Passover Message 2013

Passover 2013 - Rabbi Jason Miller

As we celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover this year, we will ask several questions. One question I encourage all of us to ask — no matter our religion, age or current location on this earth — is how we plan to make this year different from past years?

The tradition of the Passover seder is to recite the same story of our ancestors in the desert that has been told throughout the generations, but each generation must tell the story differently. Indeed, each year we must tell the story a little differently to make it relevant to our lives and to our children’s lives. I pray that we each have the opportunity to claim that which enslaves us and to find the courage within ourselves to fight for our freedom and be a part of the positive change so desperately needed in our world.

Wishing everyone a very happy and healthy Passover.

Rabbi Jason Miller

Haggadah Feeling – Some Fresh Haggadot for Passover

I began collecting different versions of the haggadah, the Passover seder’s playbook-script-manual, when I was in college. It all started by ordering a new one each year in anticipation of the holiday and somehow my collection now exceeds 100 and has demanded its own bookcase. This pales in comparison with the vast haggadah collection of Irwin Alterman of blessed memory, a brilliant community leader in Detroit who passed away earlier this month and had an exquisite library of some 1,500 haggadahs. His son, a childhood friend, tells me that plans are underway to allow the public to admire his collection soon.

For many Jewish families the version of the haggadah is as much a family tradition as the food served during the seder meal. Just ask many Jewish Americans and they’ll tell you about their deep connection to the Maxwell House Haggadah from childhood seders.

The 21st century, however, has seen a seismic shift from the rather bland (and free) Maxwell House Haggadah to more creative versions. And that transition has also afforded many Jewish families some poetic liberties with the seder script. The more traditional families have always tended toward the keva (Hebrew for rote or routine), while more progressive families allowed for more kavvanah (that unscripted spontaneity)  while telling the Passover story. Truthfully, the seder was always intended to be a symposium or talk-feast with an ample mix of both keva and kavvanah. A famous rabbi quoted in the haggadah believes one must only mention the paschal lamb, matzah and bitter herb to fulfill the obligation of the seder. The rest as they say is commentary.

So when a family is ready to make the move to a new haggadah, what should they look for? It’s important to remember that adopting a new hagaddah can be a costly investment at first. While the Maxwell House Haggadah came compliments of the coffee corporation, today’s options can cost around $20 each which adds up when all twenty-five guests require a copy. The haggadah will be reused year after year (with an increasing amount of wine stains and matzah crumbs) and that’s why it’s important to choose the right one at first.

My two favorites in my collection are the (Arthur) Szyk Haggadah and the (David) Moss Haggadah, but these works of art are more suited to be displayed on the coffee table than used at the seder table. So I’m going to recommend a few options that your family might consider adopting for annual use at the seder.

WELLSPRINGS OF FREEDOM: THE RENEW OUR DAYS HAGGADAH
(wellspringshaggadah.com)
This haggadah was edited and published by Rabbi Ron Aigen, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Montreal who has also edited a siddur and a machzor (high holiday prayerbook). This haggadah draws on several modern scholars to provide the commentary of the familiar tale of freedom from slavery. It contains more of the biblical narrative than other haggadahs and uses a “split screen” format meaning the page is divided between the spoken story-line of the seder and the personal, inner journey found in the commentaries. This haggadah, with colorful artwork every dozen or so pages, encourages the leader to be creative and engaging.

JONATHAN SACKS HAGGADA
(www.korenpub.com)
Maggid, a division of Koren Publishers in Jerusalem, offers a haggadah with two texts in one. The traditional text is joined by a collection of thought-provoking essays by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. The newly revised edition, recently released, includes a new translation and layout. The essays are scholarly, yet eloquent. Sacks addresses the relationship between Passover, Jewish identity, and Jewish history, as well as the role of Passover in Western political imagination and offers new interpretations of the traditional haggadah text.

