Minhagim Medley – Pesach

By Chaya Baumwolspiner

The house is sparkling, the chametz has been burnt and we’re ready to prepare for the Seder. Before we do, let’s pause to look at a medley of ancillary queries about some of the different ways in which we all do the same things.

How is my Seder not the same as yours?

If you don’t share my husband’s Galitzianer mesorah — with a Hungarian stepfather and a Litvishe Rosh Yeshivah to boot — your Seder is not likely to be the same as mine. That’s not to say it will be any less “traditional”! The importance of Yetzias Mitzrayim is so crucial to every Jew that each individual should see himself as if he is right there (Haggadah — Mishnayos Pesachim, Perek 10, Mishnah 5). We have therefore received license from the Chachamim to embellish our Sedarim to make them “real” so that our children — and we — should become fully present and involved.

The way we do so, however, depends on our understanding of what this requires with the main divide being between Sephardim and Ashkenazim Additionally, there are a multitude of differences within the Sephardi world (depending on their places of origin) and amongst the Ashkenazi community (where Chassidim, Litvaks and Yekkes may appear to follow practices that are totally unlike one another’s).

Accordingly, many Sephardim dramatize our departure from Mitzrayim by acting it out, but not all Sephardim do it the same way. Rabbi Shlomo Zafrani (Rav of Khal Bnei Torah, a Syrian shul in Lakewood) says he performs Yachatz by breaking the middle matzah in the shape of  a vav (the bigger piece) and dalet (the smaller piece), a practice that is in accordance with Kabbalah. He then wraps the afikoman (the bigger piece) in a cloth, places it on his shoulder and recites “Misha’arotam tzerurot… — Their leftovers bound up in their garments upon their shoulders, the Bnei Yisrael did according to the word of Moshe.” (Shemos 12:34-5) Following this, there is an exchange with each individual participant at the seder: Minwen jaiye? — Where is he coming from? (Mitzrayim). Lawen rayech? — Where is he going to? (Yerushalayim). and Ishu zawadatak? — What provisions is he carrying? (matzah and maror). The afikoman is then handed to each participant, and the “ceremony” is repeated.

Several variations of this popular scenario exist, and these include: (1) when it occurs: before the Seder begins, after Yachatz, in the middle or at the end of reciting “Ha Lachma Anya” (2) who performs it: the leader, every participant or a child (3) how the afikoman is wrapped and held: in a napkin or a bag, held on the right shoulder or thrown over the shoulder. Not everyone asks the third question about provisions, and some of those who do, answer “matzah,” do not include Maror.

It is generally assumed Ashkenazim do not conduct this reenactment, but Mrs. Esther Weiss* from Flatbush relates that her late Hungarian father always did so. She took it for granted that he was “borrowing” the custom from others to gain the attention of the children. Years later, she learned that in Hungary, the leader of the Seder would wrap the afikoman in a scarf, stand up and say to his children, “Gei mir, gei mir,(Let’s go, let’s go)”. Jews in Southern Germany did something similar, cited by Harav Asher Lunel in his Sefer Haminhagot written in 1210, long before documented accounts of the custom taking place elsewhere.

Why are you wearing such elaborate clothing?

Shortly after their marriage, Ashkenazi Mrs. Rivka Rybakov* was more than a little surprised when her Bukharian husband — a talmid of Brisk and Lakewood — donned a gold-embroidered joma (caftan) for the Seder. These garments denote the royal status we have on Pesach night and are also worn on other special occasions, such as family weddings. Women may wear jomas at the Seder too, but Rivka is not ready to give it a try!

Robe wearing is not unique to Bukharians. Iranian-born Jackson resident Mrs. Daria Hakimi* notes that the diverse robes her Persian family wears at the Seder aren’t elegant like the joma but convey a sense of excitement and adventure to her children and (most importantly), “keep them awake.”

Teimani Jews also wear traditional robes and turbans, although some wear white caftans. White clothing, as is well known, is the custom of most Ashkenazim. Although many say the kittel (a garment associated with death) worn at the Seder is meant to instill humility as we recline, there are those who point to its connections with the Kohen Gadol who entered the Kadosh HaKodashim on Yom Kippur. On Pesach night, each Jew who celebrates the sacred Seder is like the Kohen Gadol performing the most holy service on the holiest day of the year.

The custom of wearing a white garment at the Seder is not observed among Sephardic Jews, and neither is it the prevailing custom among Chabad Chassidim.

Why is your table so low?

While most people use their regular (but well-covered) dining room tables for their Sedarim, Yehuda Zandani* (born in Yemen) shares that Teimani Jews use very low tables on Pesach while seated on cushions placed on the floor. Teimanim do not use a ke’arah (seder plate). Instead, the entire table takes on the look of a ke’arah laden with a thick layer of vegetables on the table itself. Other foods are placed in bowls in front of each person.

For the rest of us, differences can be found in our table-settings. The Shulchan Aruch (472) enjoins us to bedeck our tables with the best tableware we own to reflect our royal status on Pesach night. (If we cannot do this, the Rema says we should use nice cushions). Although the commercial world will have us believe upgraded disposables fulfill this directive, many people take pride in setting an exquisite Seder table. Mrs. Leah Fisch* shares that she continues the Hungarian minhag of placing gold and silver jewelry on her table. She suggests that, as well as exuding regality, a bejeweled table is a reminder of the “riches” the Bnei Yisrael received before they left Mitzrayim (Shemos 12:35).

The Mishnah Berurah (462:6) writes that although we should not flaunt luxury during the year, it is commendable to do so at the Seder. He reveals that the Maharil, who acted as  a pawnbroker, even decorated his table with the beautiful vessels of non-Jews he had taken as a collateral. As he could not have used them (they weren’t kosher and they weren’t his), he likely positioned them as a “visual aid” to reinforce magnificence of the occasion.

Ethiopian Jews, in contrast, did not have the means to create beautiful table settings, but their dishes were always new. It was customary in Ethiopia to smash chametz dishes before each Pesach and fashion new earthenware to replace them. Given the cost of living, it’s hard to imagine Ethiopians living in Eretz Yisrael can afford to keep up this minhag!

Why are you bringing scallions to the Seder?

Scallions are rarely used as karpas, but Mrs. Hakimi relates that Persian Jews have the custom of tapping one another on the head and shoulders with scallions while singing Dayeinu, to mimic lashes they received from the Mitzriyim. “It’s just a gentle tap,” she affirms, repeating her aforementioned claim that many of our Seder minhagim serve to keep the children awake.

She’s heard it said that Persians use scallions because — apart from their resemblance to whips — they allude to the seemingly misguided complaints of the Bnei Yisrael in the midbar when they longed for onions, leeks and garlic in place of mann. Some Persians use celery or leeks instead.

Head tapping is not the prerogative of Persian Jews alone, however. Rabbi Yosef Bouadana*, a BMG yungerman with Moroccan roots, explains that it is the Moroccan minhag for the leader of the Seder to walk around the table before Ha Lachma Anya holding the ke’arah, which he gently places on the head of each participant. While doing so he chants, “Bibhilu yatsianu miMitzrayim, ha lachma anya bené horin,” which (loosely translated) means, “In haste, we went out of Mitzrayim with our bread of affliction, and now we are free.”

Unlike the Persian Dayeinu — perhaps a gentle “rebuke” for our dissatisfaction with the mann, the Moroccan Bibhilu is a means of invoking blessings. According to Kaballah, raising the ke’arah at the Seder brings down the Presence of the Shechinah and is a source of brachah for those who are there.

A similar head-tapping minhag also belongs to Tunisian Jews. However, there’s no ke’arah, as they place all the Seder foods in a reed basket, called a sistu. The mother of the family carries the sistu around the table and circles it over the head of each participant.

Why aren’t we all drinking our wines the same way?

Everyone agrees the Seder should be celebrated with four cups of wine, but there are differences here as well. Rabbi Zafrani relates that Ashkenazim say the brachah before each cup, but Syrian Jews — and other Sephardim — say the brachah only on the first and third cups (as these brachos “cover” the cup that follows).

Rabbi Zafrani states that Syrian Jews — as most Sephardim — do not use a kos shel Eliyahu. However, Mrs. Rebecca Levy*, whose father hails from Lebanon, was surprised to learn about this. Although Syrian and Lebanese customs are usually similar, kos shel Eliyahu is certainly a part of her tradition.

There are several reasons why kos shel Eliyahu is important to Ashkenazim, including an interesting explanation that it is instead of a possible fifth cup of wine, debated in the Gemara (Pesachim 119a). Ashkenazim prepare a fifth kos of wine — kos shel Eliyahu — but do not drink it, although many Chassidim pour a drop from kos shel Eliyahu into their fourth cup of wine. (Chassidim and non-Chassidim alike use the wine from kos shel Eliyahu for kiddush the following day.)

