Question of the Week:
I am Ashkenazi (Jew of Eastern European descent), and my wife is Sefardi (an Oriental Jew). She grew up eating rice on Pesach, which my family custom would never allow. Every Pesach we have the same discussion: how can it be that one group of Jews can eat rice on Pesach and another group can't? Aren't we all the same religion? Isn't this an example of how the Torah can be interpreted in so many ways, and there is no one true Judaism?
Actually, when you compare the way Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews celebrate Pesach, you will be astounded not by the differences, but by the similarities. The discrepancies are so minor and external that they just prove the rule - we are one people with one Torah.
Jews are forbidden by the Torah to eat or even own leavened products on Pesach. This means any product made from the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, oats), other than Matzah, cannot be eaten or in your possession for the eight days of Passover. The Jews of Eastern Europe took on an extra stringency, and forbade rice and several other foods on Pesach. Although rice is not one of the five grains, it was often grown together with wheat, and the two could become intermingled. Also, rice can be ground into flour and then confused with wheat flour. For these reasons rice was not eaten on Pesach by European Jews.
The Jews of the Orient however did not take on this custom. Perhaps the conditions of growing and storing those products in their lands did not warrant this extra precaution. This means that the Seder menu of a Jewish family from Morocco or Yemen will vastly differ from the fare served at a table of German or Hungarian Jews. The former will eat rice, peas, beans and corn, the latter will not.
But that's just the menu. If you look at every other aspect of the Seder, they are almost identical from one community to another. To illustrate this, imagine the following mind experiment:
Take a 9th century Persian Jew, and transport him through time and space to 19th century Poland. After traversing the globe and jumping a thousand years forward, he arrives in a time and a land that are totally foreign to him. He walks the streets in a daze, completely lost and out of place.
But take him to a Seder, and he would feel completely at home. His host family may look different in colour and dress to his own, they may eat Ashkenazi foods that are unfamiliar to his Sefardi palate, but the Seder itself would be exactly the same as his family Seder back home. He would hear the children ask the same four questions that his own children ask him. He would eat the same Matzah and bitter herbs, drink the same four cups of wine, read the same prayers and biblical quotes. Even the songs, while sung to different tunes, would have the same Hebrew lyrics.
Most importantly, he would hear the exact same story, the story every Jewish family has told every year for over three thousand years, the story of our common ancestors who were slaves in Egypt until G-d set them free.
This is nothing short of amazing. Two thousand years of exile has not weakened our inner connection. Dispersal across the globe has not loosened our bonds of shared history and united destiny. With all the fragmentation and factionalism that we all complain about, we are still one people. This is felt at Pesach more than ever.
Rather than focusing on the superficial disparities between communities, look at our internal connection. We are all telling the same story. G-d took us out of Egypt to make us one nation, united by the Torah, our common history and our common goal. Some eat rice, some don't, and it matters not. We are one family, the children of Israel.