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Toward Shabbat: Shabbat Pesah I

I have a vivid memory of being in my childhood house the morning of Erev Pesah (the night before Passover). The windows were slightly open and the sweet early scent of spring filled the house. Mixed with that aroma was the mouth-watering smell of my mother’s chicken soup. In my teenage years, my association with the smell of chicken soup shifted from a yearly connection to Pesah into a weekly constant. This smell was my first hint that the week was ending and Shabbat was rapidly approaching.

Today the aroma of chicken soup that fills my apartment is the smell of both Shabbat and Pesah. It’s the smell of freedom from another week and the smell of our redemption from Egypt. Tonight, Jews all over the world will sit down to celebrate Pesah through the ritual of a seder.

The Hebrew word “seder” means “order.” Just as the Pesah ritual is all about the order of our storytelling and eating, our weekly at-home Shabbat rituals also follow a specific order. We light candles, we say Kiddush, sanctifying the day over a glass of wine, and then we say hamotzi, the blessing over the challah. While there is no debate over the order of candles, Kiddush, and hamotzi, the rabbis did debate which blessing within Kiddush one should say first. If you look at the Friday night Kiddush, you will notice that we actually say two blessings. First, we say the blessing over the wine (or grape juice):

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱֹלקינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּפֶן

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

And then, at the very end, we say the blessing to sanctify the day:

  בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ מְקַדֵּשׁ הַשַּׁבָּת

Blessed are You, Adonai, who sanctifies Shabbat.

As a child I always used to forget that there was another blessing coming. I would start to drink my grape juice after “borei pri hagafen.” Then, as soon as I realized my mistake, I would either slowly lower my half-full cup with a smile and red cheeks or I would lower my empty cup and ask for a refill.

The debate as to which order we say the blessings of Kiddush dates back to the Mishnah, our earliest rabbinic work (codified around the year 200 CE), and is between our tradition’s most famous opponents—Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel teaches us to say the blessing over the wine and then over the day, while Beit Shammai tells us that we should first recite the blessing over the day and then over the wine (Mishnah Brakhot 8:1). Whenever there is a disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we almost always practice according to the ruling of Beit Hillel, which, as we know, is the case with this ritual.

The foundation of Beit Hillel’s argument is the principle in Jewish law that later became known as ​​תדיר ושאינו תדיר, תדיר קודם—if a more frequent practice coincides with a less frequent practice, the more frequent practice comes first.

In the time of the mishnah, wine was a constant at most meals and people used to say the blessing over wine daily. Therefore, the blessing for wine takes precedence over the blessing for Shabbat, which is only recited weekly.

This principle also applies to the order in which we will say the blessing over our Shabbat and holiday candles this evening:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹקינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל שַׁבָּת וְשֶׁל יוֹם טוֹב

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Shabbat and festival light.

There is something surprising about this principle. It feels much more intuitive to prioritize something special or new. We yearn to step out of the ordinary and to welcome that which is not a part of our everyday routine or “order.” But this principle reminds us of the beauty of honoring the constant parts of our lives before we honor the new and exciting. It’s a gentle and loving poke, much like Shabbat each week, that tells us to appreciate what we already have.

This year, as the abhorrent Ukrainian war rages on, the seder also acts as a reminder for us to appreciate what we have when it comes to the gift of our freedom. As we read the words of our story during the seder, we are called to continue fighting for freedom so that freedom is experienced as ordinary for all of humanity.

Today, as we smell our way toward Shabbat and Pesah, may we internalize the teaching of תדיר ושאינו תדיר, תדיר קודם by feeling deep in our hearts the radical sensation that the ordinary is just as exciting, important, and sacred as the extraordinary.