The Seder’s ultimate question

Some customs are about reliving the experience, both of slavery and redemption.

Lodz 1936: ‘The Family at the Seder’ from The Szyk Haggadah (photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
Lodz 1936: ‘The Family at the Seder’ from The Szyk Haggadah
(photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
Judging from the Haggada alone, the main concern of the Seder seems to be, almost retroactively, an explanation of the unusual customs practiced on that night. A few different concerns emerge, however, when we look at some of the other customs of the Seder, particularly those that relate to the foods we consume.
I should note that I’m only touching on a few of the customs. The ones I discuss are based on an article by Evelyn Cohen, titled “Seder Foods and Customs in Illuminated Special Haggadot,” and several anthologies of customs and a few other texts.
Some of the customs represent Jewish history and continuity. According to Yitzhak David ben Rubi’s book of laws and customs, published in Warsaw in 1890, the maror should remind us of Adam’s sin and the bitterness it caused throughout history. And in some Italian Haggadot, there is fish on the Seder plate, and it symbolizes the leviathan, the preferred food of the righteous at the End of Days. In this way, the night is an allusion to the Jewish presence in history.
A somewhat related idea can be found in the pleas for well-being and health. The purpose for removing wine from our cups when we read the plagues, according to one scholar, is for the same reason that we spit when hearing the name of a disease: as if to say, “it should not, heaven forbid, happen to us.” The accepted version of not taking pleasure in the downfall of enemies is perhaps a more palatable interpretation, but the idea behind this explanation is that we need God’s protection for our survival.
Some customs are about reliving the experience, both of slavery and redemption. The haroset is supposed to remind us of the mortar with which the Israelites had to work; and those Jews that have the custom to include cinnamon in the dish do so because the flavor itself comes from a natural ingredient that recalls the straw – an ingredient in the bricks. On the flip side, the Barcelona Haggada (Catalonia, 14th century) includes an illustration of the plate (and sometimes basket) being placed on every participant’s head. Interestingly enough, this custom continues until this very day: Moroccan Jews have a tradition of passing the platter over every individual’s head. That may be a nod to the way God passed over everyone, which is why even those who are sleeping get this treatment.
There is one theme, however, to all the disparate traditions in various Haggadot, and Cohen tells us that it is the need to keep children engaged. That is often accomplished with nuts and fruits. One scholar mentions a custom to have a candle at the table, which they called the “ma nishtanah candle.” What was the purpose? You guessed it! For the children to ask ma nishtanah! Rabbi Yechiel Epstein in his Aruch Hashulchan, stresses that not only boys but girls as well need to learn about the Exodus. That is because Passover is the foundation of belief, and there is therefore a need to keep everyone engaged and informed. That need is so pressing, in fact, that some people even have the custom of physically struggling over the afikoman (I personally witnessed this in only one household and still wish I hadn’t.) One possible source for this is in a scene in the Barcelona Haggada, where someone grabs the arm of the person holding the matzah portion.
On a deeper level, these customs seem to show the night’s real concern and ultimate question: will the next generation, of any age, appreciate the importance of the Seder and continue to celebrate it? Indeed, it stands to reason that it is only through impressing upon the next generation that Judaism has an ongoing role in history, sharing with them the conviction that God protects and provides for his followers, and helping them experience the Exodus palpably that the mandate of “telling one’s children” is fulfilled.
The writer holds a PhD in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.