Passover 101

Monday marks the start of one of the most widely celebrated holidays on the Jewish calendar: Passover. The religious tradition commemorates Exodus, the story where Moses freed the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, DC, about Passover's significance and how it's celebrated today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And today, we have a Passover primer. Passover is one of the most important Jewish holidays. It begins on Monday.

We wanted to know more about it so we've called upon, once again, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue. That's the oldest orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. He's with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Rabbi, welcome back. Thank you for joining us once again.

Mr. SHMUEL HERZFELD (Rabbi, Ohev Sholom): It's a great honor to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, I have the sense that Passover is probably the Jewish holiday that non-Jews might be most aware of. Is that your sense?

Mr. HERZFELD: I would hope so.

MARTIN: Yeah?

Mr. HERZFELD: I would hope that they are aware of it because it's probably the most observed ritual in the Jewish culture in America today.

MARTIN: Well, tell us, give us the whole story. What does it commemorate?

Mr. HERZFELD: Passover commemorates the exodus from Egypt when Moses led the Israelites out of the land. And when they left the land of Egypt, they didn't have time. So they had bread. Their bread didn't rise and they ate matzoh. And for that reason, still to this day, we gather on the night where the children of Israel left Egypt and we eat matzoh and we talk about that moment.

It's almost like the anniversary, if you have a couple that has an anniversary and they celebrate that night for the rest of their lives. This is our anniversary with God and with the redemption of the Jewish people.

MARTIN: And I want to mention that matzoh being central to the holiday. After our conversation, I'm also going to talk to one of the foremost experts on Jewish cooking in America, Joan Nathan, and she's going to talk about some of the creative things you can do with matzoh, particularly if your friends have been particularly generous and have gifted you with many boxes of matzoh and you're wondering what to do about it. We're going to talk about that later in this program.

But even though it is a holiday that commemorates a very serious and important, you know, historical event, an event that was arrived at after a period of great pain and suffering, to me it seems like a very joyous time.

Mr. HERZFELD: It is a holiday of great joy. And for me, the favorite part of it is easy. When you walk into your home on the night of Passover and you sit down at your table, and it's the cup runneth over, you see your friends, your family, you're gathered together on a beautiful night. That's why it's so important, it's one of the things I'm most proud of our synagogue does on the first night of Passover, we have a Seder where over 200 people come.

The first words that we say at the Seder are that all who are hungry come and eat. And we open up our homes to make sure every person who needs a Seder that night has a Seder.

MARTIN: And does Seder have a meaning in translation?

Mr. HERZFELD: Well, Seder means order and that is because the way we commemorate the redemption story is through a specific order that rabbis instituted and that we instituted with children asking questions, which is a highlight to where you see what they've learned. People tell the same jokes every year. And of course people sing the same songs every year.

Also, talking on a very serious level about redemption and what does it mean to be redeemed. And what can we do to translate the lesson and the meanings of redemption into our lives in America.

MARTIN: One of the important parts of preparing for Passover is making sure that the house is free of leavened bread products. And that might be - sound easy, but apparently it isn't. And there's a very great deal that goes into that. Will you talk about that?

Mr. HERZFELD: Part of the preparation for the holiday, we have to get rid of any bread product or leavened product from our home. Many people have bread products, which they just can't rid of, which is too expensive to throw out or to give away to their friends. So we sell that. And it's one of the most beautiful parts of the holiday, is that we have to find a neighbor whom we trust or a friend whom we trust who we sell. And it's a real contract, a real sale.

But we're allowed by Jewish law to make an oral agreement that if after the holiday our friend, our neighbor, who's not of the Jewish faith wants to sell back the bread products to us, that we'll buy them back.

MARTIN: It's called chametz.

Mr. HERZFELD: Chametz. It means a bread product.

MARTIN: They're bread products. They want to sell it, so what do they have to do? They contact you and you act as their agent. But this year, as I understand it, you have taken this transaction into the 21st century.

Mr. HERZFELD: Now for the first time we've created a mobile app. I think we're one of the first in the world to do so, where we have a mobile app for the iPhone and for the Droid. ISellChametz - or the Droid, it's called Sell Chametz, that's C-H-A-M-E-T-Z. They just fill it out, send it to me and then I sell it to you.

And we're getting people emailing through the app their forms to us from all over the world, from England, from Mexico, from Massachusetts. And I think they're all fans of the show.

MARTIN: So, if you say, look, I've got to get rid of this chametz, there's an app for that.

Mr. HERZFELD: There is an app for that.

MARTIN: Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue. It is the oldest orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. Rabbi, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. HERZFELD: You're welcome.

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