Celebrating Passover Amidst Difficult Circumstances

By | Apr 07, 2020
Coronavirus, Jewish World, Latest
Jewish observance of Passover during persecution including the Crusades, Inquisition, the Plague, Civil War, Warsaw Ghetto, concentration camps,

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On the first night of Passover, we ask this question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year, that question takes on significant new meaning. It is not about the rituals of Passover, but rather about the unique situation in which we find ourselves as we celebrate the holiday. The tradition of gathering together for the Passover meal has gone by the wayside; we are forced to separate ourselves to fight a deadly virus. 

Indeed, this Passover comes amidst difficult circumstances. But it is not, by far, the first time Jews have celebrated Passover in trying times. 

From the very first Passover, celebrated thousands of years ago as Jews left Egypt, we have observed the holiday and its traditions despite external threats that put lives at risk. 

Moment has compiled examples of how Passover has been celebrated through the centuries under harrowing conditions. During the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust, oppressors tried to snuff out any observance of Passover, but courageous Jews managed to find ways to hold Seders. Even during a period similar to the one we find ourselves in now, the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century, Passover observances managed to survive.

Passover Exodus Angel

Exodus chapter 12 from Ilustrators of the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster


The First Passover–Exodus Chapter 12

The Tenth Plague: Death of the Firstborn

At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’

The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead.’ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.

The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations.”

Jewis observed Passover despite persecution during the Crusades.

Depiction of the Massacre of the Jews in York, 1190. Anti-Semitic feeling was running high throughout western Europe in the twelfth century, stoked by the Christian fervour of the Crusades. On March 16th 1190 a wave of anti-Semitic riots culminated in the massacre of the entire Jewish community of York – who had taken refuge in the royal castle. Image via Historic England.


The Crusades–11th & 12th Centuries

“Bloody Matsot? Passover, Blood Libels and Kidush Ha-Shem” By Ushi Derman

Most historians agree that the blood libels spread in medieval Europe were a dramatic phase in the evolution of Antisemitism. It was always the same story: Just before Passover a Christian child was found dead, usually by the local river or stream. The local jurists would soon conclude that the Jews slaughtered the child for their ritual needs, especially baking Passover Matsot from his blood. 

Jews had two choices: convert or die. Thousands were burnt at the stakes. The Jewish extreme response was martyrdom, either by surrendering and getting killed by the crusaders, or by committing suicide.

Source: The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv.

Jews in Black Death

A medieval drawing of the 2,000 Jews of Strasbourg who were killed on February 14, 1349 during the Black Death persecutions. The Jews were accused of causing the Black Death by poisoning the wells. Image via Wikimedia.


The Black Death–Mid 14th Century

One of the most important customs of Passover which celebrates the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt is the removal of grain, leavened bread, and even stray crumbs from the home. The replacement of bread with matzo, or unleavened bread, commemorates the haste with which the Israelites fled so hurriedly that dough prepared for their journey had no time to rise. 

Martin Blaser, an infectious-diseases physician at Vanderbilt University, has a different idea about how the tradition arose. He thinks that the removal each spring of bread and grain from Israelite homes may have protected them from a rat-borne scourge: Yersinia pestis, the bacterial cause of the (bubonic) plague infamous in medieval Europe as the black death. 

Passover, says Blaser, most likely originated from a fusion of two ancient Middle Eastern spring festivals: the ceremony of the sacrificial, or paschal, lamb still practiced among desert nomads, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which celebrated the barley harvest. As nomads took up agriculture, says Blaser, they would have become more vulnerable to plague. Stored grain attracts rats, which harbor fleas that transmit Y. pestis bacteria. But clearing grain from the home in the spring, a peak period for plague, forces rodents to search elsewhere for food. 

If the Israelites celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread while in Egypt, they might have been protected when plague struck. And it’s possible that it did strike and that they survived; the Bible describes ten plagues that preceded the Israelites’ flight, the last of which killed Egyptian firstborns and cattle. Plague, says Blaser, is one of the few human diseases that attacks domesticated animals with a high degree of mortality. 

There’s no concrete evidence that Jews were spared when plague decimated Europe in the fourteenth century. In fact, they were accused of causing it and many were massacred. There are, however, reports that Jewish deaths were half those of Christians when plague struck Venice in the spring of 1631. If Blaser’s theory is correct, it could explain why the annual removal of grain became enshrined in Jewish law. “If you had certain beliefs that you thought were very good for your community and wanted them to be around in perpetuity,” he says, “then you would try to mix them very deeply into the belief system.” 

Excerpted from Discover Magazine Newsletter

Jews observed Passover despite persecution during the Inquisition.

Depiction of a rabbi reading the Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) an edict issued in March 1492, by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain ordering the expulsion of practicing Jews.


The Inquisition–12th to 18th Century

“Secret Passover Tradition–The Seder Hamishi” By Rabbi Barbara Aiello (Blog, March 31, 2015)

Some historians believe that the Russian painter Moshe Maimon’s most famous work, “Marranos: Secret Seder,” actually tells the story of the Seder Hamishi, a secret Passover tradition, a special Passover seder, held, not on the first or second night of Passover, but, as its name suggests, on the fifth night of the holiday. Legend has it that during the time of the Inquisition, first in Spain, then in Portugal and finally on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia and into Italy’s mainland, Jews who had been forced into Christian conversion (b’nai anusim) were helped, surprisingly, by their Christian neighbors.

