WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Netta Phillet serves bietzah, a hard-boiled egg, to three Grey Nuns – Sisters Dora Durand, Marguerite Letourneau and Evelyn Gagnon.
For Christians, the Passover Seder meal is a way not only to connect with the roots of their own religion, but also to see how ancient practices still pertain to modern Christianity.
The Edmonton Interfaith Centre sponsored an educational Pesach Seder, a Jewish ritual feast that marks the beginning of Passover. It is one of the most commonly observed Jewish holidays, even by otherwise non-observant Jews.
"There is a story that comes from Exodus (13.8). The story says that if your child asks you on that day about Passover, you should tell him," said Rabbi David Kunin, who led an abbreviated Seder April 1.
"That story is echoed four times in the Bible, and for that reason four becomes an important number for the Seder."
About 30 people, including Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians, were present at Beth Shalom Synagogue in downtown Edmonton. A table full of university students was also there.
Most of the Seder was conducted in English, with a handful of readings and songs spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic to give a taste of a genuine Seder.
Pesach (or Passover in English) refers to God passing over the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. It also refers to the name of the sacrificial offering, a lamb, which was made in the Temple on this holiday.
"Passover is seen in a sense, not only as a re-enactment, but a re-experience where every generation experiences the exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery, which is considered to be a constant event, not just something from the past," said Kunin.
The Seder is conducted on the evenings of the 14th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, and on the 15th by traditionally observant Jews living outside Israel. Typically this occurs in late March or April. This year's Passover begins April 6 at sunset and continues for eight days.
The text of the Pesach Seder is written in a book called the Haggadah. The Haggadah contains the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, special blessings and rituals, Passover songs, and explains some of the practices and symbols of the holiday.
The Haggadah was written as a teaching tool, allowing people at all levels to learn the significance of Pesach and its symbols.
Seder customs include drinking four cups of wine, eating matzah, and partaking of symbolic foods placed on the plate. For example, the beitzah is a hard-boiled egg, symbolizing the festival sacrifice offered in the Temple of Jerusalem.
The rituals and symbolic foods associated with the Seder evoke the twin themes of the evening: slavery and freedom.
"We chant the 14 steps as a way of reminding ourselves of all the different steps from slavery to freedom," said Kunin.
The Seder is integral to Jewish faith and identity. As explained in the Haggadah, if not for divine intervention and the Exodus, the Jewish people would still be slaves in Egypt.
Therefore, the Seder is an occasion for praise and thanksgiving and rededication to the idea of liberation.
"At Passover we have four cups of wine, with the idea of four being so important for the Seder. It is traditional to pour wine for somebody else, not to pour for yourself, as a sign that being free you shouldn't have to pour for yourself," said Kunin.
Following the first cup of wine, the rabbi washed his hands, which seemed odd to those present.
Rabbi David Kunin
"Passover has a number of strange rituals, one of which is washing our hands with the blessing," explained Kunin.
"It is strange because we wash our hands to eat bread, and at Passover we actually wash our hands twice, so it does bring a little bit of strangeness to the holiday.
"We do a lot of strange things because strange things lead to questions, and questions give an excuse for answers."
The appetizer was karpas (parsley) dipped in saltwater. Next was the breaking of the middle matzah. The next step was Magid - telling the story of Passover, the change from slavery to freedom.
A component of the Magid is asking Mah Nishtanah (the Four Questions): On all other nights we eat either leavened bread or matzah, but why on this night do we eat only matzah?
On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but why tonight do we eat bitter herbs? On all other nights we do not even dip once, but why tonight do we dip our food two times? On all other nights we dine either sitting up or reclining to one side, but why tonight do we all recline?
"Traditionally it does not have to be these four questions. Any question would be enough, but since we cannot count on anyone asking a question, we therefore build them into the Seder to make sure people do," Kunin said.
He shared a story in the Talmud where some rabbis were gathered at a Passover Seder and they were all ready to eat when some servants came in and took all of the tables out of the room.
One rabbi asked, "Why did you remove the tables?" to which another rabbi replied, "By asking that question, you removed the obligation to recite the four questions."
Any question is enough to begin the Seder. The answers to the four questions are also a necessary part of the Magid.
Next, participants at the Seder recited the Ten Plagues: blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and killing of the first-born. As participants recited each plague, they removed a drop of wine from their cups using a fingertip and dropped it onto their plates.
Soon, the festive meal was eaten, followed by a grace and songs of praise.
Songs included Go Down Moses and Who Knows One?, both of which are childlike songs. Cumulative songs, counting songs, pattern songs and formula songs are especially popular with children, which is why the Seder, a child-oriented event, ends with them.