Eat Onions and Sit in the Shade; The Non-Traditional Passover
An onion, like Judaism, is made up of many layers. Not every onion is the same, nor is every Jew. As mentioned in a past article, there was once an active Jewish community in China. Many years ago, a Jewish merchant from England was doing business in town, and decided to pray in the town’s synagogue. When he entered, a group of people came over to see what this foreigner wanted. When he said he was there to pray, one of the congregants exclaimed, “funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Just as each Jew looks differently, they pray differently, observe differently, and some have their own unique traditions to celebrate holidays and occasions. This month, the Jewish people celebrate the holiday of Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew ( פֶּסַח). Although there are some clear-cut rules to follow (e.g., it begins on the Hebrew date of the 15th of Nissan, and no eating of chumetz (food that rises), Jews from various cultures and regions of the world have their own unique traditions to augment those rules (e.g., one region uses onions as part of their celebration).
Modern Additions to the (American) Passover Table
One of the non-traditional traditions I have seen practiced is the addition of the Kos Miriam (Cup of Miriam, filled with water) to the Seder table [Miriam was the sister of Moses]. It represents Miriam’s Well, a source of nourishment for the Hebrews during the Exodus, but it also provides recognition to the women in the story of the Exodus, and their importance.
It is interesting to note that the Cup of Elijah, which has become a staple at most Seders, was not always a part of the traditional part of the Passover table. This tradition may not have begun until around the 1st century, as referenced by the (minority) opinion of Rabbi Tarfon’s (in Pesachim 118a) on the question of allowing for more than four cups of wine on Passover, which he replied “over the fifth cup we recite the great Hallel.” However, his answer was not really clear. It was not until another millennium that a Jewish scholar made a statement on a fifth cup, when Maimonides wrote that one should have a fifth cup (although it is not mandatory). However, some interpret this in different ways; some believe a fifth cup should be filled with wine in honor of Maimonides, but not to be touched, while others are of the opinion to drink it. In addition, this is more of a tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews (from Eastern Europe)
Another tradition I have seen being implemented is the placement of an orange (sometimes a tangerine) on the Seder table. The story’s origin usual told is as follows: At a conference, Dr. Susannah Herschel was speaking about a woman’s right to be a rabbi. An angry orthodox man got up and yelled “a woman belongs on the pulpit, like an orange belongs on a Seder table.” That story, however, is false. According to Herschel, she was speaking to a woman writing a feminist haggadah. The woman asked her rabbi if there is room in Judaism for lesbians, and the rabbi answered “there is as much room in Judaism for a lesbian as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate.” Since she could not put bread on the Passover table, the following year she added an orange because “it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”
A third regionalized tradition I have also experienced is the use of rice by Sephardic Jews (Iberian Peninsula). The first time I went to a Sephardic home for a Seder I was taken back, but I quickly learned to enjoy this tradition. However, in 2016, this 800 year old rule was overturned by the leaders of the Conservative movement, stating that kitnyot (rice and beans) are now allowable during the holiday of Passover. That being said, many still follow the older ruling.
The addition of olives to the Seder table has become a recent tradition. The olives are meant to symbolize the hope for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The practice may have begun in 2008 in connection with the Trees of Reconciliation project, in which donations were being sought to provide 3000 olive trees to Palestinian farmers.
In-line with promoting peace and friendship amongst people, some observers add the artichoke to promote interfaith-friendly Seders. Just like real life, where things are rough on the outside, but friendly on the inside, the artichoke is a vegetable with a prickly exterior and a soft heart/inside.
Passover Traditions from Around the World
There are also many other traditions that come from specific regions of the world. Unfortunately, some of these customs are carried out by descendants of many these countries, since there are no Jews (or very few) actually living there today.
Afghanistan – During the recitation of the 10 plagues, they take out scallions (a type of onion) and use the scallion to whip the other guests while singing “Dayenu” (to represent the Egyptian slave drivers). [Fast Fact: At one time there was a thriving Jewish community in Afghanistan, now there may only be one Jew living in the country.]
Ethiopia – Break their dinner plates to symbolize a break from the past in which most were airlifted to Israel to avoid persecution (in what was called Operation Moses (see the Passover connection?)). They also avoid fermented dairy.
Gibraltar – They literally add brick to the charoset (a dish made to symbolize the mortar used by the Jews in Egypt). In actually, they add a very little bit of dust from the brick.
