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TZAV, Shabbat Hagadol, and the Passover Seder

This coming weekend is an auspicious time for Jews the world over!

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Hagadol/The Great Shabbat! The requisite Torah portion is Tzav, the second Sidrah in the book of VaYikra/Leviticus. At the end of Shabbat on Saturday evening, we go directly into the Passover Seder! And on Sunday, we celebrate the first full day of the Passover holiday!

The portion of Tzav is a very complex one, filled with minute details regarding sacrifices and offerings that must be brought to G-d Almighty in the Tabernacle during the 40-year journey of the Israelites in the desert.

The opening verse describes the first section of the portion:

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron (Moses’ brother) and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.”(6:1-2)

Many complex verses follow, detailing offerings to be brought by Aaron and his sons.

In chapter 8, we learn about an elaborate ceremony during which Aaron and his sons are consecrated as the Kohanim, the priests, literally to the present day. Earlier, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, had spoken to Moses that the burden of governing the emerging Israelite nation was just too much for one man. Jethro convinces Moses to delegate the religious leadership to his brother. In this portion, Aaron and his sons are “ordained” as priests. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take Aaron along with his sons, and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of purgation offering, the two rams, and the basket of Unleavened Bread/Matzot.’…Moses poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him. Moses then brought Aaron’s sons forward, clothed them in tunics, girded them with sashes, and wound turbans upon them, as the Eternal had commanded Moses.”(8:1-2, 12-13)

To this day, the descendants of Aaron, the first High Priest of the Jewish people, and his sons, have certain privileges and responsibilities. In traditional synagogues, the first Aliyah to the Torah, whenever the Torah is read publicly, is reserved for a Kohen, a descendant of Aaron. In Israeli synagogues, all the Kohanim present on Shabbat and holidays ascend the Bimah to bless the congregation in a colorful and musically haunting ceremony called “Duchanan.” (Leonard Nimoy Z”L borrowed the Vulcan greeting from the priests’ blessing that he observed as a child in his “shul.”) Any relatives or friends named Cohen are related to Aaron and his sons!

The Shabbat closest to the beginning of Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol/The Great Sabbath. On this Shabbat, Rabbis delivered their longest sermon of the year to their congregants teaching the complicated laws of the Passover holiday. Three years ago, Ellen and I heard a Shabbat Hagadol 90 minute teaching session given in German at the Central Synagogue of Vienna by Rabbi Arie Folger, former chief Rabbi of the Vienna Jewish community and Rabbi of the Central Synagogue, after the Shabbat Hagadol luncheon!

This year, the calendar presents us with certain unusual complications. In traditional homes, all Hametz, all food material purchased before Pesach, must be removed or legally “sold” to a stranger prior to Shabbat. Traditional Jews have completed their cleaning, and have changed to their Pesach dishes and utensils. How then can we begin the Shabbat evening meal without Challah? We are not allowed to eat Matzot until just before the dinner portion of our Seder on Saturday night, so that the taste of Matzot is fresh and new for all of us. Therefore, we begin our Shabbat Friday evening meal the night before by reciting the blessing of Hamotzi over Egg Matzot instead of Challah! (Another approach: set aside a small Challah role, recite the Hamotzi, take a bite, and discard the remainder!)

Immediately after the completion of Shabbat, we move directly into the Passover Seder. The Seder is the most popular Jewish practice all over the world. Last year, very few of us gathered with family for an in person Seder. This year, however, small family gatherings are happening!

Our Seder observances are filled with rituals, symbols, and cherished practices. The ceremonial Seder plate contains the roasted shank bone, the Bitter Herbs, Haroset, parsley, salt water, and lettuce leaves. There are plates of Matzah for all to eat at the specific moment before the meal. We all have our wine goblets to drink the four cups. At each plate is the Passover Hagadah containing the prayers, the story of Passover, and the unforgettable and wonderful songs that we all enjoy so much.

I feel very strongly that the songs of the Seder make the experience meaningful and joyous. Every Seder should be loud and energetic! Of course, we should be conscious that those around our Seder table have been vaccinated. Otherwise, group singing is not yet an approved activity.

The musical high points of every Seder are: Kiddush/Prayer over the First Cup; the Four Questions, sung by the youngest in attendance; Avadim Hayinu/Once We Were Slaves; Oh Listen, King Pharaoh, sung by the young children; the Ten Plagues; the Frog Song, a preschool hit; Dayenu, sung by all; Eliyahu Hanavi, as we open the door for Elijah the Prophet; L’shanah Habaah Birushalayim/Next Year in Jerusalem; Adir Hu; Echad Mi Yodea/Who Knows One; and Chad Gadyah/Only One “Kid/Goat.”

As last minute aides to your Pesach preparations and celebration, I offer you a group of fantastic YouTube clips guaranteed to bring smiles to you and your family. You should watch and listen to these clips as you are cleaning your homes and preparing for the Seder, or as you are celebrating together:

THE LION KING SEDER, sung by Six13, an amazing a cappella group:

THE FOUR QUESTIONS sung in a variety of musical styles by the Maccabeats, another wonderful a cappella group:

DAYENU, in many musical styles, sung by the Maccabeats:

IPO PASSOVER MEDLEY, a group of Seder songs played by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. This recording was made last year. Note that all the musicians are recording their parts in their own homes:

SEA CHANTY, a group of sea faring songs on Pesach themes, sung by Six13:

Ellen and our children, Avrum, Rabbi Howard, his wife, Naomi, Alana, and our grandchildren, Micah Toby and Sophie Daniela, wish you a happy, meaningful, joyous, musical, and healthful Pesach holiday!