There are also different minhagim when it comes to the wine we spill when listing the Ten Makkos (plagues). (We actually spill a total of 16 drops, three for “blood, fire and pillars of smoke,” 10 more for the plagues and another three for Rabi Yehudah’s abbreviation.) In this instance, there are variations concerning how to spill the wine, why we spill it, and what we should do with the spilled wine. According to those opinions that associate the spilled wine with the Makkos, thereby removing our suffering and passing it on to our enemies, many Sephardim are careful to remove it completely from their property. Rabbi Bouadani says the wine is poured into a large (negel vasser) bowl a child brings to the table; he then takes it to the washroom and disposes of it, ensuring no benefit is had from the wine.

In Turkey and some Balkan countries, Seder participants will not even look at the wine spilled when reciting each of the Ten Makkos! In other locations, only the leader is permitted to spill the wine so that no one else becomes “contaminated” by it. The leader will then wash his hands, symbolically cleansing them.

In direct contrast, Libyan Jews had a very different take on the spilled wine. Single girls of marriageable age would wash their feet in the “plague waters” so the “plague” of being single would be removed from them in the coming year!

Why haven’t we spoken more about food minhagim in this article?

Truthfully, we all have some familiarity with the parlay over kitniyos/non-kitniyos and gebrokts/non-gebrokts, each of which is a topic all its own. There are also those who eat fish but not chicken, and those who eat chicken but not fish, as is their minhag. And what about the soft matzos Teimanim and relatively few Sephardim eat that resemble the year-round laffas (similar to flatbread or pita)?

As these customs apply to the whole week of Pesach, it was decided that an article on the minhagim of the Seder should be focused only on Pesach night.

There are nonetheless some food customs that do apply specifically to the Seder. While Ashkenazim dip their karpas (often potato or parsley) in salt water because it resembles tears of the Bnei Yisrael in Mitzrayim, Sephardim dip their karpas (often celery leaves) in vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice (or even salt water), according to their custom.

Charoses comes with many different ingredients. Rabbi Zafrani explains that Ashkenazim use a combination of apples, walnuts and wine (a “recipe” found in Tosafos) while Syrians make a richer, fruitier charoses based on cooked dates (in accordance with other Rishonim). There are also many other Sephardic variations that exist in other communities.

The version found in Gibraltar and a sparing of other communities, includes a sprinkling of grated rock dust, a direct reference to the mortar that the charoses represents. Rabbi Ron Hassid, Chief Rabbi of Gobraltar, relates that until about ten years ago, several women on the peninsula took it upon themselves to make this unusual concoction for everyone else!

And then there are the ubiquitous Seder eggs. If we’re expecting eating these to be a more uniform custom, we’re likely to be disappointed. Although most Jews have the minhag to eat eggs before the seudah (and there are several reasons for this), even here there are differences: While some Ashkenazim do not eat the beitzah (roasted egg) on the ke’arah (memorializing the korban chagigah brought with the korban Pesach), Rabbi Zafrani shares that Syrians do eat the egg on the ke’arah and say “Zecher l’korban chagigah” before they eat it. Rabbi Bouadana says the beitzah is given to the bechor to eat at the second Seder.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Hakimi adds, according to the Persian custom, eggs are distributed before Maggid to keep everyone satisfied and alert. Another way of serving eggs is to bake them slowly in onion skins and to serve them at the Seder, a flavorsome dish many Sephardim enjoy. Mrs. Zandani — an Ashkenazi married to a Teimani — speaks of a Yemenite soup with eggs, presumably egg drops — that Teimanim eat at the Seder and the rest of Pesach.

In addition, Sephardim who came from Spain reputedly ate, and still do eat, lamb at the Seder. Ashkenazim and others do not, and neither do they eat any roasted meat out of deference to the fact that we may not eat the korban Pesach without the Beis HaMikdash. Rabbi Zafrani explains that Syrians eat the zeroa (lamb shank) from the ke’arah at the meal but stresses that it is first cooked before roasting to avoid any suggestion that they are eating meat akin to the korban Pesach.

And there’s plenty, plenty more!

But let’s stop here, for if we are to go farther, we will end up with no time to prepare for the Seder. There’s no denying that Pesach highlights the differences between us… and (wonder of wonders), it also highlights our similarities. There is probably no time in the year when we have the opportunity to realize how alike we are; difference is not a contradiction to sameness! From east to west, from north to south, from the simple Jew to the most learned, Pesach night is the time when we each experience the miraculous deliverance and redemption of Klal Israel with the clarity of one who was there. On this most special night we become His beloved children anew, now and for all times. n

*Names have been changed

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