Nobody really expected Pesach 5780 to have a striking resemblance with the first-ever Passover held in the land of Egypt by our forefathers just before their exodus out of slavery. Even though through the ages, the sages and rabbis formulated laws that best interpreted the observance of the festival- one of the most remarkable features of the first Pesach was the fact it was done in great fright as the angel of death hovered outside in the dark of the night. Although, there are certain times in history when Jews had no option but to celebrate some of the festivals secretly and in fear of what might become the outcome peradventure they are seen by their haters in most of these situations. But the reasons were mostly connected to tyranny- compared to the invisible threat that recently compelled the whole World to adhere to restriction of movement in fear- and there was nothing people could do about it!
Memories from last year celebration is still fresh in my mind, when I had an unforgettable visit to Port Harcourt for the seder night as Jewish communities marked the beginning of Pesach. And without any form of restriction in movement, I also visited Jews in Abia State and Tzur Yisrael Synagogue in Asaba, capital of Delta State. In that same #Pesach2019- I learned 10 things after visiting two Jewish communities in Ebonyi State. Unfortunately for this year, I couldn’t go to my synagogue in Lagos even though getting there would take about two hours or less.
The Global Lockdown & the Social Distancing Rule
In September of 2019, Jews around the world ushered in a new year and everything looked promising after that memorable occasion. Yom Kippur and the 8 days feast of Succot was next- a time Jews purge themselves from every element of sin and prepare for a sweet year ahead. And up to the time of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, things went smoothly and accordingly in the lives of both Jews and non-Jews alike.
Unpredictably, many didn’t see it coming, until the World woke up to a new global threat around the end of January. There were many questions than answers as the dreaded virus spread from Asia into Europe and eventually found its way into the United States, Africa, and other places. Back here at home in Nigeria, the whole situation was received with mixed feelings as many doubted the authenticity of the development when the first index case was confirmed in the country.
Initially, there were many sides to the story and most people came up with several controversial theories on how the coronavirus is not for the black man, 5G responsible for the deaths, how religious people have more immunity to the virus, just to mention but a few. But reality gradually began to set in when most parts of the World adopted the social distancing rule and took a dramatic measure asking everybody to remain in their homes. Public gatherings of all types were banned including religious activities, and Israel was also quick to do the same to contain the spread of the virus. And as the number of cases slowly increased in some countries in Africa, it became necessary to apply the same tactics already put in place across the World.
Celebrating Passover At Home
Before the month to Passover, the chief rabbis of Israel announced the temporal close down of all synagogues in the Holy land. The timing of everything seems so inappropriate, but what it eventually means is that Passover would be celebrated at home with family members. Typically, it would be no different from the first-ever Passover our ancestors held in Egypt about 32 centuries ago on account that while death hovered outside, the Israelites were instructed to stay inside their homes and eat the paschal lamb.
When the chief rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein, ordered all synagogues to remain closed in the wake of the deadly virus, it became obvious that Africa like the rest of the World is faced with the same conditions as against some of the views expressed by most of the Nigerian Jews initially. Without a chief rabbi in Nigeria, it was a bit difficult to mandate all synagogues to respond to these mandatory safety measures- abandoning the synagogues and staying at home during the entire duration of the festival. But due to the intervention of the government, all religious and social gatherings in most states were banned just a few days to the seder night. Following this development, the president of the Judaism Fellowship Initiative (JFI), Elder Arthur Reggis instructed all member synagogues (made up of over 50 knessets) to adhere to the government instructions and suspend their arrangement of observing the communal Passover. And since the new social distancing rule forbids the gathering of more than 10 to 15 people, it would be best to observe the 5780 Pesach at home to avoid the wrath of the government and eventually help contain the spread of the impending death caused by the invisible virus.
Cleaning & Washing All Utensils Before Pesach
Just like every other Jewish festival, Pesach is unique in its ways. Some guidelines must be followed, which contain certain restrictions for all Jews throughout the duration of the feast. Whatever we do during Pesach has a great significance that relates to what happened in the past when our ancestors were in Egypt and how G-d saved them with an outstretched hand.
Because our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry and had no time to allow the dough to rise in their bread-mix- it has become a tradition among Jews that any form of chametz (made from the following: wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt- the common grains used in baking bread) will not be eaten throughout Passover. On the account of this- one of the compulsory preparations before the festival is to clean the entire house and synagogue thoroughly, removing all the dirt. All the chametz must also be either consumed, sold, or removed away from the surrounding environment.
