The original Jewish Valentine’s Day

Judaism is a ‘love life’ religion; it says a big ‘yes’ to life.

In my head, these words sing in German: ‘Ja zum Leben.’ This is because, during a time when I found every day a struggle and almost everything frightening, my aunt Etti, three times removed but close as close, would buy me an Israeli yoghurt called Leben and instruct me before I ate it to say the name in German: Leben, life, yes to life.

Moon-watchers out with their dogs, or simply enjoying the cool after over-hot days, will have noted how beautifully it has shone these last evenings and know that tonight is the full moon. It heralds Tu Be’Av, the festival of the fifteenth of the month of Menachem Av, Av the Consoler. It’s the ancient Jewish forerunner of Valentine’s Day:

There were no days so good in Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, when the girls went out to dance in the vineyards in borrowed white dresses (so as not to put to shame those who didn’t have). Whoever wasn’t married would go there. ‘Look,’ the girls would say… (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b-31a)

What follows is not egalitarian, definitely sexist, and certainly not PC. But it’s decisively an affirmation of life, future and fun. Significantly, the date is just six days after Tishah Be’Av, the bleak fast commemorating exile and destruction. The message is ‘Never give up’. More than that, it’s ‘Life is important, life can be good.’

The rabbis want to know why the 15th Av is so special. They come up with some remarkably odd reasons: it’s the date by when the last of the generation doomed to wander in the desert without reaching the Promised Land had died. Alternatively, it’s when the Romans allowed the dead of Betar, the last Jewish stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt, to be buried.

Admittedly, they also offer somewhat less unromantic explanations. But what are they trying to say? I believe it is this: whatever tribulations we have been through, we have to carry on with life. We mustn’t forget the past, but we must also embrace the future. Maybe that’s why, almost two millennia later, the birth rate among Jewish survivors in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany was extraordinarily high.

It strikes me how deeply Tu be’Av speaks to our reality today. Covid is not over in the UK, certainly not in other parts of the world. But life is calling us to step forward, carefully, with due concern for others and ourselves. Life beckons, with all its joys and challenges. Life is precious, all the more so because we’ve learnt to take its opportunities less for granted.

Etti’s youngest brother Gabi, may he live to the legendary age of 120, used to remind me that ‘life is made up of the little things.’ How can we appreciate everyday blessings? How can we share small acts of kindness and generosity, which maybe aren’t so small after all?

I’ve been bottling red- and blackcurrants these last days. By my side have been my father, much missed, who taught me the skill, and his aunt Sophie who wrote to her mother in the summer of 1938 that she’d been preserving blueberries, – and blackcurrants too. She perished in Auschwitz. Nevertheless she was in my kitchen, because love from the past feeds the present and travels on into the future.

I listened last night to a webinar by Rewilding Scotland. No, said one of the presenters, I don’t just want “sustainable”. I’m working for a re-forested, re-meadowed, re-invigorated, beautiful land for my children.

I hope we can embrace the future like that.

Tu Be’Av marks the turn-around, from destruction to creation.

For the Month of Av: from Destruction to Restoration

We are on the eve of the new moon of Menachem Av.

The month begins in sorrow: ‘When Av comes in, joy is diminished.’ The ninth day is the fast of Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temples. But afterwards comes consolation, as we read from Isaiah ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ The full moon, Tu B’Av, is all celebration, Judaism’s ancient equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

I was privileged last week to share three experiences which expressed just this movement from sadness to restoration.

The first was in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in the night of 14 November 1940. We gathered, scarcely a dozen of us of different faiths and philosophies, surrounded by the remains of the walls and spires, made safe but not rebuilt. It’s not an obvious location for marking Britain’s first ever Thank You Day. But it’s a humbling space and that’s what drew us together. It opened our hearts. We were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Bahai, Humanist. We all spoke, but the atmosphere of the place said more, reaching into us without words. We belonged to different generations and persuasions but it filled us with the same determination: not to hurt, not to denigrate, but to nurture and appreciate life.

