Every Shabbat has its own special name. The name of the Shabbat is derived from the name of the Sedra(Portion of the Torah) that is read that particular week, eg. The Shabbat that we read the portion of Noach is called Shabbat Noach
However, there are a few exceptions , where a Shabbat is given a special name, regardless of the portion that is read that week, e.g. the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva (Shabbat of Repentance) regardless of the portion that is read in Shul. There are also a few special Shabbatot before Pesach.
When the Sanctuary stood, a positive mitzvah was incumbent upon every Jew to contribute half a shekel yearly for the purchase of the communal-offerings bought in the Sanctuary. During a given year the offerings had to be purchased from the half shekel contributions of the same year. This mitzvah was incumbent upon everyone, even a poor person dependant upon charity. If one lacked a half shekel, he borrowed from others, pawned or sold one of his garments, in order to give the required silver half – shekel. As it is said: “The rich shall not increase and the poor shall not diminish from a half –shekel” (Shmot 30).
All the shekalim were due in the Sanctuary by Rosh Chodesh Nissan each year, since on Rosh Chodesh Nissan allocations were made form the chamber in which the shekalim were kept towards the purchase of the communal offerings that were to be brought later.
On Rosh Chodesh Nissan public announcements were therefore made for the bringing in of the Shekalim, so that each person might have sufficient time to prepare his half shekel, and to give it at a proper time.
Now that the Sanctuary no longer exists, and we no longer bring offerings, and the mitzvah of half-shekel does not apply, we nevertheless read the portion from the Torah in the proper time, so that the Torah reading might be regarded as equal to the practical fulfillment of this mitzvah.
The Torah requires purification through the ashes of the red heifer only fort hose defiled by contact with the dead. Anyone defiled in any other manner could attain purification in the particular manner prescribed by the Torah.
For one defiled by contact with the dead, the only valid procedure for purification was that of the red heifer
The purpose of reading this passage before Nissan, is to remind all who had been defiled by contact with the dead., to purify themselves in order to be able to offer the Pesach sacrifice in its proper time.
Although today we do not perform the mitzvah of the korban Pesach, Pesach sacrifice, we still study the law in the proper time, and it is regarded as if we have purified ourselves from our defilement.
The saged of Isreal decreed that on the Shabbat before the first of Nissan, or on Rosh chodesh itself if it occurs on Shabbat, we should read the chapter beginning with the words “This month shall be for you the head of the months, it is the first for you of the months of the year.” (Shmot 12).This reading is in addition to the usual weekly sidra.
It is because of the importance of the month of Nissan (Nissan counted as the first month of the year in the Torah) that our sages decreed that we should add a special section of topical interest to the usual reading of the Torah.
Shabbat HaGadol – The Great Shabbat
The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol. The Israelites left Israel on Thursday and on the Shabbat before, the 10th of Nissan, they set aside a lamb fort he Pesach sacrifice. The Lamb was sacred to the Egyptians.
“ When the Egyptians saw this, they wanted to rise and take revenge but they were stricken with all kinds of bodily suffering and could do no harm to the Israelites. So on account of the miracles which were done on that day, the Sabbath before Pesach is known as Shabbat HaGadol”.
LAWS AND CUSTOMS RELATING TO EREV PESACH
- Mechirat Chametz – The selling of the Chametz
Apart from not being allowed to eat chametz on Pesach, we are also forbidden to own chametz on Pesach. In order to still be able to keep Chametz locked up in our cupboards during pesach, we “sell” chametz to a non Jew. By selling the chametz before Pesach we are no longer the legal owners.
Many people have the custom not to sell pure chametz such as bread, cake, and whisky (and therefore do not keep it in their homes during Pesach) People wishing to sell their Chametz may do so after the weekly shacharit, mincha-maariv services.
- Bedikat Chametz – the Search for Chametz
This takes place the night before Pesach. It is forbidden to begin eating a meal before one has searched for the Chametz. Long before Pesach we begin cleaning the house to rid it of any Chametz. The night before Pesach when our homes should be Chametz free we symbolically do a search for Chametz. The custom is to place 10 pieces of bread in serviettes, in different rooms in the house. We then recite a bracha and together with a candle, a wooden spoon and a feather we search fort he chametz, using the feather to brush the bread into a plastic bag.
The candle used for bedikkat chametz may only be a single candle, not plated wicks. The reason for this is that the Rabbis declared that a candle with more than one wick is considered to be a “torch” and a person would be scared to bring it close enough to the crevices in order to check properly for chametz. The bracha for bedikkat chametz can be found in the beginning of most hagadot.
Many people also have the custom to switch off the lights in the house during the search for chametz. Obviously if the house has not yet been fully prepared for Pesach, then the search is not really symbolic but serves a real purpose.
