Wanderings: Challah, Pesach, Sefirat HaOmer, and Shavuot

The first in-depth Commentary post, which you are reading right now - Hey, look at you! - is going to be a long one, as we have a lot of ground to cover. I would like to begin with a reflection on my first serious observance of Pesach (or Passover), then talk a bit about the period of Sefirat HaOmer, and end with a look forward to Shavuot.

Pesach is one of the most important festivals on the Jewish calendar, and with good reason. As many Jewish people will tell you, the major holidays can be succinctly summarized with nine words: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." And no holiday better embodies that than Pesach.

The centerpiece of the Passover celebration is the seder. In Hebrew, the word "seder" means "order", and refers to the structure of the meal. The length of each seder varies, with some being as short as 30 minutes, and others stretching over several hours. The important part of each seder is that it includes 15 parts that "make it different from all other nights".

I was privileged enough to attend three seders this year: one at a friend's parents' home with their extended family and friends, one at my shul, and another with friends from Keshet Houston.

As most people know, bread - gluten, really - is prohibited during the eight days of Passover in recognition of the Israelites' quick escape from Egypt. They had to leave in such a rush that they couldn't even wait for their bread to rise. (Though, if you've ever made bread - challah especially - you know that letting dough rise actually takes a while.) However, having to flee your home with less than a few hours' notice would probably be difficult for most people in any time period.

I think this is an important place to recognize that this is not the only time this type of mass exodus has occurred in history. In fact, it's going on in different parts of the world right now, for a variety of reasons. When thinking back on my Passover experience, I think one of the most important aspects of the seder was the opportunity to reflect on this reality, think about what role we play in it, and how we can commit ourselves to the act of repairing the world.

In the absence of gluten, we eat matzoh. I do not find it as objectionable as many people do, but it really does make you miss real bread. This was the first time in my life that I was completely gluten-free, and it was a struggle at first. Not being able to eat bread during this period of observance of one of the most important Jewish holidays was especially poignant because it separated me from one of my earliest and most important connections to Judaism: challah.

It may sound silly, but my love of challah is part of the foundation of this project. Without challah, there would be no post-service oneg on Friday night at shul. Which means I wouldn't have met many people who, like me, were converting or had converted, and encouraged me to stick with it. I wouldn't have won over my rabbis in New York. And I would not have followed my tastebuds down the rabbit hole of Jewish food.

So, choosing to observe the Paschal prohibition against gluten was a challenge for me, but one that was well worth it, as the experience reinforced my love of the other parts of Judaism that also brought me to this point.

Starting on the second night of Passover, we begin counting the omer, something I have been discussing in other posts, so I won't go into much detail here. The period of 49 days between the second night of Passover and Shavuot - the celebration of receiving the Torah - is a time of reflection and preparation to become a free people.

The culmination of Sefirat HaOmer is the holiday of Shavuot, which means "weeks" in Hebrew - a reference to the period of seven weeks of the omer. Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and serves as a renewal of our acceptance of the commandments handed down that day. The word "Shavuot" can also mean "oaths", referring to the commitments made between God and the Israelites.

Shavuot is known as "the dairy holiday". Kashrut, the collection of Jewish dietary laws that were included in the commandments received at Sinai, mandates that meat and milk/dairy can not be eaten together. After the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai, their pots and cooking utensils were not yet kashered - made fit according to kashrut - so they ate only dairy. White is also worn on Shavuot to represent purity.

Shavuot is a very important holiday, though not as popular or familiar as some of the others. For me, I feel a particular affinity for Shavuot because of a combination of lovely traditions my rabbi told me about. Firstly, it is believed that sometimes Jewish souls are born into non-Jewish bodies. When those who choose to convert complete the process, they are making themselves whole once again. Additionally, the Sages, influential Jewish philosophers of the past, believed that every Jewish soul - past, present, and future - was present at Sinai for the receiving of the Torah. 

So, when we stay up all night studying Torah on the first night of Shavuot, we are going back to the source of Judaism, honoring those who came before us and committing to creating a better world for those will come after us. To me, it's a beautiful reminder of the importance of community in the Jewish tradition. It also makes me feel welcome, safe, and confident in my choice to convert.

Though anyone who knows me well knows that staying up all night to study will not be an easy task.

Posted on May 5, 2015 .