Hummus at the Seder? And other Matza Bytes

Finally. The option to eat rice and beans on Pesach has moved closer to worldwide acceptance. For those who have strictly avoided peanut oil or green beans or lentils on Pesach, believing them to be hametz (leavened food that is prohibited by Biblical restrictions), consider the latest rabbinic opinions by the Conservative movement permitting these foods. Referred to as kitniyot (legumes), these foods have always been part of Sephardi and Mizrahi Passover tables, even at the seder. It was only in medieval Europe that some over-zealous Ashkenazi authorities banned them.

Remember: there are 5 grains that are prohibited during the 7 (8 in the Diaspora) days of Pesach:  wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt. When these grains are turned into matza (by being baked in a 500 degree oven within 18 minutes, before the water and flour begin the natural rising process), we can use them. That’s how we get matza meal. Anything else that contains these grains (cereal, pasta, even white vinegar), is considered hametz.

If you follow that biblical restriction affirmed by Sephardi custom and now Conservative movement authorities, you’re free to eat rice, beans, and even peanuts. Strictly speaking, any processed food from these products (including hummus, peanut oil, or Nutella) should be marked Kosher for Passover, because the processing may otherwise bring them in contact with hametz. Enjoy!

What’s on your Seder Plate
An orange? A tomato? A sweet potato? A banana?

The seder plate, after all, is symbolic. Lamb shank represents the roasted paschal lamb. Egg represents the additional holiday offering. Bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. Haroset represents mortar. Greens represent spring. Romaine Lettuce (hazeret) is also bitterness.

With the proliferation of new haggadot and new ritual objects (Miriam’s cup) came the idea of new symbols on the seder plate.

The near-ubiquitous orange has come to represent the woman’s place in Judaism (though its roots were in solidarity with marginalized people, including widows and gays and lesbians).

At the Freedom Seder that HBT hosted for several years with the Union United Methodist Church, we created an entire seder plate representing foods from the African-American tradition including chicken, collard greens and sweet potato.

A few years ago, we were moved by the success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to put a tomato on our seder plate.

Other creative seder plate ideas have included an olive to reminds us of the plight of Palestinian farmers and the quest for peace in Israel and Palestine, an artichoke, a kiwi, and even a Food Desert seder plate with rotten vegetables and a potato chip.

This year, the Reform movement is adding a banana, to remind us of Syrian refugees.

All of the symbols on a seder plate have one purpose: to get us to ask questions and to convey the experience of leaving Egypt. What happens when those symbols get old and tired?

Often, we associate new meanings to the old symbol. The egg, which had its roots in the ancient temple sacrifices, came to represent spring and rebirth.

Other times we substitute a different item. The Talmud allows for a roasted beet instead of a roasted shankbone, to accommodate vegetarians.

Some symbols are so obscure, we just leave them out. Hazeret, romaine lettuce, is a holdover from a rabbinic dispute over the maror (bitter herbs). It was resolved by having two different kinds of bitter herb, one to fulfill the mitzvah of Maror, and the other to put in your Hillel Sandwich for Korech.

And today, we add new symbols that remind us of slavery and oppression in our own world. With these new symbols, someone is bound to ask a question, “Why is X on the seder plate?” And that’s all you need to get everyone around the table talking.

What is the message you want your seder plate to convey this year?

How do we make the rest of the days of Passover “count”?

With so much attention to the seder, the rest of the week may be a let-down. Especially if you don’t like matza. The seder is rich in symbol and offers room for meaningful discussion. What should we do to keep our souls nourished until Passover has passed over?

On the second night of Passover, we begin a simple ritual that connects the freedom of Pesach with the fulfillment at Shavuot. The Torah instructs us to count 49 days, seven times seven, as we journey, like the Israelites, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. This tradition is known as Counting the Omer.

Each night we stop what we’re doing, stand up, pronounce a blessing and proclaim, “Today is the X day of counting the Omer.”  That’s it. It’s one of the easiest mitzvot to practice. Counting the Omer forces us to ask ourselves, did I make this day count?

In our house, we don’t just count the Omer. We count the Homer. As in Homer Simpson. One of my husband Brian’s greatest contributions to Jewish life is the Homer Calendar. You have to see it to believe it — and to learn everything you ever wanted to know – not just about counting the Omer, but about Jews in The Simpsons.   The Homer Calendar, now 18 years and counting.

Wherever you will be for Pesach, I wish you much joy and renewal!  Chag same’ach!

Posted on April 20, 2016 .