Now that April has rolled around, Pesach (Passover) 2019 is right around the corner. In honor of the holiday, and because I’ve got WAY too much time on my hands (anyone looking for a real estate, finance, or Jewish contractor?!), I thought it’d be fun to shed some light on a few of my favorite myths and misconceptions related to Pesach.
Before I begin, I should mention I approach my Judaism from a critically minded angle, and in no way am I trying to challenge anyone’s beliefs or traditions. That said, don’t even get me started on the historical veracity of the Pesach (in truth, it’s a way cooler story than splitting the Red Sea, but SPOILER ALERT).
Pesach means Passover in Hebrew
Let’s start with an odd one – The notion that Pesach (פסח) is the Hebrew word for Passover. In actuality (Pesach also refers to the animal sacrifice that was burnt in offering to the Jewish god, YHVH, during this holiday in the ancient temple. That said, the Hebrew word Pesach only appears a few times in the Torah, and the direct meaning is uncertain with some translators preferring the term “have compassion for.” This one is definitely worth a Google.
Moses Split the Red Sea
Staying on the topic of language, let’s discuss the central miracle of the Pesach story – the splitting of the Red Sea. If you know anything about geography, then you know the Red Sea is 1. a huge body of water; and 2. it is located on the southern tip of Israel in modern Eilat, also having shores in Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula, part of modern Egypt. This doesn’t make any narrative sense within the storyline of the Exodus, because the body of water is too far away. It is generally understood that at one point, a mistranslation took place which dropped an “e” and this propagated throughout the Western world. Moses “actually” split the Reed Sea in the story, which makes more sense if you imagine Moses miraculously making a path through a shallow marsh-like area to safety.
I could go down a DEEP rabbit hole on the historical veracity of the Exodus story (and the origins of our ancestral tribe the Hebrews), but that is a story for another day.
Another easy one, so we won’t waste any time. They aren’t questions, they are four answers to a single question – “Why is this night different?” Look it up.
Matzah isn’t what we eat today
This is a new one for me too, but always something I assumed. We always ask ourselves, does unleavened have to mean tasteless cracker? This cannot possibly be what the Torah is describing – again, it doesn’t even make narrative sense within the context of the story. Matzah in its current form is a result of years of addition Talmudic laws and interpretations of that law with additional regulations based on those interpretations. It was probably closer to bad pita bread.
Some (probably most) Jews eat rice, corn, and other items “forbidden” by Ashkenazi minhag (tradition), and it’s because the origin of this tradition isn’t that the items themselves aren’t kosher for Pesach. Instead, it’s because once upon a time, folks would bring their own shovels to the market and the fear was that unkosher items could get mixed into the rice, corn, etc. due to the placement of those items in typical markets. Probably overkill then, but definitely now.
Moses is only mentioned once in the Haggadah
What we today think of as a Haggadah is the result of thousands of years of editing beginning as early as about 200 CE. However, the structure for the Haggadah as we know it was codified in the 11th century. Throughout our history, the Rabbis have at times made a habit of minimizing human influence within holidays, and preferred to focus on God’s miracles and actions. Many traditional Haggadot today maintain this downplay of Moses, but most (especially the stick-puppet one Haggadah that I grew up with) highlight Moses as well as many of the others.
Last Supper Wasn’t a Seder
Many people like to believe that the famous Last Supper of Jesus was a Seder. History tells us this is impossible. Ignoring the narrative within the Christian Gospel, we just learned that the Haggadah wasn’t fully codified until the 11th century. Well, it wasn’t even developed as an idea until after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, long after Jesus’ time.
Orange on the Seder Plate
This one has a ton of mystery, and folks have many different reasons for participating in this tradition. Most of them are awesome reasons, and you can read more about those here. However, the main takeaway here is that, like many things in Judaism, there is no one answer to where this one came from and it is open to interpretation.
I hope you enjoyed these bits of trivia, and if you did, please let TC Jewfolk know and I’ll get cracking on dispelling some misconceptions from other areas of our collective Jewish memory.
Charley Smith served the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Jewish Federations by developing their platform for reaching young adults and millennials, YALA. Today he lives in Miami with his partner, Shaked, and their dog Gever. Charley continues his work with the Federations today managing Honeymoon Israel, Birthright Israel, and the local cohort of the 248Community Action Network.