One of our reporters, Ithiel ben Moshe, witnessed the kosher cleaning of all utensils in Aaron Hakodesh Synagogue Port Harcourt. It is customary to thoroughly wash every utensil in hot boiling water to completely remove every atom of chametz stuck on it to avoid eating or coming in contact with chametz. Any cooking equipment that cannot be effectively cleaned in hot boiling water or steam, must be put aside till the end of the festival. Alternatively, some people usually have separate utensils mainly used only during Pesach. For some others who can afford the luxury- new items are purchased before the feast.
Searching & Burning The Chamatz- According To Kabbalah
According to Kabbalah, preparations for Pesach include both physical and spiritual cleansing. To receive the energy that comes with Pesach and fully utilize it all through the year, it’s important to prepare ourselves adequately. The physical work of Pesach is external and straightforward. We have to purge everything in our possession of chametz by going through our closet, cupboard, and around the house to clean them of any trace of grain, which implies the desire to receive according to the kabbalist.
We must clean our physical environment with the consciousness of cleaning our desires to receive, our selfish agenda. And as we search for the crumbs in our home, we meditate on seeking crumbs of negativity (which includes jealousy, hatred, fear, judgment, and need for approval, low self-esteem, and sense of entitlement) in the crevices of our soul. The physical cleaning is a tool to activate a spiritual process.
The kabbalist teaches that the reason for not eating chametz for the full seven days- is simply as a prescription for protecting ourselves from the effect of negativity- from wars, and disorders that come from ego, pride, and anger- for the entire year.
Nightfall on the 14th of Nissen, ten pieces of bread are hidden in the house, and the lights are turned off, and the search for these pieces using candlelight takes place. According to kabbalah, the search is not just to find and collect the concealed pieces of bread- the true purpose of the search is to find our negativity. The next morning before 10 o’clock, we burn the pieces of bread that were collected the night before. When we burn the chametz we are burning the negativity of the Desire to Receive. At the time of burning, we are completely cleansing all the selfish desires that remain in our thoughts.
Preparing the Festive Meal for the Big Night
With all the utensils cleaned and made kosher, then it’s time to prepare the festive meal for the big night. There are usually two Seder Nights observed by Jews living outside the Holy Land. The second Seder Night is just a repetition of everything that we do on the first night, starting from the Kiddush to the singing of fun songs at the end of the seder.
In most congregations around Jewish Nigeria- preparation for the feast was scaled down to a large extent since the usual communal gathering didn’t hold amidst the growing threats of the coronavirus. Olam Yisrael Synagogue Lagos publicly made an announcement a few days to Pesach that coming to the Knesset is not allowed- therefore, members should observe Pesach at home and pray fervently for an end to the pandemic. On account of this, they prepared for a low key seder night for the few brothers and sisters who reside within the synagogue guest house.
Also in Abia State (Eastern Nigeria) with a population of over 5 million people- there was no single record of any COVID-19 infection even at the time of Pesach. But following the decision of the government, Olam Torah Synagogue also announced the closure of the Knesset till further notice. The announcement was made through Moreh Eben Cohen, the Torah instructor of the congregation and founder of the Torah World Outreach Organization. But as usual, since some members are living within and around the synagogue, they prepared for a smaller seder night to mark the Passover since there over 150 members cannot gather together following the new directives of the State Government.
Bringing Families Together at the Seder Table
Pesach 5780 has no doubt become one feast that the World Jewry would continue to remember because it was celebrated at home by the majority with their families around. And for families who were not able to travel to be together- the use of technology eventually became an option. In the end, it appeared that this development allowed family members and friends in a different location to have a virtual Passover together. By sitting in front of a computer and either sharing your screen or live video interaction with others- people had wonderful experiences around the seder table.
For Kish Onyia and his family, it was such an amazing time to enjoy both seder nights at home. Due to the restriction of movement in Lagos, it was impossible to drive the long road to Adat Yisrael Synagogue, and join the few members who reside in the synagogue guest house for the seder nights. Hence, it turned out to be a beautiful experience as I was a guest in the home of kish, the leader of Adat Yisrael Synagogue.
The First Cup of Wine
To usher in Pesach on that beautiful evening, the women at home lighted the festival candles and said the prayers. Before that moment, the seder table was already set accordingly- with a seder plate containing all the ritual food, bottles of kosher wine, plates, cutleries, and glass cups. Apart from the main seder plate, everybody also had on their plate everything contained in the seder plate except the shank bones. Each of the symbolic food found on the seder table symbolizes some of the things our ancestors went through- that eventually lead to the first-ever Passover in Egypt.
