Friday, April 29, 2011

You didn't crack an invite to Will & Kate's wedding?

I hear you didn't make the cut for today's Royal Wedding. 

That's a shame, but you can take comfort in the fact that neither were Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or the Obamas (Swaziland's King Mswati is on the guest-list, mind you). Besides, you're welcome to join a royal wedding later if you'd like. (No, I'm not referring to our local "royal" wedding celebrations of Dudu Zuma either.)

London this morning will be aglow with all the glamour and extravagance befitting a royal affair. Weather permitting, the couple will travel from the service to Buckingham Palace in the historic 1902 State Landau carriage built for King Edward VII's coronation. Over 1000 military personnel, in ceremonial uniform, will line the streets en route and an honour guard will greet the couple on arrival. Various army, navy and RAF bands will play as the couple passes them. A fly-past of World War II fighter planes and modern jets will swoop overhead once the new couple has arrived.

William and Kate's nuptials promise to be a riveting spectacle, whether you watch it from the inside, from the London streets or on your TV at home.

But, as I said, if you're not on the VIP list, don't fret. You're invited to a royal wedding too. Come join us this evening. There'll be less paparazzi and glitz, but a more spectacular procession and a more royal couple.

Shabbos (as you can see from the famous "Lecha Dodi") is called both a bride and a queen or a royal bride. Soon after Creation, G-d commented that each day has a partner (Sunday-Friday, Monday-Thursday, Tuesday-Wednesday) except for Shabbos. His intention was to pair us with Shabbos, transforming both of us into royalty for 24 hours a week.

Kabbalah teaches that, as Shabbos enters, processions of angels rise to the Heavens and return here to Earth. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev described a "great parade" that gets underway on High as we say the Friday night prayers. According to the Zohar, the spiritual excitement of Shabbos is so intense that all negative energy is suspended. Likewise, the Talmud notes the "Gehinnom" shuts down and that blessings flow for the whole week ahead.

William and Kate are expected to have 2 billion TV viewers and 400 million Internet users watch their wedding. They'll have their day of glory today- and likely in the media for a good few days to come. But, considering that a single angel comprises the energy and complexity of 1/3 of our entire universe, and that we have two of them accompany us home from Shul on Friday night (not to mention the parading angels in Shul), it makes sense to capitalise on the amazing wedding procession we have access to every single week.

Yes, it has gone cold. Yes, it's dark now by the time Shul ends. Yes, we work long-draining days during the week and flop down exhausted on Friday evening. Yes, we plan to be at Shul on Shabbos morning. But, G-d puts on a royal wedding for us every Friday night, so surely we should be there! 

Can you imagine what would happen if Kate didn't show up this morning?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

He's YOUR child!

One of the central, yet often overlooked, chapters of the Seder night revolves around four sons. They are a diverse bunch- a wise, rebellious, simple and silent son who all come to hear the story of the Exodus. I know some people glance around the Seder table and mentally rate the guests according to this list (Jeremy's a genius, definitely the wise son, Harold's rather simple and Dean's biting sarcasm qualifies him as the wicked one...). 

But, I suspect that we get so caught up in the myth of the characters that we forget the Torah introduces them as "your son". Pesach is a time for parent-to-child education, in line with the Torah's instruction "You shall tell (the story of Exodus) to your child". So, the Torah had you in mind when it listed the "son" archetypes.

You may have a wise son (which Jewish parent doesn't?), he's gifted and frets if his grade drops below an A+. You know your budding Einstein needs to be stimulated, so you sign him up for extra maths, public speaking and a plethora of extra-curricular activities to keep his mind buzzing.

Or your son might be the school rascal, a troublemaker who spends more time in the principal's office than on the playground. He has ADHD appended to a string of other abbreviated disorders that make him a teacher's nightmare. You pack him full of Ritalin or whatever other miracles drugs the experts recommend and hope to dull him to a manageable behaviour level so he can get an education.

You might have a simple son, who you schlep off to therapies after school because of his learning difficulties, low muscle-tone and poor fine-motor skills. 