Hungary – They place gold and silver jewelry on the Seder table. This is in reference to a passage in the Torah (Exodus 12:35), where Moses instructs the Hebrews to ask the Egyptians for silver, gold, and clothing.
India (city of Cochin) – Beginning just after Chanukah, they begin their clean-up of chametz, including the inspection of every grain of rice is inspected for defects.
Morocco – Not only is a goblet of wine set aside for Elijah, but an elaborately decorated chair is also set aside for the prophet. Moroccan Jews also have the custom of wearing white to the Seder (as do some Orthodox communities).
Poland (town of Gora Kalwa) – They reenact the crossing of the Red Sea by pouring water on the floor, lifting up their coats, and walk over the water. They would also recite the names of the towns they would cross, taking a drink of wine for each town mentioned.
Russia (Moscow) – Since celebrating Judaism was illegal, underground bakeries would make and distribute matzah around the area. Jewish families would gather at someone’s house for a dinner and although no word of Passover was mentioned, the elder matriarch would get up after the meal and make a toast to freedom (probably with vodka) and thank the wife or host for “organizing a Seder that preserves the Judaism they almost lost.”
Sephardim – Telling the story of the Exodus in costume. The guests tell tales of the Exodus as though they were actually there.
Syria – The children at the table would break matza into the Hebrew letters of a “daled” and “vav.” When added together, they equal 10, which is the number of plagues.
Turkey – At the conclusion of the Seder, they take a sprig of parsley, and recite a verse in Arabic.
Yemen (region of Adeni) – They eat eggs as the main course of the Seder. They also follow the dropping of wine out of the glass for each of the 10 plagues, however, they drop the wine into another glass, which they throw into the garden to cast the plagues onto their enemies. Iraqui Jews have a similar tradition, but they drip the wine into bowls instead of cups.
Iraq, Kurdistan, Yemen – The host would put the afikoman (one of the three main matzah on the Seder table) into a sack, and walk around the room while guest ask them a series of questions as follows: Guests: “Where are you coming from?”; Host: “Egypt”; Guests: “Where are you going to?”; Host: “Israel” (or “Jerusalem”)
Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco – The host would walk around the table three times with the Seder plate and hit the guests on the head. This represents the uprooting of the Jewish people from Egypt, and allowing for the guests to ask why.
Something to ponder: In the world of science, some people are growing their vegetables hydroponically (the growing of plants without soil), which may become more standard in the future. Some people do grow parsley (karpas) hydroponically and want to use it for their Seder plate. The question becomes, since it is not grown in the ground, does the prayer for vegetables need to be changed, which is “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the earth”? From what I have found so far, this issue is machloket ha’poskim, which means that this issue is up for debate and has not been ruled upon by any higher authority.
As you can see, there are many different traditions that vary from region to region or even from family to family. Just because the tradition is not ancestrally yours, does not mean you cannot adopt it and bring something new to the Seder table. Maybe for this Passover, add a few scallions.
When you walk into the supermarket there are at least four or five different types of “onions” in the produce section. Onions are a part of the genus family called alliums. Subgroups of this family include onions, but also many other vegetables that we usually call onions, such as scallions. Some alliums can be smaller than one inch in diameter and others are larger than 4.5 inches in diameter. Some of the more common types include: Leeks (leafy, look like jumbo scallions), pearl onions (small – also called baby onions), Bermuda/red onions (known for their reddish color), shallots (small and sweet), sweet onions (large, e.g., Vidalia), white onions, and yellow onions. Garlic is also a member of the allium family and closely related to onions. [Fast Fact: allium is Greek for “garlic.”]
Scallions, however are not technically onions, they are the immature plants of a bulbing onion before it becomes fully formed. Scallions can come in many different varieties, and are called by different names depending on the region they come from, such as: green onion, new onions, welsh onion, spring onion, salad onion, and Japanese bunching onion (to name a few). [Fast fact: scallions are called green onions in Israel (בצל ירוק pronounced batzal yaroq).] The origin of the name, scallion, can be traced back to ancient Greece, from the word ασκολόνιον (pronounced askolonion) which may have come from the ancient Canaan city of Ashkelon, where they may have thought it had originally been imported from. The scallion may have first grown somewhere in Asia, and the earliest know mention of scallions is in a 2000 year old book written in China about agriculture and medical use of plants entitled Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing. Scallions have been used by many different cultures through the millennium for their healing properties ranging from stopping running noses, to stopping headaches, and even remedying kidney stones (however, there have not been any large modern day medical studies to confirm any of these remedies).
