Shavuos — The Forgotten Holiday

Everyone has heard of Passover. But what is Shavuos? And why have so few people heard of it? It’s also in the Torah, yet it certainly does not have the eminence that Passover holds for most people. Why is it not as well known as Passover?

We all know what Passover is about. That’s when we became a nation, in a sense. At any rate, that’s when we became the «Nation that the Creator has taken for His very own.» But what was it for? Why did the Creator choose us? What purpose did He have in mind?

Well, that’s what’s Shavuos is all about. While Passover is the time we became the Nation to receive a Mission, it was on Shavuos that we received that Mission.

It is a fundamental of Judaism that the calendar year (and week) is a recurring cycle. Every Sabbath is an exact spiritual replica of that very first Sabbath of Creation. The exact same holiness and spirituality that pervaded the world on that first Sabbath pervades and permeates the world each and every Sabbath of the year.

And the same is true of the Holidays. The very same holiness that was bestowed upon the Children of Israel that night they sat in Egypt eating Matzoh and Bitter Herbs at the very first Passover Seder — that very same holiness is available to us each and every Passover Seder night, if only we learn how to tap into it!

And the same is true, of course, for all the other Holidays. Shavuos marks the season during which the Creator gave us custody of the Torah. On that day, the purpose of Creation was handed over to us, and the responsibility for its maintenance became our charge.

The giving of the Torah was actually a part of the process of Creation. More to the point, it was and is the very act that sustains the universe, as it says, «Were it not for my covenant, observed day and night, the laws and heaven and earth I would not have set.» (Jeremiah 33:25) The Torah, сtherefore (and the fulfillment of its commandments, of course), is the very purpose of Creation.

This was the reason G-d took us out of Egypt, to give us the Holy Torah. It was not mere material riches that G-d promised Abraham when He said «and afterwards they will leave with great wealth…» (Genesis 15:14), but it was to the Torah that G-d was referring.

And so, each and every year, on the Holiday of Shavuos, we renew that relationship, and we reaccept that responsibility. Shavuos takes place fifty days after Passover, time enough for us to get ready to accept our mission.

Note that Shavuos is not called the «Season in which we received the Torah,’ but rather, the «season in which the Torah was given.» That marked the beginning of our deeper relationship with the Creator, but in truth we must affirm it every day. Every day of our lives is another day of «receiving the Torah,» but the special moment of the Giving of the Torah takes place on Shavuos.

Almost every Holiday (Yom Tov — literally «good day») marks both a historical event (though recurring, as we spoke above), and a yearly agricultural event. Passover marks the time the Creator rescued us from Egypt, and also takes place during the barley harvest. Consequently, in addition to all other Holiday observances, such as the Passover Sacrifice brought by the people, the Kohanim (priests) at the Holy Temple were required to present the Barley Offering, the Omer.

Shavuos marks the season in which the Torah was given to us, and also takes place during the harvest of the wheat and the fruit. Consequently, among the Holiday observances of Shavuos were two additional offerings: the «Two Loaves of Wheat-Bread,» brought by the Kohanim; and the Bikurrim, the First Fruits, brought by the fruit farmers themselves. In addition, there are many Holiday observances and customs specifically for Shavuos, as we shall see in the next article in this series, The Many Names of Shavuos.

How to Count the Omer

We count Sefiras Ha’Omer at night, from the second night of Passover ntil the night before Shavuos. Each night we count what number that day is, from one until forty-nine. We count the final night, number 49, the night before the Holiday of Shavuos.

We count the Omer while standing. (If you counted while sitting, don’t repeat the blessing.) First we recite the blessing for counting the Omer, then we count the correct count for that night, and then we pray that the Holy Temple Service be returned to us in its proper place soon. Those who follow the Customs of the Arizal also add a preparatory prayer beforehand, as well as several prayers afterward. These prayers are not mandatory, but they are very beneficial, and they certainly help us better understand some of the deeper meanings of Counting the Omer.

One should count the Omer as soon as it is definitely full night according to the Torah. This is not done by visual confirmation, but by calculation. This is a complicated issue, so each community and individual must follow their own Rabbi. It depends on several matters, including the latitude of the area in which you live, and various issues concerning the calculations themselves. Instead of giving a long list of possibilities, I will simply tell you to do as your local Orthodox Synagogue does (if they are following the instructions of a Rabbi).

If you count too early, you have not fulfilled the Mitzvah at all. After the proper time begins, you must once again say the blessing, and count again.

Since you must recite the blessing before you count, don’t mention the count for that night beforehand. So if someone asks you what the count is that night, answer by telling him what last night was. If you accidentally tell him “Tonight is the sixteenth,” you may no longer recite the blessing that night.

