Passover: On the Seder

I would like to share some ideas I have collected and developed over the years, and perhaps they can bring something new to your ancient Seder.

Passover Seder. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
Passover Seder.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
The Seder and brit milah are the two most widely kept rituals in the Jewish tradition. They are also the oldest, and have their antecedents from before we stood at the theophany of Sinai. They hearken back to the very DNA of who we were as Hebrews before we evolved into Israelites, then Jews and now Israelis.
While the Seder, too, evolved from the original one held in Egypt to the biblical one centered in the Temple to the rabbinic one of exilic life, the core of the Seder would be recognizable to a Jew in any generation who found himself magically transported to the Seder of his ancestor or descendant.
That core, of course, is the family, usually multigenerational, sitting together and telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt surrounded by symbolic foods.
I would like to share some ideas I have collected and developed over the years, and perhaps they can bring something new to your ancient Seder.
ENGLISH! THERE is no mitzvah to read every single word of the Haggadah in Hebrew. In fact, if there are people at your Seder who do not understand Hebrew, you should read it in the language they understand. The purpose of the Seder is to tell over the story of the Exodus in terms and ideas everyone can understand.
My first Passover in Israel was over 25 years ago, and I had the great privilege to be a guest at the Seder of Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, who then served as chief rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem. He is a great scholar and a truly righteous man. As a yeshiva student, I was so excited to hear the great words of Torah he would share and bemoaned that fact that the holiday laws prohibited me from taking a pen and paper to the Seder to record all the great words of Torah I anticipated him sharing.
When I got there, though, I sat down along with his family of children and grandchildren. I was shocked that the Seder he led was the most basic of basic. It was quite literally on the level of the kindergarten children who surrounded him. No intellectual ideas were shared, no high-minded themes were discussed. It was as though a kindergarten teacher was teaching her class, sound effects and all.
And it was then that I learned the most profound idea of all. The purpose of the Seder is “V’higadeta l’vincha,” “And you shall tell your children” (Ex. 13:8). You must tell them in the way they can understand.
The other observation that I will record here is that, while I might have missed something, I did not see him eating anything at Shulchan Orech, the meal. Now again, I was so busy stuffing my own mouth with all the wonderful food that perhaps I missed a few bites that he might have taken, but I really think he didn’t eat. But when it came time for the afikomen, for which there is a special mitzvah to eat with an appetite, I was too stuffed to really eat anything more than a bite, while Rabbi Nebenzahl ate it with enthusiasm.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that the Seder is the paradigm of the quintessential Jewish experience. It is the perfect mixture of Torah learning, prayer, praise of God, family and, of course, eating! Perhaps this is why the Seder is one of the most popular of Jewish rituals.
WHILE WE call the holiday Passover, God calls it the Festival of Matzot. This is the way of lovers who point out what’s best about the other. We call it Passover to recall God passing over the Hebrews’ houses during the death of the firstborn, while God calls it the Festival of Matzot to recall our following Him in the desert with just a few loaves of unleavened bread. It is the fulfillment of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. This is a verse from the Song of Songs which is read on Passover.
The most important part of the Seder, Maggid, begins with the paragraph of “Ha lahma anya,” “This is the bread of affliction.” This paragraph is in Aramaic because that was the common language of the Jews when this part of the Seder was formulated. It is both an explanation of what matzah is and what it represents. It is also an invitation to come and eat with us. Both the explanation and the invitation, to achieve their aims, need to be done in a language that people understand. Hence the Aramaic, and hence my point earlier about speaking in English if people don’t understand Hebrew.
THE STORY of rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azarya, Akiva, and Tarfon sitting together in Bnei Brak recounting the Exodus from Egypt is one of my favorite parts of the Haggadah. While there is so much to write about this, I will share just one idea.
Rabbi Akiva was a descendant of converts to Judaism, while the other rabbis there were kohanim and Levites. The Tribe of Levi was said to have been the one tribe that was not enslaved. In other words, all the rabbis sitting there were expressly not descended from slaves in Egypt. They nevertheless told the story as if they, too, had left Egypt. It is a prime example of shared Jewish fate and destiny.
Thus, we were all slaves in Egypt, we were all exiled from Spain, and we all survived the Holocaust, whether or not we are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Ethiopian or any other flavor of Jew. ■
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.