A kind of aimless post about Passover and The Hobbit

[At left: an image of the style of Seder plate that I have — though it’s in storage and I’m not using it this year. This is a pedagogical piece of tableware that we use to explain the symbolic meaning of the foods we are eating during the meal.]

The sun has set and so we have now reached the fourteenth of Nissan, which means Pessach (Passover) begins in twenty four hours! Pessach is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday — even totally unobservant Jews will go to a Seder, or the ritual meal that allows us to fulfill the commandments to remember the exodus from Mitzraim — and a significant segment of Jews who are not normally particularly observant of kashrut ramp up a bit or a lot for the eight days of the holiday (seven in Israel). Me, too. My kitchen is normally orthodox kosher dairy (O-U hecksher, which is cholov stam, but not cholov yisrael, and I don’t eat any meat at home, if you’re observant and thinking about coming over for lunch. In this kitchen I have all glass plates, which means I’m using paper this week — my Passover dishes are in storage). But I usually undertake the additional ritual of cleaning that will make it kosher for Passover.

I won’t bore you with all the minute details of the pre-Passover cleaning, which is finished, but the most important thing is that it’s incumbent upon me to search my apartment for and remove all chametz, or food made from any of the five grains (traditionally: wheat, rye, barley, spelt, or oats) that become leavened when they come in contact with water. That’s not too hard; not much of that stuff has made it into my apartment. A little pasta, a few crackers, and some oatmeal had to be thrown out, and I gave away most of a six-pack of beer. (You can also sell chametz to a gentile, which is what people do who own bagel bakeries — they sell their bakeries for a week –, but selling on the household level is typically reserved for expensive chametz, like whiskey.) As I follow the Ashkenazic custom, however, I also have to eliminate kitniyot (corn, rice, beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts), which is somehwat harder — I eat a lot of rice and various legumes. And this year, since Pesky has persuaded me to celebrate the holiday with the local Lubavitchers, I’ll also be using a specially kosher-for-Passover unleavened bread, shmurah matzah, which has been imported from Ukraine and which I’ll pick up tomorrow sometime in the morning, after I’ve done the last check for chametz. The last step in the check is bdikat chametz, in which, although I’ve already eliminated all the chametz, I take a little piece of it and put it in each room, then I “search” for it and “find” it and burn it to make sure the commandment to search for it is fulfilled. Then I’ll recite a legal formula that says I’ve tried to get rid of all of it, but that in case I haven’t anything that’s still in the apartment is legally null. Can’t burn it in my apartment complex, so I’ll drive it over to the Lubavitchers and burn it with theirs, and then pick up the special matzah. And then I’ll sit outside, watching the bugs fly around, till the holiday begins.

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in rehearsal of a scene from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, from preproduction vlog #2. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

Anyway, what does this have to do with anything? I was trying to think of an Armitage-themed Passover post but honestly that’s crossing a line for me. See, I do have some! I don’t know any “fun” songs for Passover without religious meaning like I do for Chanukkah or Purim, so even though there are peppy Passover songs, they usually have to do with divine redemption and I’m not in the habit of comparing Richard Armitage with G-d. So no Passover fanvid. I’m sure we’re all crushed!

But I was musing about the Seder, and The Hobbit, and I was thinking about the dinner at which Thorin Oakenshield makes his first appearance. This dinner bears some similarities to a Passover Seder. You’ve got a lot of things at that dinner that typically happen at a seder: a crowd of unexpected guests, a group of people in exile singing raucous ritual songs that remind them of their history and destiny as a group, a discussion of enemies who have risen up to destroy them, and the prediction of a journey toward a storied destination — not to mention a festive meal, shared bread, and — perhaps too much — alcohol. At a seder, you’re usually celebrating with people with whom you have some connection, but not always an easy one. There’s sometimes a self-important person leading the seder (like Thorin) and usually he loses control over it (like Thorin) as the participants take over. You’re commemorating rupture, and you’re praying for the renewed demonstration of redemption. When the dwarves sang, Tolkien writes, Bilbo felt “a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves.” That’s a bit of what you can feel at a seder (if you substitute Jews for dwarves).