MY HAGGADAH: MADE IT MYSELF
(madeitmyselfbooks.com)
The Passover seder is unique in that it is a serious discussion around the dinner table that is meant to include both adults and children. But that can also post challenges when the children are very young. Francine Hermelin Levite created her own very kid-friendly haggadah several years ago to keep the little ones enthused. Now, with help from Reboot.com she has made it available for purchase. Packed with nearly 40 pages of engaging, open-ended questions and drawing prompts to do before, during, or after the seder, this haggadah creates lively Passover conversations around the table. Children are able to personalize the traditional story through their own pictures and art (it comes with stickers). The simple, creative haggadah is built around the 15 steps of the seder and, while it is an out-of-the-box publication, it still includes the basic blessings, songs and stories. The essence of the seder is to ask questions and drum up discussion. Hermelin Levite’s haggadah helps that process along (and with little kids there isn’t much time to waste before the eating begins).

BRONFMAN HAGGADAH
(bronfmanhaggadah.com)
The well-known Jewish philanthropist and international communal leader Edgar M. Bronfman has joined with his wife, artist Jan Aronson, to produce a radical reimagining of the Passover text. The inspirational readings that Bronfman included span from Frederick Douglas to Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Marge Piercy. The underlying message of the Bronfman Haggadah is that we all possess the capacity for peace and understanding. The watercolor paintings are stunning and are sure to evoke discussion. It’s evident that Bronfman spent a great deal of time putting his version of the haggadah together and it’s sure to become a popular fixture on seder tables this Passover. It’s been described as an “engaging and interactive contemporary account of Passover, which will foster meaningful and constructive dialogue between Jews and non-Jews alike.”

HAGGADOT.COM
If you don’t like anything you see in already published haggadahs, there’s a website that allows you to become the creator and publish your own. As the introduction on haggadot.com states, “Passover is about freedom. But when it comes to the seder, many of us are lost. This website is a resource for Jews of all backgrounds to make the Haggadah that finally feels meaningful for a contemporary seder, with unique perspectives gathered from individuals worldwide.” With an array of classical texts and contemporary interpretations, this website allows the user to create a more personalized version with original writings and artwork. The creators invite users to mix and match content from other users as well as previously published haggadot so that one family’s haggadah may include selections from a 16th century haggadah interspersed with feminist and social justice readings or poetry. The final step is a PDF copy that can be reproduced for seder guests. Wine stains? Just print a new copy. Of course, as the children get older an amended, more comprehensive version can be created and used.

There’s no shortage of haggadahs on the market. Each denomination of modern Judaism has published its own version. And as more haggadahs are available each year more families are reconsidering how they present their seder, the most practiced Jewish ritual today. It’s encouraging to see this change in culture from a rote Maxwell House seder to an embrace of creativity and creating the opportunity for multi-generational dialogue. After all, that’s the whole point of the Passover seder.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Maccabeats Channel Les Mis for Passover

I don’t usually include Passover videos on this blog because, well, there usually aren’t any worthy of watching. Until this Pesach that is!

The Maccabeats, Yeshiva University’s acclaimed a capella group, do a wonderful job using the songs of Les Miserables to tell the Passover story. This video has much more acting than their previous Jewish holiday fare and the college boys do a nice job with it. No doubt this Pesach parody video will hit the million view mark on YouTube just as the Maccabeats’ previous creations did.

Enjoy and Chag Sameach!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Fun Passover Activities for the Seder and Beyond

Passover, which begins on March 25, is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. Each year during the Passover seder, Jewish people attempt to integrate the old traditions of the holiday with innovations. Mostly, these innovations are meant to keep the children (and many of the adults too!) alert and engaged during the seder.

Innovations in the Haggadah are certainly valuable for keeping things fresh at the seder while still sticking to the centuries-old script. However, for young children it can be a frustrating and kvetchy experience as they watch each adult at the table take a turn reading the midrashic commentary of our ancestors’ exodus from Egyptian slavery — no matter how lovely the artwork is in the newly published Haggadah.

Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, on the ReformJudaism.org website, writes that the “most important thing in leading a Passover seder is feeling that you have the freedom (pun intended) to be as creative as possible.” These days many families — especially those with young children — are scrapping the traditional seder symposium and opting for fun activities that keep everyone participating. Some families I spoke with pitch tents in their living room and tell the Passover story while pretending to be the Israelites camped out in the desert.

In the weeks leading up to Passover, which arrives quite early this year, I had the opportunity to review a few games and activities that I plan to use to keep my kids having fun at the seder this year. Some of them I’ve been using for years and others I’ve only discovered this year.


