Lag B’Omer – The Bonfire Holiday!

Lag B'OmerSo we’re going to take a brief intermission from Mother’s Day Week (sorry Mom!) to celebrate the Jewish Holiday of Lag B’Omer. In English, the name of the Holiday translates to the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. Lag, or the Hebrew letters Lamed ל and Gimmel ג, have a numerical valuation of 30 and 3, respectively, and this Holiday celebrates the break in the counting of the Omer, or the period between the Holidays of Passover and Shavout (the holiday where we received the ten commandments, and the rest of the laws, at Mt. Sinai). Lag B’Omer is traditionally celebrated with bonfire celebrations, family picnics with the children playing with imitation bows and arrows, and the eating of Carob.

So what is so special about the 33rd day? And why the bonfires, bows and arrows, and Carob? Well, let me explain (thank you Chabad.org!).

There are two main reasons why we celebrate this day. The first (in no particular order) explains both the day and the bonfires. During the 2nd Century, there was a great Jewish scholar known as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (c.100 – c. 160 CE). He was a great Kabbalist, and shed a powerful light on the world through his mystical teachings. It is said that the secrets of the Torah that he revealed to his disciples was so profound and intense that his house was filled with fire and blinding light, to the point that his students could not even approach or look at him. Rabbi Shimon stated that the day of his death, the 33rd day of the Omer, should be a day of great joy, not sadness, for he was moving on to the World to Come. So to commemorate is death, we have great celebrations, and light great fires that emulate the fire of Torah and knowledge that Rabbi Shimon was famous for.

So what’s the second reason for the 33rd day? During the time of Rabbi Akiva (c. 40 – c. 137 CE), during the weeks between Passover and Shavout, a great plague ran rampant amongst his students, “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.” Therefore to this day, the Jewish nation treats this time period (7 weeks) as a time of mourning with no joyous activities. However, by a miracle, on the 33rd day of the Omer, the deaths stopped, so we treat this day as joyous one, careful to remember to treat every fellow man with love and respect.

Okay, so that’s why this day and the bonfires, but the bows and arrows? The carob?

It is a tradition for Children to go out into the fields and play with imitation bows and arrows. This is in remembrance of the Midrashic tradition that no rainbow was seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime. Rainbows first appeared after the great flood in the time of Noah, when G‑d promised to never again devastate the world. When the world is deserving of punishment, G‑d sends a rainbow instead. Rabbi Shimon’s merit protected the world, rendering the rainbow superfluous. The children’s bows are a tribute to the “rainbow” that Rabbi Shimon’s presence gave us.

As for the Carob, this is in remembrance of a lifesaving miracle that Rabbi Shimon experienced. For 13 years, Rabbi Shimon and his son were fugitives from the Romans, and hid in a cave in northern Israel. Food was scarce and hunting was dangerous, should they be caught. G-d intervened and created a carob tree that grew at the entrance of the cave, providing nourishment for its two holy occupants.

So, I hope that explains why we celebrate Lag B’Omer, and how we do it too! For today, I’m posting two recipes, a barbecue chicken, in honour of the bonfires, and a delicious non-dairy carob cake! I hope you enjoy!

Advertisements

Matzo – Was it Always a Dry Cracker? (2 Days to Go!)

MatzoSo, as you know, during the holiday of Passover, no leavened products, especially items like bread, can be eaten. Instead we eat Matzo, and A LOT of it! Modern day Matzo is a dry, cracker like item, made of flour and water. Machine processed matzo is square in shape, with lined perforations running about half a centimeter apart, and is about a quarter of a centimeter thick, or less. I’ve heard rumour however of a time when Matzo was soft, flexible and more like a pita or laffa, rather than the dry cracker (read: cardboard) that we eat now. So what’s the deal?

Here’s the deal: Once upon a time, yes, Matzo used to be thicker and softer, however…. here is the nitty gritty on how this has changed and become what we know now a days as a thin, dry, hard cracker-like food. For centuries, Jews have been debating the thickness of Matzo. In the Talmud, there is a record of a discussion between the students of Shamai and Hillel regarding the allowed thickness of Matzo, being as thick as a handbreadth (about 2 ½ to 4 inches or 6 to 10 centimetres). In the end, Jewish law follows the school of Hillel, which allows the thicker Matzo, however, all halachic authorities agree that a thickness of a handbreadth or more is not acceptable.

