Sunday, November 17, 2019

Celebrating With a Meal

   I am editing Passover Haggadah. This essay is one of the introductory parts of the haggadah before the actual text appears.  I am publishing this now to seek your opinions
(Revised Nov. 19, 2019 4:16 pm )

Celebrating With a Meal

Food preparation and consumption is a daily activity that we need for nourishment.  The act of eating can be mundane as in “grab a bite”, an act of holiness (making a bracha), a ritual such as Shabbat or holiday meal, or a Passover Seder. Eating can be a social event, a solitary action for sustenance, or something in between.  Every act of eating during the Seder is a combination of ritual, an act of remembrance of Jewish history, an act of remembrance of the Exodus, and sustenance.

Meals are central part of many Biblical stories. For example, Abraham prepares food for his 
visitors (Genesis 18:1-8). Jacob deceives his father, Isaac with a stew (Genesis 27) and the description of the first Passover meal before the Exodus (Exodus 12).  Meals, ritual feasts, in the Biblical world and continuing to the present day, are occasions for showing devotions to God, occasions to solidify social and familial relations, and opportunities for teaching.
In the pagan religious practice of Babylonia and Egypt, their deities depend on worshippers to provide nourishment. In the Book of Zephaniah 2:1,
The LORD will be terrible unto them; for He will famish all the gods of the earth; …”

נורא ה" עליהם כי רזה את כל אלהי הארץ וישתחוו-לו ...

The root of razeh (to shrivel) means to make lean or to famish.  This suggests that the LORD  can make all of the pagan rivals starve to death.
 In later Judaism the weekly Shabbat meals became family and communal time for festive fellowship.  The kiddish of Shabbat and holidays includes Zeher yitziat mitzrayim (remembrance of leaving Egypt.) The most important festive meal as evidenced by tradition and halakha, is the Passover Seder.  The wine, bitter herbs, karpas, matzah connect the meal to the original Biblical event. After the destruction of the Second Temple the aspects of the Seder not connected to the Temple sacrifices gained importance.  The ninth chapter of Talmud Pesahim, Eravei Pesahim, discusses the Seder and its ritual.  The ritual moved from the Temple to the home. The structure of the Seder includes the structured service, foods, 
questions, teaching, and singing.

The Seder did not develop in a cultural vacuum.   Reclining on couches, which we say is a sign of freedom, was part of a Greco-Roman feast. Music, poetry, debate, and dancing were part of the feasts. Wine flowed freely.[1]

Stimulating several senses is a way to make sure the lessons are learned.  In education, teachers try use the eyes, ears and hands to reinforce the message.  With the addition of food, the Seder added smells and tastes.

Wine and Bread

There are two foods that are highly associated with the Seder and have unique blessings—wine and bread.  If we drink fruit juices or alcoholic beverages other than wine the blessing shehachol does not differentiate the kind of beverage.  The blessing over bread (ha-motzei lechem) only fits bread made with the five grains – wheat, spelt, barley, oats, or rye.  Cakes and pastries made from these grains have another blessing mezonot.  Other fruits and vegetables get the blessing based on if they are from trees or plants closer to the ground.  At the Seder we add a blessing over matzah that is not said at any other time or meal.

The preparation of food occupied a significant part of the day and occupied a large portion of the living space in ancient times.  Even in our modern homes, kitchens are the center of family activity and time. It has been estimated that ancient Israelites obtained 50 per cent of their daily caloric intake from bread and other grains.[2]  The preparation of bread after harvest involves grinding, mixing with water, kneading, letting the dough rise, shaping into loaves, and the baking.  Contemporary home bread baking that starts with store bought flour takes 3-4 hours from start to clean-up.  Since the ancients probably ground their own flour, the process took significantly more time.  In the Roman cities bakeries and stone mills existed.  It is unclear from archeological evidence if the grinding of flour was a family or shared community process in ancient Israel.  Outside of the cities the grain was more likely ground into flour at home. The baking of matzah skipped the rising time, enabling loaves of matzah to be completed in 18 minutes.  While it is likely they made matzah year-round, the Torah makes a ritual connection to Passover.