- Bitul Chametz, also known as Kol Chamira decleration
After the house has been searched there may still be crumbs, which were not found or any other chametz which has not been found. We declare these null and void by making a declaration known as the bitul chametz were we declare that they are no longer considered food and no longer counted as our property. The bitul chametz can also be found at the beginning of the Hagaddah and is written in Aramaic. It is important for each person to fully understand the content of the Bitul chametz, and if a person does not understand the Aramaic then he should make the declaration in English. This is said after the bedikkat chametz.
- BIUR CHAMETZ – Burning of the Chametz
The following morning we take the packet of chametz collected the previous evening and burn it. While the chametz, is burning we usually recite the kol Chamira prayer from the Hagaddah whereby we again renounce ownership of any chametz which we still may have in our possession. The burning of the Chametz must be completed before 10:30am however, chametz may not be eaten after 9:45am. On Erev Pesach it is also forbidden to eat matzah.
- TAANIT BECHORIM – FAST OF THE FIRST-BORN
IT is an ancient custom for the first born son to fast on Erev Pesach in memory of the miracle which saved the Jews from the Plague that slew the first-born of the Egyptians. This fast is treated with leniency. Therefore, if there is a meal relating to a Mitzva on that day such as a meal at a Brit Mila of Siyum, and the firstborn participates in the meal then he is exempt from fasting. Participating in the siyum has become a widespread custom amongst the firstborn.There are different customs associated with this fast. Some say that every firstborn, male or female, wether from the father or from the mother, must fast on that day. If there is no firstborn, then the oldest in the house must fast, since there was a person who died in every Egyptian household, since if it happened that there was no firstborn in the house then the oldest one there died. In contrast to this, there was no Israelite’s household in which a miracle did not take place and this fact should be remembered forever. However, others say that only firstborn males need to fast and this is the generally accepted custom. A child who is born after a miscarriage is considered as the firstborn and fasts on this day. It is usual for a father to fast for the firstborn who is too young to fast for himself. If the father is a firstborn, then his fasting includes him and his son.
- EIRUV TAVSHILIN – Preparing for Shabbat ont yhe second day of Yom tov – only if the second day is a Friday) Although we are allowed to cook on Yom Tov(from a pre existing flame) we are only allowed to cook on second day Yom Tov (If it is a Friday) for Shabbat.
- Since this is a Rabbinical prohibition if we perform “Eiruv Tavshilin” on Erev Yom Tov then we are allowed to cook on Friday for Shabbat (from an existing flame). The custom is to take one piece of matza and a boiled egg before yom tov begins and set it aside reciting the blessing. This is then eaten on Shabbat.
Laws and Custom of the Seder Night
All the preparation for Pesach culminates in the Seder. During the Seder we recite the Haggada which relates to the story of the Exodus. It is a Torah law to explain the Exodus from Egypt during the Pesach celebration. This duty in Hebrew is called “Haggadah” and this is the same name which has been given to the special book containing the details of the Seder, or order of service, followed on the first two nights of Pesach.
The actual Seder is divided into 15 different sections each having its own descriptive name. According to many opinions the 15 sections of the Seder were compiled by Rashi a great Torah commentator. On Shabbat and Yom Tov, two loaves are placed on the Friday night table, the reason being to remind us of the double portion of manna which the Jews recieved during the exodus from Egypt.However, on Pesach three matzot are placed at the head of the table. The third is required to emphasis the special blessing for the mitzvah of eating matza. The Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Lurie of the 16th Century also suggested that these Matzot represent the three groups in Israel – Kohen, Levi and Yisrael.
One should refrain from eating egg matzo on Pesach-only those who are ill may eat egg matza. It is advisable to speak to a Rov before deciding for yourself if you can eat egg matza.
It must however be stressed that for the mitzvah of eating matza at the two Sedarim-only regular matza ie not egg matza should be eaten. If possible one should eat “Shemura Matza” for the mitzvah of eating matza at the seder.
It is preferable to use red wine for the Seder or red grape juice, and not white wine or white grape juice.
We also place the Seder plate Kearah for Pesach at the head of the table. The different items placed on the Seder plate remind us of the Pesach celebration during the times of the Temple as well as difficult times during the Egyptian bondage.
Chametz is only created by the formation of flour from one of the five major grains in the presence of water. Fermentation in the presence of all other liquids-such as fruit juices, wine or eggs-cannot become Chametz. The mixture commonly known as Egg Matzah (although it is usually made today with apple or grape juice) may therefore be eaten during Pesach without any concerns of Chametz as long as no water is added. If even a drop of water is added to the mixture or to any of its ingredients, the mixture becomes Chametz almost immediately.