If you make a mistake and count the wrong number one night, correct yourself as soon as possible, but do not repeat the blessing. By Law, you must know what number you will count that night before you say the blessing.

Do not say anything else at all between the blessing and the counting. If you say anything not related to the Counting of The Omer, you must repeat the blessing.

If you forget to count when full night begins, you can still count all night. If you forgot until the morning, you may count all that day, but without a blessing. The next night, you continue as usual, saying the blessing and counting, and continue incrementing each day, as usual. If, however, you passed an entire day without counting that day of the Omer, or if you counted the wrong number for that day and passed the entire day without correcting it, you may no longer recite the blessing for counting the Omer, even on subsequent nights.

So if, for example, you counted the Omer properly each night for 14 days, then on the fifteenth night you forgot to count the Omer, or you counted the wrong number, you should recite the number for that day the next morning, or as soon as you remember. If you forgot to count, and did not remember all the next day, and suddenly when you are ready to count the sixteenth night you remember that a whole day has passed without you counting, and that you never counted the fifteenth day, you must count the sixteenth night without a blessing. And not only the sixteenth night, but all the remaining days of that count. For the rest of the Omer that year you count but do not say the blessing. (The other prayers you may still say.) This does not affect your counting subsequent years. (The same applies if you counted the wrong number one night and did not correct it all day.)

If in the morning you are not sure if you counted last night, assume you did not, and count without saying the blessing.

If one night you are about to count the Omer, and suddenly you realize that you are not sure if you counted last night, assume you did, and say the blessing before counting.

If you are about to count, and you realize that you don’t know what number to count, don’t count. Wait until you find out what the correct number is for that day, even if you have to miss it the entire day. If you think you know what day it is but you are not sure, count without a blessing. If you find out the next day that you counted correctly, then subsequent nights you may say the blessing before counting.

The Torah tells us to count the weeks as well as the days. Therefore, once a week has passed, we mention the days and the weeks, and the days in the weeks. For example, on the eighth night of the Omer, we count “Today there are eight days, which is one week and one day, of the Omer.” On the thirtieth night, we count “Today there are thirty days, which is for weeks and two days, of the Omer.” And so on.

If one night you counted the day and forgot to count the weeks, you may still say the blessing before counting on subsequent nights.

It is forbidden to eat anything, or get involved in any work, before counting the Omer, for fear that we might forget to count that night.

If you do not understand what the words of the count mean, you should count in a language you understand.

For the prayers, blessing, and the count itself, the best approach is to buy a prayerbook called the Artscroll Siddur, and recite as printed there. You can buy a copy at Tiferes Stam.

Sefiras Ha’Omer. The Counting of the Omer

On the fifteenth day of Nissan, the most exciting event in all history took place. Or so we thought. 

It turned out to be only the second most exciting thing in history.

On the fifteenth day of Nissan, Hashem took us out of Egypt, with many amazing miracles. Hashem fulfilled the promise He had made to the Patriarchs, and freed us from being slaves.

At that time, Hashem catapulted us to the greatest height of holiness we had ever known. The Children of Israel had been so long in Egypt that many had forgotten what it meant to serve Hashem. Many had even worshiped idols. We are at almost the
lowest level possible. We were almost — but not quite — at spiritual rock bottom.

Hashem took us away from all that. Hashem poured holiness upon us, and raised us up to witness one of the greatest spiritual renewals anyone could experience. Each of us, personally, was elevated to a spiritual level that surpassed the level of most prophets in our great history.

Yet that was not the greatest event that ever happened to the Children of Israel.

There was one greater.

It took place just fifty-one days later.

That was the day we received the Torah.

This begs the question: If that was so much greater, then why didn’t it happen first? Why didn’t it happen during Passover? Since Hashem actually elevated each and every one of use personally, wouldn’t that have been the perfect time to give us the

The answer is: no. It would not have been the perfect time for us to receive the Torah.

Yes, on the first day of Passover we were truly spiritual. We were brought to a level we had never before attained. The problem was, we were brought there. We did not attain it ourselves.

A spiritual level granted as a gift might be a truly unsurpassed experience, but it cannot last. It cannot help us achieve a permanent standing. It allowed us to be brought out of Egypt, but in order for it to last Hashem would have had to continually pour it on us. And that’s not the purpose of Creation. The purpose of Creation is that we work to achieve a holy relationship with Hashem, not that He grant it to us as a gift.

And the Children of Israel knew that. So when Hashem told them that they would receive the Torah in seven weeks, they resolved that they would work hard to achieve the same level that Hashem had previously granted them as a gift, or as close as they could get to it. Once they had attained a high level by their own efforts, they would be ready to receive the Torah.

