Friday, April 11, 2008

What is YaK N HaZ?

What is YaK N’HaZ?

No, it has nothing to do with sharing a chuckle on the bima with the cantor; but it has lots to do with the beginning of this year’s first Seder. As we see often in our prayer books and in the Haggadah (check out the Ten Plagues), the rabbis loved utilizing acrostics and mnemonics, or whatever you want to call them, as memory-aids. Since Judaism has always looked for God “in the details,” and since the Seder means “order,” ways had to be devised to assist people in memorizing the correct order of detailed procedures.

When the first night of Passover this year is a Saturday night (a rare occurrence, which happened just 11 times in the 20th century), there are a number of blessings to be recited right off the bat:

1) The Kiddush over wine (boray pri ha-gafen)
2) The additional blessing over the festival (recited typically as part of the Kiddush)
3) The Havdalah prayer, ending Shabbat, including the blessings over the fire of the Havdalah candle and the Havdalah blessing itself.
4) The Shehechianu blessing, always recited at the beginning of festivals and to mark other special occasions.

After much discussion, the Talmud opts for the exact order detailed above. It’s interesting to note how the lines are somewhat blurred between the ending of Shabbat and the beginning of Passover. So we have 1) wine (Yayin), 2) Kiddush, 3) candle (Ner), 4) Havdalah, and 5) the seasonal blessing (Z’man). Put it all together and you have YaK N’HaZ.

Now here is where it goes from simply interesting to downright fascinating. The Haggadah, more than any other document, reflects both the amazing continuity and equally remarkable diversity of Jewish expression over the ages. There are over 4,000 known versions, including a number of illuminated manuscripts from the middle ages that depict YaK N’Haz in an intriguing manner. In the 1560 Mantua Haggadah (found in the Israel Museum), the Prague Haggadah (1526), and the Rylands Spanish Haggadah (mid 14th century), among others, YaK N’HaZ is depicted in illustrations showing a hunter with a hound chasing a rabbit.

Come again?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a pictorial mnemonic, an instant reminder to our European ancestors as to what the verbal mnemonic was all about. Why? Because the German phrase “Jag den Haz” closely resembles YaK N’HaZ, and “Jag den Haz” means “hunt the hare.”

So when our kids start clamoring to watch the Rugrats Passover special or to sing one of those crazy newfangled Seder songs like “Haggadah Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” think of those hunted hares in medieval Germany. And recall that the word Haggadah means “telling,” and the essence of the Seder, is that the ancient story be retold in ways that will resonate for this generation. Your Seder will not be exactly the same as your grandparents’, or as your neighbor’s down the street. But it will be representative of this generation – yet tied intimately to ancient traditions and an equally ancient story.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go share some “Yucks with the Haz” up on the bima.

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