History of Onions
One of the traditions discussed above include the use of scallions, which are a type of onion. Although sources state that there are many different variations of onions in size, taste, and color, I am unable to find a source that actually states how many different types of onions exist. Onions have been around for eons, and it is very likely that the diet of our pre-historic ancestors included onions. Because onions are small and due to their many layers, they have left very little trace of their existence the actual origin of onions is under debate. Many scholars believe that onions may have first developed in central Asia, while others have hypothesized that they may have first growing in the area around modern Iran and western Pakistan. However, it is generally believed that onions began to be cultivated about 5000-5500 years ago. There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians were growing onions as far back as 3500 BCE (they were included in Egyptian tombs to symbolize eternity). Onions were even mentioned in the bible (Numbers 11:5). Onions were mentioned in the ancient Indian treatise Charaka Samhita (between 100 and 200 BCE). The Greek physician Dioscorides mentioned the medical benefits of onions in the 1st century. Because onions can be grown in most environments and most weather, they spread and became a staple in diets of people all over the world. Onions were first introduced to the Americas by Columbus during his early voyages. It is interesting to mention that, although the Pilgrims brought onions to cultivate with them when they came to settle in Plymouth, MA in 1620, a wild strain of the onion brought by Columbus was already found growing in the fields.
Onions have been used by physicians for hundreds of years. In one study, it was shown that onions may help with the cardiovascular system and decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease. Another study showed that onions may lower blood-sugar levels. Onions may also help with gastrointestinal help and help decrease bone loss. The great physician Maimonides recommended giving onions to people that are overweight, and would prescribe it as a cure for vomiting. Up until the past century, onions were used to detect pregnancy.
Onions in Judaism
Onions were one of the foods that were grown in the times of Moses. In fact, onions are mentioned in Torah in Numbers 11:5 in a paragraph where the Hebrews are complaining about eating manna in the desert and remembering the things they did enjoy while under the shackles of the Pharaoh, as follows:
“We remember the fish, which we did eat in Mitzrayim at no cost; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic”
[Note: this passage was read last month in temple.]
According to Rashi (a rabbi that wrote extensive commentary on the Torah), the reason the manna did not taste like the foods listed above is that these items are those that were thought to have been bad to give a pregnant woman, and G-d did not want the Hebrew people to fear that what they ate would be of harm to them. At the time, this made sense, however it must be noted that many modern sources show that onions are actually beneficial to pregnant women. However, there may be some truth in what Rashi wrote 1000 years ago; WebMD provides a warning to those that are pregnant or breastfeeding: “There is not enough reliable information about the safety of taking onion as a medicine if you are pregnant or breast-feeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid using onion in amounts larger than usual food amounts.”
Peeled onions have been the focus of debate amongst biblical scholars. There is a statement in the Gemara (a biblical commentary) made by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (in Gemara Nidda 17a) that “one who eats a peeled onion, egg or garlic that has been left sitting out overnight is literally endangering his life, and will be ultimately judged as a person who took his own life.” However, the Talmud does cite the benefits of onions, such as in Nedarim 66a, that they are good for the heart and that they are good to treat a wound (Tosefta Shabbat 5:3-4). But it does also warn that eating onions after bloodletting can be dangerous (Avodah Zara 29a) and that they can be bad for the stomach (Nedarim 26b).
Rabbi Judah used to state the following adverb: “Eat onions and sit in the shade.” (Pes. 114a) This means that a person should not desire luxuries and be content with what little you have.
As we have read above, onions have been used as a part of different Jewish customs, like the use of scallions during the Seder. Besides the various foods brought to the Seder, the Seders themselves can sometimes be different in form and meaning.
A Different Kind of Seder
Besides the addition of various traditions to the Seder listed earlier in this article, many recent Seders have been transformed to adapt to the lifestyles and feelings of the today’s modern points of view:
Vegetarian / Vegan Seders, which include the following items on the Seder plate:
- Charoset – traditional recipe using apples, nuts, and spices
- Zeroa – fresh beet – to replace the shank bone (this is permitted in the Talmud, as per Rav Huna in Pesahim 114b); instead of beets, some people use a combination of dry barley wheat, olives, and grapes
- Maror – bitter herbs
- Beitzah – hardboiled egg – silky avocado or stemmed white eggplant
- Karpas – karpas
Chocolate Seders, for the chocolate lover in each of us:
- Matza – Chocolate covered matza
- Zeroa – ice cream drumstick
- Beitzah – chocolate eggs
- Maror – Dark chocolate with horseradish
- Charoset – chocolate covered charoset truffles
- Karpas – green colored chocolate – or strawberries dipped in chocolate, with stems still on
- Kiddush cup – chocolate liquor or chocolate wine
Freedom Seders, a Seder which celebrates the liberation of Jews and other people – most notably the African Americans during the 1960s.