- Matzah: the three pieces of matzot reminds us of the bread which our forefathers ate as a result of their hasty departure from Egypt.
- Roasted Shank Bone: this represents the paschal lamb used during the ancient times of the shepherd’s festival or Pesach.
- Roasted Egg: This reminds us of a second offering brought to the temple on Passover.
- Marror: the bitter herbs remind us of the bitterness of slavery which our ancestors were forced to endure
- Charoset: which looks like mortar, reminds us of the mortar with which our forefathers made bricks for the building of Egyptian cities.
- Karpas: a green vegetable reminds us that Pesach coincides with the arrival of spring, and the gathering of the spring harvest.
During the seder night, everyone is mandated to drink four cups of wine, a symbol of joy and thanksgiving. The four cups of wine represent the four-fold promises which Hashem made to the Israelites in Egypt, assuring them that He will free them from slavery:
- I will bring you forth
- I will deliver you forth
- I will redeem you
- I will take you
To begin the seder night- the first cup of wine is poured and the blessing said over the wine as the Kiddush ritual of sanctification.
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The Second Cup of Wine
After we drank the first cup of wine while reclining to the left, it was time to wash our hands without saying the blessing. The second cup of wine was poured but we were not allowed to drink from it until other rituals are performed. The seder, which means order, is usually a service made up of ordered parts; structured around the sharing of the four cups of wine. Each of the cups conveys the following theme of the seder respectively: Sanctification, History, Thanksgiving, and Hope.
Before drinking the second cup, we had to listen to stories from history. At a point, we dipped the green vegetable (karpas) into saltwater and eat it after the leader of the seder recited the prayer. The green vegetable reminds us that our forefathers tilled the soil while the saltwater symbolizes the tears that our ancestors shed while suffering the tortures of slavery.
In the ceremony of “Yachatz,” the middle matzah from the 3 matzot is removed and broken into two, then one half is set aside as the “Afikoman,” the dessert, to be eaten after the festive meal. Then the seder continued with the story of the Exodus (the Magid). Leah, the youngest person at the table asked one of the first four questions in Hebrew. Before the questions were answered, we read the Passover story from the Hagaddah. Everyone around the table read some portion of the story. At a point when the story was being read, we dipped one finger into our cup of wine and then dropped some amount on the table when each of the ten plagues brought upon Egypt was mentioned.
At the end of the story, Oriel, Leah, Peretz, and Rachel entertained us with the popular Pesach song- Dayenu. After this, the answer to all four questions asked earlier were answered. Then finally, after the long wait, we drank the second cup of wine.
Photo Gallery I
Scenes of Pesach celebration from across Jewish Nigeria in Rivers State, Abia and Enugu State.
Before Taking the 3rd Cup of Wine
After the well-deserved and refreshing second cup of wine, Kish ben Onyia, the head of the seder table, proceeded with the breaking of the remaining pieces of matzot on the table and said the blessing over it. Then we ate the matzah to remind us of the nature of the bread our ancestors ate in the wilderness as they hurriedly left Egypt. They didn’t have the time to wait for their bread to rise, which is the reason we are commanded to eat unleavened bread (matzah) during Passover.
Then it was time to take the marror (the bitter herbs), which reminds us of the bitterness of slavery. The next ritual- the korech– was the point when we formed the sandwich by combining the matzah, charoset, and the maror. The charoset is a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine- that symbolizes the cement made by the Jewish slaves.
The shulchan Oriech was one of the best parts of the seder everybody has patiently waited for since the beginning of the night. It has been a long day, filled with so many expectations, cheerfulness, and excitement. The ladies in the house brought to the table what they had prepared as the festive meal. We had jollof rice, salad, and fried fish. It was such a delicious meal and how lovely to eat together as one big happy Jewish family.
Leah Finds the Afikoman on Her 9th Birthday!
Call it a coincidence? Yes, that’s exactly how it looked like. Leah, the second daughter of Kish, marked her 9th birthday on the 9th of April, starting from the eve of Pesach. All through the day, she joined the other ladies at home to prepare everything for the feast. She cleaned the floor, cleaned the sofa, set the seder table with her mother and elder sister, and sealed off the parts of the kitchen that will not be in use throughout the feast.
