Lag B’Omer – The Bonfire Holiday!

Lag B'OmerSo we’re going to take a brief intermission from Mother’s Day Week (sorry Mom!) to celebrate the Jewish Holiday of Lag B’Omer. In English, the name of the Holiday translates to the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. Lag, or the Hebrew letters Lamed ל and Gimmel ג, have a numerical valuation of 30 and 3, respectively, and this Holiday celebrates the break in the counting of the Omer, or the period between the Holidays of Passover and Shavout (the holiday where we received the ten commandments, and the rest of the laws, at Mt. Sinai). Lag B’Omer is traditionally celebrated with bonfire celebrations, family picnics with the children playing with imitation bows and arrows, and the eating of Carob.

So what is so special about the 33rd day? And why the bonfires, bows and arrows, and Carob? Well, let me explain (thank you Chabad.org!).

There are two main reasons why we celebrate this day. The first (in no particular order) explains both the day and the bonfires. During the 2nd Century, there was a great Jewish scholar known as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (c.100 – c. 160 CE). He was a great Kabbalist, and shed a powerful light on the world through his mystical teachings. It is said that the secrets of the Torah that he revealed to his disciples was so profound and intense that his house was filled with fire and blinding light, to the point that his students could not even approach or look at him. Rabbi Shimon stated that the day of his death, the 33rd day of the Omer, should be a day of great joy, not sadness, for he was moving on to the World to Come. So to commemorate is death, we have great celebrations, and light great fires that emulate the fire of Torah and knowledge that Rabbi Shimon was famous for.

So what’s the second reason for the 33rd day? During the time of Rabbi Akiva (c. 40 – c. 137 CE), during the weeks between Passover and Shavout, a great plague ran rampant amongst his students, “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.” Therefore to this day, the Jewish nation treats this time period (7 weeks) as a time of mourning with no joyous activities. However, by a miracle, on the 33rd day of the Omer, the deaths stopped, so we treat this day as joyous one, careful to remember to treat every fellow man with love and respect.

Okay, so that’s why this day and the bonfires, but the bows and arrows? The carob?

It is a tradition for Children to go out into the fields and play with imitation bows and arrows. This is in remembrance of the Midrashic tradition that no rainbow was seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime. Rainbows first appeared after the great flood in the time of Noah, when G‑d promised to never again devastate the world. When the world is deserving of punishment, G‑d sends a rainbow instead. Rabbi Shimon’s merit protected the world, rendering the rainbow superfluous. The children’s bows are a tribute to the “rainbow” that Rabbi Shimon’s presence gave us.

As for the Carob, this is in remembrance of a lifesaving miracle that Rabbi Shimon experienced. For 13 years, Rabbi Shimon and his son were fugitives from the Romans, and hid in a cave in northern Israel. Food was scarce and hunting was dangerous, should they be caught. G-d intervened and created a carob tree that grew at the entrance of the cave, providing nourishment for its two holy occupants.

So, I hope that explains why we celebrate Lag B’Omer, and how we do it too! For today, I’m posting two recipes, a barbecue chicken, in honour of the bonfires, and a delicious non-dairy carob cake! I hope you enjoy!

Bring on the Dairy!

Eat More MilkI’m sure by now most of you are pretty sick of eating meat meals… and with some more days of Yom Tov coming up, you know you’re going to be having beef, chicken and turkey all over again! How about some dairy meals for a change? Today I will be posting two dairy dishes, that can be served together, separate, however you like! Hope this breaks up the monotony!

Foods that Scream Passover! – It Starts Tonight!

So there are certain traditional foods that just scream “Passover” to me. Here are a few for your viewing pleasure!

1. Egg Lokshen

Since flour-base noodles are out, many people make thin crepe-like pancakes out of eggs and potato starch, which they then roll up and cut into strips, forming kosher-for-Passover noodles (“lokshen” in Yiddish) which taste marvelous in chicken soup.

2. Macaroons

MacaroonsYep, you knew that macaroons would be on this list somewhere. These are not the pretty, delicate French Macaroons that come in a million colours, but they tend to be just as expensive. You either love ’em, or hate ’em! (I love them!)
3. Syrupy, Sweet Seder Wine

At one time, this kind of wine was so ingrained as a Jewish wine preference that Schapiro’s Wine advertised (in Yiddish) that their wine was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife! Thankfully, there are hundreds of high-quality kosher wines out there, but we respect the traditionalists who like the old thick stuff.

4. Jelly-Fruit Slices
Jelly FruitI personally never really got these… I don’t see the temptation, but I know those that would fight over the last one of these strangely sweet, sugary treats.

 5. Soup Mandlen
Mandlen These are my personal favourite at the seder table. These are the old fashioned treats that everyone had before the Israeli Ossem soup squares became main stream.

What are your favourite Passover Foods? I hope you have them this holiday and I wish you and yours a healthy and happy Passover! Chag Kosher v’Samayach!

No Matzo Balls?! All About Gebrokts (One Day to Go!)

GebroktsOkay, so for this first time that I can remember, in my entire life, we will not be having Matzo Balls in our chicken soup at the Seder. Let me explain to you the seriousness of this… it’s like an 11th plague has hit. Why you ask? Well, last year (around this time actually), my baby sister married an amazing, wonderful man, who comes from a likewise amazing, wonderful family. The downside to this obvious blessing? My new brother-in-law does not eat Gebrokts. What are/is Gebrokts? Gebrokts is a Yiddish word that refers to Matzo that has come in contact with water. It literally means “broken,” and it has come to mean “wet Matzo” because Matzo is usually ground or broken up into crumbs before it is mixed with water.

Those who refrain from eating Gebrokts (not everyone has this custom, it is mainly certain sects of Ashkenazi Jews, specifically what are known as Chassidim) on Passover do so for fear that during the baking process there may have been a minute amount of flour that did not get kneaded properly into the dough. Upon contact with water, that flour would become Chametz.

The custom of not eating Gebrokts gained prominence around the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, people began to bake Matzos much faster than mandated by the Rabbis, in order to be absolutely sure that the dough had no chance to rise before being baked. The flip side of this stringency is that the Matzo we eat today is not as well kneaded as Matzo used to be, and it is very possible that it contains pockets of flour.

Those who are careful with Gebrokts don’t eat Matzo balls, Matzo Brei (an egg and Matzo bake), or Matzo anything; in short, they do not cook with Matzo at all. Also, when there is Matzo on the table, they are very careful to keep it covered and away from any food that may have water in it. Drinks, soups, and vegetables that have been washed and not thoroughly dried, are all kept far away from the Matzo.

On the eighth day of Passover, which exists only outside the Land of Israel, the Gebrokts stringency doesn’t apply, and all feast on Matzo balls and Matzo Brei, and dip their Matzo into soups and salads. In fact, many have the custom to try to eat their Matzo with as many liquids and wet foods as possible. The simple reason for this is that the celebration of the eighth day is of rabbinic origin, rather than Biblical origin. Chabad, where I got the above information has a great article on the spiritual reasons for Gebrokts that I definitely suggest checking out! Click here to read it.

So, to sum this all up, since my mother, the hostess of our Seder, is kind and wonder cook, and doesn’t want to exclude people from parts of the meal, we will refraining from Matzo Balls this year, along with Matzo Farfel, Matzo Meal in various recipes… well, you get the idea. It’s a good thing my new brother-in-law is worth it!

Matzo – Was it Always a Dry Cracker? (2 Days to Go!)

MatzoSo, as you know, during the holiday of Passover, no leavened products, especially items like bread, can be eaten. Instead we eat Matzo, and A LOT of it! Modern day Matzo is a dry, cracker like item, made of flour and water. Machine processed matzo is square in shape, with lined perforations running about half a centimeter apart, and is about a quarter of a centimeter thick, or less. I’ve heard rumour however of a time when Matzo was soft, flexible and more like a pita or laffa, rather than the dry cracker (read: cardboard) that we eat now. So what’s the deal?

Here’s the deal: Once upon a time, yes, Matzo used to be thicker and softer, however…. here is the nitty gritty on how this has changed and become what we know now a days as a thin, dry, hard cracker-like food. For centuries, Jews have been debating the thickness of Matzo. In the Talmud, there is a record of a discussion between the students of Shamai and Hillel regarding the allowed thickness of Matzo, being as thick as a handbreadth (about 2 ½ to 4 inches or 6 to 10 centimetres). In the end, Jewish law follows the school of Hillel, which allows the thicker Matzo, however, all halachic authorities agree that a thickness of a handbreadth or more is not acceptable.

However, there are a few problems with a thick Matzo, even one less than a handbreadth:

  • Thick Matzo is susceptible to becoming Chametz because of the baking time needed to fully cook it (Matzo must be completed and out of the oven within 18 minutes of the flour and water first combining).
  • Conceptually, we are supposed to be eating “lechem oni” or “poor man’s bread”. A thick luscious bread is not considered that of a poor man.
  • Thicker Matzos use a higher ratio of water in the recipe, making them softer. This allows for the Matzo, left over time to become hardened and possibly moldy. There is even an incident discussed in the Talmud where a moldy loaf is found on Passover, and one can’t tell whether it’s bread or Matzo that has rotted. Was this a missed loaf of bread or a kosher Matzo that has spoiled? Our cracker-like Matzo would be easy to identify.

While some Jews of Middle Eastern descent still make their Matzos thick and soft, the overwhelming majority of Matzos today are hard and thick. Over the years, especially once Matzos started being made predominately by machines, rather than by hand, the Matzo has gotten thinner and thinner, until we get the cracker that we have today. Chabad has a great (but too lengthy for this blog post) article all about the thinning down over the years. You can read it by clicking here. I will also talk a little bit more about this in tomorrow’s post on Gebrokts or the custom of not allowing your Matzo to become wet. Tune in tomorrow to find out more!

Got a Question? We have 4! (3 Days to Go…)

Four QuestionsThose of you that have attended a Passover Seder before will surely recall a guest standing up and singing (or what passes for singing in some families) the “Mah Nishta’nah” or known in English as “The Four Questions“. Literally translated “Mah Nishta’nah” means “What has changed” or “What is different“, and it is the opening line of four questions that are asked by the youngest (who is able to speak) attendee at the Seder. This tradition gets played out differently household to household, with sometimes the youngest member of each family unit attending asks (great if you have a lot of guests) or sometimes the “youngest” can be your 36 year old cousin in from Baltimore. It doesn’t matter if it is sung or spoken, or even what language the questions are asked in (we’ve had English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Yiddish all at one sitting!) What does matter is that they are asked, and that they are answered.

So why are the four questions there anyway? Well of course, for every question there are a dozen answers, and in this case, we have four, so you do the math! But here are some highlights for you (yes, before you ask, of course I got them from Chabad.org!)

Why are the questions part of the Seder? A quick answer is to involve the children, make them curious, so they are part of the ceremony. But why have this part of the Passover Seder? Why not make children part of the ceremony of another holiday? What is special about Passover? Well, many things are special about Passover, but most of all, it celebrates our freedom from slavery. As a slave, you are not allowed to question anything. You have no opinion and no freewill. Especially a child slave, who would be even lower than an adult, lacking the maturity needed to articulate their own thoughts and beliefs. But here, on Passover, we are now free, the Jewish people, even the children were given the possibility to ask, to question. By asking, by learning, you grown beyond your current state and reach a higher level. The Jewish people, once freed, were able to do that, and asking the four questions symbolizes that quest.

I hope this answers some of your questions, but remember the essence here is to ask, to seek to learn. That is why, even if you’re having a Seder alone, you still ask the questions. On the bright side, if you’re alone, you’re also the one with all the answers!

* photo credit to Keren Keet. You can see more of her work at www.kerenkeet.co.uk.

4 Cups of Wine and 4 Days to Go…

4 cups of wineSo is it a coincidence that we drink 4 cups of wine at the Passover Seder, and we have 4 days to go until the holiday begins?! No, it’s not (I thought, 4 days… what else is 4 to do with Passover, ah hah! a link!). So while there is no mystical reason behind today’s syncing of numbers, there are reasons behind the 4 cups of wine.

Firstly, wine is considered a kingly beverage, and it is an appropriate drink for the holiday in which we celebrate our freedom from slavery and Egypt. As for the number four? There are several different explanations that the Scholars have passed down to us (again, thank you Chabad.org!)

  • When promising to deliver the Jews from Egyptian slavery, G‑d used four terms to describe the redemption (Exodus 6:6-8): a) “I shall take you out…” b) “I shall rescue you…” c) “I shall redeem you…” d) “I shall bring you…”
  • We were liberated from Pharaoh’s four evil decrees: a) Slavery b) The ordered murder of all male progeny by the Hebrew midwives c) The drowning of all Hebrew boys in the Nile by Egyptians d) The decree ordering the Israelites to collect their own straw for use in their brick production.
  • The four cups symbolize our freedom from our four exiles: The Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek exiles, and our current exile which we hope to be rid of very soon with the coming of Moshiach.
  • The words “cup of wine” are mentioned four times in Pharaoh’s butler’s dream (Genesis 40:11-13). According to the Midrash, these cups of wine alluded to the Israelites’ liberation.

Yes, for those of you who are counting, that was 4 reasons for the 4 cups. What can I say, I’m on a roll!

* photo credit to Steve Greenberg. You can check out his website at www.greenberg-art.com.

Bedikat Chametz – The Search for Chametz (9 Days to Go!)

Burnt ToastThe holiday of Passover was made for people with OCD. Think about it; the massive cleaning, the counting of cups and plagues… Even the strict time lines involved in the baking of Matzo (the Matzo only has 18 minutes from the time the water and flour first mix until it is removed from the oven, or it is considered Chametz, or leavened, and not allowed for use on Passover). So imagine, after you’ve done all that cleaning and preparing, you now have to go around your house, the very night before the holiday begins, and purposely put out crumbs of bread!

Okay, this is where my OCD’ers have minor heart attacks. Why? How? Huh? Okay, deep breaths people. Here is why we do it (thanks to Chabad.org for the following explanation. You can learn more by clicking here)

The dispersal of pieces of chametz around the home prior to the bedikat chametz (ceremonial search for chametz on the evening before Passover) is not obligatory — the obligation is to search, not necessarily to find — but has become accepted Jewish custom. Based on kabbalistic reasoning, it is customary to place ten pieces of bread around the home before the search. On the eve of Passover, when the entire home has been spotlessly cleaned, it is highly doubtful that any chametz would be found in the home. These pieces which will now be “found,” will give us “chametz fuel” for the traditional chametz burning ceremony on the following morning. Otherwise, it is conceivably possible for the entire chametz burning tradition to be forgotten.

I hope this helps explain a little bit about why we do it, and why, in Jewish neighbourhoods on the morning of the eve of Passover you can smell burnt toast for miles!

10 Days to Go… Who Knows 10?

Matzah Record PlayerSo part of the fun of the Passover Seder is not just the food, or the telling over of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the reading of the Haggadah, but rather it’s the “after party” so to speak. What? Never been to an after-Seder after party? Let me tell you, it’s where all the cool kids hang out! So what exactly is this party I’m talking about? It all the songs at the end of the Haggadah, which the recital of which, especially after four glasses of wine, can turn into quite the raucous affair.

There are lots of different tunes and melodies that people like to use for the Hallel or Songs of Praise portion, but for me, one of my all-time favourites is the “kid” song of “Echad – Mi Yodeya” or “Who Knows One?”

In “Who Knows One?” the song takes you through a count up and down with repeated verses, each verse getting longer as you include the previous one in the new addition. It starts with “Who knows one? I know one! One is Hashem (G-d) in the Heavens and the Earth!” It continues with the following numbered list:

1 is Hashem – in the Heavens and the Earth
2 are the Tablets that Moshe (Moses) brought (i.e.: the Ten Commandments)
3 are the (Fore) Fathers (i.e.: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob)
4 are the Mothers (i.e.: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah)
5 are the books of the Torah
6 are the books of the Mishnah (i.e.: the oral Torah)
7 are the days of the week
8 are the days of Bris Millah (i.e.: days until circumcision)
9 are the months before birth
10 are the Commandments
11 are the stars in Joseph’s dream (click here to learn more about this)
12 are the Tribes of Israel
13 are the Attributes of G-d (click here to learn more about this)

So… since we keep adding a verse with each new number, plus we repeat all the previous numbers after adding a new number…well, by the time you get to number 13, you have quite the mouthful! And did I mention that it’s very late at night by this point and you’ve had four glasses of wine? Like I said, it’s quite the party! What are your favourite Passover songs? Let me know!

* photo credit to Matzo Mania on Shtetl on the Shortwave.

Let it Begin…11 Days and Counting!

Pesach ChecklistOkay folks, I hope you’re prepared… We knew it was coming… That’s right, it’s almost Passover! The holiday, that only though it lasts a mere 8 days, we cook, clean and prep as if it is Y2K all over again! During this holiday, Jews all over the world will eat more oil, eggs and matzo than one would think humanly possible (and definitely not healthy!) Is it just me, or does ever Passover recipe start off with “take 6 eggs and a 1 ½ cups of oil”? I would definitely not plan on having your yearly physical scheduled in the 2 to 3 weeks following Passover. Your doctor will be abhorred by your cholesterol levels!

But it doesn’t have to be all bad! Today’s recipes tend to call for a more balanced approach, using more fresh ingredients, and less of the pre-packaged boxed goods. Not to fault those mind you, I mean, those brownies with that thick icing? Yum! Over the next week and a bit I’m going to be posting different recipes to be made over Passover, trying to focus away from mains (don’t worry, there will still be some) and give options for starters, sides and desserts. Plus, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the COR Passover Guide at your local school, synagogue, grocery or Jewish establishment. For those outside of the greater Toronto area, here is a link to our online version!