Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Shamanic Passover

Maura Schonwald

Many rituals within cultures and religions have similar intents, to be healed, to gain understanding, and to achieve redemption. Shamanic and Jewish rituals are two examples where this enlightenment takes place.

Passover is the Jewish holiday when family gathers together and remembers the hardship and torture of being slaves in Egypt, as well as the freedom and redemption received from God. The ritual of Passover is like a shamanic ritual in terms that it is systematic and ceremonial, we recall on past ancestors and reveal stories to help gain understanding and healing.

Shamans are healers that journey into the spirit world in order to heal people, understand and fix problems in the material world, and predict future occurrences. In this paper I will reflect and compare the similarities between the shamanic rituals and my experiences of Passover Seders.

The Passover ritual is one that includes much preparation. It has been a tradition in my family that a week before the ceremony I will accompany my Papa (grandfather), who plays the role of the shaman, in preparing the food and offerings for the Seder.

Although in some shamanic cultures new shamans are chose by means of vision quests, dreams, presentation of gift, and ancestral lineages, I was chosen because the I had the most interest and sat with my grandfather (although he was still alive) for a period of time just like the Tlingit culture (Townsend 1997.) The method to becoming a shaman involves the acquisition of necessary ritual paraphernalia, which in my case are the secret family recipes of Matzo ball soup and “Papa Milt’s horseradish”.

At the age of 13, when a person becomes an adult in the Jewish religion, my shaman started to teach me of the importance of the rituals and how to prepare the offerings as well as myself. This preparation includes the making of horseradish and chicken matzo ball soup. These are tedious tasks that endure pain and patience. The making of horseradish is a painful endeavor in which the grinding of the radish causes tears and stinging in the face. It is in a way compared to the journey the shaman has to go through in order to experience a death and rebirth.

Instead of being stripped of flesh and given new organs, the stinging aroma of the radish clears my sinuses, washes my eyes with my tears, and opens all orifices to my mind. Some cultures involve the community in a new shamans journey but in my culture I provide the community with the nourishment and healing powers of the ‘Jewish penicillin’. During this week of cooking and preparing my grandfather enlightens me with knowledge of our religious history and life lessons in order to prepare me for the journey of life I will endure.

The Passover Seder, which usually occurs in April, is a ritual that brings family and community together in order to take them on a journey of the history of their ancestors in order to heal, understand, and rejoice. Just like a shamanic séance, the Seder has a costume many ritual paraphernalia. A kipa, head covering, is worn in order to honor God and as a symbol of the Jewish people. It is a means to help “draw in spirits to the séance” just as wood, ivory, stones, and other materials are used for shamans (Townsend 1997).

There are symbolic items on a Seder plate in the center of the table. The objects that reside on this plate are; charosets (ground up apple and honey mixture), shank bone, roasted egg, parsley, maror (bitter herb), karpas (vegetable). These representations of the distress and deprivations of our ancestors as slaves and the hurdles that were overcome in order to lead us to freedom and sacred land. The Seder begins after sundown like most shamanic séances. The Passover shaman (my grandfather) sits at the head of the table and leads the service with prayers and chants to god. This is the first thing that is done in the Seder in order to get everyone in the mood and the state of mind to engage in the story.

Just as assistants might provoke questions in a shamanic séance, the youngest child has the responsibilities of asking the 4 questions of why we do these rituals on this holiday. It is then through song, chanting, and prayer that these questions are answered by the leader. Throughout the ceremony 4 glasses of wine are drunk in order to heighten our awareness to the spirits and to remember our past. After the first cup of wine, the men are to wash their hands as a metaphor of washing their ailments away and becoming healthier people. Parsley is then dipped into salt water and eaten to remind everyone of the tears shed by our ancestors through their hard times. This is done to make the family aware that we are free people now and our troubles and hardships can be overcome.

The story of Passover is then told by all members at the Seder in order to become connected with each other as one people telling the story that led us to be the culture we are today. Bitter herbs are consumed in order to reveal the torture our ancestors went through and unleavened bread is restricted just as shamans might fast or have strict dietary practices. Just as people of a community give offerings to the shaman and spirits, it is recommended that participants of the Seder bring food or wine as their offerings and sacrifices. These offerings are consumed towards the end of the Seder, which is another method to allow the family to reach a higher state of consciousness. The food opens conversation and stimulates the mind so that elders can share their knowledge and experiences. It is at this time that the matzo ball soup is served to help heal and rejuvenate.

After the meal, everyone has reached a higher state of consciousness and it is then time to call upon Elijah. Elijah is a spirit that engages with the messiah who will tell us of the future. An empty cup is passed around the table so everyone can give Elijah an offering and the door is opened to let him in. The future is not revealed to us at that moment, it takes time for the understanding to be acknowledged. The Seder is then concluded with the singing of Dianu, meaning it would have been enough. This is the prayer and chant to bring us back to the material and than the spirits for all they have done for us. We repeat Dianu numerous times with chants that say, “If you would have lead us out of Egypt, it would have been enough” and so on with praises and thanks to Adoni (God). After the Seder the family feels connected to each other as well as God and the ancestors of our religion.
Shamanism is an important part of many cultures and rituals and in no way am I implying that my grandfather is a shaman.

This comparison is to make others aware that the idea that rituals in different cultures and religions have similar methods to their rituals and reasons for them. Rituals are meant to enlighten people with knowledge of their self, their history, and their future. Both shamanic rituals and Passover have the power to heal, gain knowledge and achieve fulfillment.

Townsend (1997). Shamanism. Anthropology of Religion 429-469

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