As the holiday of Passover begins, Jews around the world begin a week-long festival. Although the holiday is usually regarded for its religious significance, I have written here about its many health benefits.
The Seder is the epicenter of the holiday. Families join together from far and near. The word Seder means “order” in Hebrew, and at this special meal the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is told. The youngest child asks four standard questions about the holiday. There is singing and relaxation, and in most households, the focus will be on the meal.
One of the main health benefits of Passover is the socializing. In his book Blue Zones, Daniel Beuttner describes one of the most important commonalities of longevity – socialization. Clearly, that is much of what Passover is about. Families get together; friends and guests from out of town with no Seder nearby are often invited. Many Passover celebrations include going to synagogue, coming home for meals (for some who want to eat specially prepared meals) and getting together with friends. Passover is a very social as well as religious experience.
Another ritual that generally happens around Passover is cleaning the home –the uncluttering or “spring cleaning.” Food is removed that is “past date” or does not “pass Passover inspection” for chametz (unleavened food made of wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt that has fermented or allowed to “rise”). This spring-cleaning is not only very therapeutic and de-stressing, it also rids many foods that contain gluten and potential allergens.
And what about the food eaten? Here is my slight disclaimer. I know that not every Passover recipe is made with low fat, low salt, low calories and certainly, not low volume. But there is an upside to what is eaten.
First the red wine. The holiday requires drinking four glasses. Antioxidants called polyphenols are thought to protect the inside wall of blood vessels lining your heart, reduce “bad” cholesterol and lower the risk of blood clots. Another antioxidant, resveratrol, is thought to reduce inflammation and blood clotting, as well as lower the risk for diabetes. So for at least one night, it’s good to have those four glasses of red wine that come with the Seder.
The Seder meal also teaches us to eat slowly. We are instructed that we can optionally eat reclining; this allows us to chew our food better, which aids digestion and gives the entire experience a feeling of relaxation that counters stress.
The Seder plate is also full of healthy choices.
- Karpas, the vegetable (typically parsley but also sometimes an onion) that is dipped into salt water and eaten represents the tears shed by our suffering ancestors in slavery. Parsley is filled with vitamin K, which aids blood clotting; vitamin A, which helps vision and builds the immune system; and vitamin C, which helps wounds heal. Folic acid is also in parsley and that helps manufacture red blood cells.
- Charoset, which signifies the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves to build brick buildings in Egypt, is made from a combination of nuts, apples, cinnamon, wine and a bit of honey. There are many health benefits from the ingredients of charoset, but all have the common benefit of lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “lousy”) cholesterol.
- Maror, the bitter herb that reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, consists of grated horseradish known as the “Jewish Dristan” for its sinus clearing capabilities. As an herbal medicine it has been used for urinary tract infections, kidney stones, reducing retained fluid, an achy joint remedy and a treatment for gout.
- Zeroa, the shank bone of a lamb, reminds us of the lamb sacrificed on the eve of the exodus from Egypt. It typically isn’t eaten. Maybe the health benefit of this is to remind us to limit our meat consumption and eat lots of vegetables and fruits every day.
- A hard-boiled egg symbolizes new life and represents the holiday offering brought in the days of the Holy Temple in Israel before it was destroyed. Eggs are a great source of protein and numerous vitamins including vitamin A, folic acid and choline. They also contain two amino acids with antioxidant properties – tryptophan and tyrosine.
- Let’s not forget the Gefilte Fish. This ground fish ball boiled with carrots and onions is a great source of omega 3 fatty acids, beta-carotene and other B vitamins.
OK, eventually we are going to get to the brisket and the many delicious side dishes that constitute the remainder of the meal. Here, the amount consumed as well as content will determine the health of the meal.
One final health benefit of Passover I want to acknowledge is reflecting on what the holiday is all about – freedom. After 400 years of bondage, 600,000 Hebrews followed an unknown path to freedom. They received 10 Commandments to live by and entered a new world of both uncertainty and untold opportunities.
I hope that for each of you, this Passover will be a happy and social time, one of relaxation and healthy meals, and one in which you reflect upon the true meaning of the holiday – freedom. All of us have a choice of whether or not to be slaves to bad habits and unhealthy choices, ongoing stress (click here for free stress reduction eBook), unhealthy relationships and situations that keep us shackled, and negative baggage that binds our minds. I hope that this Passover will serve as an exodus for you to freedom from this form of bondage – the ultimate health benefit of Passover.