I try my best to run a traditional and meaningful Seder every year, often with much of my extended family in attendance. One big difficulty I have is that most of the people (including myself) are too hungry to really get into the Seder. They find the long story-telling of Maggid – with no more than a cup of wine and nibble of potato or celery – too much to bear. What do you think I can do about this?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Your issue is quite valid. Most people who are not that familiar with the traditional Seder have no idea how much of it – in fact the most significant part of it – occurs before the meal begins. And they are ill prepared to sit through inspiring talks and long dissertations on an empty stomach.
What we do in our family is to serve a very large snack in the late afternoon, shortly before Passover begins. Now there are a few restrictions regarding what may be served at this meal. Chametz (leaven) is forbidden starting from about mid-morning (Shulchan Aruch 443:1). We also do not eat matzah at all on the day before Passover. (Some have the custom not to eat it starting two weeks earlier, at the onset of the Jewish month of Nisan). This restriction (on the day before Passover) also applies to cakes which contain matzah meal in their ingredients (see Rema 471:2, Mishnah Berurah 11).
Finally, for the final few hours of the day, one should not eat more than a small quantity of cooked foods containing matzah meal, such as matzah balls (Mishnah Berurah 444:8). (This is as opposed to baked foods containing matzah meal, which as above are forbidden the entire day.)
What is left to be eaten? Fruit, hard-boiled eggs, and lots and lots of potato kugel! One's cooking preparations must budget in this very important meal. After unwinding from a very hectic day of pre-Passover preparations, everyone suddenly notices how starving he or she is by late afternoon. Many a potato kugel are consumed at that point. And for us, this is one of our most important Seder preparations.
So make sure to offer your guests a filling snack before the night begins. (Once the sun sets, one may not eat without first reciting Kiddush.) And if at all feasible, guests who will not be arriving before the evening should be notified that they should help themselves to a filling snack before leaving home.
It’s also important to mention two other tactics people take to alleviate their hunger which are actually not correct. One is to serve a large “appetizer” as part of the karpas. (This is a greenery or potato dipped in saltwater served near the start of the Seder; see http://www.aish.com/h/pes/l/48968741.html.) In fact, one should be careful not to consume more than an olive-sized piece of karpas or any other vegetable at that point during the Seder, because doing so raises the question of if an after-blessing should be recited (Shulchan Aruch 473:6, Mishnah Berurah 53).
A second tactic taken by some is to hurry through the entire first part of the Seder until the matzah and maror are consumed and the meal begins. They feel that once their guests are sated, they will be more amenable to listening attentively to the messages of the Seder.
I feel this is not advisable for two reasons. First of all, the main part of the Seder occurs before the meal. It will be hard to recap all the lost material after the fact. Second of all, as my teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig observed, once food is served that seems to grab all the attention. People become much more focused on their comfort and less religiously inclined once they start eating. The conversation and chitchat will flourish, but it will be of a different sort entirely. It will be much more difficult to direct the conversation to spiritual matters.
My wife and I were married by a rabbi who also performed our son's Bris. Our son is now six years old – and I believe he meets all the criteria for Pidyon Ha’Ben.
When I contacted our rabbi regarding a Pidyon Ha’Ben, he informed me that his movement of Judaism does not do this anymore. The rabbi said it's ludicrous to redeem your son simply because his last name is not Levi. He explained that most rabbis are not from the tribe of Levi, and that a child with the last name Smith is no less important in God's eyes.
After speaking with the rabbi, I got the sense that performing a Pidyon Ha’Ben would be acknowledging that my son is an inferior class of Jew. Is this correct? I want to do right by God and my son.
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
It is very impressive that you are pursuing clarity on this issue, particularly with all the dissuasion you've had until now.
Let's start from square one: Pidyon Ha’Ben refers to the "redemption of the first born son," and is commanded in the Torah (Numbers 18:15-16).