And so they began to count the days and weeks to Shavuos, which would be the day that they would be receiving the Torah. They began on the second night of Passover, after the initial spiritual high of that first day of Exodus had left them. Each day, they would improve themselves a little bit, until they worked themselves up step by step to a high level of service for the sake of Hashem.

Hashem saw their eagerness, and helped them in their efforts. Hashem promised the Children of Israel that whenever Jews decide to work to improve themselves, Hashem will help them achieve their goal.

During the time of the first Sefirah, Hashem gave the Children of Israel some of the Commandments, such as Shabbos, so that when we received the Torah we would already have attained some holiness. Holiness can be attained only through the performance of the Commandments. That is, in essence, the message of Sefiras Ha’Omer, the counting of the Omer.

Hashem commanded the Children of Israel to institute the count from Passover to Shavuos as a yearly procedure. It is called «The Counting of the Omer» because it begins the same day that the barley is cut for the Omer Offering, as I explain in my
article «The Omer Sacrifice.»

Each year, beginning the second night of Passover, we count until we reach the Holiday of Shavuos. We utilize this time period to improve our spiritual lives, step by step, day by day, so that when Shavuos comes, we are ready to receive the Torah.

Hashem has promised us that each year, on Passover, we will be able to receive all the same holiness that the Children of Israel received that first Passover. And on Shavuos, we will be able to receive all the same holiness that the Children of Israel received that first Shavuos, when they stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah amidst great miracles and heavenly fire.

That very first Passover, the Children of Israel risked their lives to circumcise themselves and to slaughter the Passover Sacrifice, and therefore they merited that pouring of holiness on them. From Passover to Shavuos they labored hard to attain a high level of holiness.

If we are ready to risk our lives to fulfill the Commandments of the Torah, we can merit on Passover night what they merited. And if during Sefirah we labor hard to attain holiness, we will merit what our ancestors merited then, and we will see open miracles from Hashem just as they did.

The Dual Nature of Sefirah

The days of Sefirah are therefore days of achievement, days during which we work to become more holy. A chief component of that is giving the proper respect to Torah and to those who study Torah.

Unfortunately, this is a message easily forgotten. At one point in our history, around the year 120 CE, about 24,000 Torah students died of plague and war during the first 32 days of Sefirah. It happened to them because they forgot the important message of mutual respect. (This took place not all in one year, but over the space of a number of years they all died during Sefirah time. — see Midrash Koheles 11) This is why during the days of Sefirah, until the thirty-second day (inclusive), we remember that lesson, and we respectfully honor their memories by acts that are reminiscent of mourning: we do not cut our hair (except for reasons of tznius), we do not listen to music, we do not get married (engagements are permitted), and we do not dance (even during an engagement party).

Therefore, it should not be forgotten that Sefirah is the time when we work to improve ourselves so that when Shavuos comes, we are ready to receive the Torah. Mutual respect is one of the things we must focus on during this time.

The Omer Sacrifice

A Non-Animal Sacrifice

Most people know that in the Holy Temple we brought animal sacrifices. What many people do not know is that many of the sacrifices were not from animals at all! A great many of them were from agricultural produce. The Omer Sacrifice was one such offering.

The Omer Sacrifice was brought not from animals, but from barley.

The Torah commands us to bring, on the second day of Passover, the Omer Offering. Let us first discuss some of the meanings behind the Commandment, and then, Hashem willing, we will discuss how it was actually done.

The Meaning of the Omer

We find that at every harvest time there is a Commandment to bring as an offering part of that harvest. On Shavuos, the kohanim (priests) brought two loaves of bread as an offering. In addition, each Jewish farmer was required to bring to the Holy Temple the first of each fruit that ripened on his farm.

Passover, the time when the barley was harvested, we are commanded to bring a barley offering.

This teaches us that in all things we must honor Hashem, because all things come from Hashem. Hashem does a great kindness to us each year in making the crops grow. He brings rain and dew, and good winds, and directs the growing of the produce itself.

Therefore, before we actually use the produce ourselves, it is certainly proper to first dedicate to Hashem a portion of our crops to remind ourselves of Hashem’s kindness and goodness. After all, it is Hashem Who gives us this produce.

When the Jews were sent into exile, and most Jews were outside of the Land of Israel, this became very difficult for us to accomplish. The Rabbis therefore instituted blessings to recite before we eat any food. Until then, we were required to bless Hashem only after we ate, as the Torah says, «And you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless Hashem your G-d for the good land that He gave you» (Deuteronomy 8:10). Now we are required to bless Hashem both before and after we eat any food.

There is another level to the Omer Offering as well.

