By Roger McKinney
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Jews of Joplin’s United Hebrew Congregation on Monday participated in a ritual that has been observed by Jews worldwide for centuries: the Passover Seder.
“It’s quite a legacy,” said student Rabbi Michael Harvey, before the ritual meal celebrating the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. Harvey said the Seder ceremony in its current form dates to about the year 800.
All of the food on the Seder plate is symbolic. There’s matzo, unleavened bread, which symbolizes bread made from dough that didn’t have time to rise when the Israelites fled. There’s also a bitter herb, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. Horseradish was used at the Joplin Seder.
A mixture of chopped apples and cinnamon represents the bricks the Hebrew slaves were forced to make without straw. Salt water is a symbol of the tears of the slaves. A roasted egg and a roasted lamb bone symbolize temple sacrifices. Parsley represents spring and rebirth.
The Jews read from the Haggadah, a prayer book used to tell the story.
“It is a night of questions and answers,” Harvey said. “The Seder is a lesson in itself.”
As the service began, Harvey pointed out the orange on his Seder plate. He said its presence in Joplin’s Reform synagogue is a response to an Orthodox rabbi elsewhere who in the past had said that a woman belongs at the head of a synagogue much as an orange belongs on a Seder plate. Reform Jews allow women rabbis, and past student rabbis in Joplin have been women.
“It’s a wonderful addition to our Seder plate,” Harvey said.
There appeared to be some playful improvising. A father, blessing his children, flashed the Vulcan sign from the “Star Trek” series for “live long and prosper.”
“Here I am, ready to perform the mitzvah of retelling the exodus from Egypt,” the members said together.
Songs were part of the service, including the spiritual “Let My People Go.”
Another aspect of the ritual was when members dipped a pinkie into wine and applied the drop of wine to their plates for each of the seven plagues. Harvey told members to resist tasting the sweet wine on their fingers.
“As Jews, we never want to taste anything sweet,” he said. “We never want to gain anything from the pain of our enemies.”
After naming the historical plagues, Harvey encouraged members to name current plagues. Tornadoes, poverty, AIDS, climate change and bigotry were some the plagues called out by members.
A custom that the children seemed to especially enjoy involved whipping one another and their parents with green onions.
“I’m both thankful and also not for that custom,” Harvey said. “If we’ve had our fill of onion abuse, we turn to Page 110.”
Member Benjamin Rosenberg, a Joplin City Council member, said the Seder ceremony results in some of the biggest crowds of the year at the synagogue.
“It always brings back good memories,” Rosenberg said. “It’s a very festive time to remember. It has meaning. It’s a very symbolic thing.”
Members of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church served the Seder meal, as they have done for 20 years. St. Philip’s members Ron Robson and Calvin Cassady said the ceremony is an education for them.
“It is extremely interesting,” Cassady said. “It’s so nice to know what other people believe and their rituals. It helps us to see how we all fit in.”
THE SEDER marks the beginning of Passover, which continues for seven days.