Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Hol Hamoed 5762/ March 30, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Shabbat Hol Hamoed 5762/ March 30, 2002

Passover in the Yemenite Tradition

Dr. Moshe Gavra
Naftal-Yaffe Dept. of Talmud

The Yemenite Jewish community, one of the oldest Jewish communities to be established in the Exile, has preserved many ancient traditions. The tendency has been to integrate new customs that reached Yemen with older practices. Jewish practice throughout Yemen has not always been uniform; over the past two centuries two or three main schools of practice began to emerge with regard to halakhah and customs practiced among Yemenite Jewry. These streams are to be found among Jews of Yemenite origin living in Israel today.

The Baladi Community

Founded by Mori (Rabbi) Yihye Salah-Maharitz (18th century). His approach was to preserve ancient Yemenite tradition while selectively adopting customs and practices that harmonized with this tradition. Mostly he followed Maimonides in his halakhic rulings,[1] and edited a prayer book, Etz Hayyim. In the early twentieth century R. Yihye Kapah, the Hakham Bashi (representative of the community to the Moslem authorities) began to reduce the influence of Kabbalah and with regard to several practices led a return to the more ancient Yemenite custom. This community, known as the Darda'i, generally followed similar practices to the Baladi Jews.

The Shami community

In large areas of Yemen's Shar'ab province the Jews adopted all the practices of the Sephardic kabbalists, retaining very little of ancient Yemenite tradition. In central Yemen as well prayers followed the Shami tradition, although strong ties were maintained to Baladi tradition.

This article sets forth the unique customs observed by Yemenite Jews on Passover, customs that prevailed over the past two centuries in the Baladi and some of the Shami communities.[2]

Preparing for Passover

The wheat to be used on Passover was kept under surveillance from the moment of harvesting.[3] The wheat set aside for Passover use, including shemura matzah, was buried amidst a weed called harmel, as is described in the Jerusalem Talmud.[4]

Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the Sabbath before Passover

Ancient Yemenite Jewish literature makes no mention of a special haftarah for the Sabbath before Passover, rather, the usual weekly haftarah was recited. Only recently have Yemenite Jews begun to read the haftarah selection from Malachi, ch. 3, which we customarily associate with Shabbat Ha-Gadol.[5]

The Evening before the Festival

In the search for leaven on the eve of the 14th of Nisan, the evening before the Seder, Yemenite Jews would look for hametz – leaven -- by the light of a candle, but would not scatter pieces of hametz around the house, nor did they use a feather.[6] Firstborns did not generally fast on the day preceding the festival, since that day was considered a festive day on which the pascal offering was sacrificed in the Temple, although the sanctity of that day was considered somewhat less than the intermediate days of the festival.[7]

The custom of selling hametz was not observed in Yemen. The Yemenite Jews would regulate their purchases of hametz for a reasonable period prior to the festival and would finish eating all their hametz by the morning of the first eve of the holiday. Anyone who had a considerable quantity of dough left over, would sell it outright to a gentile (i.e. not with the intent of buying it back).[8]

The Seder

Several quite ancient customs, originating in the Second Temple period and mentioned in the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud, survived. For example, calling haroset by the name of dukha, reciting Hallel in responsive reading and splitting it into sections, and using the formulation "go'el Yisrael' at the end of the Blessing of Redemption, contrary to the Babylonian Talmud which requires ga'al.[9]

Those practices indicative of the influence of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon and Rabbi Alfasi, which had been widespread in Yemen, have all but disappeared in recent centuries. Most of the current Seder customs follow Maimonides.

The Yemenites do not prepare a special Seder Plate. Some had a tradition of drinking five cups of wine for the five verbs of redemption in Exodus 6:6-8. Two cooked items on the platter (actually three, two varieties of meat, one roasted and one cooked, and an egg added from Kabbalistic sources) would be eaten as part of the feast.[10]

Only two matzahs would be used, one of them to be broken in half prior to the blessings and not at the beginning of the Seder ritual. According to Maimonides it is not obligatory to put aside the half matzah for the afikoman, although this is customary.[11] "Stealing" or hiding the afikoman was not customary, although, we admit, such a custom is useful in keeping the children awake.[12]

The festival itself

In Yemen and among the Yemenite Jews in Israel it was customary to slaughter fowl on the holiday, and certainly on the intermediate days of the festival. I recall my father of blessed memory, about thirty years ago, sending me to have a chicken slaughtered by the local shohet in Shikun Heh of Bnai Berak on the first day of the holiday (yom tov). Today slaughtering on the holiday has essentially ceased because of a change in circumstance, insofar as slaughtering is not done daily, but not because slaughtering on the holiday is intrinsically forbidden.