The Talmud teaches us that Rabbi Yehudah learned from Rabbi Akiva: «Why did the Torah tell us to bring an Omer on Passover? Because Passover is the time of judgment for grain crops. So Hashem said, ‘Bring before Me an Omer on Passover so that your grain will be blessed’» (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16a).

Hashem desires to bless us. Hashem therefore arranged it that we should have an interactive relationship with Him. He gave us Commandments to fulfill, and when we fulfill them properly Hashem blesses us.

Therefore Hashem commanded us to recognize His Hand in all things. When we recognize and acknowledge the fact that Hashem makes all food grow, we are strengthening our relationship with Him. Therefore, we merit Hashem’s strengthening
His side of the relationship as well.

How the Omer Offering Was Brought

On the fourteenth day of Nissan, the day before Passover, three agents appointed by the Sanhedrin (highest Court in Israel — which will be reinstated just before or during the Messianic Era, may it be soon) would go to a barley field near Jerusalem. The agents would search for moist stalks of barley grain, still growing from the ground. While the stalks were still attached to the ground, they would tie them into bundles. Then they would return to the city, bring their Passover Sacrifices, and get ready for the Passover Seder they would make that night.

That night would be the first night of Passover, when every Jew makes a Seder, and remembers how Hashem took us out of Egypt.

The second night of Passover, there are two Commandments that we must perform. One is to count the Sefiras Ha’Omer. The other is to cut barley for the Omer Sacrifice, as I shall now explain, with Hashem’s help. (For those who live in the Land of Israel there is no Seder the second night of Passover. Anyone outside of the Land of Israel makes a Seder the second night of Passover as well as the first.)

The second night of Passover, after nightfall, the three agents would go out to the barley field. They would be accompanied by many of the Jews who had come to Jerusalem for Passover. The agents would take with them scythes (harvesting tools)
and bins.

It was all done with great joy and celebration. It was all done very ostentatiously, to let all the people know the Torah’s Commandment. During the Second Holy Temple a heretical sect arose that tried to get the Jews to change the time of bringing the Omer. So during the Second Temple Era the Rabbis instituted that a very noticeable and tumultuous procedure should be performed for the harvesting of the Omer.

At the field, the three agents would turn to the people and ask,

«Has the sun set?»
«Yes!» was the resounding reply.
«Has the sun set?»
«Has the sun set?»

«Is this a scythe?»
«Is this a scythe?»
«Is this a scythe?»

Is this a bin?
Is this a bin?
Is this a bin?

«Shall I reap?»
«Shall I reap?»
«Shall I reap?»

They then cut the barley for the Omer. They would cut precisely three se’ah (about seven tenths of a bushel). They would place it all into the bins, and bring it to the Holy Temple.

During the night, the barley grain was flailed, winnowed, and carefully separated from the inedible and unwanted parts. Then the grains were toasted. Afterwards, the grains were very finely ground, and sifted through thirteen strainers. From whatever was left, one tenth of an ephah (about 14 cups) was used for the Omer Offering.

The next morning, the sixteenth of Nissan, the second day of Passover, they made the final preparations of the Omer Offering. The ephah of ground barley was mixed with one lug (about two cups) of olive oil. A handful of frankincense was added to it.

A kohen (priest) would take the Omer Offering and go to the eastern side of the Holy Incense Altar which was inside the Holy Temple Sanctuary. He would face the south-western corner of the Altar, and wave the grain towards that corner, bring it back to himself, lift it up, and bring it down. This was a prayer that Hashem send rain and dew in their proper times, so that all the harvests should be good.

Do not think of it as «sympathetic magic,» G-d forbid. If that was the intention, it would completely invalidate the Offering. It was done as a prayer, and that was its entire purpose.

Then the Musaf (additional) animal sacrifice was brought, as it was every day of every Jewish Holiday (though the Musaf for each Holiday was different than that of any other Musaf).

Then the kohen took off one handful of grain from the Omer Offering, and put it on the fire that was in the middle of the Incense Altar. The rest of the grain was distributed amongst the kohanim (priests), who ate it.

Until this enture process was done, from cutting the barley to sacrificing it, it was forbidden to eat any new grain. This was seldom a problem, because it was customary to stockpile all grains from year to year, and sometimes longer. So they usually had last year’s grain to eat anyway.

Therefore, when any new grain grew, and was harvested before Passover, it could not be eaten until the Omer Offering was brought. This is one of the 613 Commandments in the Torah. However, once the Omer was brought, it became permitted to eat all grain.