The background concerning why is matzah[3] so important and hametz strictly forbidden is that fermented bread was first made in Egypt.  Some ancient baker discovered that dough would rise and make a softer bread if allowed to rest. The gases formed a lighter loaf.  Egyptians “invented” yeast-risen dough and claimed it was a gift from their gods. Perhaps leavened products were part of the Egyptian worship?[4] A hint to the ritual aspect of Egyptian bread can be found in the Joseph story[5]. He is not allowed to eat Egyptian bread. The burning and destruction of hametz (leavened grain products) is the rejection of the Egyptian idolatry.  It is a further separation between a free people and an enslaved people. The eating of matzah, the bread of affliction, was a reminder of the Egyptian bondage and part of the concept of remembering the escape from Egypt. The yeast-based bread is rejected on Passover and the flat, quick-baked bread became part of the ritual.

Both wine and bread depend on yeast to make their fermented product. Yeast naturally occurs in the air.  The bread uses the carbon dioxide to make a light and spongy loaf and the alcohol is discarded while the alcohol is essential for the wine and the carbon dioxide is discarded.  The yeast is not forbidden.  Fruit juice can become an alcoholic drink, but not hametz.   Both yeast bread making and wine making take significant amounts of time and physical energy.  That is one reason they are so special. Grape juice, unless pasteurized will turn bad in a short amount of time.  Wine making is a way to preserve the grape juice for use year-round. The time for making wine and the alcohol[6] are what makes them special and receive the ability to act as a device to sanctify the Shabbat and holiday meals.  The blessing on the wine is only part of the kiddish.  The consumption of the wine after the blessing of kiddish internalizes the message making the day holy.  We hear, see and taste the kiddish. This motif of employing multiple sensory experiences is repeated in many places at the Seder.  For example, when explaining the objects on the Seder plate we point or lift them up. We lift the wine glass or spill some wine at other junctures.  Multi-sensory experiences in some families include objects representing the plagues.

“Leavening” is a process that introduces gas into a food and the cooking or baking process sets it in place.  All leaven is not forbidden. The use of eggs or chemical baking powder is allowed in the making of Passover products. Matzah is defined as bread made from the five grains that are susceptible to becoming hametz when mixed with water, kneaded, and baked within the 18 minute time limit. Grains such as corn (maize) and rice cannot be used for matzah because their “fermentation” is called סרחון  (“rot”). 

Wine and bread at the Seder are both connectors between the celebrants to the exodus from Egypt and separators from slavery.  Despite destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem and all the calamities of Jewish history, the Seder reintegrates the participants to freedom and gives hope for a better future.

[1] Most of the ideas for this chapter came from “A Feast for the Senses … and the Soul” by Dorothy Williette.   From the Biblical Archaeological Society.  Originally published in 2013 republished Nov. 7, 2019.

[2] Shafer-Elliott, Cynthia. “Baking Bread in Ancient Judah,” Biblical Archaeology Review 45.4 (2019):p.  59–64, 94. Retrieved  Nov. 11, 2019 from:  For more on the diet in Ancient Israel  see  Peter Altmann, “Diet, Bronze and Iron Age,” in Daniel Master, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013), p. 288.

Another article says that the diet could have as much as 75 percent of the caloric input from grains.  See Weingarten, Susan. “Biblical Archaeology 101: The Ancient Diet of Roman Palestine,” Biblical Archaeology Review 45.2 (2019): 29–35.  Retrieved Nov. 11, 2019 from:

[3] The serving of matzah is not limited to the Passover story.  Matzah was served by Lot to the guests in Genesis 19:3. עוגות (cakes) of bread were served by Abraham to his guests in Genesis  18:6.  The root for  עוגות means circle.  Both “cake” in English and “עוגה” in Hebrew mean a bread made into flat circular or oval shape with fat, sugar, and flavors that is not a loaf. In today’s baking world a cake is made with batter with baking power or eggs used form leavening and a bread is made with dough. “Cake” can also be made from non-flour ingredients such as meat,  fish or vegetables.

[4] See Pittinsky, Zvi. “Why Was Hametz so Strictly Forbidden on Passover?” Jewish Bible Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 47–50.  Retrieved Nov. 11, 2019 from EBSCOhost,

[5] See Genesis 39:6: “He (Potiphar) Left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, he troubled himself with nothing except for the bread he did not eat. “This is clue, not proof that Joseph didn’t eat the Egyptian bread. Rashi interpreted “lechem” (bread) to mean hands off the wife.  Others interpret this sentence to mean Potiphar wanted private time without Joseph.

[6] Alcohol is a dangerous substance when too much is consumed because it can lead to drunkenness.  See the story of Noah (Genesis 9:20-25).