Keter Torah’s rabbi shares non-Ashkenazic rituals for Passover seders.
You will not find matzah ball soup at a Sephardic seder. A round, softer unleavened bread, reminiscent of pita, replaces that crunch of the very first bite of matzah on the first night of Passover.
From eating rice and corn to varying seder rituals and melodies, a seder celebrated in the homes of Jews of Sephardic ancestry may differ widely from the majority of American Jews with Eastern European lineage.
According to Jewish Virtual Library, the term Sephardim, stemming from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sephar’ad, is defined as Jews who left Spain and Portugal after the 1492 expulsion. Over the years, the term has melded to include other Jewish communities that did not come from Eastern Europe.
In Metro Detroit, Jews of non-Eastern European descent find a home at Keter Torah Synagogue in West Bloomfield. Each year, it hosts community seders full of traditions from different global Jewish communities.
“For the Sephardim, the seder holds many mystical meanings,” said Keter Torah’s Rabbi Sasson Natan, a descendant of a long line of Iraqi Jews who can trace their ancestry back to the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile around 500 B.C.E.
“At our seder, everything is explained in its fullest detail. You need to know and understand why you do a ritual. After all, Jews are not supposed to be robots.”
While both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews read the same liturgy of the Hagaddah that is from the Talmud — and Sasson sticks to the tried-and-true text from the Maxwell House Hagaddah — Sephardic Jews focus upon Kabbalistic interpretations of the ritual meal.
A Sephardic seder may start with a knock on the front door. Dressed in biblical garb and carrying a sack on his shoulders, the leader of the seder enters the home. The children at the seder follow him to the table in an opening procession symbolizing the Jews going out of Egypt. This, and other sights, tastes and smells are designed to transport participants back to the time when Jews were slaves in Egypt.
Kabbalistic rituals include the woman of the house lighting seven candles at the start of the seder and specific placement of the food on the seder plate. Natan explained that the seder plate is arranged in such a way that guests can glean different meanings from the foods on it depending on the angle they view it.
According to the traditions of a 16th-century rabbi, each symbolic food on the seder plate corresponded to one of the sephirot, or qualities, of the mystical tree of life. The highest sephirah, the quality that encompasses all these qualities, the crown, is not included in the seder plate. This is why in some communities the leader of the seder gently taps each guest’s head with the bottom of the filled seder plate to connect their life’s energy to the tree of life as the plate’s final and completing ingredient (see sidebar).
The Seder Plate
The foods on the seder plate in Sephardic communities may vary. Instead of parsley, Sephardic Jews use celery. The apple-and-nut mixture used in Ashkenazic communities for charoset is replaced by a thick date-nut mixture called silan.
According to Natan, a Sephardic seder also puts a focus on human strengths such as wisdom, and human failings such as parental favoritism and jealousy. After all, it was the jealous acts of Jacob’s sons against their brother, Joseph, that caused the Egyptians to enslave their Hebrew descendants in the first place.
“The symbolism of dipping twice can be interpreted as the two times our ancestors dipped things in blood,” Natan said. “First, Joseph’s brothers dipped his coat of many colors in goat’s blood to trick their father. Then, the Hebrews were commanded to dip a hyssop branch into goat’s blood and paint their doorposts so the Angel of Death would pass over them. It is because of these two instances of dipping that we sit at our seder tables today.”
When it comes time to recite the plagues, Natan said that instead of each guest removing 10 drops of wine from his glass, the head of the seder pours some wine into a separate bowl. The wine in the bowl, believed to be cursed, symbolically distributes the plagues to other nations who are enemies of the Jewish people.
“I remember my grandfather and uncle joking and arguing about what to do with this wine,” Natan said. “One of them would want to empty it into the kitchen sink, but because it was believed to be cursed, it would be dumped in the bathroom.”
Natan lovingly remembers the seders of his childhood. His grandfather would lead seders that had up to 50 guests. When the family moved to Israel shortly after the country’s founding, his grandfather led the seders every year up until his death at age 85.
“As long as he was alive,” Natan said, “no one else was permitted to lead the seder.”
By Stacy Gittleman, Contributing Writer
Global Pesach Rituals
Keter Torah is the only Sephardic synagogue in Metro Detroit. Though the term Sephardic is understood as Jews with origins from Spain and Portugal, Jews from Arabic lands, Asia and Africa have also fallen under this umbrella term.
Keter Torah’s congregants represent more than 20 countries. Here is just a taste of how Jews around the globe celebrate Passover:
Destroying earthenware dishes: The Jews of Ethiopia strongly identify with the Exodus story, as they themselves were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses. And, in commemoration of Passover and their own past, they break all of their dishes and make new ones to symbolize a complete break from the past and a new start. Families would bake homemade matzot from chickpea flour and eat lamb at their seders.
Using leeks or scallions: Jews living in Afghanistan developed the tradition of using scallions or leeks to stand for the Egyptian slavedrivers’ whips.
Though there is no longer a Jewish community in this war-torn country, the largest group of Afghan Jews in the world is in Queens, N.Y.
Tapping Guests on the head: In 14th-century Spain, the seder leader walked around the table three times with the seder plate in hand, tapping it on the head of each guest. Many Moroccan, Turkish and Tunisian Jews adopted this tradition, which is sometimes connected to the Talmudic custom of “uprooting” the seder plate so that guests might ask questions about the Jews in Egypt.
Letters made of matzah: It is customary in the Syrian community to break the middle matzah and shape the pieces into the letters “daled” and “vav.” In Gematria, or the study of numbers, the numerical value of these letters is 10 representing the 10 holy emanations of God. Jews from North Africa, including from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, break the matzah into the shape of the Hebrew letter “hey,” which corresponds to the number five.
Three silver boxes: The descendants of the Jews of Cochin, India, use a silver tray that sits on a stand for their seder plate. Three silver boxes sit in the middle of the tray: one for charoset, one for vinegar (used for dipping in place of salt water) and one for wine. The rest of the symbolic foods are placed around the boxes. The entire tray is covered by an embroidered cloth and surrounded with 12 pieces of matzah, each to symbolize one tribe of Israel.