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Passover rituals

Holy day helps nourish body, soul

Holy days, or holidays as they are known in contemporaryculture, often involve their own unique foods as a way to remind both body and soul of traditions that evolved with the celebration's origin. While many holiday foods have become part of a lavish banquet of feasting, the culinary traditions employed during the Jewish Passover are the antithesis of a physical feast, mindful of the poverty and panic that accompanied Moses' command that his followers cover their doorposts with lamb's blood.

And while modern Judaism offers many different forms of the traditional Seder service and Passover observances, local Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch in Salt Lake City lead his synagogue in preparations unique to Orthodox practice earlier this week.

As they did so, the Christian world prepared for Easter with Holy Week — which celebrates the Jewish Jesus as savior and redeemer. Scholars disagree about whether Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples was a Seder service, though most agree it was held during the Passover week.

On Wednesday, Rabbi Zippel and members of his flock gathered to burn the leavened food — including pasta, bread, rice, flour and cookies — that had been removed in the final sweep of their homes in preparation for the seven-day celebration.

Jewish law provides for prohibitive and proscriptive commandments during the holiday, including one that prohibits leaven — any type of yeast or food containing it — for seven days, he said." The commandment is not to burn, but to destroy any leftover leavened food you have."

Burning was simply the method the rabbi and his followers chose to dispose of it, he said. On Tuesday night, each of the families within his synagogue scoured their homes in search of items that must be disposed of.

Another pre-Passover observance that Rabbi Zippel officiated in this year was also held Wednesday, as he performed "one of the rarest rituals in Judaism," called "the blessing of the sun."

"It is recited only once every 28 years," he explained, citing the Talmud — a compendium of Jewish law and ethics — which teaches that the sun finds itself at each 28 year interval in the "same position where it was during the six days of the (Earth's) creation." The ritual was last recited in 1981, he said.

The formal celebration of Passover began with the lighting of candles on Wednesday night, as families and friends gathered either in their homes or their community centers for the ritual Seder meal and service.

"It's a very family-oriented holiday many people celebrate with their families," the rabbi said, noting that members of his synagogue came together on Wednesday night, and he held his own private service on Thursday night at home with family.

On the menu? Bitter herbs, unleavened bread or "matzah," wine or grape juice and other foods symbolic of God's saving grace in "passing over" the Jews with the plagues that the Bible says were sent upon the Pharaoh in Egypt.

As with many worship and religious practices, the exact foods used during the Seder and how it is presented varies from Orthodox Judaism to Conservative and Reform congregations.

Local Seder services within the Jewish community were held Wednesday evening, including a community service at the Jewish Community Center near University Hospital, where more than 100 gathered to participate.

Rabbi Zippel said he's happy to see people gathering for the celebration of spiritual freedom, but he worries that many Jews have become lax in their observances.

"In my experience of 17 years as rabbi in Utah, I've come across one of the major hurdles or obstacles that Judaism in the 21st century has to overcome, and it's encapsulated in one word — apathy. So many people out there were born into the Jewish faith but simply come to a certain point in their lives where they say, 'I don't care. It doesn't mean that much to me.' " The concern is growing among many in the American Jewish community that, unless Jewish identity can be better fostered and encouraged, the traditions that have been passed down for centuries could eventually be lost.

Yet the ceremonies and rituals of holidays like Passover "are specifically celebrated to fight with every fiber of our being the attitude of apathy," he said. "We want to take pride in our Jewishness with spouses, children, grandchildren and to celebrate our Jewishness and our spiritual freedom as Jews in order to avoid plague of apathy."

Children from observant homes "very much participate; in fact, the entire Seder observance is centered and revolves around children in the home. One of the highlights is the four questions asked during the Seder," including one asked by a child, "What makes this night different than all other nights of the year?"

The rabbi sees it as one of many observances that draw children into the heart of Jewish life and help form an identity that encompasses not only the spiritual components of the faith, but the cultural and emotional tenets as well.

"It puts children in a leading role."