Special guidance for Passover 2020

Dear friends,
Every Pesah is different, but we approach the Passover season this year in extraordinarily difficult times.  The  story of the Exodus from Egypt asks us to identify ourselves with the suffering of the Israelites, filled with anxiety, fear, and distress, worried for their families and for their lives.  This year more than any in recent memory that identification rings true.  But the Jewish people have celebrated this Festival of Freedom in difficult circumstances before, and we will manage to do so this year as well!
To that end, I wanted to provide some guidance about these special circumstances and then changes we may need to make to our traditional celebrations as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape every aspect of our lives.  I hope you find this helpful, and please do reach out to me for any specific questions or concerns.
  • Learning in advance
    • How to Lead a Seder:  I will be teaching an online Zoom class this coming Sunday to help prepare those of us who may unexpectedly be leading our own seder to do so.  We’ll cover:
      • How can we get meaning out of the haggadah this year?
      • What are the really essential parts of a seder?
      • Is it really possible to lead a seder on Zoom?? (hint: yes!)
    • Shir haShirim:  We will also have a chance to get in the mood for the season at a class I am teaching the following Tuesday night on the Song of Songs, the book of the Bible associated with Pesah that is mainly concerned with love.
      • How can we understand love to be an essential part of celebrating Passover?
    • Siyyum:  We will be having our traditional learning Siyyum via Zoom, led by Rabbi Richman on Erev Pesah so that those observing the Fast of the Firstborn can break their fast.  Bring your own hametz!
  • Organizing a seder
    • No (physical) guests:  Following the guidance of public health authorities, we should not gather physically even in small groups except for household members.
    • Haggadot everywhere:  There are wonderful haggadot that you can order online in amazing variety.  In addition there are websites like haggadot.com where you can create your own personalized haggadah to download or print.
  • Cleaning our houses
    • Don’t discard hametz:  The Torah states that we should remove all leaven from our houses before Pesah, but this is not the first time that Jews have worried about the easy availability of food.  For that reason, the ancient rabbis came up with an alternative:  setting our leavened goods aside and “selling” them for the duration of the holiday.  I urge everyone to take advantage of this process of selling hametz this year.
    • Don’t go overboard:  The ancients taught that when we are searching for hametz in our houses we should use a candle because its light is poor (Tosefta Pesachim 1:1).  They are encouraging us both to go easy on ourselves in our cleaning and to concentrate on the spiritual meaning of the holiday.  Although many of us have the custom of deeply cleaning before Pesah, we need to remember that dirt is not hametz.  We need to distinguish between what is law and what is custom at a time when we’re overwhelmed.
  • Pesah foods
    • We need fewer certified kosher for Pesah foods than we think:  At a time when supplies are difficult to obtain, we should remember that generations of Jews celebrated the holiday with only a few special foods.  The 2020 Rabbinical Assembly Guide to Passover has very good guidance about the many foods that can be bought without special certification, particularly prior to Pesah.
    • Matzah is a Seder mitzvah:  Although we typically eat a lot of matzah during Pesah, the positive mitzvah to eat matzah only actually applies at the seder.  For the other days of Pesah, the mitzvah is to refrain from eating hametz.  So we can get by on much less matzah if necessary.  If anyone has trouble finding some, let me know!
    • Consider eating kitniyot:  Although many follow the Ashkenazi custom of refraining from eating beans, peas, and rice (kitniyot in Hebrew) on Pesah, increasingly Jews in Israel and elsewhere are following the Sephardic custom of eating them.  If you have not done so in the past, this year of strain might be the time to consider trying it, knowing that these items are not hametz (and will not treyf your Pesah dishes).  Although my family’s custom is usually not to eat kitniyot, we will be doing so this year.
  • Seder night
    • Connect:  Although we may be physically separated from those we love, consider using Zoom or other technology to bring them into your home.  Depending on your personal practice, this might involve connecting with family before candlelighting or even holding an entire Zoom seder!
    • GJC Online Seder:  I will be leading a seder via Zoom on the first night of Pesah so that we can connect with each other.  The seder will begin and end before candlelighting.
  • Services
  • Pirkei Avot study:  A highlight of our yearly calendar is studying each of the chapters of Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of the Sages, each Shabbat afternoon between Pesah and Shavuot.  This year, we will hold our study on Sunday afternoons instead to accommodate using Zoom to make the study interactive.
A zissen Pesah!  Every Pesah is different.  We have a unique opportunity this year to create a Pesah that none of us will ever forget.  Despite all that we are going through, may we find our way through from slavery to freedom again this year, supported by everyone around us and by our wonderful community.

Hag sameah!