Even today, when there is no Omer Sacrifice brought, food made from new grain grown in Israel is not permitted until the second day of Passover. There is some difference of opinion as to whether that also applies to grain that was grown outside of Israel. According to that opinion, this would forbid any products containing grain that was harvested in the winter, a few months before Passover. Most people outside of Israel, however, follow the Rabbinical opinions that permit new grain outside of Israel.

For those who have the custom to observe the more stringent opinion, some companies now use only the older grain. Those companies that know Hebrew mark products made from the older grain with the word «Yoshon,» which means that the grain is from an earlier harvest, and is therefore permitted.

If you live outside of Israel, you should not assume that you have to accept upon yourself this stringency. As always, ask your local Orthodox Rabbi.

The Torah connects the Commandment of bringing the Omer with the Commandment of counting from Passover to Shavuos. To read about this, continue on to the next article in this series, The Counting of the Omer.

Baking The Passover Matzah

Preparing for Passover can be a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of work. The most interesting part is the baking of the Matzoh.

In the Hasidic group in which I mingle, we bake our own Matzoh. This is not unusual among the Orthodox. One reason that we bake the matzos ourselves is because it is always better to have personal involvement in a mitzvah. The Torah commands us to eat matzos on the two nights of Passover, and everything done in preparation for that is part of the mitzvah. The participation in a mitzvah both ennobles the person, and raises the level of the observance of the mitzvah itself.

About thirty or so people form an association, and rent out the bakery for four hours. There’s a job for everyone, and each association is planned exactly to fill the needed jobs. In the better associations, each participant gets about four to five pounds of matzoh per person.

It is necessary to understand that in addition to the Mitzvah of eating matzoh on the two nights of Passover, the Torah also forbids us to eat (or even have in our possession) chometz, leaven, or anything that has come into contact with leaven. So, everything we use for Passover must be free of leaven and bread. Of course, the very matzoh we eat must be made with the utmost care not to rise and become chometz. When we bake matzos, that is our primary concern.

If unbaked flour and water remain together for a period of 18 minutes, they automatically begin to leaven and rise. There are ways to slow down the process, and there are factors that can speed up the process. Therefore, we take great care not to allow the process of leavening to speed up.

All utensils used for the creation and baking of matzoh must be utterly clean, and most
especially free of any taint of flour, water, or dough.

First, paper is laid out over the tables where workers will be rolling the dough. Each worker receives a clean rolling pin. Meanwhile, a kneading bowl is prepared. The person in charge of that job washes the kneading bowl, then checks it to make sure there is no visible speck of dough in it. Even one speck of leavened dough can leaven an entire bowl of unleavened dough.

He dries it, checking again, this time to make sure it is dry. He places the bowl on the
pedestal, the kneader calls for flour, and the flour is poured, in exact measurement. This flour has been guarded from liquid since the wheat was harvested.

Water is carefully poured into this flour. The water is water from a well, left overnight to
cool to room temperature. The water is poured carefully so as not to raise flour dust that might float around and attach itself to an unwanted place, perhaps later coming into contact with water and creating leaven where and when we don’t want it.

The kneader begins to mix the flour and dough.

A good kneader takes about 30 seconds to prepare a batch of dough. (The best kneaders can do it in 20 seconds.) The batch is rushed to the main table, where it is divided and dealt out to the rollers, who roll their pieces into matzohs.

Meanwhile, another bowl is brought to the kneader, and the process starts again, even while the rollers are still rolling out the first dough.

The flat pieces of dough, which has been rolled into matzoh shapes, are next perforated so there can be no air bubbles trapped inside to puff up the matzoh. Next they are placed in the oven, where, due to the extreme heat, they are fully baked about 2O seconds later.

The oven is a specially constructed brick or stone oven, used only for the baking of matzoh. It has been stoked and heated all night, to attain a heat that can almost instantly bake anything. (When I visited a reconstructed colonial town a few years ago, I found I knew more about how to use the ancient stone oven than the tour guide did. I have personal experience with one; she did not.)

This whole process, from the placing of water to the removal of a finished matzoh from the oven, takes about 3 minutes.

Leavening, under optimum conditions, takes about 18 minutes, so conditions are kept as preventive as possible. Every 18 minutes all utensils are changed, and all hands are washed. The rolling pins are exchanged for clean ones, usually cleaned by sanding with sandpaper.

After the matzos are taken out of the oven, they are checked through for possible problems, like trapped air bubbles, or folds of dough in which there might be unbaked flour. Of course, we take off «challah,» which the Torah commands us to remove from everything we bake and give to a kohen (Jewish priest of the Levite Tribe) who is ritually prepared. Unfortunately, it is impossible to have that ritual state today (see my article about rebuilding the Holy Temple), so we have to burn those small pieces of matzoh that have been separated and removed from the batch.

