Origin of different Jewish Cultural Groups
Thinking about the Jewish community and our ties to it often reminds us of the Jewish Holiday of Passover. The Passover Holiday is the grandest and supremely holy occasion, which commerates the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage.
This Jewish Holiday is unique, in that it is just as much about the Jewish people that are alive today who are free from slavery and free to practice Judaism, as it is about the original Passover Exodus from Egypt, thousands of years ago.
Passover is one of the four Jewish New Years. It is the New Year of Kings. Historically, Jewish Kings were fully inaugurated as the new sovereign ruler, on the first day of Passover. The prior two-week period was an inaugural period, filled with song, dance, and community celebration of the new King.
On this royal holiday, grand food delicacies are served up at communal meals known as Seders. A Seder is a time of precise orderliness befitting the meal of a King.
Jewish Traditions on Passover?
Within the Jewish nation, there are various tribes, each with its own flag, own insignia, own cultural traditions, and each with its own Prince. Due to the dispersion of the Jewish people, as a result of war and persecution, different and distinct Jewish groups formed, amongst which are Ashkenazi or European Jewry and Sephardic Jews, being of Middle Eastern and North African descent.
Regardless of distinct Jewish communities based in different parts of the world, the Passover Holiday holds the same significance for all Jewish people. The celebration of Passover, in accordance with it specific rules and regulations and ritual are considered to be the best way to devote heartfelt thanks to G-d who redeemed the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery.
Following the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people attained their freedom settled in the Land of Israel, except for the tribe of Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe who settled on the other side of the Jordan River.
Throughout the middle ages, some Jews traveled to and settled in European countries, amongst which include: Poland, Russia and Germany. Jewish people who settled in these European countries became known as Ashkenazi Jews.
On the contrary, other Jews settled in Mediterranean locations, such as Spain. Portugal, Northern Africa, and Eastern Asian countries, namely India. These Jewish people became known as Sephardic Jews. Other Jewish people who settled in Azerbaijan became known as Bucharian Jews.
Ashkenazi vs Sephardic Jews
As a result of distinguished geographical locations, varying Codes of Jewish Law and Rabbinical leadership in these places distinct customs emerged, known as Minhagim, which influenced traditions of the celebration of Jewish Holidays. Specifically, Seder protocols and permitted versus prohibited foods will vary among Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, owing to the fact of each group following a different Code of Jewish Law.
Sephardic Jews hold by the Ramah whereas Ashkenazi Jews follow the Code of Jewish Law by Joseph Cairo. There may even be further variations within these groups, based on Rabbinical leadership within the regions where the specific Jewish community lived.
Kitniyot: Yes or No?
Besides showcasing delightful delicacies, Passover cuisine is symbolic of the original Seder, commanded to be celebrated, by G-d and communicated by Moses to the Hebrews, while still in Egypt. As a result, the Seder menu is prepared while considering all the strict rules and regulations of the Pesach meal.
The major difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Passover practices stems from the debate over ‘Kitniyot‘, which refers to the category of grains and related crop production, such as corn, rice, beans, lentils, string beans, soya beans, peas, legumes, and peanuts. As a result, anything made using these ‘suedo-grains’ is deemed to be Kitniyot.
The Sephardic Jewish community allows Kitniyot to be a part of the list of permitted foods to be eaten on Passover holidays. Whereas for Ashkenazi Jews these food items are strictly prohibited for consumption, during Passover. Though there exists no clear explanation for the prevailing difference.
There are several theories attached to the matter. In ancient Europe, various types of grains were stored in the giant barrels, at different times, without the barrels being cleaned, in between use. Consequently, it was too common for wheat flour to mix with rice. Therefore, identifying the separate grains became a challenge and monitoring for trace elements of these items became increasingly too difficult.
To resolve any possible confusion for Kitnyot, the prohibition of such ‘pseudo-grains for Ashkenazi Jews on Passover was instituted.
Reciting a Blessing Over Kiddush
According to Jewish Law, four glasses of wine are consumed, as a way of transforming the celebration of the Passover Seder into many blessings. Wine, being a significant part of Seder night, is accustomed to different customs and traditions between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.
One of the major differences for the mitzvah of Kiddush at the Passover Seder is that Sephardic Jews do not recite a blessing over the second or fourth glass of wine drunk during the Seder, whereas Ashkenazi Jews do. Recite blessings over all four cups of wine that are consumed during the Passover Seder.
Sit or Stand for Kaddish
Kaddish is the hymn prayer recited to thank the Almighty for powering mankind. It signifies the magnification and sanctification of God’s existence. Ideally, the recitation of Kaddish is the major responsibility of seven immediate family members. Sephardic Jews recite Kaddish while seated, whereas Ashkenazi Jew stands during this time. There remains to be a clear explanation to justify the differences in the way Kaddish is observed, yet one may reasonably speculate that the major cause can be attributed to the geographical disparity.
What Does the Haggadah Say?
The Haggadah is the observance manual for the Passover Seder. It contains instructions on how to manage the Seder, stories, songs and blessings over food items and blessings for wine and the concluding blessing over the food, and finally the concluding blessing for the Passover Seder meal.
The Haggadah serves as the key guide for detailing the Passover rules and customs. It talks about special foods eaten during the Seder and their significance, contains spiritual songs and powerful historical narratives. Most importantly, the Seder sheds light on the concept of freedom and contrasts it sharply with bondage, by using various Biblical examples.
This guide to the Seder contains slight variations in content for both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. According to Sephardic Haggadah, the Passover Holiday concludes with an additional Jewish celebration, known as the Mimouna party. The celebration is done in the honor of Rabbi Maimon who was the father of the greatest Jewish sage known Maimonides or Rambam.
Following the last night of Passover people visit each other’s homes with ‘chametz’ or leavened foods. Though the celebration originated from the Sephardic Haggadah it has commonly become a well-loved and grandly celebrated custom of all Jews, in recent times. This formerly Sephardic tradition has become a mainstay of Ashkenazi Jewish cultural identity.
Are the differences still in existence?
There lies no precise answer to this question because there are still lost tribes of Israel. As well, Temani or Yemenite Jews, Persian Jews, Iraqi Jews, and Buchanan Jews have unique customs, based on a rich cultural heritage. Even with varying cultural traditions, the Jewish people are seen as one nation.
Passover is considered by all Jewish people to be the most prominent celebratory event of the year. The celebration of freedom comes before all other festivals in time, space and personal identity.