spring awakening

shabbat hagadol

1 Observe the Spring month and keep the Passover unto the LORD thy God; for in the Spring month the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night….

3 Thou shalt eat no leavened bread (חָמֵץ) on it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened (מַצּוֹת) bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for in haste didst thou come forth out of the land of Egypt; that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.
4 And there shall be no leaven (שְׂאֹר) seen with thee in all they borders seven days; … (Deuteronomy 16: 1 – 4)

To me… especially during this historic Arab Spring, I am struck by how closely tied Spring (Aviv) and Revolution (Exodus) are in the Bible. The ancient symbol that most profoundly ties these two ideas together is not so much Matzo.. a uniquely Jewish foodstuff, as it is hametz and the annual purge and abstinence from all things leavened (חָמֵץ andשְׂאֹר).

It turns out that leavened (unlike matzo) is a symbol which was part of the vernacular of the ancient world and whose significance was readily understood not only within Judaism, but also Christianity and Arab – indo-Iranian groups in the ancient near east.

We first find Leavened in the Bible in Leviticus 2: 11:

11 No meal-offering, which ye shall bring unto the LORD, shall be made with leaven; for ye shall make no leaven, nor any honey, smoke as an offering made by fire unto the LORD.

In his scholarly commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom writes regarding leavened . . . leaven. hames . . . se’or.:

The difference between the two is that se’or leavens the dough and the leavened dough is called hiimes” (Yahel ‘Or). … Similarly, Akk. emesu ‘be sour’ and emsu ‘sour’ (adi.) are used in connection with wine, vinegar, beer, fruit, or leavened bread, in other words, with foods that have fermented and, in the case of bread, to which leaven has been added. Fermentation is equivalent to decay and corruption and for this reason is prohibited on the altar.

“Leaven in the dough” is a common rabbinic metaphor for man’s evil propensities (e.g., Babylonian Talmud Berachot

“Sovereign of the Universe, it is well known to You that it is our will to do Your will. Who prevents us from doing so? The leavening agent in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and our subservience to the nations. May it be Your will to save us from these so that we can return to fulfilling Your commandments wholeheartedly.” Prayer of Rabbi Alexandrai

The New Testament mentions “the leaven of malice and wickedness”

Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened [bread] of sincerity and truth. [Corinthians 5:8]

and “the leaven of the Pharisees,” which is “hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1; d. Mark 8:15).

This view is shared by the ancients:

“Leaven itself comes from corruption, and corrupts the dough with which it is mixed . . . and in general, fermentation seems to be a kind of putrefaction” (Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 109). Plutarch records that the Roman high priest (Flamen Dialis) was forbidden even to touch leaven (ibid.). To be sure, all of the above-cited references stem from late antiquity (Christian, rabbinic, and Hellenistic sources), but they undoubtedly reflect an older and universal regard of leaven as the arch-symbol of fermentation:’ deterioration, and death and, hence, taboo on the altar of blessing and life. [pp 188-9 Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Anchor Bible, Vol. 3, Jacob Milgrom]

Listen to what Philo of Alexandria (representing the Jewish Hellenistics) wrote:

Leaven is forbidden because of the rising which it produces. Here again we have a symbol of the truth, that none as he approaches the altar should be uplifted or puffed up by arrogance; rather gazing on the greatness of God, let him gain a perception of the weakness which belongs to the creature, even though he may be superior to others in prosperity; and having been thus led to the reasonable conclusion, let him reduce the overweening exaltation of his pride by laying low that pestilent enemy, conceit. …. For naked you came into the world, worthy sir, and naked will you again depart, and the span of time between your birth and death is a loan to you from God. During this span what can be meet for you to do but to study fellow-feeling and goodwill and equity and humanity and what else belongs to virtue, and to cast away the inequitable, unrighteous and unforgiving viciousness which turns man, naturally the most civilized of creatures, into a wild and ferocious animal! (Philo,The Special Laws, Book I, 293-295 quoted in The Passover Anthology, Philip Goodman).