Afterwards, the matzos are weighed, and carefully wrapped (or boxed, when this is
requested), and stored in a side room until they are divided among the workers.

Throughout the work, the mood is generally jovial, without our losing sight of the importance of the work. Often one of the guys will spontaneously break into song, and we’ll all join him in one of those rollicking, delightfully syncopated tunes that Hassidim are famous for.

Interestingly enough, one of the hardest positions to fill is the position of cleaning the
kneading bowls — not because no one wants to do it, but because not everyone can be trusted to do it properly. Anyone with a half hour of practice can roll out dough, but you can’t train an eye to be efficient, or a person to be reliable and scrupulous. The same goes for the guys who clean the rolling pins.

Sometimes, what seems to be most menial of tasks is also the most responsible.

Regarding Matzah

We eat matzah on Passover night to fulfill God’s Commandment to us to eat matzah during the Passover Seder. The Egyptians fed the Children of Israel (and probably all slaves) matzah, because it takes longer to digest, and they could therefore feed them less often.

Furthermore, when God took us out of Egypt, He wished to teach us that He keeps His promises promptly, and therefore rushed us out of Egypt, without even giving us time to let our dough rise. We are therefore commanded to eat matzah on Passover night and forbidden to eat leavened bread (chometz) throughout the eight days of Passover.

The best matzah to use is the guarded matzah made by hand. Immediately upon being harvested, the grain is guarded from moisture so that it does not become leavened. The grains are guarded from moisture at all times—even after it becomes flour—until it is finally matzah.

These matzos are unlike the matzos you will find anywhere else, or anytime else. They are special Passover matzos, and they are called «shmuro matzos,» guarded matzos. They look and taste unlike any other matzos. They are not usually baked square, but round. (Though they sometimes make them square, too.)

It was the custom among many Gentiles in the ancient world to bake into their bread or matzos a sign of their religious beliefs. Many baked their bread in the shape of the idol they worshiped. One common custom was to indicate the number of idols they worshiped, by creating an equal number of corners on their matzah.

Because the Creator of the universe is eternal, Jews often made round matzos, since a circle has no beginning and no end.

For those who cannot eat wheat, shmuro matzos are also available in oat and spelt.

Amounts: How Much?

The Torah requires that when one fulfills a Commandment one must fulfill it to a significant degree. It is not sufficient, for example, to merely sip the wine. One must drink a significant amount. The Torah has therefore mandated minimum amounts for all commandments.

Each wine cup for the Four Cups must hold a minimum of four and a half ounces. A sick person may be more lenient and use a cup as small as three ounces.

When drinking the Four Cups, one must drink a «majority» of the wine, i.e., more than half the wine that is in the cup.

When eating Matzah and Koraich, one must eat an amount that covers an area of at least seven by six-and-a-half inches.

If one uses romaine lettuce for the Bitter Herbs and Koraich, one must eat an amount that covers an area of at least eight by ten inches. That usually necessitates eating two or three leaves.

The Four Cups of Wine

As I mentioned in the brief History of the Exodus, G-d spoke to Moses and told him of the impending Exodus. G-d said to Moses:

Therefore tell the Children of Israel that I am G-d, and I will take you away from the
oppression of Egypt, I will free you from their slavery, and I will liberate you with an outstretched arm (i.e. a demonstration of My power) and great judgments. I will claim you for me as a people, and I will be your G-d. You will know that I am Hashem your G-d who is bringing you out of the oppression of Egypt. I will bring you to the land I have sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you as an inheritance. I am G-d.

— Exodus 6:6-8

Five expressions of redemption are used here. These expressions correspond to the promises that G-d made to Abraham at the Covenant Between the Parts. G-d told Abraham that his descendants would be 1) aliens, 2) enslaved, 3) oppressed, 4) rescued to become the Chosen People, and 5) given the Land of Israel permanently.

The first act of Redemption that G-d did for us in Egypt was to stop the oppression. Therefore, the First Cup commemorates «I will take you away from the oppression.»

The second act of Redemption that G-d did for us in Egypt was to end the slavery. Therefore, the Second Cup commemorates «I will free you from their slavery.»

The third act of Redemption that G-d did for us in Egypt was to rescue us from Egypt with many miracles. Therefore, the Third Cup commemorates «I will liberate you with an outstretched arm.»

The fourth act of Redemption that G-d did for us was to bring us to Mount Sinai, give us the Holy Torah, and thus declare us his Chosen People. Therefore, the Fourth Cup commemorates «I will claim you for me as a people, and I will be your G-d.»

