Though we think of the Pessah Seder as a time for families to get together and recount the story of Egypt – uniting Jews the world over in a national account of our people’s Exodus – there is actually a wide variety of customs practiced across the spectrum of Jewish communities. These customs highlight more than just the usual Ashkenazi and Sephardi division, as even among the Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardi Jews themselves there is great diversity; not to mention the many individual customs families have adopted throughout the generations.
Jews of Egyptian descent, for example, have an interesting custom of wrapping the matzot in a sack-like package, which is passed to each member of the Seder. While each person holds the sack in turn, the other attendees ask him a series of questions in Arabic: “Where are you coming from?” to which he replies in Arabic, “From Egypt;” “What are you carrying?” “Matzot;” and “Where are you going?” to which he answers, “To Jerusalem”.
David Sabato, a native Israeli of Egyptian descent, relates that this custom even helped him as a soldier serving in the IDF. At a checkpoint once, an Arab who wished to cross did not understand the Hebrew or English questions addressed to him, and none of the soldiers on duty at the time spoke Arabic.
Remembering his Seder customs, Sabato approached the Arab and proceeded to ask him in Arabic, “Where are you coming from?” to which the man replied, “From Ramalla”, followed by, “What are you carrying?” and “Where are you going?” Though he was not carrying matzot, nor traveling to Jerusalem, he was able to continue on his way, thanks to Sabato’s Egyptian Seder customs.
Though today this custom is common in Sephardi communities, the earliest mention of it appears in Rabbi Asher of Lunel’s Sefer Minhagot, written in the early 13th century, in which he states that German Jews take the matzot wrapped in coverings, and bear them on their shoulders and walk to the corners of the house.
ETHIOPIAN JEWS’ customs are as unique as their history. Because of the special circumstances they experienced in which they became disconnected from mainstream Judaism, they were not exposed to the oral law as passed down in the Mishna and Talmud, and thus relied mainly on the written Torah alone.
According to Maru Gete, an Ethiopian who immigrated to Israel at the age of eight, the Jews of Ethiopia would eat a slaughtered lamb, as prescribed in the book of Exodus, a practice the Talmud has forbidden since the destruction of the second Temple.
Additionally, Ethiopian Jews interpreted the law forbidding hametz in a unique way: While non-Ethiopian Jews understand hametz to mean leavened bread, from the Hebrew word le’hahmitz, to rise or leaven, Ethiopian Jews interpreted hametz to mean “kept” or “not-fresh”. As a result, they would eat only fresh produce, freshly extracted milk and freshly slaughtered meat; everything else classified as forbidden hametz.
Furthermore, Gete relates that since arriving is Israel, his and many other Ethiopian families have the practice of recounting their own exodus from Ethiopia, alongside the recounting of the Jewish people’s Exodus from Egypt, adding a distinct take on the mishna’s line, “In every generation one must see himself as if he personally left Egypt.”
ACCORDING TO Rabbi Yitzchak Peretz, head of the office of the chief Sephardi rabbi, who emigrated from Morocco at the age of 13, Moroccan Jews have the custom of holding the seder plate, which contains all the different foods that are to be eaten later, over each person’s head, while the other participants recite in Arabic, “Just as God took us out of Egypt and split the sea for us, so may he save us today.”
Peretz describes another interesting Moroccan custom based in Kabbala, in which they divide the soft doughy matza they eat into the shapes of the Hebrew letters daled and vav; daled for the doorposts of Israel that God watched over, and vav as a representation of God’s name.
Peretz also stresses that there is an overall theme in his family’s Seder of including the children, and trying to keep them awake for as long as possible. To this end, he tells many stories and jokes, and even follows the Ashkenazi custom of giving a prize for hiding the afikoman.
The afikoman practice exists in two variations – either a child hides the last piece of matza, known as the afikoman, and if the father cannot find it he awards the child a prize, or the father hides it and if the child succeeds in finding it he is awarded a prize. The practice of hiding the matza is mentioned as early as the 13th century by the Talmudist Rabbi Eleazar Rokeach of Worms.
IF YOU ever attend a Yemenite Seder, you will see their unique take on the Seder plate. According to Tal Tanami, a second generation Israeli of Yemenite descent, they turn the entire table into one big Seder plate, with a border of parsley leaves stacked all along the edges.
The Yemenite matza is the most bread-like around, largely resembling pita. According to their tradition, as long as the dough is continuously kneaded it cannot turn into hametz, and thus they let it rise and are not bound by the customary baking deadline of 18 minutes.
But do not count on attaining these tasty matzot for yourself, as they are baked by family members and not sold in stores.
DURING THE singing of “Dayenu,” on the first night of Pessah, you may not wish to be sitting at an Italian Seder table as you may incur a lashing by the person sitting next to you. The table is adorned with long-stemmed green onions – one for each participant. At the chorus of “Dayenu” everyone picks up their onion and whips the wrist of someone adjacent to them. The sound of the onion stem is meant to represent the sounds of the whips of our slave masters in Egypt.
A similar practice is carried out by those of Iranian, Afghani and Iraqi descent, except that among these three groups the onions are gathered in a bunch. One person whips the person next to him and then passes on the bunch of onions, and so forth, until it has made its way around the table. Performed during “Dayenu,” the song of miracles, this ritual is a reminder of how miraculous it was that the Jewish people were freed from the lash of oppression.
SOME SCHOLARS have suggested that many of the basic customs of the
Seder that appear in the Talmud were influenced by Greek and Roman
festive banquets, in which they would recline on their left sides,
begin with an appetizer known as karpas, and end with drunken sexual
celebrations, known as epikyomin, in Greek.
It seems the Talmudic scholars adopted the Helenistic paradigm of
celebratory feasts but then channeled it through a different moral
prism, utilizing it to show thanks for our freedom and exodus, instead
of just an outlet for gluttonous urges.
On this Pessah, though our customs and lifestyles may differ, let our common celebrations of freedom serve to unite us.