My guess is that if someone in 1st – 3rd Century CE had asked a Jew, a Hellenist, an early Christian or even a local pagan whether he had gotten rid of his leaven… the respondent may have hesitated and wondered whether the subject of conversation was old pita in his kitchen cabinet or the worker conditions in his sweat shop.

It is surprising that the symbolism of the purging of leaven as a metaphor for introspection and repentance seems not to appear in the Haggada directly itself and is relegated to the commentaries as meta-interpretation.  In fact, the removal, nullification and prohibition to own leaven is not mentioned during the Seder service all… surprising since at least half of the effort in preparing a seder goes into making the home hametz-free! (“On all other nights we eat Hametz and matzo .. on this night we eat only matzoh” does not count.. since the emphasis is on eating matzoh, not clearing and nullifying hametz.)

To be sure, for the Hasidic or more mystically inclined who recite a meditation (kavanah) before or after the Bedikat and Biur Hametz (search and nullification of the leaven) ritual, there is mention of leaven as a metaphor for impurity:

May it be Your will, Lord, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that just as I remove the chametz from my house and from my possession, so shall You remove all the extraneous forces. Remove the spirit of impurity from the earth, remove our evil inclination from us, and grant us a heart of flesh to serve You in truth. Make all the sitra achara, all the kelipot, and all wickedness be consumed in smoke, and remove the dominion of evil from the earth. Remove with a spirit of destruction and a spirit of judgment all that distress the Shechina, just as You destroyed Egypt and its idols in those days, at this time. Amen, Selah.

But the sense of leaven as representing decay, corruption and arrogance is lost.

It occurred to me that while we Jews do our cleaning during our first month Nissan, Persians at the outset of the Iranian Norouz, (the Persian new year, which falls on the first day of spring) continue the practice of “khooneh tekouni” which literally means “shaking the house”? Everything in the house is thoroughly cleaned, from the drapes to the furniture.

Similarly Lent comes from the word length.. as in the longer days of spring. Instead of Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Church celebrates Clean Monday, otherwise known as Ash Monday. According to Wikipidia:

The common term for this day, “Clean Monday”, refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. It is sometimes called “Ash Monday,” by analogy with Ash Wednesday (the day when the Western Churches begin Lent). …. Liturgically, Clean Monday—and thus Lent itself—begins on the preceding (Sunday) night, at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, at which all present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness. In this way, the faithful begin Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly.

The fact that so many other competing religions, especially Christianity, retained the spring-purification rites may explain why it’s symbolism became muted in Judaism. (The: “the leaven of the Pharisees,” snipe does not help.) But for whatever the reason, it seems to me that a reintegration of this critical element of the Passover message is overdue, especially because the Jewish version of spring-purification message is uniquely political… it combines the Exodus-Revolution.. with spring purification…

The unique Spring message of Passover is that in every spring and in every generation, each person and every people needs to look witrhin and at the ruling powers. We have to root out the corruption, pride, arrogance, decay and death that is the “leaven in the dough”, both in our souls and in our public squares… we need to weed out arrogance in our souls but also in our Pharaohs… This political element to the nullification of leaven, is uniquely Jewish.

If I had a Passover message for modern day Egyptians and the Arab square, it is that we Jews support you in your Spring Awakening.  We Jews invite you to join us in the celebration of Pesach. We wish that in addition to bringing down your Pharaohs, you also clean away the mold and toxins of anti semitism and victimization with which your rulers have infected and distracted you. We wish you to recognize that we Jews and our local territorial conflict are not the source of much anything that is wrong in the Middle East, certainly not on your street. Know that we Jews (this Passover and every Passover) re-dedicate ourselves to resolving our local issues.. in our house, and we invite you to do the same in your own homes and in your square.

As for me and my fellow Jews, let us reintegrate the political and spiritual, social and ethical message of the awakening of spring and purging/abstinence from decay and corruption into our Passover celebration.

Let us make note that most haggadot, especially older illuminated ones, don’t start with kiddush, but rather with the search for leaven…. even though the search and nullification of leaven takes place before the onset of the holiday and holiday service.

The message is clear: The nullification of the leaven/decay is critical for the freedom that is to follow. Just as the Kol Nidre nullification of vows prior to the onset of Yom Kippur is forever connected to the service to follow, so too, the Kol Hamirah is critical to the seder to follow.