Your son could be the silent type; one who doesn't challenge you with the depth of the genius nor with the barbs of rebellious chutzpah. You plonk a PS3 into his hands or seat him in front of the TV and he's happy. 

Whatever your child(ren)'s nature, today's world allows you to outsource their needs. 

Pesach, in typical forward-thinking Torah fashion, says you need to remember to be your child's parent. Sure, you're entitled to use the world's offerings to help your child, but never forget that you are their parent. The Torah addresses parents in the singular: "You teach your child." Pesach reminds us that we dare not abdicate our responsibility to take a personal interest in each of our children, to recognize that each of them is an individual. 

Talk to your child on his terms. Listen to what he says and respond appropriately. And if he doesn't talk, coax him into conversation. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Shvitzing for Pesach

Pesach. Again.

Oh, but this one's been different to all others (cliched as that may sound).

You know it's that time of year when the kids hum mah nishtanah, your credit card burns brighter than your chometz bonfire (if only Pick 'n Pay would realise Pesach products aren't supposed to inflate) and you drag out the once-a-year dishes (hey, I forgot we had a one-hand, sixteen-mode grater/peeler!).

But, this year is different. Our family's been extra priveleged to get to play the part of the Jewish slaves, thanks to the unplanned departure of our domestic help. Working my way through the house, I discovered that our maid had actually checked out about six months back (judging by my forensic dust-audit) and only owned up to it a couple of weeks ago (maybe she had a twang of Jewish guilt about being paid for doing nothing). Either way, my kids are dusting bookshelves and I'm scrubbing walls and floors.

I'm not about to glorify my newfound cleaner role, but it has been enlightening. Our grandparents in the Shtetl surely had smaller homes to clean, but they did it all themselves. Thank G-d, we have the luxury of cleaning help, but perhaps with it we've come to miss some of the Pesach experience. You can definitely feel liberated at your Seder table without doing "back-breaking" (or physio-inducing) labour beforehand. Pesach is the time to liberate your spirit, which is just as challenging if you live in Sandton or in Alex. No, it's not the reliving our ancestors' experience that I'm feeling in the grit and dust.

Wash-rag and window-cleaner in hand, I recall a story from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. One Rosh Hashanah, after blowing the Shofar, he called his congregation to attention. If you read the small print in the Machzor, you'll find a little Kabbalaesque passage after Shofar-blowing. There we ask Hashem to release the angels that we've created through the variety of Shofar blasts, and to bless us for a good year.

"What happens," asked Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, "If we haven't focused properly on the Rosh Hashanah service and we've only produced weak angels. Will we receive incomplete blessings for the New Year?"

As the crowd swallowed hard, the rebbe continued, "Kashrak is the acrostic for the sounds of the Shofar. It also stands for kratzen (scraping), sheiben (polishing), reiben (scrubbing) and kasheren (kashering dishes). If the angels produced by the shofar aren't powerful enough to elicit blessings for the year, the angels produced by the exertion of Pesach preparations are certainly powerful enough to bring us blessings for the year!"

I take comfort in that. I'm not attacking dust-bunnies, I'm generating angels.

You can't live Judaism in your head. Ours is not a religion of philosophy or theosophy; it's about action. If you want to do what Hashem wants, be prepared to break a sweat and get your hands dirty. Life will throw you many moments where you need to pause and help someone else. Those chances will usually be inconvenient and often take you places (physical, emotional or philosophical) that are uncomfortable. Next time G-d sends you that challenging person or that tedious task, consider that Judaism is about turning dust into angels.

And, if sweeping the floor to prepare for Pesach is so powerful, imagine how invigorating Pesach itself must be. If I can reach the heights of Rosh Hashanah, or higher, with my dustpan, I must surely be able to access immense blessing at the Seder itself. As the Previous Rebbe was told by his father, "All the doors of Heaven are open on Pesach night, make sure to access the right things".

Pesach (Passover) Guide

Pesach has got to be the Jewish holiday with the longest to-do list. Here's a simplified version of what you need to get done:


In the Northern Hemisphere, Pesach is in the spring. The frenzied Chametz-purge that we undertake must be the origin of having an annual clean-up. Technically, you could keep treif food in your house during the year, but you may not own a crumb of bread over Pesach. That's why we get all OCD about cleaning every corner of the house.

We all know bread is forbidden on Pesach. Other Pesach contraband includes anything made from wheat, barley, spelt, oats or rye that's been allowed to rise (pasta included) or ferment (whiskey, beer). You'll need to check ingredients of medicines and cosmetics too.

You can't own chametz over Pesach, so if you plan to keep (locked away) some bread, biscuits or Black Label for after the holiday, make sure to sell it to a non-Jew. You can sell yours online at

Pesach is not a cheap time of year. When you stock up on your matzah, wine and macaroons, remember to contribute something towards those who can't afford their own Pesach.

Get yourself some bona fide hand-baked Matzah for the Seder night. It will add some authentic (lack of) flavour to your Pesach.

You'll need to clean and "kasher" your kitchen and utensils to be usable on Pesach (some appliances and utensils can't be kashered). Click here for a guide to what can and can't be kashered for Pesach and how to go about it.

The Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbos Hagadol, the "great" Shabbos. It's the day the Egyptian firstborns caught wind of the fact they were all going to die, causing an Egyptian uprising (yes, already back then) against their dictator (Pharaoh). The rabbi is supposed to review the Pesach laws on Shabbos, and we read part of the Haggadah after Mincha.

On the night before Pesach (Sunday night) have someone hide 10 pieces of bread (good idea to wrap them to avoid scattering crumbs) around the house (also a good idea to jot down where each piece is, in case you forget). Grab a feather, wooden spoon, paper bag and candle and set out to find the 10 pieces (and any other chametz you might have missed). Start with the blessing: "Boruch atoh Adonoy Elohaynu Melech ho-oilom asher kid'shonu bemitzvoisov vetzivonu ull biur chometz".
Once you've collected all 10 pieces put them aside to be burnt (with any other leftover bread etc.) on Monday morning.
After the search and when burning chametz, say the "nullification" of chametz (basically: "Any chametz I've missed is of no value to me").
After that's all done, no eating Chametz 'till Pesach's over. 

Firstborn boys (or their dads, if they're under 13) should fast on the day before Pesach (Monday). That's out of respect for the fact that G-d spared them when he killed the Egyptian firstborns.
You can dodge the fast by coming to Shul in the morning to hear a "siyum" (conclusion of a tractate of Talmud), which is a reason to celebrate (and eat).


We add "Hallel" (thanksgiving prayers to Hashem) on each night of Pesach.

On first night, have everything ready to go before you head off to Shul. That way, you can get down to business ASAP when you come home.
On second night, you may only start preparing for the Seder after dark.


Place 3 Matzos on top of each other and the Seder plate above them. On the Seder plate you have:

Bone = roasted chicken neck with most of the meat removed. (Top right of the plate)

Egg = hard-boiled or roasted. (Top left)

Maror = romaine lettuce and fresh horseradish. (Set up in two places, middle & middle bottom)

Charoses = ground nuts, apples/ pears & wine (pasty, not wet). (Bottom right)

Karpas = slice of raw onion/ parsley/ boiled potato. (Bottom left)


Kadesh- Kiddush.
Each person says their own brocha for the wine, even if they don't say Kiddush. This is the first of the four cups.
[Each of the 4 cups = full cup, in one shot, leaning to left. Minimum cup size is 90ml)

Wash your hands (three times on the right, three on the left).
Say no Brocha.

Dip the onion/potato/parsley into the salt water.
Say Baruch... Borei Pri HoAdomo and eat a little.

Break the middle Matza in two.
Put the larger piece away for the Afikomen.
Leave the smaller piece between the other Matzos.

Pour cup #2 and read the story of Pesach (Discuss its contemporary relevance).

Wash your hands (three times on the right, three on the left).
Say the normal Brocha for washing hands.