However, if the chicken was not "fresh-fresh", the matza certainly was. It was customary to bake matzah throughout the festival, as attested by a responsum from the rabbis of San'a, sent in 1910 to the Yemenite Jews living in Jerusalem.[13] By then the Yemenite community in Jerusalem had grown and separated itself from the Sephardic kolel. The Yemenite Jews wished to preserve their own traditions in Jerusalem as well and to celebrate the festival by eating fresh food including fresh, soft matzah, and not "hard boards." Hence they turned to the rabbis of San'a with their query.

A widespread practice is to make the blessing over bread over a matzah and a half throughout the entire festival, in accordance with the Talmudic explanation (Berakhot 39b): "All admit that on Passover a piece is placed on (or in) a whole one, and then blessed and eaten. What is the reason for this? Because it is called 'bread of affliction.'" Passover was taken to mean all the days of the festival, and not only the Seder eve.[14]

The Yemenites eat all varieties of legumes (kitniyot) as well as rice throughout the festival, and nowhere did the practice of abstaining from eating legumes take hold in Yemen. However, all beans and peas would be meticulously checked before the festival to make sure there were no grains mixed in with them .

[1] It has been generally known and agreed of late, so claims Rabbi Isaac Ratzhabi, that Maharitz ruled according to Maimonides only when the latter's practice accorded with his own, but in other instances ruled according to the Shulhan Arukh. For a detailed discussion of this point see M. Gavra, Hakhmei Yisrael she-be-Teiman-- Maharitz (Benei Berak 1994), pp. 159-165.
[2] This article does not aim to list the Yemenites' customs in full detail, rather to note certain customs unique to Yemen by way of comparison with other communities.
[3] Maharitz, Resp. Pe'ulat Tzaddik, II.135.
[4] Pesahim, Ch. 3, at the end of halakhah 1, from R. J. Kapah, Halikhot Teiman, pp. 15-16.
[5] R. Isaac Ratzhabi, Shulhan Arukh ha-Mekutzar, Moadim, Part 3, p. 2.
[6] R. J. Kapah, in his edition of Maimonides, Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah, 3.1; also R. I. Ratzhabi, loc. sit., pp. 7-8.
[7] R. J. Kapah, loc. sit., p. 389, and Hilkhot Yom Tov, p. 198.
[8] R. J. Kapah, loc. sit., p. 261; Harav Shlomo Korah, Arikhat ha-Shulhan, Part 1, pp. 44-45.
[9] M. Gavra, Mehkarim be-Siddurei Teiman, Part 1: The Passover Haggadah, pp. 2-4, 146-153.
[10] Gavra, loc. sit., pp. 139-141; R. J. Kapah, loc. sit., 421.
[11] Maritz, Siddur Etz Hayyim, II, p. 24b; R. Sh. Korah, loc. sit., p. 98.
[12] R. J. Kapah, Halikhot Teiman, p. 22, writes that this is forbidden even for the sake of performing a commandment. The following anecdote illustrates this tradition: Around twenty years ago the grandchildren of M. Hayyim Yemini of blessed memory (my wife's grandfather) hid the afikoman. When he asked, "Where is the afikoman?" the grandchildren answered that they would not tell him until he promised them a present. He answered that in Yemen it was not customary to give out presents, and when they did not give him back the afikoman, despite all his begging, M. Hayyim used a different matzah from the table, and proceeded with the Seder, performing the ritual washing of the hands and reciting the grace after meals.
[13] Yehudah Levi Nahum, Tzohar le-Hasifat Ginzei Teiman, pp. 273-277.
[14] R. J. Kapah, Maimonides, pp. 412-420; R. Sh. Korah, loc. sit., p. 99; Tikhlal Etz Hayyim ha-Shalem, II, p. 72-74; R. J. Ratzhabi, loc. sit., p. 60.