Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Passover and Pascha: an interview with Natasha Pittle

Me: Hi folks! Today I have the pleasure of welcoming to the blog my friend and fellow parishioner, Natasha Pittle. Natasha and her family are Anglican Christians; her husband Kevin is a Jewish believer and the family enjoys celebrating their Jewish heritage. When Natasha and I were cleaning up after a church service together, she remarked on the similarities between the work we were doing, and the work she does to prepare for Pesach (Passover).

I thought that what she had to say was so interesting that I wanted to share it with my readers, and so I asked if she'd be willing to be interviewed for the blog, and she very kindly agreed. Thanks, Natasha!

Natasha: Hi!  I'm glad to be getting the chance to share some of these traditions.  It should be a fun and interesting discussion!  Our celebration of Passover is of course greatly impacted by our belief in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.  We try to keep many of the ancient traditions, especially those with a directly biblical basis.  Other practices seem very strange, even to me (as I don't have a Jewish background), but it is fun to explore them and incorporate them when we can.

Me: You and I first talked about the subject when we were cleaning up after a communion service together. Can you tell me how that "holy housework" reminded you of preparing your own home to celebrate Passover?

Natasha: The similarities struck me as we were washing the items used during the service-- I was not raised an Anglican and had never participated on an Altar Guild before (though I'm guessing that the high church Lutheran congregation I grew up in was probably fairly similar), so the piscina was completely new to me... and yet it wasn't.  [Jessica’s note: The piscina is a sink found in traditional Protestant & Roman Catholic churches that drains directly to the ground. All dishes and linens used in the communion service are rinsed in this sink.] There was a definite connection for me between the idea of needing to rinse any possible consecrated element directly down into the earth and the traditions of kashrut (kosher practices) and especially Passover preparations. 

The earliest connections, Kevin tells me, potentially go back to Leviticus 17.  The blood from the sacrifices had to be drained and buried in the earth (not consumed)-- the blood sprinkled on the altar also presumably eventually washed down into the ground.  Some sources also speak of a stream consisting of the waste water from the temple (ritual handwashing, cleansing of sacrificial implements, etc.) that flowed into a reservoir, possibly the Pool of Bethesda (yes, the pool that was periodically stirred by an angel and in which healing could take place).  Once any water, wine, or blood was used, it had to be returned to the earth-- it could not be reused for any form of human consumption. The elements, however,were considered to be "renewed" by being in the earth; living/moving water (from a spring or stream) had to be used for handwashing. At one point, faced with water shortages, the clever Pharisees created a machine to lower the reserve water vessels into a hollow in the earth each night, so that it could be considered fresh ground water in the morning! The handwashing of the priest by the deacon, by the way, comes directly from the Levites washing the hands of the Kohanim (priests) in the temple.

Once the temple was destroyed (shortly after Jesus' ascension), the Rabbis created all sorts of additional practices around the 613 commandments so that Jews would know how to remain as Jewish as possible in the face of dispersal all over the planet.  These writings (in the Talmud and other books) became known as the "fence around the Torah", a way to make absolutely sure to the best of your ability that you were not breaking a commandment, even inadvertently.  This is how the biblical law "Thou shalt not boil a kid [baby goat] in its mother's milk", a proscription meant to forbid a specific pagan practice, became the general forbidding of the mixing of milk and meat (a basic kosher tradition) and eventually, in more modern times "Thou shalt not eat chicken parmesan"-- although fish and milk is just fine.  The idea of the fence around the torah is to avoid the possibility of even appearing to break a commandment.

Most people are familiar with the most basic tenets of the kosher diet-- no mixing of milk and meat, and no pork products.  There is actually much more to it (such as the specific way the animals are slaughtered, humanely and draining as much blood as possible), but what many people do not see is the work that goes into keeping a kosher household (I don't, heaven help me!).  It may seem strange to have to rinse everything over the piscina, and stranger still that at times it is obviously symbolic (the wine cloths are still stained when they go into the laundry)!

Any kosher Jewish household will take great pains to keep milk and meat separate.  This means two entirely separate areas of the kitchen-- at the very least separate dishes and silverware, but preferably dedicated cookware, two different refrigerators and pantries, possibly two stoves and dishwashers.  In fact, the ideal (if you're wealthy enough and truly dedicated) is to have two entire separate kitchens.  Can a defiled dish be purified?  Sure, if you bury in the ground for a few years!  Although, upon doing research, Kevin says this is likely a Jewish "old wives' tale"-- every actual document he can find says that a defiled implement must be destroyed.  If the object is sacred (such as a Torah scroll or ceremonial vessel) and is worn out or defiled, it must be buried and cannot be reused.

It steps up even more for Passover.  Any possible leavened (yeast-raised) product is out.  Most get rid of baking-soda leavening as well.  Actually, some Orthodox households won't even cook with matzoh (unleavened bread) for fear it could swell up with moisture and pick up leavening from the air.  Sephardic  (Middle-Eastern) Jews say it's fine to eat beans, peas, rice; Ashkenazim (European Jews) say absolutely not (we keep Sephardic rules-- I can't do eight days of matzoh without hummus and peanut butter). 

From the biblical "the bread didn't have time to rise" to "take hours and days and weeks to make sure that the bread doesn't rise..." Fence around the Torah!  A huge "spring cleaning" takes place to get rid of any trace of leavening (chometz)-- back corners of cupboards, under the stove and fridge, carpets, draperies, even pouring bleach behind floorboards and into cracks to make the chometz unfit to be eaten (yes, poison yourself rather than ingest a crumb of bread by mistake!).  The tradition is to sweep up some final ceremonial chometz (bread crusts, etc.) with a feather and burn it the evening before Passover starts.  Chometz may literally be completely exiled from the house, or it may be packed into a locked cupboard and ceremonially "sold" to a gentile friend for the duration of Passover, so that it is not technically in the family's possession even though it's still in the house.  Now get this: Some households may literally have three or even four whole kitchens-- dedicated ones for Passover that are locked up the rest of the year.  Our family doesn't go anywhere near this far, but the idea of separation, of consecrated items needing special treatment, definitely seemed familiar and comfortable once I got used to it.

Me: Natasha, that is all fascinating! I’m grateful to learn more about all of these traditions.

Natasha: Kevin also suggests the following book: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper.  Ooh, that subtitle sounds all Dan Brown-ish!  It's not, though-- the author's name is Brant Pitre.

Me: Love it!  :)  Thank you so much, Natasha!

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