“Neofiti,” as these newly minted Christians were called, continued to arouse the suspicion of Inquisition authorities – so much so that gardeners, maids, cooks and nannies who worked in households of converted Jews were offered a bounty if they could catch their employer cleaning the house of “chametz,” (leavened bread), changing pots, pans and dishes, or preparing “pane azimo,” or “matzah,” the unleavened bread eaten during the Passover holiday. And then, when the first night of Passover finally arrived, Inquisition soldiers, who laid in wait for the sun to set, would burst through the doors of what had once been Jewish homes, checking to see if any of these former Jews were “judaizing,” – in this case, making Passover in secret.

Observing this injustice, some courageous Christians concocted a plan to help their Jewish neighbors. At great personal peril to themselves and their families (Christians who helped Jews were often tortured and murdered along with the Jews they tried to save), these Christians encouraged their Jewish neighbors to hold a seder, not on the first or second night, but, in order not to arouse the authorities’ suspicions, on the fifth night. Stories are told of Christian families who allowed Jews to sneak into their Christian “cantinas,” (basement rooms) and under the cover of darkness, these Jewish neighbors first made the space kosher and then actually observed Passover complete with symbolic foods, prayers and blessings.

Over the years the fifth night seder became known as the Seder Hamishi – a doubly appropriate name especially since “hamish” is the Yiddish word for cozy, homey and friendly.

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Jewish observance of Passover during the Civil War.

American Civil War Jewish soldiers. Courtesy of National Center for Jewish Film.


The Civil War—1861-1865

Excerpted from Jews in America: Passover Seders During the Civil War (1862), The Jewish Virtual Library

For American Jewry during the Civil War, the Passover story was especially powerful. Northern soldiers saw clear parallels between the Union freeing the South’s slaves and Moses leading ancient Hebrews out of Egypt. However, creating a seder during a war requires flexibility and creativity.

In 1862, the Jewish Messenger published an account by J. A. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment of a seder celebrated by Union soldiers in Fayette, West Virginia. Joel and 20 other Jewish soldiers were granted leave to observe Passover. A soldier home on leave in Cincinnati shipped matzot and hagaddot to his colleagues. Joel wrote: “We . . . sen[t] parties to forage in the country [for Passover food] while a party stayed to build a log hut for the services. . . We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens and some eggs. Horseradish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers ‘enjoyed.’… 

“We had the lamb, but did not know what part was to represent it at the table; but Yankee ingenuity prevailed, and it was decided to cook the whole and put it on the table, then we could dine off it, and be sure we got the right part.

The necessaries for the choroutzes we could not obtain, so we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended.”

Yankee ingenuity indeed! Historian Bertram Korn observes, “It must have been quite a sight: these twenty men gathered together in a crude and hastily-built log hut, their weapons at their side, prepared as in Egypt-land for all manner of danger, singing the words of praise and faith in the ancient language of Israel.” 

The seder proceeded smoothly until the eating of the bitter herbs. Joel recounted:

“We all had a large portion of the herb ready to eat at the moment I said the blessing; each [ate] his portion, when horrors! What a scene ensued…The herb was very bitter and very fiery like Cayenne pepper, and excited our thirst to such a degree that we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and…we drank up all the cider. Those that drank more freely became excited and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself a Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt, only Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh had to be carried to the camp, and there left in the arms of Morpheus.”

More problematic was the situation of Union soldiers who, unable to form their own seders, were forced to “fraternize” with local Jews. Myer Levy of Philadelphia, for example, was in a Virginia town one Passover late in the war when he saw a young boy sitting on his front steps eating a piece of Matzah. According to Korn, when Levy “asked the boy for a piece, the child fled indoors, shouting at the top of his lungs, ‘Mother, there’s a damn Yankee Jew outside!’ “ The boy’s mother invited Levy to seder that night. One wonders how the Virginian family and the Yankee soldier each interpreted the Haggadah portions describing the evils of bondage.

It is easy to forget how difficult it can be for Jewish soldiers to serve their country while maintaining the traditions that beautify Judaism. Nevertheless, for Jewish Union soldiers fighting between 1861 and 1865 to free others from slavery, the Passover parallels must have made each seder particularly sweet and meaningful.

Jewish observance of Passover in the Warsaw Ghetto despite persecution during the Holocaust.

Blessing over passover meal in the Warsaw ghetto. Courtesy of Had Vashem.


The Holocaust—1941-1945

“Passover In Hell”  By Yakov Brachfeld

Transcription from a YouTube video from aish.com

Moshe and Mendel Brachfeld, my grandfather and great uncle, were living in the Krakow Ghetto. Krakow was officially declared Judenrein—clean of Jews.

