My teenaged niece, who is not Jewish, asked me to explain why on Passover I will eat sunflower seeds in the shell, but not sunflower nuts in a jar. She then asked me whether I am required to eat nothing but matzo for the entire eight days of the holiday.
It’s awfully hard explaining our traditions. As she did not know the story of Passover, I attempted to summarize the Book of Exodus as best I could. My wife said I was taking too long and should deliver the short version. Then she asked me if this was the short version.
Someone hand me a Haggadah, please. After all, the Bible teaches that it is our duty to retell the story of Passover year after year, to teach it to our children so that it is handed down l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation.
I attempted to synopsize the story of the Jews going down to Egypt due to a famine in the Land of Canaan and then being enslaved by the Pharaohs for 400 years. I covered the rise of Moses as our leader, the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians and how the houses of the Jews marked with the blood of the lamb on the doorposts were “passed over” on the night of the slaying of the firstborn. I explained that the women kneaded dough for bread every day and left it on the hot rocks to rise and bake in the Egyptian sun, and that when Pharaoh thrust the Jews out of Egypt without a moment’s notice on the morning following the tenth plague, the women grabbed the dough that was barely a flat cracker because it hadn’t yet had time to rise. This, of course, was the prototype of the hard, crispy, unleavened matzo that we eat during Passover to this day.
I encouraged my niece to read the Book of Exodus and learn the whole story. She asked me whether it is scary. “Not as scary as the Book of Revelation,” I replied.
I don’t expect her to take me up on my offer. Even if she did check out the second book of the Bible, she would learn nothing about the customs regarding kitniyot, the legumes (corn, beans, peas, peanuts and products made therefrom) that we traditionally avoid during Passover. And she certainly would not be enlightened as to the Talmudic origins of why this week we don’t eat nuts and seeds unless we remove them from the shells ourselves. I’m sure she would be even more confused if I tried to explain the difference between kitniyot and hametz (most grain products) or if I told her that Jews in some parts of the world eat the former but not the latter during Passover. We have so many laws, rules and customs, some Biblical and others of rabbinic origin, some ancient and others that have evolved over time.
When I told my niece that Joseph went down to Egypt after his brothers sold him into slavery, I was pleased that she remembered that he was an interpreter of dreams. I’m sure she remembers some Bible stories from when she was little and attended Sunday school and kids’ church. But I fear that it is no longer reasonable to expect the teens of today to read the Bible. To them, even the Vietnam War reads like ancient history, much less events that occurred thousands of years ago. Perhaps it’s our own fault for not presenting the Bible as a living, breathing work that may be more relevant today than it ever was.
And what about our other Passover stories? There are the happy stories, the ones in which many of us have experienced personal miracles in our lives during Passover. But, alas, there are also the truly frightening stories of blood libel, when Passover was used as an excuse to slaughter Jews by the hundreds following unjust accusations of such ghastly horrors as using the blood of Christian children in our rituals. The facts that the consumption of blood and the primitive practice of human sacrifice are both strictly prohibited by our faith were routinely ignored.
On the first night of Passover, I attended a community Seder (our traditional service and dinner) at a synagogue with my parents. As the participants gathered, the early arrivals milled about, enjoying the snack table while they renewed old acquaintances and made new ones. I listened attentively as the rabbi held forth to a group of people on how strictly observant shmura matzo is made. These matzos are round rather than the commercially made rectangular box matzos. They are super thin and therefore have a tendency to be burned at the edges. The word shmura means “watched,” and watched they are — from the time the grain is harvested through the flour grinding process and the baking. Matzo is made from just two ingredients, flour and water. To avoid the possibility of unintentional leavening, the flour must be held in a totally dry area separated from the water until kneading. From the moment the water touches the flour until the final, baked product comes out of the oven, no more than eighteen minutes may elapse. The rabbi told us that with modern, computerized ovens, baking occurs in a matter of ten seconds.
I soon began a conversation with the rabbi’s wife. She related to me that a non-Jewish member of the community phoned the synagogue a few days earlier to request lamb’s blood. Assuming that, as Jews, we would be slaughtering a lamb for Passover, he asked if he could please purchase some of the blood.
My eyes grew wider as the story went on. Could it be that some still don’t know that animal sacrifice stopped with the destruction of the Holy Temple thousands of years ago? The caller began pleading, the rabbi’s wife told me. He explained that we are experiencing a “blood moon” and that if he doesn’t paint some lamb’s blood on his doorposts, something terrible will happen.
“What a lunatic!” I blurted out.
Seeing that I was getting stirred up by this story, the rabbi’s wife finally relented. “I’m kidding,” she admitted.
I didn’t find this funny at all, but then again, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of having no sense of humor.