The fifth act of Redemption was to bring us to the Land of Israel. Unfortunately, that was not expected to be permanent, and indeed has not been. Even now, when many Jews live in Israel, it is not the kingdom that G-d has promised us. When the Messiah comes, we will institute the drinking of the Fifth Cup, to commemorate «And I will bring them to the land.»

We pray daily that the Messiah arrives soon. Thus many people, near the end of the Seder, have the custom to fill one extra cup, and place it somewhere prominent on the table. This symbolizes our hope that we will soon be permitted to drink a Fifth Cup.

The Prophet Malachi tells us that G-d will send us the Prophet Elijah before the Final
Redemption, to prepare us (Malachi 3:23). For this reason we call this cup of hopefulness the «Cup of Elijah.»

Simply drinking four cups of wine is not permissible. One cannot fulfill the requirement in that manner. One must drink the Four Cups at the appropriate times, interspersed between the various sections of the Seder.

Lighting the Candles

If the Seder is to take place on a Friday night, then the candles must be lit before sunset. All other nights the candles should be lit when you start the Seder, and only from a flame that was lit before the Holiday started.

It is customary that the woman of the household light the candles, but any adult may do it. Take a lit match or candle in your hand, and just before lighting the candles, say the following blessings:

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments, and commanded us to light the (Sabbath and) Holiday light.

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Light the candles. Do not blow out the match. Put it down in a safe place, and let it burn out by itself.

May it be Your will Hashem my G-d and G-d of my forefathers that You show favor to me (my husband, my son(s) and daughter(s), my father and mother), and all my relatives; that You grant us and all Israel a good and long life; that You remember us with a remembrance that will grant us good and blessings; that You consider us with a consideration that will grant us salvation and mercy; that You bless us with great blessings; that You make our homes complete; and that You cause Your Presence to dwell among us.

Make me worthy of the privilege and grant me the merit to raise children and grandchildren who are wise and understanding, who love Hashem, and fear Hashem; may they be people of truth, holy offspring, devoutly faithful to Hashem, and may they illuminate the world with Torah and good deeds and with every type of activity that serves the Creator.

Please, listen to my request at this favorable time, in the merit of our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. And illuminate our lights so that they never get extinguished. Shine your «Face» upon us with joy and we will be saved, Amen.

When the First Day of Passover is on Sunday

There are numerous things that we must do on the day before Passover that we are not allowed to do on the Sabbath.

So what happens when the day before Passover is on the Sabbath?

The Bedikas Chometz — checking for the leavened bread and similar products, is done on Thursday night. It cannot be done on Friday night for a number of reasons. One of them is because we need to check the house for chometz using a lit candle. It is forbidden to move fire (or even an unlit candle) during the Sabbath. So instead of doing it the night before Passover, which is Friday night, we do it Thursday night, one night earlier. The procedure is exactly the same in all other respects.

The next morning, Friday morning, we burn the chometz. During the Sabbath it is forbidden to set a fire or to add anything to a fire, or to burn anything in a fire (or to extinguish a fire). When the day before Passover is on the Sabbath we could not possibly burn the chometz that day, as we would normally do. So instead, we do it Friday morning, two days before Passover.

However, at that time, we do not recite the Kol Chamira — the declaration of abandoning all chometz. We recite that on the Sabbath morning, after we have eaten our last bit of chometz.

For the Sabbath, we do not make anything that we could not keep in the house during Passover.Therefore, all Shabbos food should be free of chometz, and should be made in pots and pans that can be used during Passover. Ashkenazim, who may not eat kitniyos (legumes, peas, corn, soy, rice, string beans, mustard, beans, sesame or products containing any of these), may not cook them in Passover pots either. This means that if you usually make a Shabbos cholent with beans, it is best not to do so for that Shabbos.

In short, before the Sabbath, we cook a Passover meal in the Passover pots.

It is forbidden to at matzah on the day before Passover, so we must use challah during this Sabbath. However, we cannot leave any challah or challah crumbs in the house during Passover, so we must be very careful to eat
every last bit of the challah.

What is generally done is as follows:

Before the Sabbath, we buy very small challah rolls. Make sure to put them far away from anything to be used for Passover. And be sure to put them in a place where children or animals can’t get to them. You do not want them anywhere in the house during Passover!

On Sabbath, we are required to eat three meals: one at night, and two during the day. On this Sabbath, for each of the three Sabbath meals, we eat the challah in the hallway, or on the outside steps, or somewhere that we are allowed to carry the challah (i.e., not in another domain or property). We make sure to finish the challah entirely, leaving as few crumbs as possible. We brush ourselves off very carefully, so we do not bring any crumbs of chometzinto the house. We very carefully wash our hands and mouths in the bathroom, or anywhere that will not be near Passover food. (Toothpicks are often very helpful for this. If you want to brush your teeth, which is a good idea, you must make sure not to use toothpaste. It is forbidden to use toothpaste on the Sabbath. Mouthwash is permitted, but it won’t help against the chometz in your teeth and mouth.)

