The ancient division of Jewry into Sephardim and Ashkenazim originally was a geographic division: “Ashkenaz” is Hebrew for “German”; “Sepharad” translates as “Spain.”
Today, a number of differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews still exist in practice, despite geography no longer being a factor, as the communities live side by side in Baltimore. The JT spoke with a number of Baltimore’s Persian Jewry to learn more about Passover traditions that have made their way to the United States from countries such as Yemen and Iraq.
Perhaps the most notable difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in terms of Passover traditions is what is considered kosher and what is not. Most American Jews forgo rice during Passover, but it’s a staple of the Sephardic Passover diet in addition to corn, peas and beans.
“We have to check it before we eat it to make sure there are no kernels of grain mixed with the rice,” said Michael Moses, an Iraqi Jew. “Ashkenazi will not eat rice because it was more of a problem [to keep grain separate from rice] in Europe, so they could not keep it kosher. But if you are willing to sit down and check it, you can have rice.”
Rice, corns, beans and peas are part of a group of legumes known in Hebrew as kitniyot. Moses explained that Sephardim consider rice kosher for Passover, because, according to the Torah, it is acceptable on the condition that it has been checked three times in accordance with tradition to ensure that there is no grain mixed in.
Daniel Golfeiz, executive director of Ohr Hamizrach Congregation Sephardic Center on Park Heights Avenue, joked that Sephardim eat rice on Passover because “that makes it easier than eating potato three times a day,” as many Ashkenazim find potato to be a staple of every meal during Pesach.
There are a number of small but notable differences between traditional Sephardic and Ashkenazic foods for the holiday. For one, the former typically make charoset with dates as the central ingredient as opposed to apples. Sephardim also use romaine lettuce as their bitter herb instead of horseradish. “We don’t make ourselves cry on Passover,” said Golfeiz. “Romaine lettuce is also a little bitter.” Lamb is often a staple of the meal as well.
While Americans are accustomed to flat, brittle matzoh, Sephardic matzoh is also more often soft, akin to pita bread. Golfeiz explained that this, in part, helps people who have difficulty chewing such as young children and the elderly. However, Elliot Sharabi, a Yemenite Jew who distributes softer matzoh around Baltimore, said that there is a more profound reason for the difference.
“[Softer matzoh] is the real tradition; everyone’s was like that originally and it changed over time,” he said. “They are different customs, but korech is when you take the matzoh and wrap it around the lettuce. How can you wrap it if it’s not soft?” Americans make do by sandwiching charoset or herbs between cracker-like pieces of matzoh.
A number of traditions vary between Sephardim and Ashkenazim as well. American Jews are used to following a haggadah and reading prayers from it during the seder. However, Moses explained that there is a commandment to recite the seder in a language that you understand “because it is not a prayer, it is a story.” It is not much of a story if no one knows what is going on, he said. “In Sephardic congregations, they will translate it into Spanish or French or Arabic, et cetera, because there are people from different backgrounds.”
A number of Sephardic traditions are also designed to keep participants excited and engaged during the course of the seder. Depending on the family, traditions differ, but “Dayenu” is often accompanied by an action such as lifting the table together or children whipping each other on the wrists with spring onions.
Explanations as to why this is done differ, but according to an article on The Jewish Magazine’s website by Rabbi Barbara Aiellois, “this ritual is performed while singing ‘Dayenu’ because ‘Dayenu’ is the song of miracles, so the whipping reminds us that it was a miracle that we were freed from the lash of oppression.”
Some Sephardim also have a different tradition when it comes to breaking the matzoh. Moses explained, “When you slice the middle matzoh, we try to break it in the shapes of a Daled and a Vav.” The explanation gets kabalistic, but essentially, the piece of matzoh is likened to the Hebrew letter Hey.
“If you look at a Hey, it is a Daled and a Vav put together,” said Moses. “The Daled is signifying the poor man and the Vav represents HaShem sustaining the poor man [when they form the Hey together]. We split the matzoh into a Daled and a Vav to indicate that we are in the Diaspora, not the ideal situation.”
Golfeiz said that although traditions differ, the main goal is to keep Passover fun, especially for the children. “It is the time of the year that everyone’s family gets together. We want to make sure that kids leave the table looking forward to celebrating next year.”