PASSOVER BINGOTamara Pester, a Denver lawyer, sent me this game back in January and my kids started playing it right away. They enjoy playing Bingo and I was thrilled to see them using Bingo cards with some educational value rather than a bunch of numbers. Pester came up with the idea for Passover Bingo when she saw her niece and nephew getting restless during the family seder. “Instead of drudging through the Hagaddah, wondering when it’s time to eat,” she explains, “people will be motivated to follow along with the story of Exodus. Guests at your traditional Seder will be participating and paying rapt attention to the pages, thanks to this easy-to-play game.”

The game retails for $24.99 and features six colorful game boards with Passover keywords such as Egypt and Elijah. The game also includes 96 foam markers, and is recommended for children ages three and up. To help fund the project, Pester turned to Jewcer.com, which offers crowd-sourced funding for Jewish projects. “Actually, the Jewcer people contacted me because they’d never done a promotion with a product before,” she said. The Jewcer site waived fees and helped Pester raise nearly $3,000 for the game. Pester’s sold over 150 of the games through Jewcer, the Passover Bingo website, and several synagogue gift stores.

PLAGUES BAGS
I first discovered the Plagues Bags back in the late 1990s when I saw an ad for them in Moment Magazine. I ordered one and began to use it at my family’s seder which I started leading after my grandfather passed away in 1994. It became a custom at our seder for my young cousins Jeff and Ben to put on the hand puppets of Moses and Pharaoh respectively and act out the dialogue between the two. The two cousins are now in their mid-20s and, while their hands no longer fit in the plastic puppets, they’re good sports and still play along.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein thought so highly of the Plagues Bags that he decided his synagogue would take over the sale of them each year. In 2001 my wife and I moved to Caldwell, New Jersey where I served an internship at Congregation Agudath Israel with Rabbi Silverstein. He put my wife in charge of the Plagues Bags and that year she reported to me that they had sold several thousand in the week before Passover.

What’s so great about the Plagues Bags? They encourage the seder participants to have fun during what could otherwise be a very tense time during the seder. The horrible plagues God brought upon the Egyptians, including the death of the firstborn children, can be difficult to explain to children. It’s also getting close to the festive meal and everyone is hungry at this point in the seder. The “toys” inside the Plagues Bags help the seder leader keep everyone’s attention and bring some levity to the “talk-feast”.

JEWISH HOLIDAYS IN A BOX
At JewishHolidaysInABox.com, they’ve completed a new guide called “Celebrate Passover: How to Plan a Fun, Simple Seder”. This creative guide helps families who are novices when it comes to the Pesach seder or want to make their standard seder more engaging and fun. Their The 3-part downloadable package comes with a 36-page PDF + 2 audio tutorials and is available on the Jewish Holidays in a Box website.

RESOURCES FOR INNOVATIVE AND FUN SEDERS
Two books I recommend to help seder leaders enliven the seder each year are David Arnow’s “Creating Lively Passover Seders” and Ron Wolfson’s “The Passover Seder: The Art of Jewish Living”. Danielle Dardashti and Roni Sarig also have a great chapter with some fun Passover seder projects for children in their book “The Jewish Family Fun Book”. All three books are published by Jewish Lights Publishers. This year the Foundation for Jewish Camp has published an activity book for the seder to promote its “One Happy Camper” program. The activity book includes games, Madlibs, and even Capture the Flag using the afikomen.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s “Camp Passover” activity book for the seder

SKITS
Many families perform skits during their seder, which is a great way to observe the commandment that we should all act as though we were actually part of the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Behrman House, a wonderful educational publishing house, has a couple scripts on their website. “Seder Time” is a skit by Stan Beiner, a well known Jewish educator who created Sedra Scenes. Meredith Shaw Patera’s “The Courage of Nachshon” is another good skit available on the Behrman House Passover activity website. Aish Hatorah lists ways for participants to act out the ten plagues on their website.

On Facebook and Twitter I asked people to share some of the innovative activities they have adopted at the seder to keep the children participating and the adults from dozing off. Here are some of my favorites:

Rabbi Michael S. Jay: We’ve had children prepare commercials for Matzah or other symbols of the Seder.

