Exodus, Chapter 12, verses 29 and 30:
And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.
The Israelites were spared the tenth plague that God visited on the Egyptians, because they had smeared lambs’ blood on their doorposts; the Angel of Death ‘Passed Over’ their houses. As a consequence Pharaoh relented and let the Children of Israel leave—only to change his mind soon after, and have his army drowned in the Red Sea... The celebration of 'Pass-over' takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and is a major event in the Jewish calendar, commemorating the first step on the journey to found the Promised Land of Israel. Jesus was celebrating Passover during the Last Supper.
I was privileged this year to be invited to a Seder, which is the ritual meal celebrating Passover. My wife and I have been to Seders before, and our hosts on this occasion were very old and dear friends, so there was no awkwardness or discomfort during an event that was conducted with almost as much ritual as the Tridentine Mass—of which I have chilling childhood memories. The table was set as I remembered from previous occasions. Pride of place in the centre was Elijah’s Cup, a goblet filled with wine, in case the prophet should arrive; the front door was opened later on should he have been minded to come... Also there were the various ritual foods, including Matzo—unleavened bread—a bitter herb, a shinbone, a roasted egg, another herb dipped in salt water—usually parsley—and a mixture called charoset, used to symbolize the mortar used by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt.
Our host and a friend shared the reading, most of which was in Hebrew, and much of which was sung. There was the eating of the ritual foods, drinking of four glasses of wine at appropriate places, a recitation of the ten plagues, and the singing of the traditional song Chad Gaya about a kid that gets eaten by a cat, which gets bitten by a dog and so on. There were seven of us at the meal plus a number of others taking part via a Zoom link. Everyone except my wife and I was reading the Hebrew from the texts, and joined in the singing most heartily. The rhythms, melodies, and cadences were decidedly Eastern European, and we were all surprised and delighted to discover that the special large Passover Matzo we were using had been manufactured in Ukraine.
There was a real feeling of joyous community about the occasion. I have encountered this before at previous Seders, a Bar Mitzvah, and a Jewish wedding that I attended decades ago as a member of the band providing music. On that occasion, the jovial host came up to me saying, ‘You’re a Catholic boy? Never mind! Snip! Snip! We’ll soon turn you into a good Jew!’ I particularly remember doing Hava Nagila for them—to great applause when I played the chorus with the guitar over the back of my head...
I envy my friends the joy of their religion. I was brought up in Catholicism, where any sort of pleasure was regarded as a sin. There were no community events like the Seder or Bar Mitzvah. We named ourselves after martyrs, people who had been tortured to death for their religious beliefs, and believed in eternal damnation in Hell for relatively trivial misdemeanours.
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs