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The Jewsih Festivals #5

Passover custom, ceremony, and traditions

                          THE JEWISH FESTIVALS #5

                          History and Observance


                              Hayyim Schauss

You will see here the added beliefs and traditions over a period
of time as the Jews observed Passover - Keith Hunt


The Baking of Matsos 
It's Thickness

     We have already referred to the prohibition of "chomets" and
to the two kinds of matsoh used at Pesach: "Matsoh shel mitsvoh,"
which must be eaten at the Seder on Pesach eve; and the ordinary
matsoh eaten during the remainder of the festival because the
eating of "chomets" is forbidden.
     In olden times matsos were enormously thick. In Talmudic
times there was a controversy as to whether the matsos could be
thicker than the breadth of four fingers. (There was no question
as to the legality of matsos up to that measurement.) Matsoh at
that time was baked by three women, one to knead, one to roll,
and one to bake. Such matsoh, to be edible, had to be baked fresh
daily. A point of controversy, therefore, arose as to when to
bake matsoh if the day before Pesach came on Saturday; whether to
bake it on Friday, or on Saturday evening, just before the Seder.
     In the Middle Ages the thickness of the matsoh was limited
to the breadth of one finger. As time went on, the matsoh became
thinner and thinner and, at the same time, crisper. Thin, crisp
matsoh could be prepared in advance for the entire festival.
     There was a time when it was customary, in some quarters, to
make figured matsos. Such matsoh was not regarded as strictly
correct and kosher because of the extra time it took to make it.
(The longer the dough stands about, the greater likelihood is
there of fermentation.)
     It is a precept carried over from olden days that the water
used in the making of matsos must be drawn beforehand and kept in
a utensil overnight. There was a belief that the sun, setting at
night, went under the earth and heated the water in the depths of
the wells, making the water tepid and more likely to ferment the
dough in which it was used. Thus, keeping the water overnight
cooled it and made it safe to use.
     There is an old custom known as early as the fourteenth
century, which is worth mentioning. Jews would heat the ovens
used in the baking of matsos with the willow branches used at the
Sukkos festival of the past year; that is, with something that
had previously been hallowed.
     The process of baking matsos was revolutionized with the
invention of the matsos machine, which came about a halfcentury
ago. At first there was a great controversy about the kashrus
(ritual correctness) of matsoh made with a machine. But technical
progress scored a victory here as everywhere else, although there
are still, isolated, over-pious Jews who eat only matsoh made by
     The flour of which the matsos are baked is made from wheat.
There were, however, in previous generations some super-pious
Jews who ate only matsoh made from barley flour. It is likely
that this custom is still prevailing here and there. Among the
Karaites, the use of wheaten flour for matsos is strictly
forbidden, barley flour being compulsory.
     We may infer from this that matsoh made from barley flour
was the older form, that wheaten matsos were an innovation and,
therefore, not acceptable in some super-conservative circles. The
preference of some super-pious Jews for the inferior matsoh made
from barley flour may also be due to the fact that matsoh is
referred to in the Bible, as "the bread of affliction."

The Seder

     In the course of time the Seder, or Haggadah as the
ceremonial of Pesach night is called by the S'fardic Jews, became
a religious institution, prescribed, with an exact set of written
regulations. But this ritual, which is for us today out of the
ordinary and antiquated, was at one time the ordinary procedure
at a festive meal in upper, aristocratic circles. It was
customary, in those days, to partake of a feast while reclining
on sofas, the left hand supported by soft cushions, with a small
table at every sofa from which food was served. The menu started
with a glass of wine and a toast appropriate to the occasion,
after which it was customary to wash one hand and then to eat a
bit of lettuce, dipped in tart sauce. The Pesach feast in those
days differed from ordinary banquets in only three things: no
bread was eaten; dipping the salad green in spices was performed
twice instead of once; and only roasted meat was served.
     The mode of life changed with the times, and it was,
therefore, imperative that the questions asked at the Pesach
feast by the youngest son should also change. When dipping the
salad greens became obsolete, the third question was emphasized
further, and became, not only a question as to why it was done
twice, but also why it was done at all. Originally one of the
questions dealt with the reason for the sacrificial animal, when
the sacrifice was abolished this question was eliminated and a
substitute was inserted, the reason for the reclining position, a
question that would never have been asked in the old days. In the
course of time the custom of reclining at feasts went out of
fashion. There were rabbis even in the Middle Ages who wanted to
eliminate the custom from the Seder ceremony, arguing that it was
no longer a symbol of freedom, but rather a sign of illness and
weakness, but the custom remained, and is observed to the present
day. (Remember the author is writing in 1938 and such may not be
observed today, but by a very few, if any - Keith Hunt)

     A fourth question was added regarding the bitter herbs. On
the whole, it is not a very important question, for other herbs
besides the bitter ones are eaten on Pesach eve. But it was felt
that there had to be four questions, since so many things about
the Seder went in fours; four glasses of wine, four types of food
(matsoh, lamb, bitter herbs and charoses), four types of sons who
ask questions; so four questions were absolutely necessary. There
was a symbolic, mystic quality about the number; it had always
been a sacred number for Jews and many other eastern peoples.

