Apr 102017
 

Passover begins at sundown today this year (2017). This post is the last concerning the three major moveable Jewish holy days, the others being Sukkot and Shavuot, which I have already covered. According to Torah prescriptions, Jews were required to celebrate these three festivals in Jerusalem, Passover being the most central to tradition. Jesus, as a faithful Jew, is reported to have traveled to Jerusalem for Passover at least once (when he fell afoul of the law and was executed). Hence Passover and Easter are inextricably linked, but since early Medieval times the Christian church has gone to great lengths to make sure that their observations do not coincide. Given that Passover can fall on any day of the week, but Easter must fall on a Sunday, it’s not all that difficult to keep them apart. The fact that they are so close together at all this year is relatively rare.

I simply cannot imagine that the entire Jewish population in antiquity downed tools and traveled to Jerusalem three times a year. It makes no sense in practical terms. Who’s going to mind the sheep or the shop whilst everyone is making a beeline for Jerusalem? I can see it happening a few times in a lifetime, but not every single year. Passover is, however, very deeply embedded in Jewish history and tradition and continues to be an important aspect of Jewish identity to this day. Observant and non-observant Jews of all stripes have a Passover seder, at the very least, every year with varying degrees of commitment to established religious practice. Not to do so would be the equivalent of a family of Christian background not celebrating Christmas. It does happen of course. Preparing a seder is a lot of work. But almost all of the Jews that I know, even the most vehemently non-religious, mark Passover in some way or another.

If I get too deeply mired in discussing the history and evolution of Passover we’ll be here all year. So I’ll try to keep it simple (dangerously teetering on the edge of the simplistic). My views on the matter are not very popular among Jews anyway — nor most Christians either. It was one of those great turning points in my life when I learned as a first year theology student at Oxford that Biblical historians and archeologists simply did not believe that the slavery in Egypt of the Israelites, the exodus under Moses, the wandering in the desert for 40 years, and the ultimate conquest of Canaan, had any basis in historical fact. Say what ????  That’s pretty fundamental to Jewish (and Christian) belief. People who’ve barely cracked the Bible know about parting the Red Sea and the like. BUT . . . extra-Biblical sources for any of this narrative are non-existent, and archeology flatly contradicts all of the details. The current explanation for the appearance of the Israelites in the Levant that has the most favor among archeologists and historians (the ones who have no religious or ethnic axes to grind, that is), is that the putative 12 tribes of Israel were at the outset a loosely confederated group of related Semitic peoples who had migrated into the land from various places and unified for a time against other indigenous cultures. The centrality of Judah and Jerusalem were a consequence of the defeat and expulsion of the northern tribes by Assyria which left only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south intact and soldiering on. Through a combination of relative isolation and shrewd political maneuvering they were able to tough it out a little longer until they were crushed and deported by the forces of Babylon.

The two periods that, for me (and a great many other Biblical historians), are crucial in understanding how Passover emerged and evolved as central to Jewish tradition and identity are the reforms of Josiah (649-609 BCE) and the Babylonian Exile which are inextricably linked.  Until Josiah was king of Judah the nation had managed to stave off attack by neighboring empires such as Egypt and Assyria by being relatively subservient and compliant – paying tribute, accepting multiple religious traditions and the like – as ways of keeping a low profile. Under Josiah that all changed. He came to the throne at the age of 8 and ruled for 31 years. During this time the neighboring empires were struggling with one another for supremacy and went through periods of waxing and waning fortunes. This situation left Judah in a relatively strong position to assert itself. It had no chance against the likes of Egypt or Babylon when they were at full strength, but when they were weak(er) powerful people in Judah could entertain visions of grandeur. Hence Judah under Josiah, swayed by politician-scholars, created a bold new identity and was (seemingly) ready to take on the world.

During Josiah’s middle years Judah underwent a nativist revolution led by a group now called the Deuteronomists (after one of the texts they wrote). Nativism involves stripping a culture of what it perceives as “foreign” elements (religion, literature, language, clothing, foodways, etc) and highlighting the “original” (or “native”) core as it is perceived. According to the Hebrew Bible, in his 18th regnal year (when he was 26), Josiah ordered tax money to be used to renovate the Temple and during the renovation a “Book of the Law” (sefer ha-torah) was “discovered.” Modern scholars now generally believe that the “discovery” was a plant by the Deuteronomists and the book they “discovered” was one they had written: either Deuteronomy itself or a portion of it. Josiah took the book seriously, was horrified discovering all the laws in it that were not being followed (and the penalties for such crimes against God), and immediately set about stripping away all practices that were foreign and opposed the law, and establishing all the laws that were enshrined in the document. Among other things, the law prescribed that Passover should be held in Jerusalem every year on a certain date, with explanations concerning why it was to be observed, and how. When the Temple renovations were complete and all the foreign cults removed (and their priests executed), Josiah held a massive celebratory Passover.

