April 11, 2014 admin

Countdown to Pesach 5

Something Practical – Searching for Leaven 

Some years ago I was given a facsimile edition of the Copenhagen Haggadah. The manuscript was completed in 1739 in Altona-Hamburg; the artist-scribe was Uri Pheibush son of Isac Eisik Segal. It contains the full order of the Seder together with many illustrations in powerful colours, and the songs are accompanied by translations into both Yiddish and Ladino. The work is beautiful.
On the first page, inside the gold leaf of the letter caph, for the word Col, is depicted a rather prim gentleman in a pink gabardine holding a candle and brushing the crumbs off a table. The text is, of course, the ancient formula said when nullifying any leaven one may have found in one’s possession: ‘All leaven which may be in my possession, whether I have or have not seen it, and which I have not removed, let it be as the dust of the earth’. 
The instruction to remove all leaven from our homes, and not to eat or even to possess it, is stated clearly in the Torah. The ceremony of bedikat chametz, searching for the leaven, is rabbinic. ‘With the dark on the fourteenth of Nissan [the night before Seder night]’ opens the Mishnaic tractate Pesachim, edited in the Galilee at the close of the 2nd century, ‘one searches by the light of a candle’. A candle was chosen because it gave the best light, and a feather because it captured even the last crumb of leaven; the remaining requisite was a board onto which anything found could easily be swept. The next day, leaven, candle, feather and board are all burnt by the time of the biur, or disposal, (11.33am this year in London, but leaven may not be eaten from10.05am) after which the ownership of chametzis strictly forbidden.  
A blessing was instituted for the ceremony, in which we praise God ‘who commanded us concerning the removal of chametz’. Because it was widely felt that once such a blessing was said the search should not be in vain, it became common practice to hide pieces of bread or biscuit, which were then duly found and disposed of the next morning. In our family the women hide and the men search. In this we are ably assisted by a male dog whose capacity to detect bread in the dark far exceeds that of his humans. This short ceremony is great fun; we all enjoy it, and burning the findings the next morning provides a significant outlet for those with pyromaniac tendencies.
I cannot fully explain why this short ritual, completely and utterly absurd as it might appear to an outsider, should move me to the core. But it does. I set those words ‘All leaven…’ in my head to the same melody as that stirring verse one chants at the very beginning of Yom Kippur as the Torah scrolls are carried through the silent synagogue, ‘Light is sown for the righteous’, and follow the candle through the dark house. 
Something about the Haggadah – the blessing of redemption
What are we looking for on Seder night? It’s not quite true that the deepest theme of Passover is freedom, even though the rabbis called the festival zeman cherutenu, the season of our liberation. The blessing in which the narrative culminates, the goal towards which we travel, is not just freedom but redemption – ge’ulah.
There is more at stake here than the substitution of an obscure religious term in place of a popular secular ideal. The biblical, and rabbinic, concept of redemption is all-embracing; redemption involves not just freedom for some, but liberty for all. Redemption is when the whole world is as God might have dreamt it to be. It is envisioned as a time of all-encompassing justice, kindness and goodness; of fair trade and fair relations between people, faiths and countries. It is the goal to work towards which we need our freedom; freedom is a precondition, but it can yet be squandered on the way. True freedom is in service to redemption.
So what should I have in my heart as I scour the sink, try to get the ingrained fat off the oven-racks, drop tens of knives and spoons into boiling water, and prepare to tell the story at the Seder of our Exodus from Egypt and listen to many people reflecting on its meanings?
An extraordinary commentary, which I believe is to be found in the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1712, likens the readying of the kitchen before Pesach to the preparation of the conscience before Yom Kippur. Just as we clean the stove, so we strive to cleanse the heart. Just as we search the rooms of our home, so we examine our inner being, for ‘a candle of God is the human soul, searching all the chambers of the womb’.
Maybe that, without my ever trying to express it in such terms, is what moves me when we search the house for the leaven. For to the rabbis, leaven symbolises what prevents us. What is there in me, good and bad? Am I free to be of service? How can we deepen, celebrate and use our freedom together to bring the world nearer to redemption?

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