Elijah's Cup

     One of the most interesting of the customs added during a
later period to the Pesach eve ceremonial is related to the
legendary figure of the prophet Elijah.
     Even in very old times, following his death, there was a
widespread belief that the prophet had not really died but had
ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot, drawn by fiery horses.
Later the belief arose that Elijah would return as the forerunner
of the Messiah  and, therefore, the Elijah legend spread far and
wide. It was because of this that the festival of redemption
naturally became associated in the Jewish mind with the
forerunner of the Messiah, whom the Jews awaited to bring the
signal of the coming deliverance.

(The truth of Elijah going to the heaven where God lives is
explained in detail, as well as the subject of "death" and
"resurrection" on this Website. The prophecy of the "Elijah to
come" before the day of the Lord, is TWO FOLD - it was fulfilled
once through John the baptist and another will come and "restore
all things" before Jesus comes again - see what Christ said in
Matthew 17:9-13, note the words carefully in verses 11,12 "Elijah
truly shall come and restore all things" and "Elijah is come
already" - see my study "The Elijah to Come." The last words of
verse 13 make it clear that the Elijah that THEN was, was John
the baptist. Neither of this dual prophecy will be the literal
Elijah - he is dead and awaits the resurrection - Keith Hunt)

     This, then, helps to explain the cup of wine that is poured
for the prophet on Pesach eve. It was an old belief of the Jews
that shortly before the coming of the Messiah, Elijah would solve
all difficulties and doubts, and settle all confusions and
differences of opinion. When a dispute arose and no decision
could be made, it was customary to say, "It must be left for
Elijah's decision." 

(The Elijah to come before the day of the Lord, will not be some
"judge" answering people's questions per se, nor will he be the
literal Elijah of the Old Testament, as the Jews believe, but it
will be someone doing a similar work as John the baptist -
teaching and preaching truth that has become corrupted, and
leading people to true REPENTANCE and salvation, the Kingdom of
God being also the message as it was with John - Keith Hunt)

     The Talmudists could not decide whether four or five cups of
wine were necessary for the Seder, so a fifth cup is poured and
left for Elijah, as though to say, "He will decide whether this
is necessary or not."  As the years passed, the fifth cup of
wine, standing on the table in Elijah's name, was associated in
folk lore with the personal appearance of the prophet in Jewish
homes. Far back in Talmudic days the belief arose and spread that
the prophet often showed himself to people on earth. And it was
natural to expect the forerunner of the Messiah to show himself
on the eve of redemption and to drink from the cup that bore his
name. In the course of time it became the custom to open the door
on the Seder eve, which, people said, was done to facilitate
Elijah's entry.

(All fairy-tales. The Jews did not know or acknowledge the Elijah
of Jesus' day. Even most of Christ's disciples did not know who
he was until Jesus told them. So it will be at the last day. Most
will not know the end time Elijah until Jesus reveals it to them.
But he will have come and will have restored all things - Keith

     But the origin of the custom of opening the door remains
obscure. It is obvious that the opening of the door had nothing
to do with the Elijah legend. Originally, in fact, it was
customary to open the door before the start of the Seder. The
head of the household stepped out into the street and called out:
"He that is hungry, come and cat; he that is needy, come and join
our Pesach." But often Jews lived amongst non-Jews and were not
in a position to call the poor of the street to their tables.
This custom died and in its place grew up the custom of "mo-os
chittim," described earlier. It is therefore possible that the
opening of the door was transferred from the beginning to the end
of the Seder. The custom is also explained as a demonstration
that Pesach eve is a "night of watching unto the Lord" and one
need have no fear of evil spirits that night.

     But it seems that all these interpretations were thought of
in later times, when the original meaning of the open door had
been forgotten. We know that the doors of the Temple were opened
the second part of Pesach eve, and it is possible that the
present custom remains from those days, since the doors of homes
are also opened during the second part of the evening, after the
Seder. But the real reason has vanished and today there lives
only the folk-fancy that it is tied up with the coming of Elijah.

The Afikomon and "Kittel"

