book that Jews read – the “Haggadah’ – it is commanded that as we read, we envisage ourselves as being slaves who came out of Egypt – each and every one of us. As we eat matzo – dry, flat bread – we remember that we fled the wicked Pharaoh in such haste that we had no time to let our bread rise. And as we sing “Dayenu” we are grateful that we were saved by the parting of the Red Sea – and that God saved us with an outstretched hand and many wondrous deeds.
Seders are also designed to be ‘child friendly’ and involve the youngest person at the table singing the “Four Questions” which begin with the asking of “Why is this Night Different from All Other Nights?” The children also have a task entirely for them – to hunt for a hidden piece of matzah, tucked in a secret place at the beginning of the seder. It’s a great way of keeping the younger members awake for the length of the evening – and whoever finds it usually receives a small gift.
After many readings, blessings, songs, and the serving of a festive meal, the Seder continues – with thanks to God and finally the traditional wish: “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalyim” – which means “Next Year in Jerusalem.” No surprise – after all, Jerusalem is the most holy place in the world for Jews and a city of which was dreamed about over thousands of years of exile.
The seder is a beloved ritual that means so much to so many. Many older people cherish their memories of childhood seders…families sitting around a table, traditions being re-enacted and, of course, remembering that this is the festival of our freedom. After all, before the Exodus, Jews did not exist as a nation – and until 1948, Jews did not have a state of their own.
Something that’s also wonderful in Israel is that this is a week-long holiday – which gives people the chance to spend time with their families, head to the beach or nature reserves, and enjoy the warm weather. And whilst most bakeries are shut (after all, with the prohibition on eating leavened bread for 7 days, it’s a good time for bakers to relax!), Israel’s open for tourists and religious Jews alike – offering all kinds of alternatives to pasta, croissants and pita bread. Indeed, it’s even rumoured that some matzah can be quite tasty!
Chag sameach – happy holiday as we say in Hebrew – and celebrate the freedom!