Photo via Eczebulun (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Eczebulun (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Passover, the commemoration of what the Old Testament says was the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, begins at sundown.

Jews will gather for a ritual meal called a Seder, which means order. It features six symbolic foods, including matzo, a cracker-like unleavened bread symbolizing the Exodus from ancient Egypt when there was not enough time to let the bread rise.

While Passover rituals vary in different parts of the world, Jews are traditionally not permitted to eat or possess any foods made with wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats.

Bitter herbs, often horseradish, represent the bitterness of slavery; parsley dipped in saltwater symbolizes the tears the Israelites shed in bondage; and an apple, nut, spice and wine mixture called charoset represents what the Torah, the Jewish holy scripture, describes as the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build Egyptian edifices.

A number of contemporary scholars, many of them Jews, believe the story of the Exodus is apocryphal and that the Israelites were never among the peoples subjugated by the ancient Egyptians. Regardless of any historical debate, most rabbis believe it should not obscure the themes — faith, freedom and redemption — inherent in the biblical tale.

According to the book of Exodus, the enslaved Israelites used the blood of lambs to mark their doors so the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes and instead slay the firstborn sons of Egyptians — the 10th and most horrific of the plagues that finally persuaded the pharaoh to agree to Moses’ demand: “Let my people go.”

During the Seder, people drink four cups of wine or grape juice, symbolizing the promises that God made to the Israelites, including deliverance from bondage. Also as part of the ritual, a child traditionally asks the four questions of the Passover Seder.

The introductory question of “Why is this night different from all other nights?” is followed by “Why is that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzo, but on this night we eat matzo?” “Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?” “Why is it on all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night we dip twice?” and “Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?”

The purpose of the questions is to spark discussion and learning, as teaching the story of the Exodus to children is one of the most important elements of the Passover Seder. The meal is accompanied by reading from the Haggadah, or “narration” book, which tells the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage.

Passover commemorates the time between the Exodus from Egypt on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nissan and the parting of the Red Sea seven days later.

The holiday is observed for seven days in Israel, with one Seder, and eight days outside Israel, with two. This is because it is held that people in ancient times who lived far from Jerusalem could not know when a new month under the Hebrew lunar calendar had been officially declared and, in turn, could not be sure of the exact date.

Passover is an entirely home-based ritual observance, which does not require a rabbi. Unlike most Jewish holy days, there is no synagogue service for Passover, although some congregations and other organizations conduct Seders.

The JEM Center in Beverly Hills will conduct community Seders tonight and Saturday, both beginning at 8 p.m., with what is described as a gourmet Passover dinner, original handmade matzo and four cups of Kosher wine.

The Seder is described as “English friendly, as well as French, Spanish and Hebrew so everyone can feel welcome.” Tickets are $60 for adults and $30 for children, with no one being turned down for lack of funds.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Engagement Strategic Initiative conducted its fourth annual Community Passover Seder at the landmark Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights April 12 with Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles’ first elected Jewish mayor, among the elected officials present.

Many elected officials and activists shared their personal stories tying to the themes of Passover, including former Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu.

Among the topics discussed was “the modern-day plague of homelessness in our city, and what we are all doing and can still do to address this critical issue,” said Catherine Schneider, the federation’s senior vice president, external affairs and community engagement.

—City News Service

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