A taste of Passover

Rabbi Scott Sperling explains the tradition of Passover to congregation members at Christ Episcopal Church. Passover begins Friday evening. Photo by Henry Culvyhouse

WINCHESTER — More than 40 worshippers of Christ Episcopal Church on Boscawen Street gathered in the parish office dining room recently to learn about the traditions and history of Passover from a local rabbi.

Rabbi Scott Sperling, of Temple Beth El Congregation in Winchester, said he has held workshops such as this one at many churches across the country and he was largely happy with how the evening turned out.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and my goal is the same,” he said. “First, I want to introduce people to the great themes of the Passover observance and to give people the opportunity to literally have a taste of Passover.”

Sperling added, “I was very satisfied with this because this is a bright, intelligent group of people who know their Bible.”

Passover, which begins this Friday evening, is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel and commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

The Rev. Webster Gibson and his wife Rebecca prepare to drink wine following its blessing during the Seder ceremony. Photo by Henry Culvyhouse

Traditionally, Jews mark Passover by conducting a thorough spring cleaning, and all leavened foods are removed from their homes. The removal of leavened bread is important because when the Israelites quickly left Egypt, they did not have enough time for their bread to rise.

Sperling said prior to Passover Jews burn the bread crumbs, just as the high priests did in ancient Israel. He recalled when he was in his first position as a rabbi in Los Angeles, he lit his bread crumbs on a hibachi grill.

“I’m in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and I have a lunch bag full of crumbs. I put it on my hibachi and light it on fire,” he said. “I say the appropriate blessing and I look across the way at my neighbor, who is just astounded.”

Sperling added, “I said the first thing that came into [my] head, which was probably the dumbest thing, ‘It’s OK, I’m a rabbi!'”

At Passover, Jews have a meal called a Seder to commemorate the escape from Egypt. Before the meal commences, they read from the Haggadah, which is the story of Passover. Sperling said while Seder dinners have traditions that need to be adhered to, families can commemorate Passover in various ways.

Tom Ellington and his wife Lori dab 10 drops of wine on their plates to commemorate the losses the Jewish people suffered during the plagues. Photo by Henry Culvyhouse

“Traditional scrolls in Judaism have no illustration, but for the better of 2,000 years, the Haggadah is a place where artists can express themselves,” he said. “There’s been a wide variety and an infinite amount of text variation.”

For instance, Sperling said when he worked on a kibbutz, a farm collective, in Israel, he came across a humanist Haggadah that focused on the liberation of the Jews “without a single mention of God because the kibbutz was created by socialists who were atheists.”

The setting of the table involves two cups, one representing the prophet Elijah and the other Miriam — the sister of Moses, as well as pillows, the afikomen — half a piece of matzo, a copy of the Haggadah and the Seder plate.

Sperling walked the congregation through an abridged version of the Passover ceremony last Thursday night, reading parts of the Haggadah in Hebrew, Aramaic and English. The ceremony involves blessing and drinking kosher wine to mark certain aspects of the ritual, such as the four questions presented from children at the table, which leads to an explanation of the Passover tradition.

After the workshop, the congregation held a potluck-style dinner, with a large spread of kosher delicacies from Eastern European Jewish fare to Caribbean style, which the congregation members made.

Sperling said he likes to show people the similarities between the two religions.

“There are many parallels between the two religious traditions and it’s important to me to dispel myths and open up [a] little bit of our prayer book and show folks thematically and historically what’s inside,” Sperling said.

The Rev. Webster Gibson of Christ Episcopal Church opened his church up to the workshop not only to educate its members about Passover, but also to “remind our community we come from somewhere.”

“A lot of the traditions that we do and remembering at a meal comes from our Jewish ancestors,” he said.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com