Both nullification (Bitul) formulas are legal in form and in the Aramaic vernacular. Both are combined with an invitation for others to participate, and both are intrinsic to the holiness of the coming day. The difference is that nullification of Hametz is of biblical origin (and requires a blessing) while Kol Nidre is of unknown origin. Most importantly, Kol Nidre has a soulful tune and Kol Hamira has none….

All leaven and leavened products in my possession, whether I have seen them or not, whether I removed them or not, shall be deemed of no value and ownerless like the dust (ash?) of the earth.

Followed by the invitation to join the meal and the service:

All who are hungry, come and eat,
All who are in need, come celebrate the Passover.

Compare with:

“In the tribunal of heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God—blessed be He—and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors.”
“All vows, prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, vows, vows, or equivalent terms that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves — from the last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur, and from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good – regarding them all, we regret them henceforth. They all will be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.”

I suggest that when on the morning before the seder, we recite Kol Hamira we follow the direction given by Rav Saadyah Gaon in reference to Kol Nidre and that we: “begin the chant with bated breath, like a servant who approaches his sovereign in fear, then gathers strength in speech, and finally lifts up his suppliant voice, as a son at home in his father’s house.”

I also beseach anyone out there with musical talent to record a soulful tune for Kol Hamira….

For God’s sake… if there’s a tune for the table of contents of the Haggadah (Kadesh, Urchatz, Karpas Yachatz….) can’t there be a tune for the spring awakening?


Filed under Bible, Judaism, Palestinians, Religion, social commentary, Torah

3 responses to “spring awakening

  1. mposnick

    Geoff: Beautiful job of searching out the range of relevancies. Particularly moved by your message to the Egyptians – and the invitation to take the precarious next step with us on the narrow bridge.
    Eric Fromm used to say: freedom from is one thing, freedom TO is another. What principles, signposts will guide our/their route to the next level of freedom?
    Dylan wrote:
    You gotta serve somebody.
    Could be the devil, could be the Lord.

    And how to arrive to the freedom to choose?
    Bameh madlikin darkenu?
    hag sameach

    • Thanks Michael! Dylan also wrote: “When you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose”.. once we loose all our Hametz-stuff … we can begin to experience freedom…

  2. more:
    Chametz represents avodah zarah. In fact, the Zohar in 2:182 even claims that “whoever eats chametz on Pesach is as if he prayed to an idol.” http://www.chicagotorah.org/PDFs/whole%20packet%20chicago.pdf page 21
    See Rabbi Alex Israel’s article, “The Symbolism of Chametz,” (www.vbm-torah.org/pesach/ai-cham.htm ) where he presents the following four explanations: Rabbi Alexandri in Brachot 17a seems to identify chametz with the yetzer hara. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 3:46 posits that God wanted us to distance ourselves from chametz, especially on the mizbe’ach, because idolaters used to sacrifice only leavened bread. The Netziv in his Ha’amek Davar commentary to Shemot 13:3 suggests that chametz represents man’s ability to manipulate nature, which is often positive, but has no place on the altar or when commemorating God’s Divine redemption of the Jewish people in an entirely miraculous fashion. Rav Yoel bin Nun in contemporary times has suggested that chametz represents the completion of a process.
    Just listened to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s 2010 Shabbat HaGadol Drasha: ” where in addition to the parayer of Rabbi Alexandrai quoted in the blog, he quotes Rabbi Tanchum:
    May it be thy will, O Lord our God… that Thou break and remove the yoke of the Evil Inclination from our heart, since Thou has created us to do Thy will, and we are duty-bound to do Thy will. Thou dost wish it; and we wish it, who then prevents it? The leaven in the dough.” [Berachot Yirushalmi, Chapter 4 quoted in Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil James L. Crenshaw p 138
    See also Targum 2 to Esther 3:8 There the Jews proclaim on Passover, “Just as we remove this leaven, so may the evil rule be removed from us and may we be freed from this foolish king.’ Quoted page 129 The Exagoge of Ezekiel by Howard Jacobson.

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