When we ask at our Seders why this night is different from all other nights, there are the stock responses and the ones we take for granted.
We receive explainers on slouching, unleavened bread and why we dip our herbs. We don’t get into what Jesus’ Passover plans were in Jerusalem. In our Haggadot, we don’t have the ready reply if someone asks whether Kosher for Passover Coke is the same thing as Mexican Coke. We don’t even question what the name of the holiday we’re celebrating even means.
Maybe we should though, because not all our answers turn out to be correct. For those who don’t know how to ask, here as some answers to commonly asked Passover questions.
Does Pesach mean “Passover?”
Kind of? Pesach, the verb, means to “skip” or “pass over.” It’s generally accepted that those definitions refer to God (or the angel of death) — taking note of lamb’s blood on the lintel — bypassing Jewish homes when dealing out the last plague: Death of the first born. The verb is found in that context in Exodus 12:13, but it’s a rare word that has alternate translations.
In the Mechilta, a Midrash halacha on the Book of Exodus, two rabbis debate whether or not the word means God “skipped” the Jews or “had mercy” on the Jews. As Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky noted in a blog post on OU Torah, there’s good reason to support the latter definition. An Aramaic translation of the germane verse from the first century used the word “ve’eychos,” which means “I [God] will have compassion” and it is translated elsewhere as “having mercy.” (Some translate the word as “placate.”)
The sages debated the matter, Zivotofsky writes, some taking issue with the now commonly accepted translation for fear of ascribing suggestions of physical action — skipping or passing over — to God.
“The common notion that pesach means ‘pass over’ is probably because the commentator par excellence, Rashi, inclined towards that approach,” Zivotofsky noted. But it wasn’t just Rashi who may have us take his word for it. Part of our acceptance of this definition is due to a fourth-century Vulgate translation by St. Jerome that used the Latin word for “pass over,” and made its way into “the overwhelming majority” of Christian translations. While we’re on the topic of Christians…
Was the Last Supper a Seder?
Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover. He had a supper with his followers on what the Gospels say was the first night of Passover. The supper was definitely a Seder then, right? Not so fast.
As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg points out perennially on Twitter, as a way to dissuade the practice of Christian Seders, it would probably be an anachronism to say Jesus had a version of this ritual meal.
“When the Second Temple in Jerusalem stood, the first night of Passover usually involved just eating the paschal sacrifice, a lamb that had been slaughtered at the temple and then roasted and served at home,” Ruttenberg wrote in her own mythbusting piece for The Washington Post. Back in Jesus’ time, with the temple still around, it was a pilgrimage festival.
“The temple was destroyed several decades after Jesus’ death,” Ruttenberg wrote. “There are no descriptions of the Seder or the Haggadah — the text that guides the Seder ritual now — from major historical authors or works detailing Passover observance during the time of the Second Temple.’”
Instead, we first happen upon a reference to Seders in the Mishnah and Tosefta. We don’t know quite when they took off, but chances are many of their elements and their widespread adoption postdate Jesus. I mean, what would he even say at the end? Next year in Jerusalem? He was already there — and where else would he go?
Is Passover Coke the same thing as Mexican Coke?
Every year that yellow-capped Coke appears in grocery stores to the delight of soda purists. People — and not only Jewish people — have been known to stock up on the rarefied beverage, which, due to corn being kitniyot, and so not kosher for Passover for Ashkenazim, is made with real sugar instead of corn syrup. Many think it’s the same as Mexican Coke, the vaunted pop held in glass bottles and made from cane sugar. But is it?
The question may not come down to sugar, it turns out, but caramel.
“One of the key ingredients of any dark soda is caramel,” said Rabbi Norman Schloss, an Atlanta-based Orthodox Union kosher rabbinic field representative who works with many soda plants in the Southeastern U.S. and oversees Coca-Cola for Israel.
But caramel can be made from sugar, corn and wheat. Corn is kitniyot, wheat is hametz. For Passover Coke, a Kosher L’Pesach source is used for the caramel. But that doesn’t mean the same is true for Mexico.
“You say ‘Coke from Mexico always has sugar in it because they don’t use corn syrup: It must be OK for Pesach,’” Schloss said. “Not necessarily because they could use caramel from wheat. You could have a hametz problem, not a kitniyot problem.” There may be other ingredients in Coca-Cola from Mexico that would not be approved Kosher for Passover as well.
Reached for comment, Coca-Cola gave a statement about their kosher for Passover products and later confirmed that “in the United States, Coca-Cola is sweetened with sugar in our Kosher for Passover products and in our products imported from Mexico.” They wouldn’t confirm if the products were otherwise identical. That’s perhaps understandable, as the exact recipe for this iconic libation is a closely-guarded secret, not even known to Schloss.
Schloss doesn’t oversee the bottler where Kosher for Pesach Coke is made for the U.S. market, but said that the drink uses cane sugar like its Mexican counterpart. Whether it’s exactly the same is a mystery (our resident Coke connoisseur David Ian Klein noted that he thinks the latter is sweeter and more carbonated than the former) but then, the difference between this seasonal offering and what we consume most of the year may not be all that pronounced.
“I think a lot of it is psychological,” said Schloss. “Unless you have very discernible taste, you’re not going to be able to taste the difference between one or the other.”
Were we actually slaves in Egypt?
This one is pretty contested. No biblical historians have found solid archaeological evidence to support a large presence of Israelite slaves in Egypt or their four-decade meander through the desert.
Some have argued, however, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” and that the oft-cited number of 600,000 Israelite men may be overblown and added later.
In Mosaic, Bar-Ilan University’s Joshua Berman made the case that the Exodus story as written contains historical details — the presence of long-gone Egyptian fortifications, the apparent mimicking of a Pharaonic victory inscription dating to the time of the Exodus — that its writers would have no access to unless their ancestors were there.
But the scanty evidence, not even accounting for the miracles described in the text, place the burden of proof on those out to prove the event’s historicity. Historian Ronald Hendel, unconvinced by Berman’s evidence, suggested that the Exodus story was rooted in early Israelite cultural memory based on “roughly four centuries of Egyptian rule over Canaan during the period of the Egyptian empire.”
Others believe that it’s based on a partial truth. The thinking goes that Levites, many of whom had Egyptian names, may have escaped bondage in Egypt — perhaps in dribs and drabs over many years — joined with the population of Cannan that was never enslaved there and, as they intermingled, claimed the one branch’s history as a unifying narrative central to Jewish peoplehood.
That last argument, advanced by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Benjamin Sommer, speaks to how we all observe Passover. In each generation, we’re asked to imagine ourselves as having come forth from Egypt. It joins us together, reminds us to welcome the stranger and places all our souls at Sinai.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com. Have a Passover question you’d like answered? Email Culture@Forward.com.
4 more Passover questions, asked and answered