It is for this reason that the custom among Ashkenazim is to refrain from using egg Matzah during Pesach, unless it is absolutely necessary for children or the elderly who would have difficulty eating regular matzah: and even then they may not fulfill the mitzvah of eating Matzah at the Seder with Egg Matzah.
Pesach was also observed as an agricultural feast. The barley that was sewn in the winter becomes ripe on Pesach. 49 days after the Pesach festival, Shavuot takes place. In order to emphasise this very important period for the produce of the land, the counting from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot took place. After the destruction of the Temple, the obligation of counting the Omer did not cease and has been strictly observed throughout the Jewish community. The counting takes place at nightfall from the second night of Pesach until Shavuot.
Originally the Sefirah, the period between Pesach and Shavuot is not a sad period. However, during the many years of exile many unfortunate happenings occurred to the children of Israel during this period. The massacres of the Jews in the days of the crusades took place at this time of the year and according to tradition a plague raged amongst the deciples of Rebbe Akiva lasting until the 31st day of the Omer. During this time no weddings are permitted. However, a barmitzvah may take place without music.
There are two basic customs with regards to the keeping of the Sefira. The one custom is to keep the first 33 days as days of mourning and the second custom – that which is observed by the South African community and the general Ashkenazi community is to keep the last 33 days of the omer as days of mourning. However, according to both customs the 33 days of Omer, Lag Ba’Omer is a happy occasion since on this day the plague affecting the students of Rebbe Akiva ceased.
Shir Hashirim – Song of Songs
In Ashkenazi communities Shir Hashirim is read publicly on Shabbat Chol Hamoed, before the reading from the Torah. In some communities this is read from a scroll, handwritten on parchment. The Zohar tells us that Shir Hashirim embodies the entire Torah, the story of the exile in Egypt and the redemption of Israel from there. As well as from the other oppressors, so that by reading it we are enhancing the mitzvah of recounting the story of the exodus.
WHAT MAKES THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER NIGHTS?
Ever since the Exodus it has been a mitzvah to retell the story on this night. Why did the sages decide, when they composed the Hagaddah to begin the story with 4 questions.
Why did they institute many customs that are designed so that the participants of the Seder table would be motivated to ask questions, for example karpas, the small bitter vegetable which is eaten and then “ the pushing” off of the main course until after the story?
The custom of reclingin like a king when eating at the seder which contradicts the spirit in which we eat bitter herbs- a remembrance of the servitude of our fathers!
The answer lies in the fact that the most significant difference between man and animal, is that man has the ability to question. With all our higher abilities,. Speech and reason for example, we would be no more than a higher species; the ability to question is what distinguishes us from the rest of creation.
We may ask: ”Why do we exist?” “ What is the purpose of life?” How can I best fulfill my purpose” the only chance we have to fulfill our purpose is by first seeking to know what it is. One must not take the attitude that ttruth is unattainable, so why bother seeking it. Even worse, truth being too difficult, pleasure and comfort is preferable. Rather one must at least make the effort to find these ultimate truths realizing that ones life depends on them for without fulfilling ones purpose, ones life has been wasted.
One must decide with determination that if there is a purpose to lie, one will find it.! Where there is a will there is a way and one who is determined will succeed. This is how you must begin life and this is how the Hagadda, a prototype for Jewish education, begins, prompting the children to question, to seek after the truth. Yet one may still ask: “Why four questions?” Perhaps this is a parallel to the four types of Jews as portrayed in the Haggada by the four sons. Each one must be educated according to his needs. The four sons may also be understood as four character traits within each person in different proportions.
WISDOM is the knowledge of profound essential truths and proper values.
WICKEDNESS is the avoidance and hiding from these truths in order to give license to lust and greed
SIMPLENESS is the innocent search for truth.
The opposite of simple ness if not knowing what to ask, in search of meaning and purpose of life (thanks to SABJE festival fact sheets)
There are various customs with regard to what we put on our Seder plate. The following is a general outline:
a) MAROR – bitter herbs to remind us of our difficult experience as slaves in Egypt
b) CHAROSET – a mixture of apples, nuts and wine symbolizing the type of mortar that the Jews used for cement during their slavery.
c) ZEROAH – the Zeroah, the roasted bone reminds us of the Korban Pesach during the temple times. Today we no longer have the Korban Pesach due to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.
d) BEITZAH – the roasted egg symbolizes the Korban Chaggiga – the festival sacrifice that was brought on all festivals during the temple era.
e) KARPAS (celery) – this is the first item eaten after the Kiddush has been recited and it reminds us of the simple vegetables eaten by the Jews in Egypt.
f) CHAZERETH – Romain lettuce – this is the second bitter herb and is used for the Korach sandwich.