However, there are a few problems with a thick Matzo, even one less than a handbreadth:

  • Thick Matzo is susceptible to becoming Chametz because of the baking time needed to fully cook it (Matzo must be completed and out of the oven within 18 minutes of the flour and water first combining).
  • Conceptually, we are supposed to be eating “lechem oni” or “poor man’s bread”. A thick luscious bread is not considered that of a poor man.
  • Thicker Matzos use a higher ratio of water in the recipe, making them softer. This allows for the Matzo, left over time to become hardened and possibly moldy. There is even an incident discussed in the Talmud where a moldy loaf is found on Passover, and one can’t tell whether it’s bread or Matzo that has rotted. Was this a missed loaf of bread or a kosher Matzo that has spoiled? Our cracker-like Matzo would be easy to identify.

While some Jews of Middle Eastern descent still make their Matzos thick and soft, the overwhelming majority of Matzos today are hard and thick. Over the years, especially once Matzos started being made predominately by machines, rather than by hand, the Matzo has gotten thinner and thinner, until we get the cracker that we have today. Chabad has a great (but too lengthy for this blog post) article all about the thinning down over the years. You can read it by clicking here. I will also talk a little bit more about this in tomorrow’s post on Gebrokts or the custom of not allowing your Matzo to become wet. Tune in tomorrow to find out more!

Got a Question? We have 4! (3 Days to Go…)

Four QuestionsThose of you that have attended a Passover Seder before will surely recall a guest standing up and singing (or what passes for singing in some families) the “Mah Nishta’nah” or known in English as “The Four Questions“. Literally translated “Mah Nishta’nah” means “What has changed” or “What is different“, and it is the opening line of four questions that are asked by the youngest (who is able to speak) attendee at the Seder. This tradition gets played out differently household to household, with sometimes the youngest member of each family unit attending asks (great if you have a lot of guests) or sometimes the “youngest” can be your 36 year old cousin in from Baltimore. It doesn’t matter if it is sung or spoken, or even what language the questions are asked in (we’ve had English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Yiddish all at one sitting!) What does matter is that they are asked, and that they are answered.

So why are the four questions there anyway? Well of course, for every question there are a dozen answers, and in this case, we have four, so you do the math! But here are some highlights for you (yes, before you ask, of course I got them from Chabad.org!)

Why are the questions part of the Seder? A quick answer is to involve the children, make them curious, so they are part of the ceremony. But why have this part of the Passover Seder? Why not make children part of the ceremony of another holiday? What is special about Passover? Well, many things are special about Passover, but most of all, it celebrates our freedom from slavery. As a slave, you are not allowed to question anything. You have no opinion and no freewill. Especially a child slave, who would be even lower than an adult, lacking the maturity needed to articulate their own thoughts and beliefs. But here, on Passover, we are now free, the Jewish people, even the children were given the possibility to ask, to question. By asking, by learning, you grown beyond your current state and reach a higher level. The Jewish people, once freed, were able to do that, and asking the four questions symbolizes that quest.

I hope this answers some of your questions, but remember the essence here is to ask, to seek to learn. That is why, even if you’re having a Seder alone, you still ask the questions. On the bright side, if you’re alone, you’re also the one with all the answers!

* photo credit to Keren Keet. You can see more of her work at www.kerenkeet.co.uk.

4 Cups of Wine and 4 Days to Go…

4 cups of wineSo is it a coincidence that we drink 4 cups of wine at the Passover Seder, and we have 4 days to go until the holiday begins?! No, it’s not (I thought, 4 days… what else is 4 to do with Passover, ah hah! a link!). So while there is no mystical reason behind today’s syncing of numbers, there are reasons behind the 4 cups of wine.

Firstly, wine is considered a kingly beverage, and it is an appropriate drink for the holiday in which we celebrate our freedom from slavery and Egypt. As for the number four? There are several different explanations that the Scholars have passed down to us (again, thank you Chabad.org!)

  • When promising to deliver the Jews from Egyptian slavery, G‑d used four terms to describe the redemption (Exodus 6:6-8): a) “I shall take you out…” b) “I shall rescue you…” c) “I shall redeem you…” d) “I shall bring you…”
  • We were liberated from Pharaoh’s four evil decrees: a) Slavery b) The ordered murder of all male progeny by the Hebrew midwives c) The drowning of all Hebrew boys in the Nile by Egyptians d) The decree ordering the Israelites to collect their own straw for use in their brick production.
  • The four cups symbolize our freedom from our four exiles: The Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek exiles, and our current exile which we hope to be rid of very soon with the coming of Moshiach.
  • The words “cup of wine” are mentioned four times in Pharaoh’s butler‘s dream (Genesis 40:11-13). According to the Midrash, these cups of wine alluded to the Israelites’ liberation.

Yes, for those of you who are counting, that was 4 reasons for the 4 cups. What can I say, I’m on a roll!

* photo credit to Steve Greenberg. You can check out his website at www.greenberg-art.com.

The Plagues – Creative Punishment (8 Days to Go!)