The second was the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 73rd anniversary of the National Health Service. I sat next to Dr Perpetual Uke, a consultant at Birmingham City Hospital, who told me how she’d been caring for patients when she herself got Covid and became desperately ill. Now, thank God, she was almost entirely recovered. She was here both as giver and receiver of care. Nearby was a man representing the Ambulance Service. I told him how many times I’d had cause as a community minister to witness the kindness and skill of their teams.

Dr Uke lead the prayer:

For the vision of those who pioneered our National Health Service…
For the dedication of those who serve all in need of healthcare…
For the courage of those whose lives are marred by illness and bereavement…
For those who work for a healthier and fairer world.

What does one do when one hears such words? One feels saddened, humbled, touched, consoled and inspired all at once. One subconsciously resolves to do one’s best, to make one’s own contribution.

The third was the joy of two days in Scotland. Getting off the night train in the Highlands, the scents of woodland, heather, wild thyme and bilberry, the green of silver birch and pine, the sound of running streams – these are all God’s agents, they restore my soul. We experienced, too, a more practical kind of restoration in the regenerated woodlands, the young self-seeded trees carefully protected against deer and rabbits, the warnings not to disturb the rare capercaillie which nest on the ground, the feeding stations for red squirrels, the sight of an osprey. This too is part of health care, the health of the earth and our mental and spiritual health at the same time.

On Tisha B’Av we dwell only temporarily on destruction, long enough to rediscover the dedication to restore, rebuild, heal and replant in all God’s Temple, in Jerusalem itself, and throughout that universal Jerusalem which is God’s earth.

Lag Be’Omer

We are all deeply shocked by the news from Israel this morning. Over forty people have been crushed to death through crowd pressure during Lag Be’Omer celebrations in Miron in the Galilee. We do not yet know either the full extent or the causes of this appalling and heart-rending disaster. But a day which should mark healing and joy has become a tragedy.

Our hearts go out to the families of the bereaved and injured, to everyone traumatised, to all the responders and medics who did and are doing their utmost to help.

The Jewish response, the human response, and probably the only thing we can do from afar, is to give tzedakah. This is probably the only channel we currently have to express our sorrow and solidarity. It is not yet clear if there is a specific appeal for the victims. So please consider supporting any medical charity in Israel and / or contributing to any cause of healing.

We have also been asked by members of our community currently living in India to contribute to the British Asian Trust Emergency Appeal. It is providing desperately needed oxygen and life-saving equipment. You can donate here.

All we can do is be on the side of chaim vechesed, life and compassion.

Today is the morning of Lag Be’Omer, the day of healing which comes two thirds of the way between Pesach and Shavuot, Passover and Pentecost. It’s beautiful in the gardens today; the pear trees and apple trees are in blossom and the scented lilac, held back by April frosts, will soon be open.

The date has a particular resonance this year. According to tradition, it marked the end of a plague which killed thousands of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva in the second century. Though the pandemic afflicting us is not over, we hope this day may come to mark an irrevocable turning point back to life, community and hope. Wherever in the world Covid continues to spread, bringing sickness and grief, we must all do our utmost to help.

Strangely, the date has its own ancient lockdown story too. Its hero is Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai, who died on Lag Be’Omer and who whose life is celebrated annually with bonfires and songs. He was forced to hide in a cave for twelve years together with his son Elazar, to escape the Roman authorities who had condemned him to death for criticising their works. It’s a long time to be shielding, in secret, from the entire world.

But it’s what transpires when he emerges from lockdown which is so strangely moving. He and his son are unable to come to terms with the ordinariness of the world. They see people ploughing and sowing. Little could be more innocent or necessary and yet the sight angers them:

‘They forsake the life of the world to come (the study of Torah), and busy themselves with the things of this world!’ (they exclaimed.) Wherever they looked, they destroyed. (Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

A voice comes down from heaven, or perhaps it expresses the misgivings in their own conscience, and says: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!’

The world is beautiful. It is God’s world, sacred and wonderful. Nothing in nature is too simple to be cherished. Life, ordinary, everyday life, is a privilege. Nothing should be taken for granted.

Perhaps it’s the shock of the transition which was too much for Rabbi Shimeon and his son. They return to their cave to absorb these lockdown lessons, which we too have been taking to heart for these last fifteen months. After a year, the same voice which ordered them to go back calls them to come out of their cave. They see an old man running to honour the Sabbath with bunches of myrtle; the sight restores their spirits. His son remains troubled, but wherever Rabbi Shimeon now looks, he heals.

