A guide for Pesach 2020

Dear congregants and friends,

Based on the famous four questions we ask during the Pesach seder, Ma nishtanah ha-laylah hazeh mikol ha-leilot? – Why is this night of Passover different from all other nights of the year?, we, your rabbis, have asked ourselves in the past few weeks, if and how our Pesach seder will be different this year, compared to all the sederim we had in the past.

With the lockdown in South Africa, we can say, it will be different, very different, but not less meaningful for us and you. Perhaps, because we are able to look at Pesach from a very different perspective this year, we might even find new meaning in the words and rituals that guided so many generations before us in times of joy and challenges.

With the guidelines below, we want to help you to celebrate Pesach in your homes. We invite you to hold your own Pesach seder at home or to join one of us for the sederim we stream from our homes to yours.

Chag Sameach

Prepare for Pesach:

This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Eternal throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. …. You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is leavened, that person— whether a stranger or a citizen of the country—shall be cut off from the community of Israel. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread. —Exodus 12:14–20

The above verses from the Torah establish the holiday of Passover and command that we should eat matzah and refrain from eating chametz, leavened bread, for seven days. The Rabbis define chametz as five grains—wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats[1]—that are exposed to water for more than eighteen minutes.

In a regular year, the entire household is thoroughly cleaned from any products that may contain chametz and often all dishes, pots, and utensils are switched to sets reserved for Passover use. While we usually recommend that all food products containing chametz are used up before the holiday or given to charity, we do not do so this year. Please do not throw any food away. If you have enough food at home for the coming days and weeks, do not go shopping only because you need “Kosher le Pesach” products. We consider that staying at home and by that, potentially saving lives, is of a higher priority.

Depending on how you decide to observe the Kosher for Passover rules, we suggest the following steps to prepare Pesach at home:

  • Put bread into your freezer or any other place you can store it for the week of Pesach
  • Oats, Rusks and such should be stored away with other products, not Kosher for Passover and not needed during the 7 days, into one cupboard of your kitchen and sealed (clear tape helps to not open the cupboard accidently.
  • Even though you might follow the traditional Ashkenazi custom of not eating kitniyot (corn, rice, beans and lentils) on Pesach, we recommend making an exception for this year. Kitniyot are acceptable food, also during Pesach[2]
  • Have a Pesach-Putz, meaning a cleaning for Pesach. The key is that spring cleaning is not Passover cleaning. You only need to remove actual edible chametz residue, not dust, and only from places where you could have conceivably put chametz in the first place.
  • If you use your regular dishes and cutlery, just rinse them an additional time before you use them during Peach. Please don’t use plastic – not because of corona, but because of the environment.
  • Print your Pesach hagadah (sent to you by email)

What supplies do I need?

Here’s what you’ll need for the Seder:

  • Matzah

One is obligated to avoid chametz throughout Passover, but the obligation to eat matzah is limited to fulfilling the rituals of the first/second night seder alone. If you’re alone, three matzahs for the seder will cover you just fine. You should factor in an additional two matzahs per additional participant, as well as some extra for snacking during the meal. You can also make your own Matzah:

https://reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/passover/video-how-make-18-minute-matzah

  • Wine or grape juice

Every individual needs to drink four cups of wine or grape juice. If you have small shot glasses at home, a single bottle should just be enough for the seder.

  • Maror (bitter herbs, typically romaine lettuce and grated horseradish)

Each person needs to have two portions of maror (one eaten alone and one as part of the korech sandwich), each one at least a teaspoon. Preparing two teaspoons per person will have you covered.

  • Vegetable for dipping (karpas)

Many use celery, radish, or parsley as karpas, but you can also use carrots, onions or potatoes.

  • Zeroa or “shank bone”
    The zeroa is not eaten at the Seder. Some use a forearm of a lamb, or else a neck bone, leg of a chicken or an actual shank-bone. Whichever you use, it should be well-roasted. Not only vegetarians have started to substitute it with red beet
  • Charoset
    There are many recipes available in the internet, but here is one link to give you an idea:
  • Eggs

One hardboiled egg per Seder plate is fine. Some have the custom for all participants to eat an egg during the meal. If this is the case, prepare one for every participant.

