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Jewish World Review April 18, 2000 /13 Nissan, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Why is this night different? --
FOR STRICTLY OBSERVANT JEWS, the approach of Passover means a floor-to-ceiling spring cleaning. It also means retrieving from storage the special Passover china used just one week per year, and selling or giving away every bit of grain, beer, spirits made from grain, cakes, pasta and breakfast cereal. Not a trace of the forbidden Chometz, (i.e., leavening) may be found in a Jewish home on the eve of Passover.

Exodus 12:19 instructs "Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the congregation, whether he be a stranger or a citizen of the land." On the night before Passover begins, the father takes his children on a hunt for Chometz (strategically placed by Mom). With feathers and candles in the old days, but now with flashlights, the children stuff the forbidden food into paper bags that are then burned the following morning.

Few American Jews (about 10 percent) enact all of the prescribed rituals at this time of year (including the "Fast of the First Born," in which first-born male Jews fast the day before the holiday to express gratitude for having been "passed over" when the Angel of Death annihilated the first-born of Egypt four millennia ago). But most observe at least some, because Passover is the most important holiday of the Jewish year.

It is, so to speak, the bread and butter of Judaism. The L-rd heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, delivered them from bondage, led them in safety across the Red Sea to freedom, and gave them the Torah as an eternal covenant at Mount Sinai. Though these events are recalled and celebrated on many other holidays (including the Sabbath), Passover is the big enchilada.

Leaving aside its religious meaning, there is a simple grandeur to Passover because it is the oldest continuously celebrated service in the known world. If Isaiah, or Joshua, or Jesus for that matter, were to come to our house on April 19 or 20, he could read the Haggadah (the prayer book for the Seder service) and recognize the various ceremonies without difficulty. Each would probably recognize the tradition of eating bitter herbs (horseradish) to recall the bitterness of slavery. Each would understand, if not necessarily recognize, the charoses, a blend of nuts, apples, honey, wine and cinnamon that I've always thought was much too delicious to symbolize the mortar used to build the monuments of Egypt.

Naturally, over the centuries, the Seder (the word means "order") has acquired new embellishments and traditions. Many of the tunes we sing are probably not more than a few hundred years old.

"Why is this night different from all other nights?" pipes the youngest voice at the table.

At some point, the elders came up with a strategy to keep the rest of the children awake and interested -- hiding the Afikomen. The Afikomen is one of the three matzohs ("the bread of affliction") used for symbolic purposes during the ceremony. There are two traditions, depending upon where in Europe one's ancestors came from: either the children steal it and ransom it back, or the Seder leader hides it and then rewards the child who finds it with a small gift. (In every Seder I've attended, all of the children received something, not just the lucky finder.)

Though Passover is a festival of feasting and rejoicing, it has several solemn moments. The recitation of the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt is accompanied by removing a drop of wine from one's glass for each. In this way, we express our sorrow for the suffering of the Egyptians.

Though he looms large in the Bible narrative, to say nothing of the works of Cecil B. DeMille and Dreamworks, the name of Moses is mentioned only once in the Haggadah. The rabbis diminished his significance to remind Jews that it was G-d, not Moses, who performed miracles and wonders.

And He has proved a charismatic enough protagonist to keep the ceremony going for almost four thousand years.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate