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Passover seder is a taste of Jewish history

April 21, 1997


Staff Writer

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Jewish children all over the world will be asking that question tonight as part of a special meal called a seder, which celebrates the beginning of the eight-day festival of Passover.

The answer to their question will be found on the table in front of them in the form of unleavened bread, bitter herbs and other symbolic foods used to pass on an ancient tradition.

Seder diners commemorate the exodus of Jews from a life of slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

Almost every item on the table has a special meaning, revealed through prayers, singing, chanting and even games in the course of an elaborate meal that offers both culinary and educational fare.


It can take up to three hours to complete.

"For the seder you tell the story of the flight from Egypt to your children," Jeanne Jacobs, a member of the B'nai Abraham Congregation in Hagerstown, said. "You tell them what happened to their ancestors many years ago."

And what better way than through a long meal with loved ones.

"Most Jewish holidays center around home and family," Jacobs said. "Services are at home around the table. And the more people you have the better it is."

This year Jacobs, a retired Williamsport High School French teacher and former cooking instructor at Hagerstown Junior College, will not host her own seder but will join about 15 other people at the home of relatives.

On Friday morning Jacobs sat at the dining room table in her home on Scott Hill Drive with some of the implements of the holiday - a roasted egg, parsley, matzo and a shankbone - arrayed on a special seder plate in front of her.

For the bitter herbs, which are "to remind the Jews of the bitter time they spent as slaves under the Egyptians," Jacobs uses horseradish, she said.

The egg represents Jewish survival and the continuing cycle of life, according to literature on the seder.

The shankbone is reminiscent of the sacrificed lamb's blood used to mark the doorpost of every Jewish home so that the inhabitants would be spared from the tenth plague, the death of every Egyptian first-born son, Jacobs said.

Then there is the haroset, a sweet and tasty mixture of apples, honey, walnuts, cinnamon and wine that resembles the mortar the Jews used to build pyramids during their enslavement in Egypt, she said.

"The sweetness reminds us of God's kindness to us even though we were under difficult circumstances," Jacobs said.

A sprig of parsley is dipped in salt water to symbolize the tears the Jews shed as slaves, she said.

During the seder the diners drink four "very, very small" cups of wine, Jacobs said.

The four cups of wine serve as reminders of God's four promises to the Jews in Egypt, which were to bring them out, to deliver them, to redeem them and to take them as his people, according to instructions for the seder.

A cup of wine is set aside for the prophet Elijah.

"The Jews feel the prophet Elijah will come some day and bring peace to the world," Jacobs said. At one point in the seder the children actually go looking for Elijah.

Matzo, unleavened bread that looks like a cracker, is eaten at the seder because the Jews had no time to let their bread rise as they fled Egypt, Jacobs explained.

The leader of the seder hides a piece of matzo, called the afikoman, and the child who finds it gets a prize, she said.

For the eight days of Passover matzo is the only kind of bread product Jews are allowed to eat, she said.

The rest of Jacobs' usual seder fare includes chicken soup with matzo balls, a main course of turkey or brisket chosen for its ability to withstand the long meal, potatoes and a dessert made without leavened flour, she said.

Another seder is often held on the second night of Passover.

B'nai Abraham will hold its community seder Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

"That basically is for any Jewish person that either doesn't have a place to go (for a seder) or they like worshipping as a community," Rabbi Charles P. Rabinowitz said.

Passover was one of three pilgrimage festivals in ancient times when Jews made the trek to Jerusalem, Rabinowitz said.

Tonight's seder will close with the traditional exclamation: "Next year in Jersusalem!," Jacobs said.

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