Thus the story of the Israelite slavery in Egypt, the attempts by Moses to free the people from bondage, the various plagues that God sent to convince the Pharoah to release the people, and, finally, God’s commandment to an angel to kill every firstborn male in Egypt who lived in a house whose doorposts were not smeared with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, became an indelible part of the history and identity of the Jewish people – commemorated every year with the ritual slaughter and consumption of sacrificial lambs. My (not terribly well supported) conjecture is that Josiah’s great Passover was the first, and that it has been celebrated every year since following the rules laid down in Deuteronomy and other books of the Torah. The symbolism of bondage and release received a boost a generation later when the Babylonian army defeated Judah, destroyed the Temple, and deported the bulk of the population to Babylon in the period now known as the Exile or the Captivity. During this seminal period I believe that classic Jewish belief solidified. Following the return to Jerusalem, the Jews suffered multiple conquests by empires including the Greek and Roman which, again, strengthened the symbolism until in 70 CE the Romans essentially wiped out the population of Judah, destroyed the Second Temple (built after the return from the Exile) and scattered the Jews across Europe and the world with no homeland. This new Diaspora once more reinforced the Passover message of bondage, alienation, and oppression – offering an eventual release, which was partially granted by the creation of the state of Israel after 2 millennia of separation from the land.

The Passover meal, the seder, is, of course central to the celebration. Where it was once made up of (ritually slaughtered) lamb which recalled the blood of lambs saving the people in bondage, bitter herbs, recalling the bitterness of slavery, and unleavened bread, recalling the haste with which the people left Israel with no time to let the bread rise, now all but the unleavened bread are tokens. The classic seder dish, often using a special platter reserved for that one night, consists typically of a roasted lamb shank or chicken wing, a roasted boiled egg, 2 kinds of bitter herbs, a leafy herb to be dipped in salt water, and a brown sweet paste of ground fruit and nuts. Each has symbolic meaning which is explained during the meal. There are also three whole matzot, which are stacked and separated from each other by cloths or napkins. The middle matzoh will be broken and half of it put aside for the ritual of the afikoman (a game played with children to maintain their interest and help in the process of understanding the symbolism). The top and other half of the middle matzoh will be used for the hamotzi (blessing over bread), and the bottom one will be used for the korech (Hillel sandwich).

It always seems to me a shame at these meals that these elements are merely symbolic. They are all great food items. What’s not to love about lamb, roast eggs, salty greens, horseradish, and unleavened bread washed down with cups of wine? These days the principal seder dishes vary according to the underlying ethnicity of the family. I’ve only ever attended eastern Ashkenazi seders where matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, and brisket reign supreme. There are recipes galore for these classics all over the place. Matzoh brei is a lesser known Passover treat used as a sweet interlude, and involving the central unleavened bread.

Matzoh Brei

Ingredients

2 sheets matzoh
2 large eggs
salt and pepper
vegetable oil
jam or syrup

Instructions

Break the matzoh into small places and place in a bowl.  Cover with very hot water and let steep for about 30 seconds, then drain thoroughly. Meanwhile beat the eggs in a separate bowl with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat enough vegetable oil in a skillet for very shallow frying (2 or 3 tablespoons) over medium-high heat.

Combine the eggs and matzoh and mix thoroughly. Divide into 4, shaping each into a thin, flat pancake.

Fry the pancakes one at a time until golden on both sides, about one minute per side (turning only once).

Serve slightly broken up with whatever jam or syrup you prefer.

Jun 102016
 

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Tonight after sundown is the last night of counting the Omer among certain Jewish sects. Today is also the date in 1947 on which their first motor car prototype was unveiled by the Saab company, which previously had been solely an aircraft manufacturer.  In keeping with this year’s theme of moveable feasts in this blog, I’ll go with the former.

Counting of the Omer (ספירת העומר, Sefirat HaOmer, sometimes abbreviated as Sefira or the Omer) is the verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot as commanded in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 23:15–16:

15 From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.

16 Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.

Chapter 23 in Leviticus sets out all the holidays that Jews should observe and their dating, and this particular span refers to the distance between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot (coming up). Whether an observant Jew is supposed to literally count each day out loud is a matter of dispute among rabbinic scholars. My reading of the Hebrew leads me to the conclusion that the text is simply saying “make a calculation,” and not literally calling for a daily count. But the tradition of counting day by day got established at some point and has stuck.

There is something to be said for religious periods of anticipation and preparation – firmly established in the Christian traditions of Advent and Lent (leading to Christmas and Easter respectively), and rooted in the Jewish tradition of periods of prayer and fasting before significant events. I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, that I find big celebrations to be much more satisfying if they are approached slowly and carefully, rather than by just coming upon them with a big bang. However, times of preparation are not popular in the modern – breathlessly hurried – world, so that counting the Omer is a rare practice nowadays, confined only to the most observant of religious Jews. Observant Jews sometimes have a device or calendar as a concrete reference to what day it is within the Omer.

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As soon as it is definitely night (approximately thirty minutes after sundown), the one who is counting the Omer recites this blessing in Hebrew:

Baruch atah A-donai E-loheinu Melekh Ha-olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al S’firat Ha-omer.

(Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.)

Then he or she states the Omer-count in terms of both total days and weeks and days. For example, on the 23rd day the count would be stated thus: “Today is twenty-three days, which is three weeks and two days ‘of’ [or] ‘to’ (לעומר) [or] ‘in’ (בעומר) the Omer”. The count is usually said in Hebrew but it can be said in one’s native language.

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In Kabbalistic Judaism the period of the counting of the Omer is considered to be a time of potential for inner growth – for people to work on their good characteristics (middot) through reflection and development of one aspect each day for the 49 days of the counting. In the Kabbalah, each of the seven weeks of the Omer-counting is associated with one of the seven lower sephirot. The Hebrew names do not have an easy English translation, and they have very complex associations in the Kabbalah:

Chesed (loving-kindness)

Gevurah (strength)

Tipheret (adornment)

Netzach (endurance)

Hod (glory)

Yesod (foundation)

Malchut (sovreignty)

Each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations. The first day of the Omer, for example, is  associated with “chesed that is in chesed” (loving-kindness within loving-kindness), the second day with “gevurah that is in chesed” (strength within loving-kindness), and so on.

Symbolically, each of these 49 permutations represents an aspect of each person’s character that can be improved or further developed. If you are interested there are numerous books and websites devoted to daily interpretations and practices, such as Simon Jacobson, The Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer, or Yaacov Haber and David Sedley, Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer, or go here http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/276672/jewish/Spiritual-Guide.htm

As it happens, the night of the final count this year is also the beginning of the Shabbat, so a special dinner is in order. In Britain and the United States, certain dishes are traditional for Shabbat dinners and are referred to as “Jewish” cuisine. As I have said before here, this is a misnomer. Many Jews in the U.S., especially the northeast, descend from Germanic or eastern European Jews, and their cooking reflects the heritage of these cultures, not something that is uniquely Jewish, although it is important to keep kosher, so that there are no dishes that use pork products, or mix meat and dairy.

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Here’s a Sephardic dish, Moroccan Lemon Chicken, that I like. Chicken, and chicken soup, are proverbially Jewish dishes in the U.S., and this is one of my favorites.

 Moroccan Lemon Chicken

Ingredients

1 chicken (4 lbs), skinned and cut in 8 pieces
½ tsp powdered saffron
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 qt chicken stock
2 lemons
fresh chopped cilantro (for garnish)
salt and pepper

Instructions

Mix the saffron powder, cumin, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture evenly on the chicken pieces.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep skillet large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in one layer. Sauté the onions until they are softened. Add the garlic for an additional minute, and do not let it take on any color. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer.

Pour the stock over the chicken pieces so that they are barely covered. Add the juice of the lemons and the peel, thinly sliced. Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 60 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Cooking time is highly variable depending on the quality of the chicken and your personal tastes. I tend to stop once the chicken is fully cooked and no more.

Remove the chicken pieces to a warm plate, and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce for about 2 minutes. You can add extra lemon juice at this point if you like. Taste first!

Place the chicken pieces over boiled basmati rice on a serving platter. Pour the reduced sauce over the chicken pieces, and garnish with cilantro.