Passover begins with a Seder meal to “remember what our ancestors went through,” Rabbi Pinchas Taylor says.
“You do physical actions and experience physical tastes and motions and whatnot to … not only tell over the story, but reexperience the story as it took place,” says Taylor, author of the books “Pillars of Faith” and “A Jewish Guide to the Mysterious.”
Passover begins at sunset Wednesday, and in addition to celebrating the Jews’ deliverance from the Egyptians, Taylor says, Passover is a time to reflect on how we can each leave our “own inner Egypt.”
“What are the things that are holding me back?” Taylor encourages all to ask during the week of Passover. “What is constraining me? What is limiting me in my life? And how can I make the proper steps to liberate myself? Because when a person takes that first step, God helps them along the way as well. God will split seas for those that walk courageously forward.”
Taylor joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss how the Jewish community continues to celebrate Passover and the symbolism behind the traditions.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: We are joined today by author, speaker, and faith leader Rabbi Pinchas Taylor. Rabbi, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate you being with us.
Rabbi Pinchas Taylor: Thanks so much for having me.
Allen: Well, sunset on April 5 is the beginning of Passover. Let’s talk a little bit about Passover and the history and the tradition of Passover for a few minutes. Explain if you would, what are Jews celebrating when they celebrate Passover?
Taylor: So, it’s interesting, we’re kind of celebrating two things at once. The primary thing that we’re celebrating is the exodus from Egypt. We were enslaved in Egypt for many generations and God had mercy on us and took our ancestors out from Egypt, afflicted the Egyptians with 10 plagues, escorted us across the sea, and brought us to liberation. And that’s really what we’re celebrating that night.
What we’re also experiencing, what we’re also celebrating is sort of the recreation and the reexperience of our own inner slaveries, our own personal slaveries today. And that takes place on many levels, whether they’re physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual slaveries, we are combating those and directly hitting them and knowing with confidence that God is going to liberate us from them when we put the effort.
Allen: That’s really beautiful. And how long does the celebration last and what is entailed? How does the Jewish community go about celebrating Passover in a practical sense?
Taylor: Sure. So, the holiday in full lasts eight days outside of the land of Israel. In the land of Israel, it lasts for seven days. We always add an extra day for holidays that are outside of the land.
But the main observances of Passover actually begin before Passover. So one of the things that many people might know is that we don’t have any leavened product. We call it “hametz” in Hebrew. Any leavened products, we don’t eat them or own them or have them. And so what we actually do before Passover is we spend sometimes weeks before sort of scouring the house of any leavened products.
So all the Cheerios that my kids are dropping in every single room have to be found and cleaned out and we try to rid it as much as possible out of all of our possession, any trace of leavened products. And so when we come into Passover for that seven or eight day period, we are completely leaven-free.
And the way in which once we enter into the holiday, the main commemoration of Passover, in a practical sense of the exodus, are the Seder nights. The first night and the second night outside of the land of Israel, we have a Seder. And the Seder is really a pathway toward freedom. It sort of reenacts the entire experience from slavery to liberation.
And we also have the anticipation of the final liberation, the final redemption that will come when mashiach comes, during the times of the Messianic redemption.
Allen: And I’m really curious by something that you said. You said that an extra day is added to not only Passover, but to any Jewish celebration when it’s held outside the land of Israel. Why is that?
Taylor: Back in biblical times, the way in which the month was established was there was this whole reporting system of when they would see the moon, it would be based on when the new moon period begins, and witnesses would come and they would testify that the new moon has arrived. And it would be this whole process of, OK, that would be the day of declaring the first of the month. In the Hebrew calendar, a new month is determined by a new moon. In the English calendar and secular calendar, it’s sort of arbitrary, July 31 and Nov. 2. And it is kind of arbitrary names and numbers.
Each Hebrew month is determined by when the new moon comes. And so being that in the olden days, it could take quite a while, we didn’t have internet to upload right away and phone calls. So sometimes it would take a bit of time for the news to travel when the new month actually was declared for those places that were outside of the land of Israel or outside of the immediate jurisdiction, the news could take a while.
