Yesterday, I wrote about Passover basics. I mentioned that there were three ways of discussing traditions and texts: The face-value way, the story behind the face value and the secret or hidden meanings. Today, I will talk about the story behind the ritual and about the Seder—the festival meal which is at the centerpiece of the holiday.
The Seder (which means “order”) is the ritual we perform on Passover. Pretty much everything about the Passover Seder is symbolic in nature. The food that is blessed and eaten is especially symbolic. Here is a breakdown of what each food represents. This information is written in the Passover booklet, the Haggadah, which is read prior to the Passover meal.
The special plate we use for the ritual contains the symbolic food we eat during the Seder:
The Matzah– When the Jews were freed from slavery, they left in a rush and their bread did not have time to rise.
Bitter vegetable– The bitter vegetable, such as parsley is dipped in salt water to represent the hardship and tears that the Jews suffered as slaves in Egypt
Haroseth– The ingredients of Haroseth vary according to sect of Jews, but it mainly consists of a mixture of apples, cinnamon, nuts and raisins, usually mashed. This represents the mixture that slaves used to build the buildings in Egypt
Shank bone– the shank bone represents the sacrificial lamb which was offered to God as Passover sacrifice in ancient times
Egg– The egg is a symbol of life. Also, it is said that the egg is the only food that gets harder the more it is cooked– in the way that the Jewish people get tougher the more the adversity.
Bitter herb- The bitter herb, usually horseradish, represents the bitterness that slavery caused for the Jews
The Passover Seder
The text of the Passover Seder is written in a book called the Haggadah. The content of the Seder consists of the following parts:
This is a blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.
A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the first ritual food- the vegetable (Karpa)s.
A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.
One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).
5. The Story
A retelling of the story* of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Passover. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions*, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the Seder.
The Story is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise son, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked son, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple son, who needs to know the basics; and the son who is unable to ask, the one who doesn’t even know enough to know what he needs to know.
It includes a description of the *Ten Plagues of Egypt.
At the end of the Story a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.
A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
7. Blessing over Grain Products
The blessing is a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
9. Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The matzah is eaten with a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine (called maror), which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery.
10. The Sandwich
Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich.
A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal. (Just nothing with leavening.)
12. The last matzah (Afikomen)
The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as “dessert,” the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.
13. Grace after Meals
The third cup of wine is poured, and grace after meals is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Sabbath. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for prophet Elijah who is supposed to herald the Messiah and is supposed to come on Passover to do this. The door is opened for a while at this point (supposedly for Elijah, but historically because Jews were accused of nonsense like putting the blood of Christian babies in matzah, and we wanted to show our Christian neighbors that we weren’t doing anything unseemly).
Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
A simple statement that the Seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Passover in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). This is followed by various hymns and stories.
The main highlights of the Seder are the recitation of the Ten Plagues that befell Egypt, causing the Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves leave, and the Four Questions, and the story of the exodus.
*The Story in a Nutshell
After hundreds of years of slavery to the Egyptian Pharaohs, during which time the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, God saw the people’s distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed God’s command. God then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.
At the stroke of midnight of the Hebrew month of Nissan 15, God visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. While doing so, God spared the Children of Israel, “passing over” their homes—hence the name of the holiday. Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. 600,000 adult males, plus many more woman and children, left Egypt on that day, and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as the Israelite people.
*THE TEN PLAGUES
The plagues as they appear in the bible are:
Water turned to blood killing all fish and other water life.
Lice or gnats
Disease on livestock
Hail mixed with fire
Death of the first-born of all Egyptian families.
The plagues represent a serious problem for me and for Jews throughout history. Although the Ten Plagues are not the first to appear in the bible, they are the most significant: they represent the first time God intervenes in history to shape a peoples’ destiny. In fact, the Ten Plagues goal is not to compel Pharaoh to free the Hebrews—the last plague alone would have been enough for that; they were to show God’s power over the gods of Egypt and to punish the Egyptians for slavery.
Egypt drowned male babies into the Nile. Although most Egyptians did not personally participate in that, the very first plague—turning the Nile into blood—makes clear that all Egyptians share the guilt—the river itself gives witness to the infants drowned in the water.
Some of the early plagues cause more nuisance than suffering. Later plagues inflict economic destruction. The tenth plague is the final revenge for murder of the Hebrew newborns. On one night, the firstborn sons of Egypt perish, and Pharaoh allows the Hebrew slaves to be freed.
The Book of Exodus reiterates repeatedly that throughout the plagues, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the Hebrews leave. This seems morally problematic: God deprives Pharaoh of free will, and then punishes him for being hard-hearted! The Talmud kind of ties itself in knots over this one and comes to the explanation that , actually, if God had NOT hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it would have deprived him of free will—he would have let the slaves go not by choice but out of terror. By hardening his heart, the Egyptian king no longer feared the kind of physical devastation that would terrify and evoke instant obedience from a normal person. However, there was nothing to stop Pharaoh from intellectually realizing the injustices he had inflicted on the Hebrew slaves, and letting them go. Only when the first born started dying did he realize he was facing a force stronger than his own.
Although the Ten Plagues must have been satisfying for the long-suffering slaves, Jewish tradition is extremely uncomfortable with the devastation of Egypt. During the Seder, when we recite the plagues, a drop of wine is spilled for each one, reminding us that we cannot celebrate another’s suffering. Also, when the Hebrews had safely crossed the Red Sea, we are told that God admonished them when the cheered as the Egyptian army drowned: “My creatures are drowning, and you are singing songs!” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, we are commanded by God—“You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (23:8)
*The Four Questions
The child is the most important participant at the Passover Seder. The entire Seder is constructed around the goal to mystify the child, to stimulate his curiosity, to compel him to ask: Why is this night different from all other nights? The Seder is celebrated especially for the children. It is important for Jewish children to be and feel involved in the celebration of Passover. Much of the ceremony is based on the commandment in the Bible that says, “And thou shalt tell thy son [now, children]”
The youngest child has the job of asking these four questions about why this night is different from all other nights:
|1. On all other nights we eat all kinds of breads and crackers…
Why do we eat only matzoh on Passover?
Matzoh reminds us that when the Jews left the slavery of Egypt they had no time to bake their bread. They took the raw dough on their journey and baked it in the hot desert sun into hard crackers called matzoh.
|2. On all other nights we eat many kinds of vegetables and herbs….
Why do we eat bitter herbs, maror, at our Seder?
Maror reminds us of the bitter and cruel way the Pharaoh treated the Jewish people when they were slaves in Egypt.
|3. On all other nights we don’t usually dip one food into another….
Why do we dip our foods twice tonight?
We dip bitter herbs into Charoset to remind us how hard the Jewish slaves worked in Egypt. The chopped apples and nuts look like the clay used to make the bricks used in building the Pharaoh’s buildings.We dip parsley into salt water. The parsley reminds us that spring is here and new life will grow. The salt water reminds us of the tears of the Jewish slaves.
4. On all other nights we eat sitting up straight….
Why do we lean on a pillow tonight?
We lean on a pillow to be comfortable and to remind us that once we were slaves, but now we are free.
The Haggadah itself stresses the importance of the Seder as “a spectacle meant to excite the interest and the curiosity of the children.” Everything in the Seder is meant to make the children curious and to ask questions.
The whole ritual of the Seder is to answer these questions. We are instructed to not merely tell the story of the exodus, but to feel and believe that each of us, personally, was actually there. We are not supposed to tell the story as if it happened to other, but literally to each of us.
To be honest, as anyone who has children can attest, the Passover Seder is a misery for kids. The ritual is long and usually boring, even though we try to make it fun for kids. They have to sit during the whole reading of the Haggadah while they can smell the food that won’t be served until later; they are usually hungry and cranky. And yet, the holiday is one of those experiences that stays with them forever, for better or worse. Like the Thanksgivings or Christmases, where we are forced to spend time with weird uncles and aunts who pinch our cheeks. With crazy sisters-in-law. Where family tensions erupt. But hey, that’s a tradition!