Rabbi David Locketz: I find out what songs all the kid who are coming have learned at school and then incorporate them into magid. Give out parts in advance and we act it out in song and brief dialogues.

David Kaufman: We had all the kids bring knapsacks filled with the items they would want to make sure they brought out of Egypt. Then, when we begin Maggid, we all get up from the table, they take their knapsacks, and we make an “exodus” into the living room. There, we start doing Maggid, and the kids also show us what they would bring and explain why.

Prof. Michael Satlow: I had the kids do a play of the Exodus from the Egyptian perspective. It really taught me something and opened discussion.

Jennifer Levin Teper: I make oragami frogs and use them as placecards. Then everyone, can “jump” them during the seder. Our favorite is trying to get it to land in your water glass.

Melanie Dunkelman Hartong: I found silly masks of the plagues at my local Kroger- kids thought it was hysterical!!

Lynn Davis: We throw plagues (tiny plastic animals, etc.) but I realize that a rowdy seder isn’t for everyone!

Rabbi Judah Isaacs: My sister buys a Pesach puzzle and gives out the pieces for answers to questions. She has the kids put the puzzle together during the Seder.

Shawn Broida: When our kids were little and we knew we couldn’t get 6 cousins under age 8 to sit through a seder, we decided to do a bedouin seder on the floor and let them roam! Aside from a few almost disasters with the seder plate getting kicked across the room, it was more relaxing for everyone and the kids had a ball!

I wish everyone a Chag Sameach… may your seders be educational, innovative, and memorable!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Early Hanukkah in 2013: Jewish Calendar Fun

Whenever I’m asked if the Jewish holidays are coming early or late this year, I promptly answer that they’ll be coming on time. And that’s partially true. Rosh Hashanah will always arrive on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei just as Hanukkah will always begin on the 25th of Kislev. But the Jewish holidays will be coming early this year and already people are realizing that the first night of Hanukkah 2013 takes place on Wednesday, November 27, 2013, which will actually be the night before Thanksgiving. And that’s unusual.

The Jewish Calendar

The Jewish calendar situation this year is unique. In fact, it has not occurred since 1899 and will only occur once more. Ever. And that won’t be until the year 2089.

The Jewish holidays must occur in their appointed season according to the Torah. To ensure this, there is a leap year that adds an extra month (Adar II) to the Jewish calendar to adjust for the differential between the Jewish calendar’s lunar cycle and the Gregorian (secular) calendar’s 365 day solar cycle. This year, we will see the earliest that Jewish holidays can fall beginning with Purim on Feb 24, 2013 (a Jewish holiday that usually occurs in March). Later on this year, just as students are returning to school following Labor Day we will observe Rosh Hashanah starting on the evening of September 4. We’ll also celebrate the majority of the festival of Sukkot before the Fall equinox even takes place even though Sukkot is an autumnal holiday (the law states this is acceptable so long as the final day of the holiday, Hoshanah Rabbah, occurs after the Fall equinox). Of course, what most people are talking about is the idea of lighting the first candle of Hanukkah the day before we put the Thanksgiving turkeys in the oven.

I find this whole thing fascinating. Especially as this might be the only time in my life that I see the holidays falling this extremely early. I’ve always been intrigued with the Jewish calendar. My first real introduction to the intricacies of the “luach hashanah” was in 1996 when Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer was serving as an interim rabbi in Metro Detroit. In his small office at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan he had dozens of instant lessons posted to the wall. As a seasoned interim rabbi these instant lessons came in handy.

Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer

When I went to Rabbi Tutnauer’s office one day ready to learn whatever he would teach me, he suggested we study the Jewish calendar. His lesson included the four different new years in the Jewish tradition as spelled out in the mishna as well as the way the calendar was fixed so that festivals like Passover occurred only in their appointed season. He also taught me the helpful mnemonic of lo adu rosh, which reminds us that Rosh Hashanah can never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. The reason the calendar is fixed that way is so that Yom Kippur can never be on a Friday, Sunday or Tuesday. (A full-day fast that close to Shabbat would be too big of a challenge and if Yom Kippur fell on a Tuesday, then Hoshanah Rabbah would be on Shabbat, and we could not beat the willow branches.) Rabbi Tutnauer’s lesson proved helpful a few years later when I found myself already versed in the logistical ins and outs of the Jewish calendar when studying Tractate Rosh Hashanah in a Talmud class in rabbinical school.