I am moved by what might today be termed this post traumatic stress growth. Lockdown leaves many wounds. In the legend Rabbi Shimeon is met by his father-in-law Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, who takes him to the bathhouse to treat his emaciated body. When he sees the cracks and chaps in his son-in-law’s skin from hiding for so long in a dry cave, he weeps and his falling tears sting the very sores he is trying to heal. It’s a tender scene of sorrow, hope and learning shared.

But what is decisive is that voice which Rabbi Shimeon hears when he first emerges back into life. It’s ‘my world,’ God’s world: life is to be loved and honoured; the ordinary is wondrous too; people’s foibles are to be tolerated and their devotion respected and admired….

Symbol of resilience and hope

‘Do you often take trees for a walk?’

‘Yes,’ replied the man who was wheeling our community’s recently acquired ancient olive tree on a fork-lift trolley from the lorry. ‘Very popular, olive trees.’

Olive TreeThe tree, between 100 and 150 years old and raised as a semi-bonsai so that it grows gnarled and small, now sits in our synagogue gardens. It will be our testament, our living memorial to this plague year, these lockdown months. No wording has been agreed, but I think we’ll commission a plaque with an inscription something like:

For our losses and our sorrows,
our resilience and new growth.

For, according to rabbinic legend, when the olive tree was challenged as to why it wasn’t weeping over the destruction of Jerusalem long ago, it replied: ‘Can’t you see? I’m silently eating my heart out.’ Indeed, ‘our’ tree has such a gnarled and wizened trunk, with just such a hole in it.

Yet olives are extraordinarily resilient. ‘Cut down a tree and it can regrow,’ says Job in his distress, wishing human life was as capable of restoration. Maybe he was thinking of olive trees; they have extraordinary powers of regeneration.

Furthermore, when the thunder clouds come and the olive’s grey-green leaves are blasted by the wind, their undersides are revealed, shining like silver in the storm light.

It wasn’t by design that the tree arrived this week, which finds us now between commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah and the struggle for and attainment of Israel’s independence on Yom Hazikaron and Yom ha’Atzma’ut. But the timing is apposite.

In these months in 1947 and 1948, tens of thousands out of the quarter of a million Jews who had somehow managed to survive across Europe, were quietly smuggled out of Displaced Persons’ Camps by the agents of Berichah and Aliyah Bet, escape and secret immigration. They were guided along harrowing routes across the Alps into Italy, where, from ports like Trieste, they were embarked on refitted ships to run the British blockade into Mandate Palestine and help establish the embryo state.

My father, whose Yahrzeit falls on Israel’s Independence Day, remembered how his youngest sister’s passport was taken every weekend to give to some such immigration as she struggled ashore in secret to provide a camouflage identity in case she was intercepted by the British authorities. A couple of days later it would mysteriously come back.

There can be few greater examples of resilience than this. The birth rate among Jewish survivors in the DP camps was among the highest in the world. The longing for life and future among those who had spent long years not in the valley of the shadow of death, but amidst the sight and smell of it every day, proved irrepressible.

Despite all sorrows, the ancient roots of the Jewish People fostered new growth. We mourn, and determine not just to continue, but to flourish.

Even more than an emblem of resilience, the olive tree has been a symbol of hope and peace for humankind ever since the dove laid a twig in Noah’s outstretched hand as he waited to leave the ark. God and the earth were reconciled



Beauty – a human need?

‘A well of living waters,’ ‘A fountain [feeding] gardens:’ these are just two of the images from the Song of Songs, which we read tomorrow. The Songs draw us into worlds of wonder, sensual and spiritual at once: ‘I am dark and beautiful;’ ‘Rise up, my beloved, for the winter has ended, the rains have passed and gone;’ ‘Come out into the fields.’

We need beauty in our lives.

Or is that a wrong thing to say?

We need food, shelter and health care. I’ve only to think of yesterday. My phone went mid-afternoon: ‘I got your number from the synagogue. Help me with food vouchers.’ I went out late to buy vegetables; near the shop is another refugee I know who’s sleeping in a tent and the cold days have returned. On the way back I listened to a report from Kenya: Vaccines aren’t yet part of our solution; we’ve only just got them and our roll out has scarcely begun.

When the world is like that, is beauty really a need?

Yes, I believe so. It’s not just the body which must live, but also the soul. Perhaps that’s why, of all the alluring images in the Song of Songs, – the fleeting deer, the small foxes eating the unripe grapes, the wild lilies, the bodies of lover and beloved, – it is those of flowing water which haunt me most: ‘A locked garden is my sister, my bride; a wave enclosed; a fountain sealed.’

It is as if we are taken to the very edge of life’s source, the secret elixir which flows through all things, pure, holy, beautiful, alluring, longed for, unpossessable, yet known in wonder.

It could be that this is the spirit which brings the composer the first apprehension of melody, the poet the magic sound of the opening words. Then, transported to a different realm of apprehension, they transpose this ‘airy nothing’ into music and rhythm and give it ‘a local habitation and a name.’ The Jewish mystics called this meeting space binah, intuition, deep wellspring, fountain on high; the zone of encounter where the unknowable holy spirit and human consciousness meet.

What would life be if we had no music, no poetry, no awe; if we could never watch the dawn, listen to a running stream, or note how a bird twitches this way and that before alighting on the grass? These are sacred matters; God is in these things.

I had always thought the link between Pesach, the festival of our freedom, and the Song of Songs was seasonal because both rejoice in the spring. The textual connections are tenuous.

But now I sense a deeper kinship. Humanity certainly needs physical freedom; freedom from tyranny, slavery, hunger, abuse and degradation. But we need the spirit’s liberty too, the transformation of tired, earthbound, task-bound, daily-round-bound body into the exaltation of wonder and joy, the excitement of beauty; beauty which is in this world and beyond this world at once.

Yes, I believe beauty is a human need. I doubt if it’s inscribed in the Universal Charter of Human Rights. But perhaps it should be, because cruelty and misery can still strive to deny it to us. Access to it should not be expensive: park, poem, sunlight, wild space, music, dew.

For the quest for beauty is not just a human right or need; it’s intrinsic to what makes us human.


Seder: a night of defiance, hope, solidarity and faith

Who would have thought that we would dip twice, a second year running, into a lockdown Seder? So what I want to say to everybody in our community and beyond, whether we are alone, or with closest family only; whether we have kept our health during the last year, or whether there has been illness; or whether, sadly, there is one more empty chair at the Seder: Chazak ve’ematz, may God give us strength and courage.

Seder is a night of defiance. Tyranny cannot ultimately destroy the human spirit. Slavery cannot conquer the quest for freedom. Injustice cannot crush the longing for justice. Cruelty cannot eradicate the urge to compassion. Misery cannot silence the impulse to sing. This is not to ignore the horrors perpetrated by wicked leaders and evil regimes throughout history, or to underestimate the impact of callousness and indifference. But the history of our own people, and of other faiths and nations, teaches that spirit is, in the long run and despite everything, mightier than power: ‘Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.’

Seder is a night of hope. The Talmud insists that its story must be told mei’avdut lecheirut, from slavery to freedom. We know from the Torah that the way is long. In fact, the Torah closes with Moses looking down from the mountaintop onto the land into which he will not cross. This symbolises the unfinished journey of humankind. Slavery persists, all over the world; children are still sold and women trafficked. But we don’t give up working for the liberty of our own, and of all, people. Every single action which demands and protects, every kind word which restores and upholds, human dignity is a step on that road to redemption.

Seder is a night of solidarity. This may not take the ache out of being unable to sit together with our loved ones. But we are not alone. The Jewish People is with us, who, through over a hundred and twenty generations, have celebrated this night with the same longing and in virtually the same words. Our ancestors are with us; we feel our mothers’ and fathers’ presence in the commentaries and songs, the recipes and memories. Everyone across the world who longs for freedom and redemption is with us in spirit, just as we must be with them.

