Monday 25 March 2013

חג פסח שמח - Chag Pesach Same'ach

Passover, the Jewish religious observance commemorating the Isrealites' exodus from Egypt, begins at sunset tonight.  

I'm not Jewish and I can't claim a perfect understanding of Passover observances, but I do find the story, and the long tradition arising from it, inspirational:

At the end of the biblical book of Genesis, Joseph brought his family to Egypt.  They prospered there.  Over the following centuries the Hebrews (Joseph's descendants) became so numerous that eventually, when a new Egyptian king came power, he perceived the Hebrews as a threat.

The Egyptian king enslaved the Hebrews but, despite their enslavement, they continued to have many children.  The Hebrews' numbers continued to pose a threat, so the king ordered his soldiers to kill all newborn male babies borne by Hebrew mothers.

One of those babies, Moses, was saved from being killed by his mother and sister.  They wove a basket of reeds, placed him in the basket, and sent him floating down the river in the hope that whoever found him would take him in and raise him as their own.

Moses' sister Miriam followed him to be sure that he was safe. She hid in the reeds and watched as Moses was found by one of the king's daughters.  She took him home and raised him as her own. Thus it was that a Hebrew came to be a prince of Egypt.

Moses grew up in the royal household until he witnessed an Egyptian guard beating a Hebrew slave, and killed the guard. After killing the guard, he fled to the desert.

In the desert, Moses joined the family of Jethro (a Midian priest) by marrying Jethro's daughter and having children with her.  He worked as a shepherd, watching over Jethro's sheep.

While Moses was out in the wilderness watching over Jethro's sheep, God appeared to him in the form of a burning bush and told him that he had been chosen to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.  

Moses returned to Egypt and demanded that the pharoh release the Hebrews from slavery. The king refused to free the Hebrews and, upon his refusal, God sent ten plagues to Egypt:

The waters were turned to blood.  All the fish died and the water was not useable.

Hoards of frogs swarmed over the land.

Huge numbers of gnats and lice infested Egyptian homes and tormented the Egyptian people.

Wild animals invaded the homes and lands of Egypt, destroying property and injuring people.

Egyptian livestock was struck down by disease.

Egyptian people were plagued by boils that covered their bodies and caused them great pain.

Hail storms destroyed crops.

Locusts swarmed across the landscape, destroying any remaining crops and food.

Darkness covered the land for three days.

The firstborn of every Egyptian family perished.  The firstborn of their livestock died too.

It is this last plague that gives Passover its name:  Hebrew children were spared from death because Hebrews marked their doorposts with lamb's blood.  The angel of death saw the marks and passed over those households, leaving them untouched.

After the tenth plague, the pharoh released the Hebrews.  They fled the land so quickly that they didn't even take the time to allow their bread to rise before baking it and taking it with them.  

Shortly after the Hebrews departed, the Egyptian king changed his mind about freeing them, and sent his soldiers after them. When the Hebrews reached the Sea of Reeds, God parted the waters so that they could cross.  Once they were safely on the other side, the waters closed again, drowning the Egyptian soldiers and ending their pursuit.  

The Hebrews continued on their journey to the promised land. Modern Jews are descended from these ancient Hebrews and continue to commemorate their liberation from slavery, and to honour the beliefs of their ancestors.

Strict dietary rules are maintained throughout the eight days of the Passover observance.  Leavened breads are forbidden (as are many other foods) while some foods are specifically included in Passover meals, especially Seder, for their symbolism.  

Over the centuries, although they still conform to the traditions of the people who prepare, serve, and eat them, Passover dishes have evolved.  They now reflect the flavours, spices, and ingredients native to the many places, worldwide, where Jewish people celebrate this ancient and inspiring story.  

The dietary rules surrounding Passover have given rise to tremendous creativity in kitchens around the world.  Even if you don't celebrate Passover there's much to be found in cooking Passover dishes:  a wealth of flavour and texture, an opportunity to try out new cooking techniques and ingredients, and chance to gain a greater understanding of a rich tradition.

I'll be sharing Passover recipe links today, on my Facebook page and on Twitter.  I'm looking forward to trying them, and I hope you enjoy them too.

You can read more about Passover foods here.