Say the Brocha for Matzah (same as for bread), while holding  2½ Matzos in both hands.

Say the special Brocha for Matzah (Boruch... achilas Matzah), while holding only the top 1½ Matzos in both hands.
Lean to the left and eat about 1½ Matzos (minimum 3/4 of a Matzah) from the top & middle Matzos.
Try to finish this Matzah in 4 minutes.

Say the special Brocha for Maror (Boruch... al achilas maror).
Eat about three medium-sized Romaine lettuce leaves with some raw horseradish.
Dip the Maror into Charoses.
Don't lean.

Eat ¾ of the bottom Matzah with about three romaine lettuce leaves and horseradish.
Dip the Maror into Charoses. Shake off the Charoses.
Lean to your left while eating.

Shulchan Orech
Eat some of the boiled egg, dipped in salt water.
You made it! Now you can eat the meal (or can you? After all that Matzah...)
This is also a great time to discuss the Pesach story and its modern message in detail.

Bring the afikomen out of its hiding place and enjoy another 1½ Matzos (minimum ¾ of a Matzah).
Lean to your left.

Pour cup #3 of wine as well as Elijah's cup.
Sing the benching (grace after meals).
After benching, drink the third cup, pour the fourth cup and open the door for Elijah.

Praise Hashem for all his miracles.
Drink the fourth cup.

Hashem has accepted our Pesach Seder.
Next year in Jerusalem!

On first day Pesach, we say a special prayer for dew.
From that point on, we change to "Morid Hatal" (Who causes the dew to fall) in the Amidah.

From 2nd night Pesach, start counting the Omer, 49 days of prep for Shavuos and the Giving of the Torah. The seven weeks of Omer-counting are a time for introspection and personal development.

April is already a write-off, with all those public holidays, so you may as well enjoy the semi-holiday "Chol Hamoed" period between Yom Tovs, when you're not meant to work.

The first days of Pesach concentrate on the historic Exodus, while the last days look towards the future redemption with Moshiach.

It's customary to spend the 7th night of Pesach learning.

On the last day of Pesach, we have a special meal called "Moshiach's Seudah" or Moshiach's meal. Join us for a round of 4 cups of wine, spiritual insights and a farewell to the holiday.


The day after Pesach is called "Isru Chag", a day for little extra joy & food to keep the Pesach spirit alive.

You can find more info, all the right times for your location as well as where to find a Seder near you at

Monday, April 04, 2011

Whatever happened to April Fools Day?

I enjoy a good laugh or tasteful prank. Every first of April, since childhood, I've kept vigilant for the media's shenanigans and- even funnier- the gullible outrage of the public. One of my favourites as a kid was when our local Star newspaper reported that the government was about to expropriate houses in our area to make way for a subway system (you should have heard the indignant calls to local radio stations). Just as hilarious was the time a radio station bluffed that a tug was pulling an iceberg up the east coast of Africa. People phoned in to say that they could see the floating 'berg from their windows!

This year I was stymied. Sifting through the news, I encountered some outright prank stories (like Groupon buying the rights to the name "April Fools Day") and a few that could have been true (like "Richard Branson buys Pluto" or "The Guardian to set up a live Royal Wedding blog" or "Gmail's  Gmotion will allow you to send emails using only gestures"). And there were those stories that sounded like they should have been hoaxes, but were sadly true ("Massachusetts letter arrives 66 years too late" and, worst of all "South African crime intelligence boss arrested on murder charges").

Years ago, an outrageous news-claim would more easily have stood out as a hoax. Today, with news stories like "14-year old rape victim flogged to death" it's become tricky to discern what's for real. April Fools seems to have become the standard. Ours is a world gone mad, where wild statements are normal and people finger the Voice of Reason as unbalanced. It's Aprils Fools' world. 

In the fools' world morality is unpopular and depravity celebrated. It's the meshugah place where a family murdered in their sleep goes unnoticed by a world preoccupied with the drunken rants of an overpaid actor.

You need courage to live in this crazy world. Courage enough to know you are still sane when the lunatics call you crazy.