In March, 1943, five weeks before Passover, the Germans liquidated the ghetto. The two brothers decided to go into hiding. They ran from attic to attic, trying desperately to stay alive. With Passover approaching, the brothers wanted to eat matzah on the first night of Yom Tov. But they knew that getting caught would mean getting shot. 

Nevertheless, they found some flour, a metal board and some flammable paint. They set the paint on fire, koshered the metal, and made a makeshift kosher-for-Passover oven. They baked a few small matzahs for the Seder. They were in their hidden attic on 23 Jozefonsky Street. That night they celebrated the exodus from Egypt by sitting with a little bit of matzah and little bit of borscht in place of wine. 

My grandfather, then 21 years old, said to his brother: “The Seder celebrates freedom. Isn’t this worse than the lives the Jews had in Egypt? What kind of freedom are we celebrating tonight?” His brother answered: “Passover celebrates the birth of a nation, when we went from being Egyptian slaves to becoming a nation that God could call his own. This spiritual freedom is something that no one can ever take away from us. No matter how much they beat, torture and kill our physical bodies, our souls will always remain free to serve God.” 

“How We Baked Matzah in a Nazi Ghetto” By Asharon Baltazar

Adapted from Yaakov Friedman’s memoirs, Tiferet Yaakov (Hebrew), written by his son-in-law, Rabbi Sholom Horowitz.

Three men, all prisoners, could think of nothing but the imminent festival of Passover. As thousands of Jews—including their own relatives—were being sent to their deaths on a daily basis, Yaakov Friedman, Moshe Goldstein, and Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam (the Klausenburger Rebbe) had the bravery and presence of mind to secure matzah for Passover 1945. 

Here is Moshe Goldstein’s account of the amazing turn of events that afforded them the ability to observe the Festival of Freedom amidst abysmal suffering and death:

In the days preceding Passover, the war was nearing its end. The relentless droning of American aircraft filled the German skies, followed by the whistling hail of bombs that pounded the Mühldorf railway complex into rubble. 

Spared of destruction were the nearby forced labor camps where we toiled under the harshest conditions. We prisoners celebrated this mighty display of Allied destruction, but the anxiety of our German overseers ran high. The railway was vital to the war efforts, and orders were issued to immediately repair the damage. The Germans decided to send a group of 12 Jewish slaves to begin the cleanup. 

I knew the work would be excruciating but I hoped that perhaps I would find some food amidst the rubble. I volunteered to go. 

We arrived at a scene of utter devastation. Freight cars lay on their sides, smoke rising from gaping holes. Stretches of railing were ripped off the ground and tossed aside in twisted heaps. Nearly every building suffered extensive damage. It was clear some of the cars were unrepairable. 

I managed to disappear between the rows of trains that were still upright. It took a while, but I eventually found a boxcar from Hungary loaded with wheat in burlap sacks. Wheat! And so close to Pesach! G-d had granted us a good start, but how could I possibly smuggle the wheat into the camp?

I knew I did not have much time and I needed to think of a way to bring in as much wheat as possible without the guards knowing. Lugging the sacks through the main gates didn’t even occur to me; the wheat would be confiscated and I would be shot without a second thought. 

I rummaged around some more, and discovered two pairs of pants. I put them on and cinched the bottoms around my ankles with some rope. I was then able to pour a small quantity of wheat into the space between the two pairs of pants. Once my legs were filled with as much wheat as I dared carry, I began the long walk back to the camp. 

The bombings left the Germans rattled and fearful, and for the initial days following the air raid, the inspection of prisoners at camp gates was enforced almost half-heartedly. I was thus able to smuggle in a fairly large amount of wheat. 

We had wheat, but now what?

Reb Sender Direnfeld, a fellow inmate and a Belzer Chassid, offered to hide the wheat, and amazingly, he managed to keep it away from prying German eyes.

Later, an old mill was procured from somewhere. We ground the wheat in the dead of night, and using a clean piece of cloth, sifted the flour from grit. 

Next we needed fuel for a fire.

During one stint in the field, I asked everyone to find a stick and carry it back to the camp. The branches were conspicuous and caught the attention of a German guard. He motioned me over. 

“Why is everyone with a stick?” 

“What difference does it make? People want to walk around with a stick,” I answered. 

We had flour and we had fuel. We were ready to bake matzah.

One night just before Passover, we set about baking matzah. Near the barracks door stood a prisoner, standing guard with fearful eyes. 

We lit a fire under a metal can which functioned as our oven, and the Matzah baking—under Nazi noses—began. The Rebbe, Reb Yaakov, and I mixed the flour and kneaded the dough. We worked quickly, not only because of the strict 18-minute limit, but also because of the ever-present danger of being caught. We ended up with 20 small matzahs. 

On Pesach eve, after returning from work, our small group sat down for the Seder. On wooden slats around us lay sleeping bodies, exhausted from the relentless work. For those celebrating, the hardships of the Holocaust and daily camp life melted away as we experienced the Biblical redemption from Egypt. Unable to sit for long, we each ate an olive-sized piece of matzah, the taste of tears mingling with the matzah crumbs in our mouths. 

We could not sit leisurely and recite the Haggadah, but in those moments we each prayed—more fervently than ever before or ever since—the words that still ring in my ears: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

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