During the Seder we drink four cups of wine, (preferably red wine). Each cup represents a different expression of redemption used in the Torah. The four cups also represent the four matriarchs, Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. We also have a fifth cup on the Seder table. This cup is referred to as the cup of Eliyah and symbolizes the expression for redemption that has not yet been fulfilled, the gathering of all the Jews into the land of Israel when the Messiah will come. Tradition tells us that Elijah will come earlier and announce the advent of the Messiah and this is one reason why this cup is referred to as the ‘Cup of Elijah’.
AFIKOMAN: At the beginning of the Seder after eating the karpas the middle matza is broken into two. The smaller part is put back between the two whole matzot, and the larger part is set aside for the Afikoman. The practice of eating the Afikoman at the end of the meal has been introduced so that the last taste retained in our mouths may be the taste of the matza. Similarily in the ancient Temple times the meat of the Korban Pesach also formed the concluding dish. In order to keep the children awake at night until the end of the meal, the custom arose to hide the Afikoman and ask the children to search for it at the end of the meal.
RECLINING: When partaking of the four cups, of matza of the Korach and of the Afikoman, one must recline on a couch, or on an armchair or on a chair with cushions. This is how kings and noblemen used to eat and on this night, every Israelite conducts himself as a king.
MORE ABOUT CHAMETZ AND MATZA:
The opposite of Matza is Chametz (leaven). The prohibition is stated very clearly in the Torah (Exodus 12:19) – ‘No leaven shall be found in your house for seven days. For whoever eats anything leavened, that person shall be cut off from the Community of Israel’.
The ancient Rabbis knew that flour and grain begin to ferment and leaven almost as soon as they come into contact with water. It is for this reason that all kinds of bread, cake etc. may not be used on Pesach as they are all made with flour and water. Grain alcohol is also considered as Chametz and hence the prohibition of all kinds of beer and whiskey.
LAWS REGARDING RICE AND OTHER LEGUMES (kitniyot)
In many Ashkenazi communities it was customary to make flour from rice and to use this rice flour to make bread. Although the Torah does not prohibit rice on Pesach, the “rice bread” could be confused with bread made from forbidden grains. Therefore it was decided to prohibit rice and all other types of legumes e.g. beans, peas and lentils. Since this situation only applied in Ashkenazi communities, this restriction was never adopted by Sefardi communities, and to this day the prohibition of eating rice and other legumes (kitniyot) only applies to Ashkenazi communities.
In general anything containing grain (wheat, oats, barley, rye, spelt), may not be used on Pesach with the exception of Matza which is made from flour and water. The reason for this is that the flour is watched from the time it is ground so that it does not come into contact with water. When the Matzot are made, from the time the water and flour have been mixed, no more than 18 minutes may elapse. (It is for this reason that the Matzot are flat).
CHAMETZ AND MATZA, SOME HIDDEN MEANINGS
• A most important symbol is Matza – unleavened bread. The Rab Ba’al Ha Tanya in his Siddur states that Matza represents humility and Chametz represents pride and conceit. The rising of the dough which causes unleavened bread to become Chametz is very much like the inflation of one’s ego and self-esteem.
• The Torah tells us that the one quality that made Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) a special individual apart from all his other characteristics was the fact that he was humble. May we all endeavour to strive for this quality in our continual search for self-improvement.
• Chametz is a symbol of the evil inclination. The search for Chametz and its removal becomes a symbol of the struggle against this evil inclination. Chametz is more pleasant to the taste than Matza. It is more beautiful in appearance and more blown up in size. So is the evil inclination. It attracts a person to the pleasures of this world; it makes him more beautiful in his own eyes and boosts him in the eyes of others who think he is greater than he really is. It is a mitzvah to get rid of this Chametz completely. When performing this mitzvah we should bear this concept in mind.
THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT WORDS:
In the Haggada we find Rabbi Gamliel saying: “Every Jew who has not said the following three words on Pesach has not fulfilled his obligation”. These words are: PESACH, MATZA and MAROR.
WHAT DO THEY REALLY MEAN?
PESACH reminds us the tenth plague of Egypt – when all the firstborn of the Egyptians were struck down. It also reminds us of the Israelites whose homes were spared. Pesach means not only Paschal lamb – it means – He skipped over – The Lord skipped over the homes of the Israelites whose doorposts had been dabbed with the blood of the lamb that was sacrificed in honor of Passover.
MATZA is a reminder of the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt. The dough that they were sunbaking on the hot rocks of the Egyptian desert was removed before it could leaven, and it remained flat.
MAROR bitter herbs, reminds us of the bitter life of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt. They remind us of the forced – labour the children of Israel were compelled to perform in the sun-drenched fields of Egypt under the lash of the Egyptian taskmaster. Their hope was kept alive by their great leader Moses.