For Holy Week, A Primer On Passover

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Sunday night, millions of Jews around the country kicked off the weeklong holiday of Passover. It may be the best known Jewish holiday, but how much do we really know about Passover? Michel Martin will speak to Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., about Passover and its importance.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to talk about another centuries-old tradition. This is the first day of Passover, and Jewish families around the world will come together to eat the Seder, or to celebrate the Seder, the first ceremonial dinner of the weeklong festival that commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

Here to tell us more, give us a primer, if you will, is Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue right here in Washington, D.C. Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

Rabbi SHMUEL HERZFELD (Ohev Sholom, Washington, D.C.): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, do we have a sense of when the first Passover was celebrated?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, the first Passover was recorded in both of Exodus Chapter 12 going back more than 3,000 years, when the Israelites were about to leave Egypt. And they were in such a hurry that their bread did not have time to rise, and therefore it's called today matzah.

MARTIN: Why is this such a significant holiday? This is something that people spend a lot of time preparing for. Why is it so significant?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Two reasons come to mind. First, I think there are so many rituals, beautiful rituals involved with the holiday of Passover. You have a Seder, which is a meal, which is accompanied with rituals. We have the bitter herb. We have the matzah. We have the salt water. We have the wine. We have the children asking questions.

And when ritual is associated with a religion, it's almost like a long friend who you haven't seen for a year. And when you see that friend, you don't have to explain it or see it, it's just a warm feeling overcoming you. So when you see the rituals of the Passover Seder, of everyone sitting around a table singing familiar songs, it evokes such a close connection to each other and to God.

And the second reason, I think, is what Passover symbolizes. Passover is a holiday of redemption. And it's not only about the Israelites' redemption from Egypt. What it's also about is people being redeemed from the prisons that are around us in our own life. It's not only for people physically in jail, but a lot of people are struggling with things that they are trying to break free from. And that is what Passover symbolizes and means to so many people, not only to the Jewish people.

MARTIN: I want to mention that, because I find that Passover has meaning to many non-Jews, as well. In part it coincides often with the Easter season for Christians but the Passover itself, I think, has resonance for people who are not Jewish. Why do you think that is?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, the story of liberation is one of the greatest stories ever told. It's a story that any enslaved people have been trying to inspire people. If Moses could take on Pharaoh, everyone could take on their pharaohs in their life.

And one of the symbols of Passover is the matzah. It's a wafer that has not been allowed to rise, so there's no leaven inside it. Matzah represents on the one hand both the bread of affliction. This is the bread that Israelites ate while they were slaves in Egypt. It's also the bread of redemption. This is the bread when that the Israelites ate when they were running away from Egypt and they did not even have time for their bread to rise.

And we hold the matzah in our hands and that teaches us that the bread of affliction is also the bread of redemption. And the answer of whether or not we can be redeemed or we will be enslaved is in our hands. And that's one of the powerful messages of Passover. Our bodies could be enslaved, but as long as our minds are free, we can soar to God.

MARTIN: And I would be remiss if I did not mention that you have a very interesting outfit today. You have a tie and a kippah, which is printed with it's a matzah print.

Rabbi HERZFELD: It's a matzah kippah. You know, my feeling is, go with it, embrace it, get into the spirit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rabbi HERZFELD: You know, I love this holiday. I woke up this morning and I put my kippah on and my tie on and I went into my children's rooms and I showed it to them 'cause I watch seeing their smile get on their faces. And this is a holiday which we do many things the Talmud says, just in order to inspire the children to ask questions about the holiday. Because the same way I watch my children's faces, it lights up as they're getting excited for Passover. I remember how I got excited, and I remember sitting around with my grandparents at the Passover Seder table.

So I encourage everybody out there, embrace the holidays. If you're going to do it, go for it full force. So, I'm walking around with the Passover matzah tie, a matzah kippah for the whole week and I'm proud of it.

MARTIN: Well, it's very fetching, I have to say, since other people don't get to see it, I want to point out, it's extremely it's quite handsome.

Rabbi HERZFELD: Oh, thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: There are extensive preparations for this holiday, particularly for those who are observant. Would you - just a little bit about what families do to prepare for this holiday.

Rabbi HERZFELD: Yeah, this is a very intense holiday, and I have to remind our congregation that the cleaning itself is also a commandment to be embraced as a service of God. But...

MARTIN: What is a cleaning?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, the idea is that there can be no bread products inside our house at all, not even a crumb of bread. And so, we clean our houses thoroughly. We scrub them. We get rid of them. And then we cover our countertops and any place that has come in contact with bread products throughout the year. And we actually switch our dishes and our flatware, et cetera, just so that the house can be totally transformed.

And this is obviously a very physical process that takes a while and can be exhausting. But on the other hand, what we realize is where we need to prepare for redemption. You can't just wake up one morning and say, I'm going to be redeemed. I'm a different person. It requires an enormous amount of preparation, a focus and intensity.

But the thing is, what I encourage our congregation is to recognize that cleaning should not be seen as a chore, but rather as a great opportunity to come closer to God. Every time you scrub that cleaning fluid on your window, that's service of God. So, do it with a smile.

MARTIN: And I just feel I would be remiss if I did not ask, you participate in this service, too, I hope. You don't just leave it to Mrs. Herzfeld, who's also Dr. Herzfeld. I just want to be clear on that.

Rabbi HERZFELD: No. I would say that this is a great this is actually a very important point that is brought down in the codes of Jewish law that I mean, not that I am in this category, but no matter how great a rabbi is, it's a great commandment for everyone to engage. So, every rabbi, every older person, every younger person should be involved in the cleaning because that is part of the service of God. We must do something to feel like we're being redeemed. So I embrace it. I love it. I want to clean even more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, okay, well, I'm going to check with Mrs. Herzfeld and just make sure that I'm going to second source it, you understand.

Rabbi HERZFELD: That's fine.

MARTIN: You understand, its the business I'm in. So, finally, what is an appropriate greeting at this time of year if one wants to wish our Jewish neighbors and friends well at this special time of year? What do we say?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, the best greeting is always a smile. But there is a specific greeting for Passover. You could say, the Yiddish is gut yontif, which means a good and happy day. Or you could say, if you want to be more Hebrew, modern Hebrew, we say Chag Kasher V'Same'ach, which means a happy and a kosher holiday, because people go so careful to make sure there's not even one speck of bread in all of your food products.

MARTIN: Okay, so, gut yontif, that's one. And then the second is...

Rabbi HERZFELD: Chag V'Same'ach.

MARTIN: Chag V'Same'ach.

Rabbi HERZFELD: Oh, Michel, you are perfect. You can take over my position as rabbi...

MARTIN: I don't think so. But I'll just and for those who don't have time to practice, how about just, happy Pesach?

Rabbi HERZFELD: You know what, that is a great greeting, Michel.

MARTIN: Okay. Happy Pesach to you, rabbi.

Rabbi HERZFELD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is a senior rabbi at Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. And he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Happy Pesach once again.

Rabbi HERZFELD: Gut yontif.

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