The reason behind this mitzvah is to remind us how during the Exodus from Egypt, God killed the first-born Egyptians, yet miraculously spared the first-born Jews. And since one's first child brings so much happiness, it's a fitting time to acknowledge that everything we have belongs to God. (Numbers 3:13)
But what does the tribe of Levi have to do with all this? The background is a bit complex, so here goes:
Originally, God intended that the first-born of each Jewish family would be a Kohen – i.e. would serve as that family's representative to the Holy Temple. (Exodus 13:2, Exodus 24:5)
Then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: "Make your choice – either God or the idol." Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. (Exodus 32:26)
At that point, God decreed that each family's first-born had forfeited their "Kohen" status – and henceforth all the Kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. (More specifically, the descendants of Aaron became the Kohanim, with the rest of the tribe of Levi taking on other responsibilities in the Temple.)
This created a situation where all Jewish first-borns are "potential" Kohanim, while the descendents of Aaron are the "actual" Kohanim.
Therefore, God gave us the commandment to redeem the first-born from a Kohen, who essentially is serving in place of the first-born.
Now for your question: Isn't all this discriminatory? Just by virtue of birth is a Kohen inherently "better" than a non-Kohen?
The answer is yes and no.
We all accept the idea that "status" can be passed down genealogically. Imagine someone born into the family of Rockefeller. He would automatically have vast financial resources and social status. Is this fair? After all, his only claim to fame is that some distant ancestor excelled!
So, too, a Kohen is a Kohen today by virtue of an exceedingly great act that his ancestor did in refusing to worship the Golden Calf.
Whether fair or not, it's a genealogical reality that applies to many aspects of life. Some people are born smarter, some prettier, and some more athletic. However this does not make one human being better than another. It just means that we all have different limitations, and a different potential to be fulfilled. (In fact, the tribe of Levi "lost out" in one regard, in that they were not assigned a tribal portion in the Land of Israel.)
Actually, the greater a person's potential, the greater degree of responsibility. One of the reasons why Esav (Esau) sold the birthright to Jacob is because Esav thought he would suffer grave consequences as a result of performing the Temple service improperly. Indeed, if a Rockefeller would squander his wealth and abuse his social status, he would be held culpable – much more than if a non-Rockefeller did so!
But in truth, we've missed a basic point. In Judaism there is a much higher value than one's status as a Kohen – the "Crown of Torah."
Torah learning is regarded as the most important of all mitzvot, because it opens the door for observance of the other mitzvot. As the Talmud says (Shabbat 127a): "The study of Torah is equal to the sum total of all other mitzvot."
The Talmud asks who deserves more honor: A non-learned Kohen Gadol (High Priest), or a Torah scholar with badly-tainted lineage (for example the product of an incestuous relationship)? The answer is that Torah scholarship supersedes simple Kohanic lineage.
So when we speak about fulfilling one's Jewish potential, there are no restrictions, no special classes of Jews. Torah is not the exclusive domain of some priestly class. Rather, it is open and available to all. And we are required at all times to involve ourselves personally in its study and practice.
Furthermore, while everyone may not be cut out to be a scholar, everyone can share in that merit by supporting Torah scholarship. The classic example of this is a partnership made between the two Jewish tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun. The people of Yissachar were professional scholars, while the people of Zevulun excelled in business and trade. The two group made a 50-50 partnership: Zevulun supplied Yissachar with funds, and in return Yissachar agreed to split the merit of their Torah learning. Indeed, this provision is used even today as the model for many similar, private arrangements.
Yet when all is said and done, aren't Kohanim still regarded as "special?"
The definition of peace is not that everyone is equal or that everyone has exactly the same needs as everyone else, but rather that everyone knows their place, knows what they're capable of, knows what their contribution is, and is accepting of themselves and that others' contributions as equally important and valuable. Everyone has a vital role to play, regardless of occupation or skill, and we are only expected to excel with the tools we have.
The story is told of the great Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (20th century Jerusalem), who asked his congregation to delay beginning the evening prayers until the street sweeper arrived. Said Rabbi Auerbach: "This man is devoted and committed to his work, and takes pride in the contribution he makes to Jewish life. I wish that I would have such pure intentions in my own work!"
