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Why This Night Is Different From All Other Nights


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Dov Fischer

April 8 2020

The eight-day Biblical festival of Pesach (Hebrew for Passover) begins this Wednesday night (Exodus 12). It is the central family event in Judaism, the Seder that Orthodox Jews outside Israel mark on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel it is only one night.) The family gather around the dining room table, with their best tableware — no, let’s not call it “chinaware” — their best crystal, their finest flatware, their finest tablecloths and napkins, and they begin the Seder. The word “Seder” means “the Order [of things],” and it is called that because 14 specific rituals ensue, each according to its seder, its proper order.

The Seder begins with Kadesh, the reciting of a prayer over a cup of wine, giving thanks to G-d Almig-ty for having delivered us from Egyptian slavery and persecution. An additional prayer, with extra meaning this coronavirus year, thanks G-d for having sustained us alive to this moment. We then sit and drink the majority of the wine while leaning physically to the left in the manner of free people in Roman times when these traditions were formalized. That is, no need to sit stiffly upright, but symbolically to relax. Some even set up a pillow as an extra seat cushion for the Seder. The wine ideally is of a red varietal because that color seems richer, fuller bodied. For those who cannot drink wine, red or purple grape juice is substituted. The glass capacity is at least 3.3 ounces of liquid and is filled to the brim; one should drink at least half that cup. The numbers will add up because there are four cups, so if using a cup that hold 3.3 ounces, one will drink seven ounces or so over the night. If using eight-ounce glasses, it will be a bunch more. Practical experience teaches that it is best to drink dry wine, not the Manischewitz syrupy stuff, because lots of sugary wine on an empty stomach never works out well an hour later. By contrast, the dry stuff does not catch up until you are asleep.

We next arise and ritually wash our hands. This is Step Two of the Order: U-r’chatz. Jewish law, dating back thousands of years, long before contemporary science caught up, requires washing hands before eating foods that entail hand-dipping. We return to our seats and take a small piece of a green vegetable — usually parsley or celery — and dip it into salt water. The green vegetable represents the onset of spring. The salt water represents the bitter tears of slavery. This was Step Three of the Order, the Seder: Karpas.


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