Seder is a night of faith. This faith is our trust in God’s guidance, in whichever way we understand it. This faith is also God’s trust in us, that we will honour and be true to the sacred spirit with which we, all humanity and all life, have been endowed.

Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Thursday

Something Reflective – Seder as Resilience

I gave a talk last week on Haggadah illustrations during World War ll. We looked at editions from the concentration camp in Gurs (1941), from the Jewish Brigade fighting in the British Army in North Africa (1942), from the Jewish community of Morocco (1943, defiantly called ‘Haggadat Hitler’), from Kibbutz Naan (1942) and from the Displaced Person’s camp near Munich (1948). ‘What resilience!’ someone observed, and I saw the whole group nod in agreement.

Jewish history is filled with examples of resilience. One doesn’t have to think far back: my great-grandmother spent the years of Nazi occupation doing her utmost to keep in touch with her dispersed family; it’s all she cared about. Her last recorded words were, ‘Nothing will destroy my faith.’ Innumerable people showed the same spirit. That’s how Judaism, and how the best human values, have survived all the persecutions and degradations of history.

Halfway through the Haggadah we raise up our cup of wine and say ‘Vehi She’amdah – That which stood firm for our ancestors and us…’ It’s not clear what this ‘that’ refers to, which leaves plentiful scope for interpretation. For example: ‘That’ is dedication to Jewish learning; ‘That’ is never feeling secure on earth, so that our homeland is always our faith; ‘That’ is the Jewish women who’ve maintained the strength of family and community; ‘That’ is commitment to each other; ‘That’ is dedication to universal justice and compassion; ‘That’ is Hatikvah, hope itself.

We’ve had much need of resilience over the past year. Let’s draw from Seder night and the Haggadah on our long journey to redemption, renewed courage, hope, determination and faith.

 Something Halakhic – The Obligation to Ask Questions

The Mishnah insists that the Seder include questions. This is based on the Torah’s repeated instruction: when your children ask you – vehiggadeta, you shall tell them. (Hence the name of the Seder text, Haggadah.)

The Talmud explains that if there are no children present, one’s partner asks the questions; if one’s alone, one asks them to oneself and even if everyone present is a scholar, they must interrogate each other. The questions shouldn’t just be formulaic; they should be genuine.

This tenacious curiosity, this urge to learn, to understand more deeply, balanced against the awareness that all our knowledge is invariably tentative and that we must always explore further, – is a key part of resilience.

Rabbi Cardozo recalled how a non-Jewish friend asked to be taken to visit a yeshivah. When they left, the gentleman expressed horror at the arguing, raised voices and seeming chaos within: was this some kind of rebellion against the British Government? he asked. No, Rabbi Cardozo replied, they’re discussing the meaning of God and life. The man was shocked: I thought you’d have solved that long ago, he exclaimed. That, responded Rabbi Cardozo, referring to the questioning and debating, is why we’ve survived all our enemies!

Something Practical

Seder night is both then and now. It’s about history, and about the present. It’s what the ancient, never-ending journey towards freedom means to us today.

So maybe find, and also invite everyone who’ll be at the (inevitably small) Seder to find, a poem, picture or object which expresses for them some aspect of what that road from slavery to equality and injustice to justice means to them. At the Seder, ask them to explain how they see the connection.

Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Wednesday

Something reflective – Seder as Solidarity

‘In spite of it all, I choose love:’ these words were spoken by a colleague of our close friend Rabbi Marc Soloway at a huge online solidarity gathering for Boulder last night. The rabbi told of how she knew personally the baggers and workers at the King Soopers grocery store where ten people were murdered by a gunman. She had made them her friends, her community, people for whom she cared and who cared about her. Beneath her outrage, she said, the shootings made her feel vulnerable ‘for ourselves and for our children’. But vulnerability is the price for love, and ‘in spite of it all I choose love.’

The Seder is about comradeship, the fellowship of the story. It is at once uniquely Jewish, the history of our people on the long, unfinished road from persecution to freedom, and at the same time the story of all humanity, the unending struggle for justice and dignity. It opens with a call to comradeship: ‘Who ever is hungry come and eat; whoever needs, come share the Pesach.’ It culminates with an appeal to imaginative identification: ‘In every generation, everyone must see themselves as if they went out from Egypt.’

