The POSTman Knocks Twice: Passover madness or how we outlived the Romans

Four sets of dishes, four sets of cutlery, two sets of pots and pans. Sometimes even two dishwashers: meat and milk. That’s not crazy enough. Now we do Passover.

A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘You know what the secret is? Why the Jews survived for two thousand years?” My non-Jewish friend stared at me blankly? Maybe he knew it was rhetorical question.
“I’ll tell you. Because we are crazy!” Even more blankness of face.
“Of course we’re crazy. Two pairs of dishes all year round, sometimes even four for those who can afford it: meat and dairy “everyday sets” and meat and dairy “Shabbat, holidays, special guests and the in-laws.”
Four sets of dishes, four sets of cutlery, two sets of pots and pans. Sometimes even two dishwashers: meat and milk. That’s not crazy enough. Now we do Passover.
Two more sets of dishes and cutlery, and scrubbing and airing and burning and spending. “Put this away, take that out! Burn this! Scrape that! Mobilization of the home front.” Does a normal people do this? Of course when we were poor, life was simpler, and we would use fire and boiling water to make pots, pans and cutlery ready for Passover. That was harder and crazier, but we enjoyed it. Sort of.
And, if you promise not to tell, we enjoy it today as well.
And the unwritten customs: a new dress, a new suit, a new pair of shoes for the children. How when our children were young, my hand would tremble as I wrote the checks and quickly the Passover overdraft grew. And how my esteem for my parents, immigrants in Canada, wrestling with their limited income, grows more and more. They did it, they managed. We were all holiday resplendent and we never felt poor.
We will not wax nostalgic, for each of us the family memories surge, usually happily. Add the Israeli quotient, “Will she/he be let off base for Passover? Where will the soldier daughter or son celebrate the holiday? Who will be in the bunkers, in the tanks, in the planes, aboard ship?” Crazy? Absolutely! Isn’t it wonderful, though? And today it is so much easier than even in a generation or two back. Certainly in Israel, and now as well in large Diaspora communities where special Passover food is in (costly) abundance.
Now here is the kicker. The craziest thing of all.
To celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, the rabbis in the Mishna wanted to make a “high-class” meal.
So what did they choose? Whom did they imitate? The upper crust, (oops – bread), the upper class or aristocracy of.....? Of Rome. Rome which had trampled and hacked and fired and killed in a brutal war against the Second Jewish Commonwealth. And won.
If you compare the order of the meal of the Seder night with the order of the Roman banquets, subtract the specific Judaic insertions (like bitter herbs and haroset, salt water, four cups of wine and of course matzot) it is a typical Roman upper class meal. The Romans reclined on a low couch and leaned to the left! They began with a hardboiled egg, and then a vegetable dipped in vinegar.
They drank wine and gorged themselves. Then they would continue the food orgy – often to the point of nausea by going from house to house of their fellow aristocrats to gorge some more.
Here the Jewish element bends the Roman vulgarity to the Passover content and the memory of the Temple, recently destroyed. The meal has bitter herbs and sweet reminders of the lime which held the bricks together, of the sacrifices and the celebration. After that meal the rabbis commanded: “Let the revels end!” No more food after the “epi komon” – after the meals or even after carousing – in our case celebrating.
(Why the Greek? Because Greek was the spoken language of the educated classes in Rome. Some experts even think that Julius Caesar said to Brutus in Greek, “Kai su, Brute?” and not the Latin “Et tu, Brute?”) The afikoman, as it came to be pronounced in Hebrew, became another point of fun for the young to keep them awake during the entire recitation. The stealing of the afikoman-half piece of matza, broken off at the start of the meal, holding it for ransom so the meal could finish, gave the children a focus till the end of the recitation and food.
The Passover Seder in effect gave the Hebrew nation its victory over Rome, enacted through coopting the Greco-Roman upper-class meal to state that we tonight are as free as our conquerors. And in creating the Seder and all that developed in our tradition around it, the Talmudic rabbis and their successors created as well the Passover “madness” and joy. To that was added “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
It worked, and here we are.
The rabbis – then – were great educators. Their concern was that the child should be kept awake, alert and interested, and a memory indelibly stamped into his brain, maybe into our DNA.... That is the other central element of the entire Seder: keeping the young involved. Hence the Four Questions, hence the four sons, the four cups of wine, hence the game (cruel as it seems today) of enjoying the Egyptian plagues and multiplying them by a kind of midrashic interpretation: 10, 50, 250....
Now the literalists among us see each word of the Haggada as holy, and often lose sight of the fun element. And women and their shlepping husbands too often reach the Seder exhausted, lest a tiny crumb of bread hide in a crevice in the grouting.
Solemnity can kill spontaneity, heaviness outweighs joy. Holiness can destroy fun.
We are solemn when we recall the sadnesses: “In every generation” Jews have had to face danger, and death. We relive the Exodus from Egypt to freedom.
We enjoy the Seder, we who are here, because we have indeed sown in weeping, but in joyful singing we have returned. And those who are not here, have yet to taste the fullness of the transition from the bread of affliction into the matza of joy.
Thanks to our madness to carry on and love a seemingly “crazy” tradition, here we are.
And thus we sing the fun and word games after the meal, epi komon. Now we are free.
Against all odds, hope against hope, we are here.
Avraham Avi-hai said, “Next Year in Jerusalem” in Canada in 1951, and has said it in Israel – with one brief interruption – since 1952. [email protected]