Category: bissel


A Bissel of This and That

This year, the eight-day festival of Passover, which commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, will be celebrated from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan or March 27 – April 4, 2021.  Passover (or Pesach) is observed by avoiding leaven (chametz) and highlighted by the Seder meals that include four cups of wine, eating matzah and bitter15 herbs, and retelling the story of the Exodus.

According to this story, after many decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs during which time the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, G‑d saw the people’s distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed G‑d’s command. G‑d then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops. At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan in the year 2448 from creation, G‑d visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. While doing so, G‑d spared the children of Israel, “passing over” their homes—hence the name of the holiday. Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the journey did not have time to rise. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as G‑d’s chosen people.

In order to commemorate the unleavened bread that the Israelites ate when they left Egypt, we are not to eat, or even retain in our possession, any chametz from midday of the day before Passover until the conclusion of the holiday. Chametz refers to leavened grain—any food or drink that contains even a trace of wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt or their derivatives, and which was not guarded from leavening or fermentation. This includes bread, cake, cookies, cereal, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages. Ridding our homes of chametz can be an intensive process, and in many homes involves a full-out spring-cleaning search-and-destroy mission during the weeks before Passover, culminating with a ceremonial search for chametz on the night before Passover, and then a burning of the chametz ceremony on the morning before the holiday. During Passover, instead of chametz, we eat matzah, which is flat unleavened bread.

The highlight of Passover is the Seder (order), observed on each of the first two nights of the holiday. The Seder is a fifteen-step family-oriented tradition and ritual-packed feast. The central points of the Seder include eating matzah, eating bitter herbs to commemorate the bitter slavery endured by the Israelites, drinking four cups of wine or grape juice, and the recitation of the Haggadah, the liturgy that describes in detail the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah is the fulfillment of the biblical obligation to recount to our children the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover. It begins with a child asking the traditional “Four Questions”.

Further information about Passover may be found online at: This site includes Passover Recipes, Stories, History, Covid Passover Resources, and information on ways to celebrate Passover and how to prepare a Seder This site explains all of the customs and rituals of Passover, including a step-by-step summary of the Seder and a list of ritual items used during the Seder. This site includes basic information about Passover.


Purim: The Feast of Lots

A Bissel of This and That

The joyous holiday of Purim is celebrated every year on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (late winter/early spring). Purim 2021 begins on Thursday night, February 25, and continues through Friday, February 26, (February 27-28 in Jerusalem). It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination.

The story of Purim is told in the Biblical book of Esther. The heroes of the story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his daughter. Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to become part of his harem, and he loved her more than his other women and made her queen. But the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her nationality.

The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, so Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. In a speech that is all too familiar to Jews, Haman told the king, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them” (Esther 3:8).The king gave the fate of the Jewish people to Haman to do as he pleased to them. Haman’s plan was to exterminate all of the Jews.

Purim is so called after the lots cast by Haman to determine the month in which the slaughter was to take place. In Hasmonean times it was known as the “Day of Mordecai”.

Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people, telling her that it was possible she had attained her royal position in order to serve her people “at such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). This put Esther in a dangerous position because anyone who came into the king’s presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned. Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went to see the king. Thankfully, he welcomed her. Later, she told him of Haman’s plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai

The book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only book of the bible that does not contain the name of  G-d. In fact, it includes virtually no reference to G-d. Mordecai makes a vague reference to the fact that the Jews will be saved by someone else, if not by Esther, but that is the closest the book comes to mentioning G-d. Thus, one important message that can be gained from the story is that G-d often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck.

The holiday of Purim is preceded by a minor fast, the Fast of Esther, which commemorates Esther’s three days of fasting in preparation for her meeting with the king. Then the celebration begins! The centerpiece of the communal celebration is the reading of the Scroll of Esther, the Megillah, in the synagogue. This is typically a rowdy affair, punctuated by booing and noisemaking when Haman’s name is read aloud. Another tradition is the Purim shpiel or play.

One of the favorite activities in preparation for the holiday is the baking and eating of hamantaschen, triangular filled pastries bursting with poppy seeds, apricot or other sweet fillings. In addition, following the commandment to give gifts to friends and the needy, the preparation of so-called mishloah manot baskets is a fun activity to engage in, as is their distribution on the holiday. 

Although considered a minor holiday, Purim has become one of the best-loved holidays of the Jewish year. The reasons for this are easy to see. It is a joyous day on which everyone is encouraged to have fun and enjoy themselves. Most significant, however, is the story of Purim, in which a small and threatened Jewish community in exile is able to triumph over its foes. This is a powerful image for a community that over the centuries has been faced with threats from many different sources. The story of Purim holds out the hope that no matter how bad the circumstances, things will turn out well in the end.

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