PlaguesSo most people out there, Jewish or not, secular or observant, are pretty familiar with the ten plagues of Egypt. If you’ve ever seen Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (who can resist Charlton Heston playing Moses?!) or even the more recent (and unfortunately bad) “The Reaping” starring Hilary Swank, then you know all about the rivers turning red with blood, and locusts consuming whole fields of corn.

Okay, we can admit, none of the plagues are good. Some seem worse than others, and scientists have over the years given different explanations on how these plagues could have occurred naturally and may in fact have created a cause and effect pattern, leading from one to the next.

Okay, those are the scientists… Let’s talk about the scholars though! First off, why 10? Why these 10? For those of you who read my blog often enough, you’ll start to see that I’m a big fan of Chabad.org. They of course had the answer… and spelled it out so well that I’ve included it below:

The number [10] is indeed significant. On one occasion, Moses approached Pharaoh and said: “So said the L‑rd G‑d of Israel, “Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.” (Exodus 5:1) Pharaoh responded: “Who is the L‑rd, that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the L‑rd, neither will I let Israel out.” (Exodus 5:2)

But in fact, Pharaoh was very familiar with the concept of G‑d. The Egyptians worshipped deities of all sorts, and Pharaoh even considered himself a god. But he did not believe in an omniscient, all-powerful G‑d who created absolutely everything out of nothingness. We know that G‑d created the world with His speech; to be precise, with ten utterances [to learn more about this, click here]. But Pharaoh denied these ten divine utterances.

And so, the ten plagues corresponded with the various elements that G‑d created in the world, each one demonstrating that a seemingly stable and independent aspect of creation—something which could easily be attributed to “nature”—was entirely in G‑d’s hands. Thus, the plagues proved that G‑d truly is the omniscient, all-powerful Creator.

1. Blood
The first plague, which eliminated drinkable water, established that G‑d rules over the water.
2. Frogs
During the plague of frogs, the creatures even got into the stone ovens, which proved that G‑d rules over all physical man-made creations.
3. Lice
With the third plague, lice, which was accomplished by striking the dirt, it became known that G‑d rules over all the dust of the land.
4. Wild Animals
The fourth plague, where the wild animals destroyed anything in their way, demonstrated that G‑d rules over all of the animals of the land.
5. Pestilence
Through spreading disease amongst the animals, it became known that G‑d controls all of the air we breathe.
6. Boils
The boils all over the Egyptian bodies established that G‑d can cause any living person or animal to suffer or to be healed.
7. Hail
The plague of hail, which rained in the form of fire in ice, declared that G‑d controls the element of fire.
8. Locust
When locusts consumed all the crops, it became clear that G‑d rules over the earth’s vegetation.
9. Darkness
By dropping thick darkness over the Egyptians for several days, G‑d demonstrated that only He can change that which is found in the sky.
10. Death of the Firstborn
Through the death of only the Egyptian firstborn, it became known that G‑d rules over the angels and the spiritual worlds.

Well, I think it’s fair to say that there really was ‘rhyme and reason’ behind the plagues and the purpose of them. Hopefully, we can learn from their mistakes, and move forward, to a time where this will remain only a history lesson and never become current events.

Bedikat Chametz – The Search for Chametz (9 Days to Go!)

Burnt ToastThe holiday of Passover was made for people with OCD. Think about it; the massive cleaning, the counting of cups and plagues… Even the strict time lines involved in the baking of Matzo (the Matzo only has 18 minutes from the time the water and flour first mix until it is removed from the oven, or it is considered Chametz, or leavened, and not allowed for use on Passover). So imagine, after you’ve done all that cleaning and preparing, you now have to go around your house, the very night before the holiday begins, and purposely put out crumbs of bread!

Okay, this is where my OCD’ers have minor heart attacks. Why? How? Huh? Okay, deep breaths people. Here is why we do it (thanks to Chabad.org for the following explanation. You can learn more by clicking here)

The dispersal of pieces of chametz around the home prior to the bedikat chametz (ceremonial search for chametz on the evening before Passover) is not obligatory — the obligation is to search, not necessarily to find — but has become accepted Jewish custom. Based on kabbalistic reasoning, it is customary to place ten pieces of bread around the home before the search. On the eve of Passover, when the entire home has been spotlessly cleaned, it is highly doubtful that any chametz would be found in the home. These pieces which will now be “found,” will give us “chametz fuel” for the traditional chametz burning ceremony on the following morning. Otherwise, it is conceivably possible for the entire chametz burning tradition to be forgotten.

I hope this helps explain a little bit about why we do it, and why, in Jewish neighbourhoods on the morning of the eve of Passover you can smell burnt toast for miles!