When we are sure we are as clean as we can make ourselves, we then return to the dining room, and eat the Sabbath meal using the Passover dishes. We do this process for all three meals of Shabbos.

Since it is still very difficult to ensure that we are completely free of chometz, especially in our mouths, many people use plastic dishes for the Shabbos meal. We can’t use the yearly dishes, since even before Shabbos we must put
those dishes and utensils away for Passover.

As I mentioned above, on the Sabbath we are supposed to eat three meals — one at night, and two during the day. However, it is forbidden to eat a meal in the afternoon before a Sabbath or Holiday. It is also forbidden to eat any chometz after a certain time of the day. That time of day is usually very early in the morning.

Let me discuss this a bit.

It is forbidden to eat chometz or to own chometz, or to even use chometz, past a certain time of the day on the morning before Passover. This time always takes place at a specific, calculated time, based on the length of the day in each area. In other words, it is dependent on locale.

If you travel often, you may have noticed that the daylight hours are longer in some parts of the world than in others, throughout the year.

You may have heard that at the North Pole there are six months of night and six months of day. During the summer months, there is no nighttime at all. During the winter, there is no daylight.

As you move a little more south, say to northern Greenland, or Svalbard, you begin to see a little nighttime, for periods as short as an hour in some areas. As you move more south, like in northern Norway, you get slightly longer nights. and so on, as you move south.

So, for example, on the day of August 1st, you will find some places that have no night at all, some places that have a little night, and some places that have six hours of night. At the South Pole, there is no night at all that time of year!

So, when it comes to the cutoff time for eating chometz, the time is calculated according to the individual locale. Therefore, each area has a slightly different time of day that is the cutoff time. (And no, I will not discuss at this juncture when the cutoff time is at the North Pole.)

You will have to either get a chart that lists the time in your area, or ask your Rabbi for the precise cutoff time. The time for your area might be posted in your synagogue. In New York it’s usually a little after 10:00 in the morning, most years (but it varies, so check the calendar). That should give you an idea of how early it becomes forbidden to own chometz that day.

So how do we eat the two meals on a Sabbath that is the day before a Holiday?

The answer is that the synagogues usually schedule an early prayer service, so that we can go home early and eat two meals.

There is another Jewish Law to keep in mind. After finishing one meal, and saying the Blessings After the Meal, we are required to wait at least one half hour before washing for another meal. So we must get in that first meal fairly early.

Most people wash to the first meal immediately after kiddush, after returning home. Some people wash for the challah, go through the cleaning process I mentioned above, eat one course of the meal in the dining room, and then say the blessings after the meal. We then wait one half hour.

After a half hour, we wash again, eat challah, clean up again, and eat the rest of the Sabbath meal. Some people feel this is too complicated and laborious, so they simply wash, say the Blessings After the Meal, wait half an hour, wash and eat challah again, clean themselves up, and then eat the entire Sabbath meal in the dining room.

As soon as we have finished eating our chometz, we recite the Kol Chamira, in which we abandon ownership of, association to, or desire for any chometz that may be in our house. (It is printed in most Hagadah publications.) Then we go to the dining room to eat the Sabbath meal.

We must stop eating chometz at the cutoff time. We can continue eating the Sabbath meal, but we must be finished with the chometz and have it gone by that time. This is so important, that if you have not yet had the chance to eat the Sabbath meals, you still can’t eat chometz, and therefore you may not eat your challah, once the cutoff time has passed.

This cannot be stressed enough. Not eating chometz past that time is more important than most other Jewish Laws (with the exception of saving a life, of course.)

When the day before Passover occurs on the Sabbath, it is also forbidden to move or use any chometz past the forbidden time. So it must all be gone by then.

All preparations for Passover must be completed before the Sabbath begins. All cleaning, arranging, cooking, or whatever else it may be, must be done before Shabbos. During Shabbos it is forbidden to prepare anything at all for the next day, even if the next day is a Holiday, such as Passover. Therefore, make the saltwater, boil the potatoes and the eggs, broil the shankbone, check the romaine lettuce, make the charoses, etc., whatever you need must be done before Shabbos begins.

We may not even clean our pots for Passover, so it is therefore forbidden to cook anything with chometz for Shabbos.

It is also a good idea to make sure your children get some sleep during that day, so they can stay awake for the Seder that night.

This has been rather hastily written and edited, so I hope I have not forgotten anything. Remember, if you have any questions, contact your Rabbi!