And so people would kind of, they’d say, well, either the new month was declared today or yesterday. And so they would keep an extra day outside of the land based on the doubt of when the new month was actually declared.
Allen: Oh, that’s interesting.
Taylor: Now we kind of maintain that because once you add holiness to your life, you don’t just dismiss it. You don’t say, “Ah, well, we don’t need it anymore, we have internet.” Or even if we could be perfectly in sync with when the day began, it would be irrelevant because once we’ve accepted as a world Jewish community that this is how we do things and we’ve integrated an extra layer of holiness, we’re not so quick to just get rid of that.
Allen: That’s so fascinating. And what is the significance of removing all of the leaven down to that last Cheerio from your home?
Taylor: It’s interesting because the difference between leavened bread and unleavened bread, what we would call chametz and matzah—chametz is leavened products and matzah is the sort of unleavened bread.
The only difference between the two is not ingredients, but in one doesn’t have time to rise. And so really the difference in ingredients you could say is air and what the air represents or the deflated, the matzah, which doesn’t have air inside of it, which is not able to rise, it symbolizes a deflation of ego and because one of the things that prevents us a lot of the time from experiencing inner freedom is the ego.
Ego is something that traps us. The ego is something that enslaves us. And so if part of Passover is trying to leave your personal Egypt, that starts with the scouring of your ego and then the eradication of your ego. And embedded in those days of Passover is that energy that if you can sort of nullify your ego, your selfish drives, the air within you, then you’ll have a greater susceptibility to experience freedom.
Allen: So it’s a physical reminder of what you hope is happening within you spiritually. That’s really beautiful. What beautiful symbolism and how important. During those Seder meals, what are some of the passages that are read from the Word?
Taylor: We actually read this book called the Haggadah, and haggadah means to tell over. And the commandment of that day from the Book of Exodus is to tell to your children and to your children’s children the story of what happened.
It’s important for us to always understand where we came from and understand how we got to where we are because only from framing knowledge of where you came from, knowing what your life and what your worldview is based upon, can you have a healthy experience of that nowadays. If you’re completely disconnected with your past, you don’t learn from your mistakes, you don’t see the whole process, you don’t see God’s hands in the story.
And so in the Haggadah, there are different passages from the Book of Exodus in particular. We really kind of track the whole story of how our ancestors originally came into Egypt to begin with, with Jacob’s children, and they migrated there and they lived under Joseph and then they were enslaved to Pharaoh. And we go through the whole process, little passages here and there from the Book of Exodus, recounting the story of our liberation.
And then each of the following, the telling over of the story, we actually experience some of the matters that went on. So, for example, because the Egyptians embittered our lives, part of the Seder is to eat bitter herbs. Because of the unleavened bread that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, we also eat unleavened bread. We also eat matzah at the Seder. And that’s actually specifically when there’s a command in the Book of Exodus to eat matzah is that night of Passover.
So we do things and we eat things to reexperience to a degree as a reminder what our ancestors went through. And so it’s not only just telling over this story, it’s kind of reliving the story in a real way.
You had mentioned earlier when we were talking about getting rid of the chametz in your house, getting rid of the leavened products in your house, that it’s sort of like a physical manifestation of what you hope is happening on a spiritual level. And that’s sort of what the Seder nights are also about. You do physical actions and experience physical tastes and motions and whatnot to reexperience, not only tell over the story, but reexperience the story as it took place.
Allen: I was really honored last year to be invited by a Jewish family to celebrate Seder with them. And this was my first time going to a Jewish Seder. And one of the things that struck me most and that I found so beautiful was the value that was placed on question-asking, specifically among the children. There were specific times and really throughout the meal where it was very encouraged to ask questions and kids were asking questions freely and there was so much time given to that.
Why is question-asking not only a great value during Passover and the Seder meal, but why does Jewish culture put so much value on asking questions?
Taylor: It’s interesting that you ask that because usually when people think of religious faith, they think of the opposite. They think of, “Oh, you can’t ask any questions. Questioning is bad.” And Judaism actually looks at things in the exact opposite way, that questions are a good thing. Dialogue is a good thing.
