If there’s one Jewish holiday and ritual that is rooted in time, it is Passover. It’s the Festival of Spring that commemorates the night of the Exodus on the 14th of Nisan. As it says in the Torah (Numbers 9 2-3 :
Let the children of Israel keep the passover in its appointed seasonבְּמוֹעֲדוֹ . In the fourteenth day of this month, at dusk, ye shall keep it in its appointed season בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה …
So it comes as a surprise that of all the ordinances in the Torah, the only one that God offers a second chance at a more convenient time, is Passover.
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
‘Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the LORD;
in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs;
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר: אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי-יִהְיֶה-טָמֵא לָנֶפֶשׁ אוֹ בְדֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָה לָכֶם, אוֹ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח, לַיהוָה.
בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם, בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם–יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ: עַל-מַצּוֹת וּמְרֹרִים, יֹאכְלֻהוּ.
This make-up holiday is called Pesach Sheni (The Second Passover) and it intrigues me.
You see, the Passover Seder is the one holiday when we are asked to not only observe, but to re-enact and imagine we are actually experiencing the Exodus. As the Hagadah says: “In Every Generation One Must Look Upon Himself as if He Personally Has Come Out of Egypt” Mordecai Kaplan said there are three kind of believers: Believers, Non-Believers and Make-Believers…. at the Traditional Seder, we are all make-believers.
This is why this make-up seder intrigues me so. In the second month, at the Second Pesach Sheni Seder, we are make-believers who make-believe that we are at a Seder… making believe that we are leaving Egypt!
To be sure… the Rabbis probably had their fill with Jews who make-believe so they did not want to encourage a new movement of Jews who make believe that they make believe so….. they limited Pesach Sheni to individuals. (Talmud Pesachim 66b from אִישׁ אִיש).
There are groups that nonetheless celebrate the Second Passover, the most prominent being the Chabad Hasidim who view the 14th of the month of Iyar as a celebration of second chances. This is certainly a valuable lesson worth commemorating, but my good friend Frederic Brenner discovered another group who celebrated the dialectic of Pesach Sheni that is less known and embodies a more complex message.
Frederic is currently completing an ambitious project where he invited world renowned photogrpahers to come to Israel for the first time and photograph it. The project which will begin touring the world is called This Place and you can read early reviews here. But in his younger years, Frederic traveled the world photographing vanishing Jewish communities and one community he cataloged were a group of isolated Conversos in Portugal. He published a book called Marranes (in French) and a movie was made based on the book called The Last Marranos Les derniers Marranes.
Despite their deep aversion to the Church, these New Christians who will only choose a mate amongst themselves go to the church and have the local priest marry them publicly after a private secret marriage ceremony. (see: The Last Marranos, Commentary Magazine May 1967 by Anita Novinsky)
Frederic took many pictures of them celebrating Passover which, they celebrated on the 14th of Iyar, Pesach Sheni.
Frederic spent much time with them and even made the aquantance of the local priest who complained that while he liked these people, they should really get themselves a Rabbi.
Needless to say, they did eventually get themselves a traditional Rabbi.
They no longer go to the Priest to get married, no longer light their Shabbat candles in specially designed hidden cabinets, and needless to say, they no longer celebrate Passover a month after the holiday was meant to be celebrated.
This loss of the Pesach Sheni of the last Marranos makes me sad. Their Pesach sheni was a tribute to the commitment of their predecessors for their heritage, it was an artifact of God’s commitment to give second chances and it showed the radical ability we humans have to survive, persevere and to make believe that we can make believe.
In 1985,1 visited one of their villages a month after the Jewish Passover. The timing was intentional. They don’t know the Hebrew calendar, but they know that Passover falls 14 days after the new moon in March, which is approximately the
start of the Jewish month of Nissan. As part of the tradition meant to fool the spies of the Inquisition, they postpone the holiday until what Jews call “Pessah Sheni” – one month later. Therefore I knew that it was Passover for them now.
Passover being their most sacred and secret ritual, I had always been asked not to come at that time of the year. From the moment we arrived we felt that we weren’t being received in the usual manner. People avoided us. Even my best friends weren’t inviting us to visit them. Knocking at their doors, we were not asked in. They apologized and asked us to come back at a different time. From the door we saw the women of the house – busy cleaning the floor. From Passover with the Anussim in Portugal, By ©Inacio Steinhardt, Saturday, May 21, 2005