Anyway, it struck me as funny. However, some things that happen at the meal in chapter 1 of The Hobbit that don’t happen at orthodox seders. For instance, you would never, ever smoke at an orthodox seder, as it’s a holiday on which work is forbidden and lighting a fire to light a pipe would count as work. Even if the smoke rings were sweet and amusing. You couldn’t play musical instruments, either, for the same reason. No harp! You would never eat pork-pie, as it’s never kosher, and on Passover you wouldn’t have beer or seed-cake (although I have read recently that a few breweries are now making kosher for Passover beer). Coffee is an interesting problem — apparently the main reason that coffee is considered kosher for Passover is that some U.S. coffee company paid a rabbi for a hecksher that said the coffee bean is a berry, and not a bean, and hence not kitniyot. This is a big relief to me, as otherwise I’d have to switch over to special expensive and hard to get kosher-for-Passover Coke, which is made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup (kitniyot). I guess you’d never drink Coke at a dinner in The Hobbit, either, though …

… yeah, you could call this an analytical post that failed to yield any actual point. It happens (Servetus smirks).

Anyway, enough silliness. I’m unlikely to be posting for the next few days — but I will catch you again on Sunday sometime.


My favorite text for the Passover remains, as it has been the last two years, Ha Lachma Anya (“this is the bread of affliction”):

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat;

whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover.

This year we are here; next year in the land of Israel.

This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people.

We’ve just passed the vernal equinox and so if you’re celebrating a related holiday, I wish you well. Tomorrow is Good Friday for the Christians, a commemoration that also calls particular memories to mind for me. To my many Christian friends, I wish a blessed, contemplative triduum and joyous Easter or Resurrection Sunday at its climax. To everyone who’s celebrating it, I wish a kosher Pessach.

May G-d free the captives and redeem the suffering, wherever we or they are found.

~ by Servetus on April 6, 2012.

19 Responses to “A kind of aimless post about Passover and The Hobbit”

  1. I have the same Seder plate. Happy Passover!


  2. The rituals of your religion are fascinating, I love to read about them.
    Thank you and Happy Passover ☺


  3. Have a lovely weekend xxx


  4. Happy Passover and/or Happy Easter and/or Happy Weekend everyone.


  5. Thank you, Servetus, for describing your rituals. They seem so strange and strict and in some way wasteful to me to burn perfectly good food. Sorry for being so ignorant, but I love to hear about your rituals and how you prepare for Passover.
    Here, total Christian surrounding, people are singing in my house and hammering and that on the strictest of religious holidays, Karfreitag. For me as a child it was one of the two days of religious holidays I could not stand at all, as I was not allowed to whistle (what I did all day long as a child. I must have driven my parents crazy, but on the other hand they always knew where I was ;o) or play the piano. No music for one day, that was really a hardship for me, as I could not get the music out of my head, where it still continued to play.
    I hope you have a happy Passover and wish you all the best with lots of joy and music!


    • In practice, not that much gets destroyed. Most people who follow this custom have a “pre-Passover eatdown plan,” i.e., they run out of a particular kind of chametz in the weeks before the holiday and they don’t restock, or restock in smaller sizes, and/or they give away unopened packages of food to friends or food pantries. In my case, what ended up destroyed was a bit of pasta, some oatmeal, a couple of crackers, half of a pound of lentils, and (what made me sad, because it was expensive) half a jar of organic peanut butter, which I will not replace, because I just don’t eat it fast enough. (And I am moving the end of May again).

      No music must have been hard, though it seems appropriate for Karfreitag. Happy Easter!


  6. Happy Passover for you. I’m glad you have people to celebrate the holiday with. As for me, after reading your blog, I’m thinking that it is nice to have a yearly ritual of cleaning one’s house.


  7. Thank you,Servetus 🙂 and Happy Passover for you!


  8. […] wrote this a few weeks ago, as Passover was beginning, and then I chickened out and published something silly instead. It doesn't make sense, entirely, […]


  9. […] my books in June 2011 that doesn’t seem to have come with me here. Then I bought an e-copy while writing this post. Which I seem to have inadvertently deleted. And I didn’t think to bring my childhood copy […]


  10. […] little piece of the interview, below. What is making me so emotional is that I was thinking about the resemblance of the scene at Bag End with the Passover dinner, last spring at Passover. And Armitage brings it. He supplies that missing […]


  11. […] 2012 / 5772: My reflections on the similarities between the Bag End meal and Passover Seders. […]


  12. […] last year), with Peskies at the Fuzzies’. I’ve got all the chametz out of my apartment (reflection on that and on how the Bag End scene of TH:AUJ is a bit like a Seder and Armitage’s remarks about a similar theme), I just have the ritual burning to do tomorrow […]


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