And the idea of asking questions is because, first of all, that’s how you understand and treasure what you have because you can’t get to the meat of a matter without asking questions. You can’t understand something or someone, anything in this world, without asking questions.
If I want to get to know you or you want to get to know someone, whatever it is, what do you do? You ask them questions about themselves. And the deeper the questions, not in a prying way, but the deeper the questions, the more you get to know the person.
And so the idea of asking questions about why things happened the way that they did, about the exodus story, about God and about God’s hand in our lives is something extremely encouraged and vital toward the preservation and the proliferation of Jewish knowledge, of Torah knowledge.
Allen: I love that. It’s really beautiful. Now, if myself or someone who’s listening who is not Jewish but values and loves Jewish culture, if they wanted to hold a Seder meal in their home and celebrate Passover, is that something that they could do? And how would they learn how to do that?
Taylor: Sure. I mean, there are plenty of resources online. I wouldn’t necessarily encourage anyone who’s not of the Jewish faith to do a full sort of Seder experience in the same way that the Jewish community does. Because again, everyone has their customs and their understanding of things and doing it the way that the Jews do it, there’s no real reason to reenact it in the same specific way.
At the same time, I think it would be worthwhile if a person was interested in Jewish culture, Jewish knowledge, and wanted to implement that in their lives, I don’t see anything wrong with eating matzah to sort of understand the experience and reading the Book of Exodus to reimagine what was taking place in God’s hand in creation. And also thinking in our own lives, how can I be a more connected and more liberated person? Liberated in the sense that I’m not enslaved to my own passions, but I’m instead a servant of God.
I think it would be more fitting for someone outside of the Jewish community, if they wanted to experience really the message of Passover, would be to think to themselves, how can I leave my own inner Egypt, if you will? What are the things that are holding me back? What is constraining me? What is limiting me in my life? And how can I make the proper steps to liberate myself? Because when a person takes that first step, God helps them along the way as well. God will split seas for those that walk courageously forward.
Allen: Rabbi Taylor, with the last few minutes we have here, I would love to ask you a little bit about a book that you have coming out soon. And just to share, you’ve written several books in the past and you’re currently working on a new book, and I would love for you to just take a few minutes to share a little bit about that book and what the mission of it is.
Taylor: Sure. So, my prior books seek to clarify matters of faith in different areas that are widely misunderstood, both in the secular world and even in the religious world.
So my first book, “Pillars of Faith,” seeks to really delve into why we believe things that we believe. Why it makes reasonable sense to believe in God, to believe that the Torah was given at Sinai, to believe in the coming of mashiach, the Messianic redemption, and so forth, the primary fundamental ideas of our faith.
The second book that I wrote, “A Jewish Guide to the Mysterious,” is sort of clarifying a Jewish understanding, a spiritual understanding of a lot of the topics in the realm of the paranormal. So dreams, astrology, angels, demons, those sorts of topics from a traditional religious or traditional Jewish perspective.
This upcoming book, God willing, is going to sort of trace the faith roots of the American founding. I love America and I love what America stands for and pray for this country every single day.
And one thing that unfortunately is getting lost as the generations continue is the idea, the recognition that the American experiment was founded, was premised, was built on the idea of God and built on the idea of faith, particularly with the influence of the Hebrew Bible, which is a part that we all sort of share, what some people sometimes call the Judeo-Christian values. The idea that the Hebrew Bible, what it represents, the themes that are embedded in it, and the themes that are ultimately then embedded in our country.
So it kind of goes through that throughout the course of what led up to the American founding. And I hope to also include certain ideas as to how one, from a traditional, sort of biblical model with a modern lens, might look at some of the issues that face our country nowadays.
Allen: Rabbi Taylor, if anyone listening wants to either buy your books or follow your work, how can they do that?
Taylor: Sure. As far as buying the books, they’re all available at Amazon. You could just Google my name, Pinchas Taylor. I’d be more than happy and you can certainly visit my website, pinchastaylor.com.
Allen: Excellent. Rabbi, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it and we hope that you have a wonderful and very blessed Passover.
Taylor: Thanks so much. It was really a pleasure.
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