Just before the festival got underway, she told me that she has never found the Afikoman all by herself during all the Pesach festivals held in the synagogue. But unknown to her, luck was going to shine her way when her daddy would hide the afikoman later in the evening. The search for the afikoman began after we had the festive meal. She would be contesting with two energetic elder brothers and Rachel, the first child in the house. Nobody expected that she would outsmart all the rest, but that was what happened. She found the afikoman hidden inside a school bag on a seat close to the staircase.
Then, the third glass of wine was poured, and after the blessing was pronounced, everyone chorused “amen” and sipped from their cup while leaning to the left.
“Baruch Atah Adonai ELoheinu Melech ha-olam, Borei P’ri ha-agafen. Amen”
The Fourth Cup of Wine- and Concluding the Seder
It was almost midnight when we reached the concluding part of the seder night. But firstly, as the tradition is- we have to welcome prophet Eliyahu as a beloved guest at our seder as we arise and pray for freedom. Oriel and his elder brother, Peretz, joined their father as they opened the door, singing the popular song, Eliyahu Hanavi, which we sing every time at the end of Shabbat. It was a moment of happiness as everyone rose, singing cheerfully. After this stage, we also rose to sing the ” Hallel,” bringing the long night to its end.
Now that the order of the Passover has been completed, the leader of the seder said the following words:
“As we have been privileged to observe the seder, may all of us be privileged to celebrate it together, again next year. Next Year in Y’rushalayim!
9 Examples of Food Not Eaten During Pesach
Passover is a feast that is associated with a couple of restrictions on what to be eaten and what we need to do every night after the evening prayers. There are also a number of processed food that are forbidden on based on the fact that some of the ingredients used in making these products contains some alcoholic compounds which are are known to ferment. Below are two types of food forbidden during the festival.
- Rice (although some do)
- Some alcoholic drinks
- Some beverages
- Non-kosher soft drinks
- And others as well
Counting of the Omer
The counting of Omer begins from the second night of Pesach until the night before Shavuot. This spiritual exercise lasts for completely 49 days, which is the duration of time between Pesach and the Feast of Shavuot. Every Jew needs to participate in this ritual, which doesn’t require a minyan to recite every evening after the Maariv prayer. In some congregations, the following kabbalistic prayer precedes the counting of the Omer:
For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and His presence, in fear and love to unify the Name Yud-Kei with Vav-kei in perfect unity, in the name of all Israel. Behold I am prepared and ready to perform the commandment of counting the Omer, as it is written in the Torah: “You are to count from the morrow of the rest day, from the day you brought the Omer-offering that is waved- they are to be seven complete weeks- until the morrow of the seventh week you are to count fifty days and then offer a new meal-offering to Hashem.” May the pleasantness of my Lord, Our G-d, be upon us- may He establish our handiwork for us; our handiwork, may He establish.”
Then the blessing is recited, and the appropriate day count is pronounced aloud. Some of the rules guiding the counting of the Omer are:
- It is only recited at night before the end of the Maariv
- It is said while standing up
- If one forgets to count at night, he counts during the day without reciting a blessing but may recite the blessing on the succeeding nights.
- If one forgot to count all day, he counts without a blessing on the succeeding nights.
As the Omer counting continues all over the Jewish world- we remain hopeful and confident that the fight against the dreaded coronavirus will be won. As we keep counting till the feast of Shavuot, our earnest prayer is for this spiritual exercise to trigger the countdown to the end of the pandemic. We look forward to normalcy to be restored across the globe as we count our loss in such an unfortunate situation, for all the families affected. In the long run, we pray for the healing of the world and speedy recovery of the economies of every country. Next Year in Y’rushalayim- as we hope to come together and be able to bask in the fun of the usual communal Pesach!
About the Writer: Avraham ben Avraham is a Nigerian Writer, Business Consultant, International Tour Guide and a Jewish Travel Blogger. He is the founder of the Jewish Nigeria Blog (his 2nd blog after the Jewish Standards). Avraham is also a contributory writer in the diaspora section of The Jerusalem Post Magazine. Some of his upcoming projects include: the Jewish Nigeria Online Forum, Jewish Nigeria Directory, the “Book of the Returning Jews,” and Parnasa Network (Nigeria). He is a member of the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce (New Jersey).
Upcoming Stories on the Jewish Nigeria Blog
- Judaism Fellowship Initiative (JFI) inaugurates a new board of leaders for the next three years.
- Shavuot Celebration Across Jewish Nigeria
- Pushing towards the establishment of a typical Jewish Nigeria community settlement
- The “Book of the Returning Jews of Nigeria.”
- The fight against Anti-Semitism
Photo Gallery II
Additional photos across Lagos State from the Pesach celebrations