Two major holidays bookend the Jewish calendar, Pesach in the first month, Nisan, and then, six months later, Yom Kippur, in Tishrei, the seventh month. These two holidays are linked in a unique way that sheds light on our observance of each.
At the end of the nineteenth century, in Eastern Europe, the rabbi of a synagogue would deliver a major sermon just twice a year — on Shabbat Ha-Gadol (“The Great Shabbat”), just prior to Passover, and on Shabbat Shuva (The Shabbat of Return/Repentance), between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sermons, we should note, were not customary on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur; nor were they expected every Shabbat! Some could argue that those rabbis had it pretty easy. But I digress…Why were these traditionally the only two times during the year when a rabbi would deliver a sermon? The Mishna Berurah (published in 1904 Poland) explains: To instruct the people in the ways of Hashem, to teach them what to do. Meaning, the laws of kashering, burning hametz, baking matzah and the other laws of Passover. Similarly, on Shabbat Shuva, the rabbi would sermonize about the laws of Yom Kippur and Sukkot, in addition to the theme of teshuvah (repentance).
Of all of our holidays, the level of complexity to the laws Passover and the laws of Yom Kippur/Sukkot stand out. While Chanukah, Purim, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and other holidays certainly have laws and traditions, these two holidays (really, three, if Sukkot is counted separately) need annual reviews. Communities counted on their rabbis to review these practices annually. Remember, general literacy was not what it is today; nor was there easy access to print-ed materials. It was only in the 20th Century, in fact, that publications like the First Jewish Catalog (1973) empowered individuals to “own” and adapt their Jewish practices. And, of course, the internet age has brought us wonderful websites like myjewishlearning.com, allowing people to take learning into their own hands.
Though Yom Kippur and Pesach are similar in that they have complex practices, there are major differences, of course. Passover is physical – we remove specific objects; it happens externally, in our kitchens and our pantries. By contrast, Yom Kippur, in addition to the prohibitions such as fasting, is practiced internally, an accounting of our souls.
Perhaps this can help explain why we go through so much effort to prepare for Passover. Both holidays are really trying to achieve the same goal, albeit through different means. Passover is for kinesthetic learners; it teaches through action. Yom Kippur is for visual learners; we read and contemplate. Both holidays, however, seek to effect a mini-transformation in ourselves, through a deeper connection to God and to holiness.
In the coming weeks, as we prepare menus and make shopping lists, remove and sell Chametz from our homes [See and return the insert page] and prepare our kitchens, let’s keep in mind the higher purpose behind these actions. No less important than Yom Kippur is our engagement in the detailed preparation for a kosher Passover. Chag Sameach!!