This solidarity is the core of moral being. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that

The traumatic experience of the slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched, and the persecuted peoples of the world. (Difficult Freedom)

I believe we must try to live this solidarity is concentric, outward-moving circles: towards our family, our community, the Jewish People, the society we live in, and any group suffering persecution. That, more than anything, is what the Seder means to me. This year Jewish communities across the world are particularly marking our connection with the Uyghur People. [add link to Uyghur Seder Reader ]

Levinas continued: ‘My uniqueness lies in the responsibility I display for the other.’ That responsibility, or, in the words of the rabbi from Boulder, that love, is the purpose for which we are here.

Something Halakhic – ‘This night we dip twice.’

Everyone is familiar with the first dipping at the Seder: we dunk our karpas (parsley, celery, watercress, whatever vegetable we use) in salt water. This is understood to represent our ancestors’ tears because of the cruelty, family separation and slave labour to which they were subjected. The green hope of life is ruined by cruelty.

The second dipping is less familiar: the maror is momentarily immersed in the charoset. According to the Talmud, the reason is to neutralise the venom of its potentially life-threatening sap. The Tosafot quote the geonic tradition that the charoset must be made from fruits and spices mentioned in the Song of Songs, such as figs, dates, apples, wine and cinnamon. (Talmud, Pesachim 116a) Charoset is thus the Jewish version of ‘the food of love’. What mitigates the bitterness and unfairness of life is the love we show one another, the companionship and solidarity we share.

Something Practical – Charoset recipes

There are charoset recipes from all over the world, Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Yemenite; there are versions from Curacao and India. For years, we’ve had the family tradition of making two or three different kinds. It’s a culinary form of inclusivity, acknowledging the rich diversity of the Jewish People and the range of Jewish geography. Go online and you’ll find tens of charoset options. If you can, adventure beyond your familiar recipe. It’s fun.


Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Tuesday

Something reflective – Freedom and Coming out of Lockdown

Every generation has its own special and unique Exodus from Egypt, wrote the popular Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet. In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, related to tzar, narrow, and metzarim, narrow and confining places. To Hasidic teachers like the Sefat Emet, Egypt is not a geographical but a mental and spiritual location and the exodus is our personal journey to freedom year by year.

It doesn’t need saying that our special exodus this year is our release from lockdown and the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. It may be slow, but hopefully it will be steady and enduring.

This contemporary personal exodus poses at least two major questions.

The first is so obvious there’s a risk we scarcely think about it. In the Torah, freedom is never just ‘freedom from’ but always also ‘freedom for.’ So what is our re-found freedom for? Some answers are obvious: ‘I want to hug my family, meet my friends, get back to making a living, see the sea.’

Lockdown has forced us to reconsider our true priorities. Which of those freedoms did we take for granted? How will we cherish them more? Of whom and what were we not sufficiently mindful before? Freedom is bound up with social justice and compassionate community: what values have we learnt to stand up for?

The second question is less obvious, but I’ve heard people talk about it. What freedoms, if any, has lockdown actually brought us?

It’s a question some will justly dismiss as insulting, – if one’s been shut in with maddening neighbours, had no digital access, been left at the mercy of an abusive partner, forced to isolate from everyone one loves, or lost one’s job, one’s health, or a beloved relative.

But I believe it still has a place. Before lockdown were we too dependent on material things? Or on distractions? Do we really need everything we thought we needed? Must we get back to all that rush? Has being forced to turn inwards opened doors to inner strengths we were less aware of before? Are there relationships which have deepened and become more important? Are there spiritual spaces, places of listening, we’ve learnt to cherish?

These questions are integral to the special and immediate exodus we are beginning to undergo, into the midst of which Pesach falls this year.

Something halakhic – How do I kosher my kitchen?

What about the oven? The fridge and the sink? How does one kasher a microwave? Last night Rabbi Chaim Weiner took us round his kitchen with a brilliant demonstration of how to make everything Pesach-ready. Follow him through this link. Don’t be shy about sending him, me or any of the rabbinic team questions. And get good, heat-resistant gloves. Burning oneself, as I’ve learnt to my cost, isn’t part of the mitzvah.

