Wednesday, March 25, 2015


This year, on Friday night, April 3, 2015, Jews all over the world will begin to celebrate Passover with a ritualized meal called Seder, a Hebrew word meaning “order” that refers to the order of the prayers that are recited and the symbolic foods that are eaten prior to a fancy meal. The purpose of the Seder is to tell the story of the liberation of the Israelites from the Egyptian slavery.

Passover is a popular family holiday, primarily observed in the home. Even though rabbinic Judaism portrays the festival solely as the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, its history is complicated and its celebration varies around the Jewish world. This difference is particularly notable between Jews of Ashkenazic background (i.e., of Eastern Europe) and Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain and the Middle East. 

Here are some facts about Passover:
1.    The festival appears to be a combination of two different holidays-one day apart from each other: [Hag ha-]Pesah (“Pascal Offering”), reflecting a nomadic life-style, and Hag Ha-Matzot (“The Festival of Unleavened Bread”, representing a sedentary society (Lev. 23:5). After these two were combined, it was historicized and celebrated as the liberation from slavery from ancient Egypt. In Biblical times, Passover was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (to Jerusalem); after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, it became a home festival.
2.    The Bible states that 600,000 men on foot, plus children and other individuals (“a mixed multitude”) left Egypt in haste (Ex. 12: 37). That would translate into a group of refugees of about a million people. This is highly improbable. Most likely, only a few hundred Israelites left, maybe representing only the tribe of Levy.
3.    Recently, scholars have pointed out that the Bible reflects two different traditions, one that knows of the liberation from Egypt and another that appears to ignore it altogether, assuming that Israel emerged in the Sinai desert and not before (1). This would explain why the Levites did not have a tribal territory of their own in the land of Israel among their brothers (Deut. 10:9), because when they arrived, the tribes of Israel were already settled in the Holy Land.
4.    During the recitation of the Story (Hagaddah), Moses, the great liberator, is mentioned only once. The CCAR Hagaddah (Reform) does not mention him at all. How come? Maybe because of the fear that Moses could be given all the glory, and even deified, whereas in Jewish tradition only God is viewed as being responsible for the redemption of the people.
5.    One of the prohibitions during Passover is not to eat hametz (“leaven”) for seven days (2). Instead, one must consume Matzah, unleavened bread. The rationale is that the Israelites left Egypt in haste and prepared unleavened cakes instead (Ex. 12: 19). In reality this type of unleavened bread must have been consumed by the farmers who are in the field during the spring harvest.
6.    In addition to this prohibition, there is the custom among many eastern European Jews not to eat rice or eat different types of legumes (kitniyot) (3). However, Rabbi David Golinkin, an Israeli Rabbi belonging to the Conservative Jewish movement, has already indicated in 1997 that “it is permitted and perhaps even obligatory to eliminate this custom,” because “it is a foolish custom.”(4) In fact, Sephardic Jews have no problem eating these food items during Passover. And I, a Sephardic Jew, do it without any sense of guilt.
7.    In Israel, Passover is celebrated, as the Bible commands, for seven days (Ex. 23:14); outside of Israel, following the rabbinic teachings, it is kept for eight days. In Reform Judaism, however, the practice is to follow Israeli custom and keep Passover for seven days.
8.    Finally, there are many different customs, often reflecting local traditions, about the type of food that is served during Passover, including the kind of Harozet made of chopped fruit, nuts, wine, and spices(5). Some traditional families change all the dishes for the holiday; other Jews do not.
Have a wonderful Passover.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
March 25, 2015

1.    See, for ex. the article by David Frankel, “Exodus: Not the Only Tradition About Israel’s Past,” , March 2015.
2.    Namely foods made of wheat, oats, rye, barley or spelt.
3.    Such as beans, rice, corn, peas and peanuts.
5.    Sephardic Harozet is spreadable; Ashkenazic-style Harozet tends to be dry.

Friday, March 20, 2015


In the heat of the moment, people say lots of things for which they are sorry later on. We need to watch these individuals carefully, and respond forcefully when they actually begin to act on their harmful words. 

In the Hebrew Bible, we find a strong admonition not to admit the Moabites and Ammonites into the congregation of the Lord, not even their descendants until the tenth generation (Deut. 23: 4). Yet, we know that Boaz, an Israelite, married Ruth the Moabite. Similarly, the Koran teaches, “Do not take the Jews and Christians for friends. They are friends to one another” (Sura 5: 51; transl. by Pickthall). Yet, Islamic scholars are quick to remind us that throughout history many Muslims befriended Jews and Christians. Medieval Spain is a good example of that. Some evangelical Protestants are adamantly opposed to the Catholic Church for religious reasons, yet in interfaith dialogues you see many priests and ministers working together in harmony. More than what we say, it is what we do that really matters. This does not mean that words are insignificant but that acts speak louder.

We are not sure under what circumstances were the original statements quoted above in the Bible or the Koran formulated. The Rabbis justify the marriage of Ruth to Boaz by saying that the prohibition was against a Moabite, not a Moabitess!!!(See, for ex. BT Yeb. 77a).  Some Koranic scholars point out that the term “friends” mentioned in Sura 5:51 should really be understood as “patrons” not “friends” (cf. Sami Zaatari). 

 What we need to do is to look at the historical record, and see how was the law implemented. During peace, people tend to be kinder to one another; during contentious times, relationships between social groups become tense and the divide gets wider. 

Today, as we survey humanity as a whole, we see more and more strife among many social groups. Hindus hate the Muslims living in India; Palestinians and Israelis exchange curses after major conflagrations; the Shiites and Sunnis can’t stand one another; ISIS kills non-Muslims just because they do not share their religious outlook etc.

There are extremists in almost every religious camp. We must carefully watch what these fanatics say and boldly defend ourselves against them when they begin to act, because many of them have no regard for human life (e.g., ISIS today) and are eager to slaughter the other in the name of what they think is God’s word.

No one has the ultimate truth. So, why can’t we get along, with mutual respect for one another? 

R. Sonsino, Ph.D