Tu B’Shvat Seder, the seder for the trees, which is held on the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, which includes many different types of fruit. [Fast Fact: As a side point, Jesus’ last supper is believed to have been a Passover Seder.]
Hagadajs are part of the Jewish experience. It is something that we can each associate with when we think about our own Jewish experiences. When the Nazi’s told the Jews to pack, they were limited in space and weight (8-9 pounds). Although the space was limited to bare essentials, many Jews still carried objects of their religion. In fact, a half-burned haggadah was recently found in an excavation near the Chelmo concentration camp. The contents of the haggadah you grew up with and have used each year is not what was in the haggadah when it was first created. When was that, you ask? Well experts are not sure. It may have been compiled around the time of Rabbi Yehuddah bar Elai (about 170 BCE), when the Talmud was being complied), however, since there is a lot of contents from the time of the Second Temple, it may have originally been compiled as early as 500 BCE. The earliest mention of a Seder is in the Talmud (Pesachim 10:5) by Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder in 90 BCE, although he did not mention the use of a haggadah.
The prayers and stories in the haggadah evolved over the next eight or nine centuries, until the basic version we follow today was compiled in 860 by the Geonim (Jewish teachers). Note that the earlier versions did not include some items we are used to today, such as the story of the Four Sons, and the Four Questions were only three. The early haggadahs were also part of the Siddur (prayer book), and did not become a separate booklet until the 13th century. It was about this time that illumidated versions of the haggadah were created, including the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. The first known mass-printed haggadah was printed in 1482 (approximately) in Spain. In 1590, the song Chad Gadya was added to a haggadah printed in Progue. In 1609, a haggadah in Venice included the 10 plagues in Hebrew. In 1907, the first Reform Judaism version of the haggadah was written. In order to change the custom of not drinking coffee on Passover (since it was thought that a coffee bean was the same as a legume), the owner of Maxwell House began printing and distributing their own hagaddahs (for free) in 1932 (including ads for coffee). The haggadah, known for its simplicity, became the most used haggadah for most families during the 20th century. The first haggadah by the reconstructionist movement was first published in 1941.
Because they are so personal, over the last few decades, new hagadas have been created to express the social, environmental, religious, and other feelings of the hosts. Some of these haggadas (new and old) include the following:
- Maxwell House – which is what my family has used for most of my childhood into adulthood.
- Feminist / Egalitarian
- Freedom Seder Hagaddah (as explained above)
- Liberal views
- Conservative views
- Haggada supplements – some people add their own supplemental songs, poems, etc., to add to whatever haggadah they are using
- Different translations – (even fictional languages, such as Klingon)
- For children
- For Art lovers
- Quick Seder (30 minute seder)
- For JuBus (Jewish Buddhists)
- And many more.
Since scallions are the culinary focus of this article, how about a recipe for scallion pancakes. This is something that you can even place on your Seder table for the festive meal to provide a little International flair , along with the story of Passover traditions from other areas in the world. You can even purchase more scallions than you need for the recipe and add the Afghanistanian tradition to your own.