Several years ago David Letterman quipped in a Late Show monologue, “Happy Rosh Hashanah, it’s the Jewish new year and the year is 5768. I, uh, it’s funny I’m still writing 5767 on my checks.” Well, unlike Dave, most of us use the Gregorian calendar in our everyday lives, but as Jews we must be attuned to the Jewish calendar as well. It is the rhythm of our Jewish lives. Perhaps this year’s anomaly in the Jewish calendar will cause people to learn more about the lunar calendar that governs the Jewish year.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Clint Eastwood Talks to Obama’s Empty Chair

Watching Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Committee convention last night I just knew it would turn into a meme and a Twitter frenzy. And it did.

Clint Eastwood performing an old comedic routine of talking to an empty chair made international news immediately. Some called it funny, while others thought it was disrespectful to the sitting President of the United States. Most people thought the shtick made Eastwood look a bit crazy.

This morning I tweeted the following joke: “Flipping through channels last night & watched few mins of Gran Torino. Confused. Don’t remember scene where Clint Eastwood talks to chair.” That tweet immediately got this funny response from Twitter user ‏@skii_bum1985: “@RabbiJason I learned something important the other night: Don’t invite Clint Eastwood to a Seder, he might yell at the empty chair.”

That would turn out to be the first of many connections made between the imaginary seat of Barack Obama to the empty seat of Elijah. My colleague and friend Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz submitted a wonderful post to the PopJewish.com blog that compares Obama’s empty seat with Elijah’s at every bris. She writes:

Elijah’s Chair was the original empty chair. It shows up at a Bris (circumcision) in particular, but there are other community occasions when the idea of an empty chair – an extra seat that indicates openness to receiving an unexpected visitor or guest – is commonly referred to as ‘Elijah’s chair’. On Passover, we also have the tradition of ‘Elijah’s Cup’. The story behind this tradition is that there were certain questions that the Sages of the Talmud were unsure how to answer, specifically with regard to how they designed the Passover Seder ritual, but on other occasions as well. Elijah, who is held in Jewish tradition to return to announce the arrival of the Messiah, would be able to resolve our unanswered questions when he did so.

Of course a meme has been started based on Clint Eastwood’s performance last night. I thought this one was pretty funny:

I created my own contributions to the meme using Photoshop. Here is Clint Eastwood at Barack Obama’s bar mitzvah as he hoists him up in the chair during the Hora dance:

 And here’s the imagined conversation if President Obama were actually sitting in the chair:

As Rabbi Gurevitz notes, the idea of an “Elijah chair” for Obama isn’t such a stretch. Tablet, an online journal, related a few months ago that some of Obama’s donors use the term “Elijah’s Chair” to refer to the empty chair left at the tables of certain major donors just in case the President comes by to sit and shmooze.

Well, at least Clint Eastwood brought some fun to what are usually pretty dull conventions.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Beginning today I’m including a Monday Morning Caption Contest on this blog.

To participate leave your suggested caption in the comments section below:

Photo Credit: Lichterman Family

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Counting the Omer in the Digital Age

Today is the 13th day of the Omer, the period of forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot.

The Jewish people are commanded to count these forty-nine days which commemorate the day on which an omer (unit of measurement) of barley was offered in the Temple until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple on the festival Shavuot. We begin this counting on the second day of Passover and each night announce what day of the Omer it is.

Omer counting devices and special Omer calendars have long been relied upon to help individuals remember the correct count, but in the Digital Age there are websites and apps and text message reminders to help keep the counting correct.

There are also some fun tools to help us count the Omer. For the past 13 years the Homer Calendar has been a fun destination on the Web for Jewish Omer counters who are also fans of The Simpsons. The website, which has had about 225,000 visits, cites Howard Cooper with the idea of an Omer calendar that pays homage to The Simpsons and Homer Simpson, the patriarchal head of the cartoon family. In addition to providing an easy-to-use omer calendar, the site is also a resource for Simpsons fans who want to learn more about the many Jewish references on the show. Brian Rosman, the Homer Calendar’s administrator, also tweets the daily Omer count @CountTheHomer on Twitter.