PS Don’t overdo it. And don’t leave the hard work to others. (Some of you may appreciate the poem below!)

Something for the Seder – Activities for children

Niki Jackson, our Director of Education, sends these suggested 10 Pesach Challenges, from making charoset through to preparing table decorations and ideas for the Seder.

Vehi She’Amdah

by Talya Glezer, trans. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

She who stood, cleaned, rinsed, polished, kashered, boiled and heated white-hot
Whose skin got burnt by caustic soda
And whose clothes ruined by Economica
Who cooked and roasted and baked
And prepared six Seder plates
And laid the table for thirty
And washed and ironed festival clothes

She who stood
And served the food
And cleared away after the meal

She who stood for ‘Pour out Your wrath’ didn’t manage to sing Hallel and Chad Gadya
But rested her head for one moment on the table
And fell asleep.

Talya Glezer. Vehi She’Amdah (הלילה הזה כולו שירה – עורך מרדכי דוד כהן)


Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Monday

I wish everyone good preparations for Pesach and the Seder nights. Once again, it’s a strange and complex time. But I hope that this year the Festival of freedom truly heralds coming out of lockdown and returning to the fullness of life for everyone. Each day until Shabbat I hope to send a letter with something reflective, something halakhic and something practical for the Seder, with contributions from the team at NNLS. Please join our services and activities, in person and virtual. Pesach is the season of solidarity; we all need to draw strength from our Judaism and from each other.

Something reflective – Who am I with this Seder night?

Every other night we’ve held Seders in our home for 50 or 60 people; last year there were just two of us. This year, I’ve spoken to people who’ll be with closest family only, and people who’ve told me they’ll be entirely alone. (I know, of course, that many will find modern ways to connect.)

Togetherness at the Seder goes back to its beginnings. The Torah teaches that the original paschal lamb in Egypt was eaten bemichsat nefashot, ‘according to the number of souls’. The Talmud explains this to mean that people must be ‘counted in’ before the animal is slaughtered. So ‘With whom will you be for Seder?’ is as ancient a question as it is perennial.

Last night I learnt a beautiful new way of creating togetherness even in lockdown. It’s undoubtedly both halakhically and Covid compliant. Reb Mimi Fagelson told me how last year she was entirely by herself, but not at all alone. It’s permitted to light candles on Yom Tov (so long as you do so from a flame already lit before the festival or shabbat begins.) So, she said, every few minutes I lit a candle for someone else I loved and imagined they were with me: friends, teachers, Hasidic leaders. I didn’t feel lonely for a moment.

On the one hand it’s a ruse. But it also goes to the heart of what the Seder means. I don’t think I’ll light candles for them. But I’m going to hear my father at the Seder, in the way he used to sing and the comments he always made (the same every year). I’m going to invite my father’s uncle, by reading from the letters he sent his wife every single day when he was interned on the Isle of Man in 1940.

In this manner, we summon the companionship of past generations, and current friends, and those who’ve striven for freedom through the ages, and become part of a great solidarity in defiance of space and time.

Something halakhic – How does one manage Saturday night Seder?

This year Pesach begins on Saturday night and the questions have been coming in: By when do we have to be rid of our chametz? What does one do about challah on Shabbat? Is anything different at the Seder? When is the Fast of the Firstborn (It’s Thursday, not Friday!)

For guidance, please follow this link. Don’t despair; it’s not complicated, and the great advantage of Saturday night Seder is that it’s not allowed to clean and cook on Shabbat. So one can have a rest and not get to the Seder exhausted.

Something for the Seder – family history

It’s easy to feel so pressured by shopping, cleaning and cooking that they pre-occupy us entirely. Make sure there’s some time and energy to prepare for the contents of the Seder.

Over the years, many of the most moving contributions to our Seders have been family stories and memorabilia: a letter from a grandparent in the war, a matzah cover handed like a blessing down the generations. I’m sometimes struck by how children don’t know their family history. Go back two or three generations; in very few families was everyone born in the UK.

Seder is the night of the story. Haggadah means ‘Telling’. So tell something of the family’s journey. There’s nothing more touching, for children and adults alike.

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