1 cup Scallions (to make 1 cup chopped – about 1 bunch/10 scallions)
2 cups Flour (all purpose)
½ tsb Salt
1 tbs Soy Sauce
14 oz Water
2 Tbs Oil (for frying)
1) Mix flour, water, egg, and soy sauce, then set aside for 10 minutes
2) Add scallions and mix
3) Heat oil
4) Scoop flour/scallion batter into oil
5) Cook pancakes for about 2 minutes on each side (until each side is golden brown)
“7 Passover Traditions Around the World” (Natalia Sloam: TheDailyMeal.com: 2014) @ http://www.thedailymeal.com/7-passover-traditions-around-world/41114
“10 Unusual Passover Traditions” (Yoni Sherezin: Times of Israel: 2013 @ http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/10-of-the-darndest-passover-traditions/
“A Celebration of Passover Customs from Around the World!” (Mocha Juden: 2016) @ http://mochajuden.com/?p=4179
“A Haggadah for a Socially Responsible Chocolate Seder” (Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz) @ http://onthechocolatetrail.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/A-Haggadah-for-a-Chocolate-Seder.pdf
“All About Allium Vegetables” (Vegetable Expert Staff) @ https://www.thevegetariansite.com/health_allium.htm
“Chronology, History, and Timeline of the Haggadah” (Elimelech David Ha-Levi) @ http://www.angelfire.com/pa2/passover/haggadah-chronology-timeline.html
“Different Types of Onions” (The Nibble) @ http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/vegetables/different-types-of-onions.asp
“For the First Time in 800 Years, Rice and Beans are Kosher for Passover” (Smithsonian: 2016) @ http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/first-time-800-years-rice-and-beans-are-kosher-passover-180958856/
“Guide to Vegan Passover Seder” (Abigail Wick: VegNews: 2014) @ http://vegnews.com/articles/page.do?pageId=1851&catId=2
“History of Onions” (National Onion Association) @ https://www.onions-usa.org/all-about-onions/history-of-onions
“Is it Safe to Eat Onions During Pregnancy?” (Manjiri Kochrekar: Mom Junction: 2015) @ http://www.momjunction.com/articles/onions-during-pregnancy_00359009/#gref
“Miriam’s Cup” (Tamara Cohen: MyJewishLearning.com) @ http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/miriams-cup/
“The Missing Fifth – An Extract From Rabbi Sacks’ Hagadda” (Jonathan Sacks: RabbiSacks.org: 2015) @ http://rabbisacks.org/the-missing-fifth-an-extract-from-rabbi-sacks-haggada/
“Non-Traditional Items Showing Up on Seder Plates” (JPost.com: 2011) @ http://www.jpost.com/Features/In-Thespotlight/Non-traditional-items-showing-up-on-Seder-plates
“The Odd Account of the Overnight Onion” (Rabbi Yehuda Spitz: Ohr Somayach: 2012) @ http://ohr.edu/this_week/insights_into_halacha/5213
“Olives on the Seder Plate” (Haggadot.com) @ http://www.haggadot.com/clip/olives-seder-plate
“Onion” (Jewish Virtual Library) @ http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/onion
“Onions” (Katherine White and Jonathan Zellner: Hamilton College: 2008) @ http://academics.hamilton.edu/foodforthought/our_research_files/allium.pdf
“Onion History – Origin and History of Onions” (VegetableFacts.net) @ http://www.vegetablefacts.net/vegetable-history/history-of-onions/
“Onions in the Talmud” (Robin Burger) @ file:///C:/Users/u0061580/Downloads/734455.pdf
“The Onion Plot” (Yerachmiel Tilles: Chabad.org) @ http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1399/jewish/The-Onion-Plot.htm
“Onions” (Robin Burger: Derech HaTeva) @ file:///C:/Users/u0061580/Downloads/734455.pdf
“Pregnancy in Ancient Rome” (Natasha Sheldon: Decoded Pregnancy: 2013) @ http://decodedpregnancy.com/pregnancy-ancient-rome/3256/
“The Real Story Behind the Orange on the Seder Plate” (Anita Silvert: Jewish United Fund: 2012) @ https://www.juf.org/news/world.aspx?id=414773
“Scalion” (Wikipedia) @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scallion
“Scallions” (Encyclopedia.com) @ http://www.encyclopedia.com/plants-and-animals/plants/plants/scallion
“Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Volume 7” @ https://books.google.com/books?id=Z9EBrkBE4-oC&pg=PA376&lpg=PA376&dq=onions+in+the+talmud&source=bl&ots=dl97hEKgwF&sig=RDuIyvu9USV1XPv-MgpOyFDgn_k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9372Nwu_RAhUorlQKHatoDdY4ChDoAQg2MAY#v=onepage&q=onions%20in%20the%20talmud&f=false
“Enclyclopedia of Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud” @ https://books.google.com/books?id=Lbv7gJ5lrFMC&pg=PA233&lpg=PA233&dq=onions+in+the+talmud&source=bl&ots=8mk5-zisMG&sig=8gy8yb9OM8ZPW8rT6nc7zEjfGVg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFj_iPwO_RAhXG7YMKHdMoA6sQ6AEIRjAH#v=onepage&q=onions%20in%20the%20talmud&f=false