For Jews, Passover Is A Time Of Traditions, Old And New

Apr 17, 2017

Today is the seventh day of Passover, the holiday where Jews abstain from eating foods like bread, rice, pasta, cookies, and cakes. Rabbi Mara Nathan is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in San Antonio, and is the first woman to serve as senior rabbi of a major congregation in Texas. 

Nathan says the Passover story originates from the Hebrew bible, which says Jews were slaves in Egypt for over 400 years. She says there came a certain point where they realized they could no longer bear their servitude.

Rabbi Mara Nathan, Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth El
Credit Temple Beth El

“And so God sends Moses and his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam and they interact with Pharoah and the Egyptians and after the ten plagues, lots of drama, Pharoah finally agrees to let the people go,” Nathan says.

But while they were trying to escape, the Jews found themselves at the edge of the Red Sea.

“Then the sea parts, and they’re able to cross over on dry land from slavery as it were to freedom on the other side,” Nathan.

Passover celebrates the Jews gaining that freedom in Ancient Egypt. Jews observe Passover by eating only unleavened foods, or foods that don’t rise, like matzoh—it looks like a big cracker. They start the week of Passover with one or two nights of Seder, which is the telling of the Passover story.  

“So first of all, Seder in Hebrew means order,” Nathan says. “There is a very specific order that has evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years as to how you tell the story and we tell that story with lots of different symbols.”

Nathan calls Seder is the ultimate interactive educational experience. Everyone at the table gets a turn to tell a part of the story. Even the youngest child at the table has a role, reading questions about the significance of what’s going on.  

“And the Haggadah, which comes from the Hebrew word which means ‘The telling,’ is the book that you use in order to tell the story,” Nathan says.  “The book has prayers, it has explanations, it has rituals, all integrated into one book.”

Nathan says there are many different versions of the Haggadah that tell the story from a different angles, but the prayers and the rituals that are involved are pretty consistent from one community to another around the world. But she says the ritual food at the Passover Seder can vary greatly from community to community, since the Jewish people have lived all over the world.

“How one makes the maror, which is the bitter herb, or how one prepares charoses , which is a fruit and wine and nut mixture which is supposed to represent the mortar that the Israelite slaves used to build the brick pyramids while they were enslaved, depending on where you are in the world, those ingredients might be different,” Nathan says.  

Seder plate
Credit Kim Piper Werker

In the center of the table, is the Seder plate, where all the symbolic foods are displayed. For the last three decades, an orange has been added to some Seder plates. The story that’s been passed around is that a man once scoffed that a woman belonged on the bima, or on the Jewish pulpit, like an orange belonged on a Seder plate. So some people have started putting oranges on their Seder plates to support women’s rights.

But Nathan says the story isn’t true. The real story she says is that Susannah Heschel, a Jewish scholar, came across a Hagaddah written by students at Oberlin College when she was a speaker there.

“One of their concerns was that lesbians and gay people in general were shut out of Jewish life,” Nathan says. “And that they initially put a crust of bread on the Seder plate, or wrote a story of what it might be like to put a crust of bread on a Seder plate, meaning that it would bring the Seder to a close. It would ruin Passover.”

Nathan says in the 80s, these women said they felt like they were a piece of bread at a Seder. They did not belong. They were pushed out.

“But Heschel didn’t want to use bread because bread ruins the Seder, so she used oranges instead feeling instead of being something that was seen as prohibited, it was actually a beautiful symbol,” Nathan says. “ And people were supposed to spit out the seeds to repudiate the ignorance and homophobia that existed in Judaism.”

Not all Seder plates have an orange on them. But all Haggadahs end the same way. After the fourth cup of wine and the conclusion of the Seder, everyone yells out together, “Next year in Jerusalem!”