An introduction to the website explains that it is now in its 13th year, which it calls its “Bart Mitzvah”. The site also mentions that, “When we started, we got a ‘cease and desist’ order from Fox, claiming a copyright violation. Interestingly, the letter was dated on Shavuot. We wrote back, claiming a ‘fair use,’ and haven’t heard anything since.”

Seth and Isaac Galena over at Bangitout.com have come up with two fun ways to count the Omer. With a nod to pop culture, the brothers have created the Movie Lover’s Omer Counter and the Sports Lover’s Omer Counter. The movie counter uses movies with numbers in their titles to remind users which day of the count it is, while the sports counter relies on athlete’s uniform numbers. Perhaps next year they’ll create an omer counter for NASCAR fans with car digits.

There are several mobile apps that help remind users to count the Omer and provide the correct day of the counting. Rusty Brick first released its Counting the Omer app (Free) back in 2009 and it is still an industry leader. The app provides an Omer calendar and includes the blessings and spiritual information pertaining to each day of the period. The free version of the app does not provide a daily reminder to count, but the 99-cent version does. Moshe Berman’s Ultimate Omer 2 ($2.99) not only reminds you to count the Omer, but it also lets you keep track of the days you remembered to count. The app also plays the phone’s default alarm sound to remind you to count.

Mosaica Press released a new app ($4.99) that is based on Rabbi Yaakov Haber’s Spiritual Grow book. The app, which is available in iPhone and iPad formats, helps count the Omer and also provides daily insights with a Kabbalistic flavor. An example of the Jewish spiritual wisdom the app provides is: “Day 10: Make sure that today you not only give people the benefit of the doubt, but even when it seems that they are definitely in the wrong, try to find some way of justifying their actions. Try to see their point of view…Find two things in your life that conflict and make them harmonize.” Some of the app’s features include the proper blessing to recite before counting each night, automatic adjustment for time zone and location, and social network integration to share on Facebook and Twitter.

In addition to the mobile apps, there are other ways that technology is playing a part in the Counting of the Omer. Josh Fleet, one of the editors of the Huffington Post’s religion vertical, came up with the idea of offering a liveblog on the HuffPost Religion site during the Omer period this year. The Omer Liveblog features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection during the Omer.

Rabbi Heather Altman turned to Google Docs to help assemble other rabbis who would contribute their wisdom to a Counting the Omer project she conceived of to raise money for the Global Seva Challenge. Rabbi Altman launched the seven week email subscription series called Countdown to Freedom which offers a different spiritual insight each day via a subscription-based Constant Contact newsletter. Subscription costs of the daily Omer reflection newsletter raises funds in the fight against human trafficking. Her 49-day project also raises awareness of the global problem of human trafficking, which is now a $32 billion business.

A generation ago, Jewish people simply counted up the days of the Omer until Shavuot arrived. The more spiritually inclined might have delved into the mystical traditions of the counting period. However, no one could have imagined that technology would create so many new aspects to this seven week observance. New technology has certainly opened the door to new ritual.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Spirit Airlines Gets Into the Passover Spirit

Like many Jewish people I often get tired of all the marketing geared to a Christian audience. While Christianity is the most common religion in the United States, the Christmas and Easter themed advertising sometimes goes too far. But that doesn’t mean I’m looking for big corporations to draw on Jewish holidays to use in their marketing campaigns.

So, I was surprised when I opened an email message today from Spirit Airlines with the subject line: “Don’t Passover These Low Fares From $19.80* One Way!” At first I thought it was a spoof message from a Jewish humor website. I read the rest of the message and was surprised by the many references to the upcoming holiday of Passover.

Spirit Airlines Passover Promotion

The many references in Spirit Airline’s email to Passover even made question if I had been religiously targeted by the airline. Was it because I had three trips in March with Spirit Air and they noticed my yarmulke? Was it because I have “rabbi” in my email address? I wondered if any other major company had ever conducted a promotion tied into Passover.

