As the sun was going down over Swampscott on the last night of Passover, 28 people gathered around a few plastic folding tables that had been pushed together in the middle of the sanctuary at Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore.
The occasion? The Moshiach Seudah, or Messiah Meal, held every year in the waning minutes of Passover to affirm the belief that the Messiah will one day arrive. Instituted by the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century mystic and founder of the Hasidic movement, it has been held by Rabbi Yossi Lipsker over the last 25 years in Swampscott.
The meal lasts about an hour, and participants are required to eat round shmurah matzah and drink four cups of wine. On this evening, Lipsker was spending the holiday in Israel, so if fell upon Rabbi Shmaya Friedman to lead the ceremonies.
Friedman, who is 30, comes from a rabbinic dynasty that includes his grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a Boston native who heads the Chabad movement in Brooklyn. Also on his paternal side are three prominent Chabad rabbis: his father, Yosef B., who directs Chabad’s publishing branch; an uncle, author Manis Friedman; and Avraham Fried, a Hasidic pop singer.
On this evening, several members of the Friedman family spoke, describing the esoteric meaning behind the meal. Shmaya Friedman, who arrived in Swampscott seven years ago to assist Lipsker, is rail thin and often wears a winter hat over his head. He works 14-hour days as Chabad’s associate director, runs a Chabad teen group, the Jew Crew and also directs Camp Gan Israel, the shul’s summer day camp. His wife, Aliza, leads Chabad’s pre-school, Aleph Academy, which has grown to 30 students. They have three children, two daughters, Leba and Miki, and a son, Koby.
Friedman explained that the matzah represents selfless humility, and the desire to transcend the physical. Wine, he said, is flavorful and symbolizes the assertiveness of our individual personalities. “When you eat matzah and wine together we fuse the spiritual with the physical, creating a personal mini-redemption symbolizing the days of Moshiach – when holy and mundane will be one,” he explained.
For most, the highlight of the evening was a series of niggunim (songs) handed down by Chabad rebbes to their followers over the centuries. Some of the tunes had words, but many didn’t – allowing those in attendance to sing “yi, yi, yi” to the haunting melodies.
Friedman believes the lack of words in the tunes enhances one’s spirituality and does not limit the experience. “A word is a creation. It’s finite. It represents containment in a certain way. But when you go wordless the possibilities are endless. There’s a certain infinity that doesn’t get contained or restricted,” he explained.
As Friedman and his relatives hummed the holy melodies, Lester Kligerman and Scott Maibor, closed their eyes, sipped some sweet wine and connected with their soul. They likened the music to a portal that accesses another world.
“I close my eyes and am transported spiritually and through time to 17th century Europe and am reminded of the strength of my people and the reasons for celebrating a holiday that forbids pizza and spaghetti after all,” said Maibor, a financial advisor from Winthrop.
As the sky turned dark, and three stars appeared – signaling the end of the holiday – the group moved from the tables to the front of the sanctuary to daven Maariv. It had been a long holiday but no one seemed to be in a rush to leave.
Kligerman, a retired art teacher from Peabody, hung around and looked at the synagogue’s ornate ark – which once stood at the Shepard Street Shul in Lynn. He has been attending the meal for 13 years and when asked to describe the experience he compared it to an epiphany. “Wow, something special happens,” he explained. “It’s like a Grateful Dead Concert, the Patriots first Super Bowl win or the Monet Art Show at the MFA.”