Thursday, March 25, 2021

In This Moment, March 26: Kosher Pigs and the Passover Bunny

In This Moment

Screen shot of Sylvie Rosenberg's first aliyah to the Torah last Shabbat morning (on Zoom), as she begins her Bat Mitzvah preparations. Join us each Shabbat on Zoom! And click here to see a video of Friday night's service, with the theme of the Lower East Side and the Immigrant Experience and my tribute to movie producer Joan Micklin Silver and her film, "Hester Street."
I also had the honor of delivering a Lenten sermonette St. Francis Episcopal Church last Sunday. The topic was NOT Cancel Culture; but the sermon did speak of sin and repentance from the perspective of Psalm 51, which was a scriptural selection for that service. Click here to watch the video of the sermon, which was not about Cancel Culture, beginning about 18 minutes into the service.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover!

Forget Passover; the big news this weekend is that Shtisel Season Three is dropping on Netflix.

But all kidding aside, the biggest news is that yet another community is grief-stricken this week. We grieve with the people of Boulder and resolve to do something about the continuing plague of gun violence. As we sit at our seders, we should be especially mindful of the Fifth Childthe one who is not at the table because their life was abruptly cut short by an AR-47. Ending this plague is a cry of our generation, a moral imperative and a Jewish imperative. This Passover, more than most, we will be thinking about who is not at the table.

It is not too late to sign up for the TBE Second Night Virtual Seder. To get the Zoom link, please go to this site and submit the reservation by noon on Friday. Once you get it, feel free to share it with relatives and friends; just please do not share it on social media.

And don't get too sedered-out. Join the over 300 government officials, faith and community leaders, and diplomats who will come together this Tuesday, March 30 for the AJC's virtual Interfaith/Intergroup Passover Seder celebrating the central themes of Passover: redemption, freedom, and education– themes that resonate far beyond the Jewish community and reach across religions and backgrounds. Register here.

Below you'll find an article I wrote about the oddities of Passover beginning on a Saturday night. It happens just 12 percent of the time, and hasn't occurred since 2008. For those looking for more on this, here is Rabbi David Golinkin's detailed ruling on how to prepare. What will it be on Friday night, Hallah or Egg Matzah?

And an even more unusual aspect of Passover's beginning on Saturday night is something called Yak'N'Haz.

No, it has nothing to do with sharing a chuckle on the bima with the hazzan; 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), 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 bizarre. 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? Do we believe in the Passover Bunny?

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,” - and when you see this year's hilarious parody, "The Red Sea Shanty," 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.

Below: Scene of a rabbit hunt from southern German Haggadah, c.1490
Why is this Israeli Election Different From All Others?
Israel's 4th election in two years yielded yet more uncertainty. Neither the pro-Bibi nor pro-change sides have enough seats to form a stable governing coalition. Note that the "camps" are no longer delineated on the traditional left-center-right axis. The determinant issue here is whether Netanyahu will continue as Prime Minister while under indictment, with his trial ramping up in earnest right after Passover. The introduction of the Kahanist - racist, virulently homophobic faction (the "Religious Zionism" party) into the Knesset for the first time, along with the complexity of the bifurcated Arab vote - along with the first-ever Reform rabbi becoming an MK - has injected more unpredictability into the mix. Bibi has been able to survive grave threats to his leadership before, but even he might have trouble creating a coalition dependent on uniting a party of racist homophobes and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (they actually agree on the homophobia). Bibi's opponents are also divided ideologically, but they all share a common purpose - and they might just be able to submerge their egos for just long enough to achieve it.

For those who are concerned that the peace process no longer is even discussed in Israeli election campaigns, you can take heart in the revitalization of some left and centrist parties this go-round, and in the increasing willingness of Jewish politicians to reach out to Israel's Arab citizens. The fact is that the old peace process has been moribund for some time. Shifting Middle Eastern alliances require nimble thinking, and changes in Washington have also altered the diplomatic landscape. The Palestinians are also approaching elections (we'll see if they happen) and they are not going away. Meanwhile, if the anti-Bibi group can take the reins without the Haredi parties and Kahanist extremists pulling all the strings, this might be the perfect opportunity for Israel to address some of its pressing social issues that have been ignored for too long. At the very least, they may be able to enact just enough legislation to assure that the next election will bring about a change at the top.

