Monday, April 14, 2014

PESAH EVE: What do we have to do today?

Ta'anit Bekhorot (Fast of the first born) 

Today is Ta'anit bekhorot, the fast of the first born (seehere). Because this fast day is a custom (minhag) rather than a formal fast, the tradition is that the first-born exempt themselves from this fast by participating in a joyous religious ceremony. For example, by participating in a  Berit Mila or a Pidion the first born will be exempt form the fast. Usually, every community organizes  a Siyum Masekhet (=the conclusion of a Talmudic treatise, which is an event that deserves celebration) so that the first-born present at the occasion will be exempted from the fast and won't feel weak at the time of the Seder.
In most communities this fast is only customary for first-born males, not females.  In case the first-born is a young boy, many communities follow the tradition that the father fasts on his son's behalf. Many families have the tradition that when the first born breaks the fast, they do not eat Hamets anymore, and females first-born refrain from eating Hamets in the morning.

Each community member should follow his and her own traditions and customs. 

Akhilat Matza  (Eating Matza  on Pesah Eve)

On Pesah eve we should not eat regular Matza .  We keep the taste of the Matza for its ideal moment: the night of the Seder. We are allowed to eat Matza 'ashira or egg Matza (See this). Today we should eat light at noon and especially after mid-afternoon so we reserve our appetite for the Seder. 

9.56 am (in some communities they set this time every year at 10.00 am)

LAST TIME FOR BI'UR HAMETS in NYC (=getting rid of Hamets by burning, feeding birds or fish, selling, etc. see this): 11.12 am (in some communities they set this time every year at 11.00 am).

After we get rid of the last Hamets we say the following text to definitely disown every Hamets that might have remained in our possession inadvertently:


"All kind of Hamets or fermenting agents that belongs to me, that I have seen or that I haven't seen,  that I have eliminated or that I haven't eliminated, should be considered ownerless as the dust of the earth."
Candle lighting tonight in NYC:   7:14pm


Friday, April 11, 2014

PESAH, Passed-over or protected?

 ופסח ה' על הפתח ולא יתן המשחית לבא אל בתיכם לנגוף
Exodus 12:23

In order to persuade the Egyptians to let the Jewish people go out of Egypt, the Almighty inflicted upon them ten plagues.  The last one, the plague that finally convinced the Egyptian monarch to let the Israelites go, was the death of the first-born.   The Tora describes the plague or sickness that affected the first-born as mash-hit, literally , "a destroyer" (Ex. 12:23). Obviously, we, the Jewish people, do not believe in powers independent from God. However, in order to fit our limited understanding, the Biblical text often attributes certain actions to God's shelihim or proxies. The "destroyer" (The rabbis nicknamed it elsewhere the angel of death), describes one of God's action, death, thru a linguistic proxy. We say angel of death, or mash-hit  but we are referring ultimately to God's actions. Illustration: In the South African courtroom, when Oscar Pistorius talks to the prosecutor (a man) he says: "My Lady". Why? Because although the accuser is talking to the prosecutor, he has to address always the Judge, which in this case, is a woman. Similarly, althought the Tora describes the actions as done by a mash-hit/ destroyer, or a wind that God used to split the sea, etc. these actions referred and should always be ascribed to God. 

Back to Pesah. In America, Pesah is known as "Passover". It is thought that at the time of the death of the first born, while God was inflicting the blow of death to the Egyptians, He "passed over" (skipped) the house of the Jews sparing their lives.  Allow me to present a slightly different reading of the same verse, based on the Targum Onqelos, the official Jewish translation of the Bible. Onqelos does not translate "Pesah" or "Pasah" as passed-over but us protected (in Aramaic, hais, like, adam has al mamono, "a person cares and protects his assets"). Thus, the verse Ex. 12:23 should be translated in this way "When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and He will PROTECT that doorway, and He will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down" (see also Ex. 11:27). Accordingly, God  (linguistically) acted thru His destroyer to inflict death, but He Himself (so to speak) cared for and protected His chosen People. That is why Pesah, particularly the first night of Pesah, is also called in the Tora "lel shimurim", the night of Protection.

