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Families mark Passover with Seder guided by Jewish text

Avi Bass pours over the 40 copies of the Jewish texts known as books of Haggadah in his DeKalb home that he has collected from around the world. When the sun sets on Monday he and his family will read from their favorite Haggadah as they celebrate the freedom Jews were granted more than 3,000 years ago. 

Sunset on Monday marks the beginning of Passover, an eight-day celebration commemorating the emancipation of Isrealites from slavery in ancient Egypt following 10 plagues God inflicted as told in the Book of Exodus.

“It’s a celebration of freedom,” said Bass, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in DeKalb. “But you have to realize there are people in the world who are not free. Freedom is a virtue.”

During the first two nights of Passover, Jews hold a special meal known as a Seder, which means “order” in Hebrew. Families mark the meal with prayers, songs, rituals and readings that are guided by the Haggadah. 

Thousands of versions of Haggadahs exist, Bass said, as he glanced through a few of his own. Among his collection is a Haggadah from Rome, which he said has a lot of features and an English translation he likes, along with another from Sarajevo. 

“It started as sort of a hobby, but then I began to wonder, ‘which one would you want to use at your own Seder?’” Bass said. “It becomes sort of a game to see how they’re different and compare them.”

He also has one that looks like a medieval manuscript, though his favorite is a copy from not so far away that was published in 1972.

That particular Haggadah, he said, has some sense of tradition and good notes. Each member of the family gets one, which is read for around an hour before the Seder meal begins, during the meal and for another 30 minutes or more following the meal, he said. 

Families will hold one Seder at home on Monday and Beth Shalom will host two community Seders, one on Tuesday that Bass will lead and another on Friday for the Northern Illinois University students in the Jewish organization, NIU Hillel. 

Beyond the Haggadah, Passover also is marked by the special foods that Jews must eat or refrain from. Before Passover begins, foods with risen yeast are to be removed from the house to commemorate the Jews leaving Egypt in such a hurry they did not have time to let the bread in their homes rise. 

The foods eaten during the meal itself evoke memories of a time before Jewish people were free, Congregation Beth Shalom President Rob Feldacker explained.

The meal consists of an egg, to symbolize life; bitter herbs, to remember the bitterness of slavery; parsley, dipped in salt water to remember the tears of the enslaved; a pasty mixture of apples, nuts and honey known as charoset to represent the mortar mixture used by slaves in Egypt; and a lamb shankbone that represents the pascal lamb sacrifice that took place the night ancient Hebrews fled Egypt. Matzo, an unleavened bread, as well as four glasses of wine also complete the meal.

While Passover is steeped in tradition, some things have changed over the years, including the number of foods deemed not Kosher to eat during Passover, Feldacker said. As more foods come into public use, Jews are prompted to ask if they are suitable to eat during the holiday, which is determined by a council.  

Some things, however, don’t change.

“For me, it’s always been this idea that you’re supposed to remember you were a slave in Egypt,” Feldacker said. “While you are sitting free and merry, there are those around you who are not. You have to look to those in bondage and work to make them free.”

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