In Israel, as in America, it is vital that the rule of law prevail over the cult of personality. Right now the window is open - ever so slightly - for that to happen.

My bet right now is that Benny Gantz, the centrist of all centrists, will ride his surprising revival to become Prime Minister, at least on a caretaker basis, so that the healing might begin.
This Passover, kosher pig’s on the menu

My latest op-ed for the Religion News Service: See the web page here.

(RNS) — This year, Passover begins on a Saturday night, something we haven’t experienced since 2008. According to Rabbi David Golinkin, this anomaly occurs only 12% of the time.

And whenever it occurs, people invariably ask two questions: When should we stop eating hametz (prohibited leavened products)? And the corollary, by when should our house be completely clean for the holiday? On Friday morning or Saturday morning?

The standard response is the house should be ready on Friday, before Shabbat, instead of the morning of the Seder (this year Saturday), which is usually the case. For most Jews, who are secular in most respects, the premise is based on an utter inconsistency. Many will have their houses ready for Passover by Friday afternoon because they want to do Passover “right,” when in fact they’ll be rushing their preparations in order to keep Shabbat rules they don’t normally keep.

To be “consistent” with their normal practice, the non-Shabbat observer should consume leavened products until Saturday — not Friday — morning. Why should this Shabbat be different from all others? 

The late Rabbi Richard Israel once wrote a book titled “The Kosher Pig.” The intriguing title stems from a story he tells about a pious Jew who was told by his doctor he had a rare disease that could be cured only by eating pork. Now, Jewish law states that in order to save a life, virtually any of the law’s requirements can — in fact must — be broken. But that wasn’t enough for this man. He determined the pig had to be slaughtered in the kosher way, painlessly, before he ate it.

So he brought the pig to the local ritual slaughterer, who acquired a special knife that would never be used on a kosher animal. After slaughtering it in the “proper” ritual manner, the shochet examined the pig’s lungs to look for blemishes. He had no idea what he was looking at, but he finally concluded the lungs had no serious abrasions (and was therefore “smooth” or “glatt”).

“So, nu?” the man asked, “Rabbi, is this pig kosher?” The rabbi examined the lungs for some time and then declared, “It may be kosher, but it’s still a pig.”

Modern Jewish life is filled with kosher pigs, utter inconsistencies we sometimes hardly notice; but they are there, and they are enlightening.

Which brings me back to Passover. The same thing happens every year regarding dietary restrictions. On Passover, many Jews who otherwise do not keep the dietary laws in their everyday lives become fanatic about ridding their homes of leaven and bringing matzo sandwiches to the classroom or office. A ham-on-matzo sandwich is hardly an unthinkable scenario in this perplexing world of kosher pigs. It’s kind of like the guy who drives to synagogue on Yom Kippur but tells the policeman writing him a ticket he can’t put money in the meter on a Jewish holiday.

Some more gems from Israel’s book: “An observant Jew has just made a serious pass at me. Do you think he will want me to go to mikva (ritual bath) before I have an affair with him?”

And another: One commercial fisherman in California called his rabbi to see if it was kosher to use pieces of squid as bait when he goes fishing. An interesting question, because squid has no fins and scales and is therefore unkosher; but does it affect the Kashrut of the fish caught? A fascinating question, except he called the rabbi on Saturday morning to ask it.


All of these people are, to some degree, serious Jews, and for that alone we must commend them. We might laugh at the inconsistency, we might even call it hypocrisy, but if they are hypocrites, we should all be so hypocritical. We all must learn the difference between pretending and striving, between going halfway in earnest and throwing it all away without giving it half a chance.

To be a hypocrite means at least we’ve set high, virtuous goals for ourselves, even if we don’t always live up to them. I’d rather do that, and fall short, than set no high standards at all. Most of us are so afraid of being called hypocrites we take the easy road. If we expect little of ourselves, we usually deliver.

So as we approach this unusual alignment of Passover and Shabbat, let’s allow for a little kosher pigheadedness. For those Jews and others who’ve rarely kept Shabbat in this manner before, don’t feel funny about keeping it a little more meticulously this time. It’s OK to be inconsistent.

You might even enjoy it.
Six13 - The Red Sea Shanty: A Pirate Passover

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover,
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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