The Seder: Lest We Forget by Nechama Reisel
The Seder: Lest We Forget by Nechama Reisel

Volume 1 , Issue 3

?For, lo, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; The time of singing is come, And the voice of the turtle dove is heard in the land...?

The Song of Songs

The arrival of spring after the cold, wet winter brings both physical and spiritual renewal. In Judaism, Pesach, the first of the festivals the Torah commands us to observe, commemorates the spiritual creation of the people of Israel after their release from bondage in Egypt through Divine intervention, as is narrated in the book of Exodus.

Pesach, which is observed for eight days (seven in Israel), commences this year at 9:29 AM on April 1, the 14th day of Nisan, and ends at 8:19 PM on April 9, the 22nd day of Nisan. Because of this spiritual creation, Nisan is considered to be the first month of the Jewish calendar. It is the most jealously preserved and, if even only partially, through attendance at a Seder, the most widely observed of the three major festivals: Pesach, Shavuoth and Sukkot. Even otherwise non-observant Jews make a point of attending a Seder, preferably one which brings together various generations of family members.

Focal Point: the Haggadah

The focal point of the Seder is not, as is popularly assumed, the dinner, but rather the recitation of the Haggadah, the ?telling' - the narration - of the events leading to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the hope for our future spiritual and political redemption upon the coming of the Messiah. The order (or ?seder?) of this narration and the accompanying rites and symbols are designed to assure even the youngest members present become aware of the significance of the night of the festival. These are detailed and explained in the simple language of the book known as The Haggadah of Pesach, the text which is followed during the Seder.

All that transpires at a seder is actually a superbly designed teaching and learning experience, especially for the children (to whom we are obligated to transmit our history), whose curiosity is aroused, who ask questions which are only partially answered, causing them to think and ask more questions. One of the basic aims is to learn and recall the difference between freedom and slavery, and the role man's relation to the Almighty plays in attaining both physical and spiritual redemption. This lesson is constantly reinforced through the words, rites and symbols of the seder, from the very first words in the Haggadah to those of the final song, ?Chad Gadya?, which the child has been waiting for all night, and for which he forces his eyes to remain pen. Indeed, the child is deliberately teased to remain awake until the end by assigning him roles in the service, and through the strange sights and activities he witnesses.

Consider these unusual phenomena at this most unusual ?dinner.' table:

?            The strange recurrence of the number four:

-- The four cups of wine.

Everyone must drink four cups of wine over each of which the blessing is made, as opposed to the usual recitation of only one blessing covering as many cups as may be consumed at a meal. Furthermore, the wine, itself, is customarily poured by a person other than the one who will drink it.

-- The ?Four Questions?.

At the beginning of the seder, the youngest member present asks four set questions which immediately make all present aware of the unusual nature of the night: the eating of only matzah: eating only bitter herbs instead of the kinds which it is one's custom to eat: ?dipping? food not just once, but twice; and eating while sitting in a reclining position.

-- The four sons in the Haggadah

-- The four commandments regarding the Seder: matzah, marror, ?Pesach?, and Haggadah

?            The three matzoth as opposed to the usual two loaves of bread over which a blessing is made on the Sabbath and festivals.

?            The wearing of the white kittel by the leader of the seder, the white tablecloth, the wearing of white, in general.

?            The cup of Elijah and opening the door to welcome him in the middle of the service.

?                        Eating vegetables (karpas) dipped in salt water, and nothing else, at the very beginning of the service:

?                        Eating eggs dipped in salt water as an appetizer before the start of the meal.

?                        Encouraging children to hide a piece of matzah I the afikomen1 which a grown up has kept concealed under a pillow on which he has been reclining, and then holding this piece of matzah as a ransom to exact a reward from their helpless elders.

?            Eating horseradish dipped in charoset

?            Spilling drops of wine in unison as part of a service.

?            Eating and drinking while sitting in a reclining position.

?            The presence of a roasted bone or chicken neck and a roasted egg on a plate together with other foods, only some of' which are eaten.

?            The reciting of' the Song of Songs after the completion of the first seder.

Before the seder begins, wine is poured into everyone's glass. Another special cup is poured for Elijah. This cup remains standing, filled, during the entire service. (Some, however, do not fill this cup until after the Birkat Hamazon.) The seder commences with the recitation of the Kiddush, the sanctification, by all the participants, and the drinking of the wine while sitting in a reclining position. The service is led by the male head of the household, who is dressed in a white kittel (a robe) which symbolizes the dress of the free man and the joy of being free. (White is a symbol of joy.)

The table is set with the family's most beautiful cloth, china and silver as is fit for a banquet. (As slaves, we could not enjoy such luxuries, but as freemen, we may do so.) Before the head of the household are the three matzoth in a special three-compartmented cover; his wine cup, and a large one for Elijah; the seder plate containing the following:

Betzah: a roasted egg, which represents the festival offering or Chagigah during the Temple days. Its presence on the seder plate is a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. (Eggs dipped in ashes are eaten by mourners returning from a funeral.)

Zeroa: a roasted lamb shoulder bone or chicken neck, which represents the Pesach offering during Temple days. Some say it symbolizes the outstretched arm of God when he punished the Egyptians. Since the Pesach offering is permitted only in the Temple, some people use the neck of a chicken instead of a lamb bone.