The Spirit Airlines Passover promotion is also odd because it was launched the day before Passover. If the company’s intention was to get people to book their Passover flights with Spirit, it’s too late for that. Most of the qualifying flights in the promotion have dates in May and June. Perhaps, the Spirit marketing department should have considered a Shavuot sale (no obvious puns there). The other thing that is odd is that I didn’t receive an Easter promotion from Spirit Airlines even though that (more widespread) holiday takes place this weekend too.

A little research on the Web showed me that Spirit Air used the same silly pun (“Don’t Passover These Deals”) last year in a marketing email. So, I guess their marketing team isn’t that creative after all. And they really overdid it on the kitsch (no need for the “Mazel Tov!” greeting at the end of the ad).

My only comment after flying Spirit thrice last month is that air travel shouldn’t feel like such a PLAGUE (no leg room!), the gate agents should act like the mean PHARAOH forcing me to pay extra for each carry-on bag I bring on board, and I yearn for the days of FREEDOM when complimentary drinks and peanuts were served on flights. Hmmm, maybe there really is a Passover connection with Spirit Airlines!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Passover and Pet Food

As a kosher supervisor (mashgiach) and the owner of a kosher certification agency, I am constantly impressed by the level of attention, respect and genuine care that non-Jewish business owners demonstrate for their kosher observant customers. I once again witnessed this first hand when I met the owner of Premier Pet Supply last week.

Mike Palmer, who is half Chaldean and half Italian, owns the pet food and supply store with his uncle, the store’s founder. Located in Beverly Hills, a suburb of Detroit, the store has received a lot of positive attention of late because of Mike’s knack for publicity and his people skills (he obviously has great pet skills too!). The store is consistently named best pet supply store in the area and Mike was just named one of the Elite 40 Under 40 for Oakland County, Michigan.
Mike called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would come by his store before Passover to answer some questions about kosher for Passover pet food. Since my family doesn’t own any pets and I haven’t certified kosher dog food in over a year (the dog treat company Kosher Michigan certified went out of business in 2010), I decided to brush up on the laws concerning pet food on Passover. And it’s a good thing I did because when I got to the store I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge Mike possessed concerning the kosher laws and Passover. He knew more about the intricacies of the holiday than many Jewish people I know.
As we walked the aisles of his store I checked the pet food that he had labeled as being appropriate for Passover and there were no errors. He explained that he had read an article by the Star-K kosher certification agency and felt he had a good understanding of what makes pet food kosher for Passover, but he wanted to run some questions by me. We had a long conversation about kitniyot (legumes, which most Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat on Passover) as well as the custom of feeding the family dog in the garage on Passover, which many families follow. Over and again, I heard Mike express how important he believes it is to provide quality service to his Jewish customers and ensure that they can purchase the best food for their pets on Passover while adhering to the holiday’s regulations.
In terms of what Jewish law says about pet food on Passover, the most important thing to remember is that chametz (leavened products) from the five grains (barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat) is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from. Feeding chametz to one’s pet would be deriving benefit from it. Additionally, a Jewish person is not allowed to even possess any chametz on Passover. 
As I explained to Mike, while kitniyot (legumes) are not eaten by most Ashkenazi Jews, they may be fed to pets on Passover. Also, one does not need to change over the dishes for pets, meaning that the usual food bowls for pets can be used on Passover but they should be cleaned out first.
A 2009 article in the NY Times featured a Passover Seder for dogs that took place at a Chicago pet food store to promote Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company which sells Kosher for Passover products. (Joshua Lott/Chicago Tribune)

There is a custom of “selling” one’s pet to a non-Jew on Passover. The reason for this has to do with deriving benefit from chametz. Thus, if one leaves a pet with a non-Jew during Passover the pet owner will still derive benefit from chametz when the non-Jewish friend feeds the pet. Therefore, some observant Jews will “sell” the pet to the non-Jewish friend on the condition it is sold back at the conclusion of the holiday in the same fashion as the “legal fiction” sale of chametz.

While many Jews are not familiar with the laws governing pet food on Passover, it is reassuring that there are pet supply store owners like Mike Palmer who are concerned about this. It is admirable that he has taken the time to research this subject and has gone out of his way to help his Jewish customers find the right pet food for Passover.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller