Friday, March 31, 2023

Passover Preparations Through the Ages

In Jewish homes across America and the rest of the world, energetic if not frenzied preparations are underway for the start of Pesach next Wednesday eve. So it was not surprising to read an article in The Forward, the “American news media organization for a Jewish American audience,” about Jewish Union soldiers frantically organizing a seder during a lull in Civil War fighting in West Virginia ( 

How touching that the holiday that celebrates the Israelites’ release from bondage in Egypt would be commemorated during the war to free the enslaved from servitude in the South.

Yet, I am reminded of an even more unusual seder observance, the type organized in colonial Charleston, SC, by Jewish merchants, “merchants” being code word for slave traders. As Gilda and I learned from a Jewish tour guide during our visit to Charleston a few years ago, the merchants would conduct their seders with their personal slaves sitting around their table as participants. How surrealistic that must have been for their slaves to hear, though probably not fully comprehend, the Hebrew text recounting the exodus story.

There could be no glossing over the story of slavery and freedom as described in the haggadah. 

Other slaves, slaves not owned by Jews, were exposed to an edited version of the Bible. As Sharon Braus recounted in The New York Times a year ago, they were read Bible stories from a “Slave Bible” that was “carefully redacted to exclude all references to the Exodus from Egypt. Imagine a Bible with no Moses, no burning bush, no Israelites fleeing slavery, no split sea and no revelation at Sinai” (

Charleston, for those not familiar with the city, was a major port for inbound slaves. Forty percent of the near half million souls who survived the barbaric, inhumane voyage as cargo from West Africa across the Atlantic Ocean on a journey from freedom to slavery in colonial America and the nascent United States came to our shores through Charleston (another 12 million were sent to South American and Caribbean lands). Charleston was considered the richest city in the New World until the importation of slaves was halted by Congress in 1808.

In the days before Passover begins, foods and utensils considered to be hametz—foods with leavening agents and kitchen housewares that prepared and served them—are being segregated in cupboards while, through a peculiarly Jewish workaround, they are “sold” to a gentile for the duration of the holiday and “bought back” at its conclusion. Rabbis creatively ruled that the prohibition on eating and possessing hametz did not forbid its presence in a household as long as it was sealed off and not “owned” by the family. 

Most of the time the hametz is communally sold by a rabbi or sextant. In Morocco, as Gilda and I recently learned, Jews individually sold their hametz to their Islamic neighbors. At the conclusion of Passover, when the food would be returned the Jewish and Moslem families would get together for a feast, a mimouna, validating their friendship and peaceful coexistence.

Jewish law is not monolithic. Different rabbis divine different rules. Geography could inspire local interpretations. Take, for example, the status of the lowly green pea. Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews generally avoid peas and other legumes on Passover. Sephardic Jews do not. 

For more than 60 years my family refrained from eating beans, rice, corn and peas on Passover. Several years ago the Conservative movement lifted any prohibitions on eating those foods during the holiday. I couldn’t be happier (