     An important part in the Seder ceremonial is taken by the 
     Various customs and beliefs are bound up with the afikomon.
Other Jews, besides those of Morocco, take along a piece of the
afikomon as a charm against misfortune when they travel. It was
the custom to bore a hole in the afikomon and to hang it up as a
charm in the synagogue or home. The Jews of Palestine were
accustomed to present (some, perhaps, still do) dramatic scenes,
such as are acted out in Morocco and the Caucasus, each
participant placing the afikomon, wrapped in a napkin, on his
shoulder and reciting from the Pentateuch the passage: "Their
kneading-troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their
shoulders." The master of the house traverses four yards and he
is asked, "From whence comest thou?"; to which he replies, "From
Egypt." Then he is asked, "And where goest thou?"; to which he
replies, "To Jerusalem." At which all assembled shout, "May we
celebrate next year in Jerusalem." 
     What the ceremony of first hiding the afikomon and then
eating it really is, is not entirely clear, but there is a clue
in the meaning of the word. The famous Hebrew grammarian of the
sixteenth century, Elijah Levita, was the first to rediscover the
Greek origin of the word. The Greek word described the joyous
revelry and entertainment after a banquet, the song, dance, and
games that naturally followed a feast. It is, therefore, probable
that in the days of the second Temple feasting was followed by
joyous entertainment, in the Greek manner. It is also probable
that the word took on, for the Jews, the meaning of the sweet
desserts that were eaten after a feast. But after the Pesach
feast no song or dance was allowed, nor was it permitted to eat
sweets after the eating of the sacrifice. In later times, when a
sacrifice was no longer served, it became the custom to finish
the meal with a bit of matsoh, instead of a bit of the
sacrificial animal. This piece of matsoh inherited the name
originally used for dessert, a "afikomon." The original meaning
of the word had, by that time, been long forgotten.
     The custom of trying to steal the afikomon was no doubt
instituted in order to keep the children awake during the long
service. The custom of hiding the afikomon under a pillow can be
somehow explained by the precept, "And ye shall guard the
matsos," a quotation which the Jews in the Middle Ages took

     The custom of conducting the Seder while dressed in a
"kittel," a long, white robe, shows how people forget the
original meaning of certain rituals and ceremonials and how er-
roneously they re-interpret them later. It is declared that the
kittel is worn as a reminder of the white shroud of the grave. It
would be very curious for mementos of the grave to be introduced
into the spring festival. In actuality it is a vestige of the
days when the festive clothing of Jews was always white; it has
nothing to do with burial robes or death.

The Haggadah

     It is impossible to picture the Seder night and all its
ceremonies without the "Haggadah." This book has a long history
behind it, dating back almost two thousand years. The latter
parts, the old folk songs, are no more than our or five hundred
years old, it is true; but there are parts that the Jews recited
in the days when the second Temple still stood in Jerusalem.

     The four questions are among the oldest parts of the Hag-
gadah, though, as we learned before, they differ from the
original text. To the oldest parts of the Haggadah belong also:
the passage beginning with the words, "a wandering Aramean was my
father"; the explanation for the Paschal lamb, the matsoh, and
the bitter herbs; the passages beginning with the words, "In
every generation," and "So it is our duty"; the Psalms of praise,
and the final benediction. All these passages are to be found in
the Mishnah. Other passages were added from the Aggadic parts of
the Talmud and the Midrash. To the Midrash we owe the discourse
on the four types of sons, a very important part of the Haggadah.
These four sons became a source of many homilies, witticisms,
"bon mots," and illustrations that greatly enriched the book. In
latter years these four sons have also been dramatized.
     For a long time the Haggadah was a part of the book of
common prayer. It was not till late in the Middle Ages that it
became a separate book.
     Many commentaries have been written on the Haggadah, by such
noted figures as Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel, Rabbi Loew of Prague (the
legendary creator of the Golem), the Gaon of Vilna, and a host of
other more or less famous scholars. But the commentary of Rabbi
Jacob Krantz of Dubno became the most popular and beloved. He was
a popular preacher who lived in the time of the Gaon of Vilna and
Moses Mendelssohn. He had a remarkable gift for interpreting
passages in the Bible and in the Haggadah through the use of
homely parables.
     The Haggadah is a book that has been tied up with Jewish
life for ages. And such a book, which is bound up with so many
reminiscences of Jewish life of days gone by, can be best
appraised, not by its content, but by the history through which
it lived. The great poet Heine, in his novel, "The Rabbi of
Bacharach," has this to say about the Haggadah:

"The master of the house sits at the table and reads from a queer
book called Haggadah. Its content is a marvelous mixture of
age-old legends, miracles of the Exodus, curious discussions,
prayers, and festive songs. The master reads this book with an
old, traditional chant; again and again the others at the table
join him in chorus. The tune of the chant is a fearfully hearty
one; it lulls and soothes, and at the same time it rouses and
calls, so that even those Jews who long since turned from the
faith of their fathers and seek strange joys and foreign honors
are touched when the well-remembered chants of Pesach happen to
reach their ears."

     Heine was right. It is not the content of the Haggadah that
stirs one, as much as the chant with which it is sung, the
ceremonies with which it is bound up, and the images the
ceremonies evoke. One is also moved by the interpretations and
bon mots, the stories and parables, the anecdotes and witticisms
which the folk gathered about the Haggadah in the course of
     In addition, the Haggadah played a great role in the
development of Jewish art. Illustrations were made for the book
at a time when art in its various forms was unusual among Jews.
We also have the Haggadah to thank for saving us two old Jewish
folk songs, "Who Knows One," and "A Kid, A Kid." There were,
apparently, many such folk songs that, in time, were forgotten.
All that is left to us of these are the above two songs, and for
that the Haggadah is responsible.


End of this section on the Passover from Schauss' book "The
Jewish Festivals" (1938).

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