It is interesting that the Priestly Blessing set forth in the Torah (Numbers 6:22-27) is essentially a blessing for peace. The Kohanim are the prime example in Jewish life where we could be setting ourselves up for jealousy – "my position versus your position." Yet the Torah assigns them the specific role as messengers of peace!
And who was the quintessential master of peace? Moses' brother – Aaron the High Priest – who occupied the second-highest position in Jewish communal life. Yet Aaron was known as the master of peace. Despite his "special" status, Aaron brought harmony by teaching that no one's "package" is inherently better than another’s. And that's the key to true peace – never treating others as less important.
One last point mentioned in your question: A person's last name does not determine whether or not they come from the tribe of Levi. While it is true that many families named Levi are Levites, this is far from an absolute rule. Imagine an Eskimo who converts to Judaism and legally changes his last name to Levi. That doesn't make him a Levite!
Nor are all Kohen's named Kohen. Many Kohanim are named Katz, which is an acronym for Kohen-Tzedek – "righteous Kohen." And the family today with the most verified lineage of Kohanic ancestry is named "Rappaport!"
The only valid method of being a Levite (or Kohen) is to have an unbroken tradition, passed from generation to generation, stretching back to the time of Moses. In many Jewish communities, meticulous records were kept throughout the generations to ensure that ancestral lines remain clear.
Finally, while a Pidyon Ha’Ben is usually done one month after birth, even if the opportunity was missed, the obligation still remains. My best advice is to contact a local rabbi with solid knowledge of the Talmud and Code of Jewish Law. There are many technical details regarding Pidyon Ha’Ben, and not all first-borns are obligated in the mitzvah.
I wish you the best success in raising your son in the Jewish tradition. With your honest approach in your relationship to God, he's got an excellent role model already.
Read more about Pidyon Ha’Ben at www.aish.com/jl/l/b/48964996.html
I am Jewish, but the other day someone asked me: “What is a Jew?” I was a bit shocked that I could not articulate a proper answer. So... what is a Jew?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
This answer has two aspects: Technically and philosophically.
Technically, Jewishness is passed on via the mother. If the mother is Jewish, the child is 100 percent Jewish. At the same time, if someone's father is Jewish (but not the mother), then the child is 100 percent not Jewish. Jewish identity passed on through the mother has been universally accepted by Jews for 3,000 years, and was decided by God. This is recorded in the Five Books of Moses in Deuteronomy 7:3-4. The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) explains how this law is evident from those passages, and the Jewish people have collectively adhered to this law throughout the generations.
Philosophically, the Jewish legacy is called “Tikkun Olam” – literally “repairing the world.” In looking back at the first 3,000 years of Jewish history, we don't recall the names of any great entertainers or athletes or corporate executives. We recall the great teachers of the Jewish message: Moses, King David, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon. That is the essential Jewish legacy. The message was engrained in our souls at Mount Sinai and it is the single defining characteristic of our people.
And the world needs that message now more than ever. Just look at the institution of marriage. In Western society, the rate of divorce is over 50 percent. That is a crisis of immense proportion. Family structure is crumbling, and dysfunction in relationships is at an all-time high. And it seems that nobody has a clue how to stem the tide.
Not so long ago, "morality" was a dirty word. It implied an imposition of conscience and a curtailment of personal freedom. But today, the leaders of Western society realize that morality is the key to human survival. The great civilizations of Greece and Rome fell due to moral decay. Now our globe is increasingly more complex, and to navigate the maze we need solid moral direction.
Today, the great universities – Columbia, Harvard, Hebrew University – are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop curriculum for teaching "morality" to primary and high school students. They're scouring centuries of philosophical texts to try to find an effective approach.
Yet the answer is right in front of our eyes! Our very own Torah contains time-tested tools for personal and communal success: How to give and how to receive... When to be strict and when to be compassionate... Individual rights versus communal responsibility... How to show appreciation and respect... When to lead and when to follow... Balancing family and career... The boundaries of modesty in actions and in dress... How to listen and converse effectively...
Torah methodology is universal – for Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, Israel and the Diaspora, left and right. The Torah is alive and relevant for today. And for the Jewish people, the ability to effectively communicate this message is our single most important undertaking.