Charoset: a clay-like mixture of grated apple, ground nuts (almonds, walnuts and pecans), cinnamon and red wine. Its texture is symbolic of the mortar which the Jews had to mix for the bricks they made for the Egyptians. The red wine represents the blood the Jews shed; the cinnamon, the straw they had to put into the bricks. The apple is a reminder of the apple orchards where the Jewish women went to give birth without the Egyptian's knowledge, and where G- d sheltered the women during their travail. Almonds symbolize the speediness of redemption. (Other fruits such as dates and figs are used by Sephardim. These are all mentioned in the Bible, where the Jews are compared to different fruits.)

Chazeret: a green leafy vegetable such as romaine lettuce or endives or horseradish to remind us of the marror.

Maror: the ground horseradish, a bitter herb symbolizing the bitterness of bondage. (This is eaten undiluted, so most commercially prepared horseradish is unsuitable for this purpose.)

Karpas: the vegetable used for dipping.

Salt water: which remind us of the bitter tears we shed as slaves.

Next to the plate are the three matzoth in their holder. On Shabbat and Yam Tov, the ?motzi? is made over two unbroken, uncut loaves of bread. Since, at the seder, we are commanded to eat the ?lechem oni,? the bread of our affliction and poverty, and it is not fitting that festival or Sabbath loaves be so designated, a third matzoh was added for the seder. The first and third matzoth remain unbroken until shortly before the dinner. After consuming the ?karpas?- the leader breaks the middle matzoh into two uneven pieces. The smaller piece, symbolizing the portion that a poor man always keeps for his next meal, is returned to its middle spot between the two unbroken matzoth. He then wraps the larger piece in a special cloth or bag (as the Jews wrapped their dough upon leaving Egypt), and places or hides it beneath the pillow on which he reclines. This is the ?afikomen? which represents the Pesach sacrifice, and is eaten after the entire dinner and before the Birkat Hamazon.

Sephardic Jews have special bags for the afikomen. This bag is placed over the shoulder and carried about the room to reenact the Jews' carrying their dough out of Egypt.

It is customary for the children to hide the afikomen at an opportune moment, such as when the elders are washing their hands before the meal. The children then hold it for ransom since the seder may not conclude until everyone has partaken of the afikomen after the meal which in our day takes the place of the Paschal lamb (and symbolizes our liberation) and before beginning the second half of the seder, which concerns our future redemption. This must take place before midnight. What a wonderful way to motivate children to remain awake during the seder!

The three matzoth have also been seen as symbolic of the three tribes of Israel; of the three Patriarchs; and of the three measures of flour Abraham used to bake bread for the angels who visited him.

?Karpas?: Following ?Kiddush?, each participant washes his hands ritually, but without reciting the blessing, and then each person dips some ?karpas? (parsley, celery, carrots, parsnips) into salt water, makes the blessing and eats it. The purpose of this ceremony is purely to excite the interest and curiosity of the child, who will shortly ask a ?kashe? or question, it. The dipping is a ritual symbolizing the difference between slavery and freedom. Traditionally, at banquets, freemen dipped food into sauces as appetizers.

The second time we ?dip? is before the meal itself, when hard boiled eggs are dipped in salt water, symbolic of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Traditionally, Jews have felt that even in the midst of joy, we must also remember our times of sorrow.

The last symbol is that of the cup of Elijah and the opening of the door to welcome him. This cup of wine is actually a fifth cup which, some authorities, hold, is meant to be drunk.

According to most customs, however, it is poured for Elijah, whose coming will herald our redemption, and will occur during the month of Nisan.

By opening the door, we are recalling the first seder, which was observed in Egypt behind closed doors. After reciting the Birkat Hamazon, when we open the door and recite ?shefoeh chamichah,? our prayer to God to punish our enemies, we are expressing our faith in His protection and in our ultimate redemption as He once redeemed us from bondage in Egypt. Again, this is a colorful, mystical ceremony which can not but stimulate the child's imagination and wonder, and which will reinforce all that he has seen and learned during the earlier part of the seder.

In the ?Amidah? for the Three Festivals of Joy (the Shalosh Regalim), two, Sukkot and Shavuot. are referred to as ?z'man simchatenut?, ?the season of our rejoicing.? Pesach, however is known as ?z'man cherutainu,?, ?the time of our freedom.? Perhaps the implication here is that, while we rejoice in our freedom, we must never take it for granted or forget the bondage and suffering which preceded the freedom, a bondage which could so easily recur, as we have seen throughout our history, and most recently in Germany, Russia, Ethiopia, and other countries.

Freedom carries with it the obligation to teach our history to all succeeding generations so that it will not be forgotten. This is the true purpose of the annual seder. The clue lies in the ringing words which open the seder service:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and join in celebrating the Pesach festival. This year we are here, next year may it be in the land of Israel! This year we are slaves, next year free men!

[For additional reading, please see: The Passover Haggadah, Artscroll Mesorah Series; The Festivals in Halacha, Volume II...Mesorah Publications Ltd; The Book of our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov, Feldheim Publishers; The Passover Anthology by Philip Goodman, The Jewish Publication Society]

All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011