  • Orange

A newer addition to seder plates, originated by Suzannah Heschel, the orange represents our need to be inclusive of all who feel marginalised within the Jewish community. One orange per Seder plate is fine. Some have the custom for all participants to eat one orange during the meal. If this is the case, have one for every participant.

Ritual objects at the seder

  • Seder Plate

The seder plate shows the symbols talked about in the story of Passover as told in the Haggadah. If you don’t have a Seder Plate at home, use a regular plate.

  • Three matzot

There are two explanations for this: matzah is the food of poor slaves or there was no time for our bread to rise in our hurried escape from Egypt. Three matzot are covered with a cloth and placed under or next to the seder plate.

  • Salt water

We dip the greens in salt water. This represents the tears of the Israelites, whose sons were taken from them by the Pharaoh. You may need minimum one bowl so all can easily dip.

  • Cup of Elijah

A large cup filled with wine is placed in the centre of the table for Elijah.

  • Cup of Miriam

A modern custom is to fill a cup with water and place it next to the cup of Elijah. Miriam, the prophetess, has many connections to water. She watched over her baby brother Moses as he floated in a reed basket in the Nile and led the women in song after the miracle of the splitting of the sea. A well is said to have followed the Israelites as they travelled through the desert because of Miriam’s faith.

  • Pillows

Reclining while eating was a sign of freedom in the ancient world. The Haggadah tells us to recline when we drink the four cups of wine, eat matzah, the Hillel sandwich and the afikomen. Pillows make reclining easier!

  • Afikomen

Afikomen is the Greek word for dessert. Near the beginning of the seder, the middle of the three matzot is broken and only one part is returned to the plate. The other half is designated as the afikomen, the last thing to be eaten at the meal. There is the tradition of hiding the afikomen during the meal and to ask children to search for it. It is a wonderful tradition, whether that takes the form of a real hiding of the afikomen or an internet wordsearch or a Where’s Waldo?-style picture or a Wikipedia hunt.

  • Hand-washing stations

In emulation of the ancient priests, ritual hand washing is performed twice during the evening. This may be done at the kitchen sink or with a bowl and pitcher placed near the table.

Eating Chametz during Pesach

We understand that the circumstances may not allow each and everyone to prepare for Pesach as one would do in a regular year. And while we recommend to not eat chametz in the week of Passover, it might be unavoidable to each and every one of you.

While we want to underline that the situation of today is in no way comparable to the curse that our mothers and fathers had to endure during the Shoah, we included the following prayer which can be recited before eating chametz, written or at least dictated by Rabbi Aharon Bernard Davids, leader of the Dutch community of Rotterdam in Holland, for their communities who had been interned first in the Westerbork Holland transit camp and then sent to Bergen Belsen concentration camp[3]:

Before eating Chametz say the following with intent & devotion:

Our Father in Heaven, it is revealed and known to You that it is our desire to fulfil Your will and to celebrate the festival of Passover by eating Matzah and by observing the prohibition of Chametz. But, on this our hearts are pained, that the captivity which prevents us, and we find ourselves in danger of our lives.

We are hereby prepared and ready to fulfil Your commandment „And you shall live by them“ and not die by them, and to be careful with the warning of „Guard yourself and guard your life very much.“ Therefore, our prayer to You is that You keep us alive, and sustain us, and redeem us speedily, so that we may observe Your laws and fulfil Your will and serve You with a full heart. Amen.

Let all who are hungry come and eat

Last but not least: No seder is complete without honouring the holiday’s essential command: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”.  We understand that we cannot open our doors this year, as we did in the past years, however, we encourage everyone to donate to organisations that are doing vital and lifesaving work amid the crisis – only a fingertip away. Please consider the feeding scheme of your Shul, the local Chevrah Kadisha, Keren be Kavod in Israel, or the initiative of President Ramaphosa:

Chevrah Kadisha Johannesburg: https://jhbchev.co.za/

Solidarity Response Fund: https://www.solidarityfund.co.za/

Keren be Kavod Israel: https://www.kerenbekavod.org/

Rabbi Adrian M Schell, 31-3-2020


[1] BT P’sachim 35a

[2] https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/assets/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/Levin-Reisner-Kitniyot.pdf

[3] https://www.haggadot.com/clip/hah-lachma-ahnyah-prayer-eating-chametz-bergen-belsen

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