Elliot Steinberg, Programme Manager at The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), informs us about the significance of Passover (Monday 10 April), and tells us about the first interfaith Freedom Seder which was launched from CCJ on Monday 27 March. The Freedom Seder will work to encourage reflection and action combatting human trafficking and modern slavery.

The festival of Passover (Pesach) begins this year on the evening of Monday 10 April and runs for 8 days (or 7 days in Israel). Through these 8 days, Jews will celebrate and remember the biblical exodus from Egypt by sharing meals together, adding special prayers to services and refraining from food which is designated as chametz – leavened or risen – and eating Matzah, specially prepared unleavened bread which in the UK usually resembles large crackers.

The need to get rid of chametz is so strict that it is forbidden even to own chametz for the duration of Passover and many Jews will completely clean out their houses, use special cutlery and crockery and only eat food that is specifically designated as “kosher for Passover”, even if they are not so strict about other aspects of keeping kosher at other times in the year.

The festival begins with a festive meal called a Seder, at which the Exodus story is creatively retold through different symbolic foods and allegorical stories. It is facilitated by a Haggadah – a book which includes everything that will be read at the Seder and often instructions for how to perform some of the rituals and the blessings that need to be made over food and wine.

Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) are often decorated with artwork (which is quite uncommon in Jewish ritual/liturgical materials) and feature commentaries from rabbis or other teachers about Passover and some of the Seder stories. It is a long evening which begins when the festival comes in and sometimes doesn’t finish until the early hours of the morning – and the meal isn’t even served until about 2/3 of the way through!

Passover and the Seder, through its close association with the Exodus narrative, is often used as a time to reflect on modern social justice and particularly on slavery and how we can combat modern forms of slavery.

The Babylonian Talmud (one of the sources for Jewish law as it is applied and debated in modern Jewish communities) states:

 “In every generation one is bound to regard oneself as though they had personally gone forth from Egypt” (BT Pesachim 110b).

This particularly applies to Pesach, as in the rituals of the Seder and throughout the rest of the festival, you are supposed to see yourself as having experienced slavery in Egypt and as having experienced becoming free from that slavery. This immediately establishes a requirement to relate between the biblical narrative, the present and our own experience, and generates a sense of empathy with those people who are currently not free.

At CCJ, we have just held our first interfaith Freedom Seder which used the symbols and rituals of Passover and the Seder to encourage reflection and action combatting human trafficking and modern slavery. It is a development of work we have done in the past with Stop The Traffik and a range of Christian denominations supporting the Freedom Sunday campaign – a day of worship and action on these issues in churches annually in October.

Human trafficking is the fastest growing international crime and can be found in the supply chains of industries from textiles to fishing, chocolate to farming, as well as trafficking for participating in criminal activities including drug cultivation and trade. Faith communities are ideally positioned to combat trafficking locally as they are keyed into their local areas and can provide valuable information if they spot something that seems odd.

The Seder brought this campaign into the interfaith sphere and used responses to traditional Jewish sources to highlight human trafficking and modern slavery. To facilitate this, we produced our own Haggadah Companion which featured information about human trafficking and how to spot it in our communities, responses from various religious leaders, reflections on the traditional Haggadah to bridge between the Biblical narrative and modern slavery and small simple action points that can be done to begin tackling these issues.

Each of the 4 cups of wine/grape juice traditionally drunk at the Seder is attached to the story of someone who has been trafficked. Each of the 10 Biblical plagues has been paired with an aspect of human trafficking (some examples include sexual exploitation, debt bondage, forced labour and forced marriage).

The Passover Seder opens by connecting the collective memory of enslavement and mistreatment with the present day, inviting people who are in need of support in our modern society to join our Passover meals. “This [Matzah] is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover”. There is, indeed, a tradition of inviting guests to join the family Seder, or to hold communal Seders, which are more open to guests and anyone who may wish to join.

Yet the point of this action goes should go beyond words and, perhaps, token invitations to friends or acquaintances to join the Seder; the Haggadah asks the reader to reflect upon how we treat the most vulnerable in society, and raises the question of what we might actually be able to do about it.

Human trafficking and modern slavery are issues that resonate with some of our most basic sensitivities. The idea of someone being displaced, enslaved, living in appalling conditions is deeply emotive and these feelings alone are motivation to combat these concerns. In Judaism beyond these emotional responses, there is theological rationale for making this fight our own.

The values of social justice, personal freedom and performing acts of lovingkindness are central to Jewish thought and practice and provide a base from which we can join our voices to the call against human trafficking. At Passover, these matters are at the forefront of our consciousness, spelled out in Haggadot and recited around Seder tables. Passover thus provides an ideal opportunity to consider the shape that slavery takes in modern society, and how we might be able to change this.

These values are not unique to Judaism, they are shared by people of all faiths and none. CCJ’s Haggadah Companion has been designed to be utilised by people from any background to gain a better understanding of Passover, as well as of human trafficking and actions we can take to fight it. If you are interested, the Haggadah Companion can be downloaded here: http://www.ccj.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/CCJ-Haggadah-Companion-E-Version.pdf 

Photography: Eli Gaventa