I prefer this translation because when Pesah is understood as "Divine Protection" it gives a clearer meaning to this beautiful Holiday:    Pesah celebrates God's Protection to the Jewish people, from the eve of the exodus of Egypt until our own days.


Candle Lighting in NYC      7:11pm
Shabbat Ends in NYC          8:12 pm  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

PESAH, how to have a succesuful SEDER?

Monday April 14th and Tuesday 15th at night, are probably the most important nights of the Jewish Calendar. During those nights we will fulfill a very special Mitsva:  והגדת לבנך teaching our children the story of Pesah. Instilling in their minds and hearts the collective memories that will shape their personalities and identity for the rest of their lives. But, how to do that? We have the Haggada, the narrative of the Exodus. And we also have the clear instructions of our rabbis: teach and talk to your children at the level of their understanding.

But, how should we do that? How should we teach our children Jewish History (or Jewish memory) in the era of youtube, Instagram and iPads?  In a time where their attention span is so short and erratic...

The secret for a successful and meaningful Pesah Seder could be summarized with three words: Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.

Some ideas

1. DIVIDE AND CONQUER:  Write an email, text or whatsapp today to each member of your family and guests. Assign to each one of them one part of the Haggada. Ask them to be ready to read and/or explain at least one short text of the Hagada in Hebrew, English,  etc.   Encourage them to search at least in the following websites:,,, for material related to the texts they will  read.     The little ones should prepare themselves to sing (and perhaps explain)  ma nishtana' or 'abadim hayinu  or had gadya.     Those who have difficulties reading Hebrew should search online and be ready to explain one particular idea of the hagada (=Pesah, matsa, maror, 4 cups, eating reclined, haroset, etc.).
2. MAKE IT RELEVANT:  Encourage some of the participants of the Seder, even your prospective guests,  to briefly (5 minutes, max!) debate among themselves one subject related to the Exodus from Egypt, which is still relevant today. 
Two examples.
a. rab ve'atsum mimenu (Ex. 1:10). "Although they were only a small minority, the Egyptians feared that the Jews were too powerful and decided to eliminate them". Although Jews make  less than 3% of the American population the list of "50 Most Influential Commentators in America" (as per Atlantic Magazine, 2010) included 26 Jews. Are we Jews too powerful? Not powerful enough? Is the "Jewish disproportional influence" in larger society an excuse to justify antisemitism? Should we keep it all to ourselves?
b. Vayare'u otanu hamitsrim vaya'anunu (Deut. 26:6). "The Egyptians demonized us and oppressed us".  Since the beginning of our history, our enemies first demonizing us to justify their animosity against us. Is "demonization of the Jews" a strategy that is still used by anti-Semites to justify their hatred?  Is Israel, "the Jew among the nations", demonized today in media, UN, etc. to justify anti-semitic behavior?

3. MAKE IT FUN: Ask the funniest guys of the family to play some parts of the Haggada, for example, the Ten Plagues. Have someone (a more serious guy) to explain briefly each plague while the actors play the play. One person has to play Moshe (with his head covered with a Talit) and someone else Pharaoh (use your imagination...).  Make it visual. Get small plastic frogs, animal masks for deber and ping pong balls for hail. Make it short. No more than 5 -7 minutes play.
Have games for the children, a Pesah treasure hunt or Pesah trivia, etc. To find great games you must see THIS and THIS.  Have 20 questions ready, and most importantly 20 (or more) small prizes to reward the correct answers. Anytime the Seder is about to get out of control, or boring or you need everyone's attention you can ask one of your questions (show the prize first!). Guaranteed to work..

4. MAKE IT DEEP: Recommended modern Haggadot:   Rabbi Shimon Appisdorf see here.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks     See here
For the advanced students I recommended  THIS old but fantastic Sephardic commentary of the Haggada written by Rabbi Don Ytshaq Abarbanel (1437-1508). I'm going to use it this year. Do not skip the introduction (the tragic personal story of the author). Easy Hebrew. Courtesy of .

Click  here  to download an ancient Spanish (not "Ladino") Hagadda, published by rabbi Ytshaq Yehuda Leon Templo, in Amsterdam, 1728

Click HERE to read:  "TO SELL or NOT TO SELL my HAMETS?"