The celebration of the Exodus from Egypt
A week or two before Pesach, the festivities without leaven, the the clean-up begins to make sure that there is not a crumb of leavened food left over.
In the old days, the Jews had to leave Egypt quickly, so there was no time for the bread to rise for the journey. Ever since, Jews would ceremonially burn the leavened food or transfer it by contract to their non-Jewish neighbours.
According to tradition, unleavened bread, matzah (also known as paska or laska), is used instead of bread for 8 days, and flour made from it is used for baking.
The eve of Pesach is Seder evening, which is a family celebration. Like all Jewish holidays, it begins with candle lighting and a kiddush, a blessing. It is also customary to set aside or hide a piece of matzah for the children to find at the end of the evening, which is eaten at the end of the meal. This is called the afikoman, which is a substitute for the sacrificial lamb, since Jews have not offered sacrifice since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
On Seder evening, a relatively simple meal, usually consisting of roast meat and potatoes, is served according to a set order, with the head of the family telling the story of the Exodus between courses. For this he invokes the Haggadah, the book that commemorates the Exodus. He also actively involves the children in the commemoration.
Only Pesach vessels may be used during the holiday.
The most important accessory of the Seder is the seder plate, on which the symbols of the evening are placed: a piece of hard-boiled egg, chicken breasts burnt almost to charcoal, a reminder of the sacrifice from the time of the Sanctuary, boiled potatoes or radish (carpaccio), bitter root, a lettuce leaf and grated horseradish, and a mixture of grated apple, ground walnuts and wine, the malter. Next to the Seder plate is a bowl of salt water, representing tears.
The star of the feast is unleavened bread, accompanied by wine. Three whole sheets of the former are placed on a covered dish or a tablecloth or some other kind of holder. Several of these are tasted in the Seder evening tradition.
The three matzah leaves symbolize the three great groups of the people of Israel: Cohen, Levi and Yisrael. One matzah sheet is broken (just as a poor person cannot eat a whole loaf of bread – this is why matzah is called also the bread of poverty), and two are blessed (as on other holidays, where two barhes are blessed).
Four cups of wine are drunk during the feast, and one cup is filled for the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) and placed in the middle of the table.
On this evening, each glass of wine is to be drunk leaning slightly to the left, because this is when Jews eat as kings and not as servants. The wine should also be blessed.
This post will surely make some of our readers want to make homemade laska (that’s what we called matzah long ago). Here are some useful tips:
- ingredients: wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt flour
- from the moment water is added to the flour, up to 18 minutes should elapse before the end of baking (after this time, fermentation may have started and the laska will not meet traditional standards)
- the unleavened bread may be round or square; round is more typical of home-made, while angled, square or rectangular is more typical of machine-made
Good luck with your homemade laska, bon appétit and happy holidays!
Haggada, Josef Schlesinger’s bookshop, 1905
Milév, Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, 2020
Flódni, Hungarian Jew.hu, 2021
Memories of an old religious community, Dr Béla Berstein; The Art of the Kismarton Ghetto, Sándor Wolf, Past and Future, 1914
MAZSIHISZ webpage, 2020