The Festival of Unleavened Bread
Most people nowadays call the whole seven days ‘Passover’, but strictly speaking, Passover refers only to the lamb that was sacrificed, and by extension, to the meal surrounding it. Passover is not the festival, but the sacrificial meal or feast that opens the festival of Unleavened Bread.
The festival is an amalgam of two traditions within Israelite history. It fuses the nomadic herder tradition (Passover) with the settled agricultural tradition (Unleavened Bread).
Preparing for the Festival
At New Year (the 1st day of the First Month), we try and use up as much of our food as possible that contains yeast. Then, during the coming 14 days, we clean the whole house, searching out any foods that might contain yeast, and clearing out any crumbs that might contain yeast.
Now, in Orthodox Rabbinic homes, they go to great lengths to ritually purify utensils, appliances and crockery. This is not done in Talmidi homes. It is enough to clean, sweep and wash everywhere. Doing this helps to prepare us psychologically for the festival.
At the seder it is traditional to wear white. The food eaten during the meal should not contain any grain that can ferment – like wheat, rye, barley, oats etc. However, rice, beans and peas are acceptable (the Ashkenazi tradition do not permit even these, but Mizrachi and Sephardi traditions do. Since we follow Middles Eastern tradition, we permit them too).
The seder concentrates on reading the story of the Exodus. Some people like to include inspiring music at various points during the story. The general atmosphere is one of freedom and joy.
Redefining the Meaning of the Festival
How did Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread get so depressing? ‘Well, it’s a remembrance of our affliction, right? It’s a remembrance of how everyone has made us Jews suffer through the ages, right? It’s a reminder how we’ve always been downtrodden, right?’ Wrong!
If you have ever read a traditional haggadah, with all the traditional commentary that surrounds it, you might be forgiven for thinking that suffering is what the whole festival is about. But if you have ever read the story with no commentary, just the story itself as told in the book of Exodus (just as it’s supposed to be done), you get quite a different feel. That’s why in our Talmidi haggadah, there is virtually no commentary. The story speaks for itself.
Yes, it starts off with a recounting of the pain of the Israelites, of their slavery and their suffering under the Egyptian yoke. But it moves on. In wave after wave, it tells of the great and awesome power of YHVH, of how much more mightier than the false Egyptian gods is the God of Jacob.
After the Egyptian army is drowned, the Hebrew women sing, “Mi khamokha ba’elim, YHVH?” (“Who is there like you among the pagan gods, O YHVH?”) This is a poignant question, for there is no one to compare to YHVH among the pagan gods.
It is said that each Egyptian plague was a blow – an insult – against a specific Egyptian god. The Egyptians in their tribulations would turn to their animal gods, but they were ineffective. Only YHVH proved mightier.
The True Meaning of the festival
On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the reading and remembering of the Exodus story is primarily a celebration of the birth of a nation – the nation of Israel. It’s the oldest celebration of anyone’s independence day in the world. At this time, we each of us remember the Exodus as if we each came out of Egypt ourselves.
The Festival is there to help us remember the power of YHVH, the God of Israel. It is not a festival of suffering, but of redemption. It is not the remembrance of oppression, but of liberation and independence.
Every day of the festival, when we eat unleavened bread for the first time that day, we say, “I do this, because of what YHVH did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Ex 13:8)
This is the time when we remember the event that was supposed to define us as a people. The story of the Exodus is not the remembrance of suffering, but of the great, mighty and powerful God whom we follow. We are defined by the God we follow, whose laws we adhere to. The first day of the festival is the day we remember our freedom, not our slavery. It is Israelite Independence Day.
During the seder we ask, “What does this ritual mean to you?”
It means victory, freedom, the dignity of Israel as a people, and the awesome, life- and world-changing power of YHVH, who has promised through His Covenant to preserve us as a people forever.