Some Pointers for the Seder


Here are some of my annual tips for the first night of Passover:




The whole reason for having a Passover seder is to carry out the Torah’s commandment, “And you shall tell your children” about the exodus from Egypt. But telling your children is often not so easy to do. Especially with little children, it’s hard to keep them interested and involved in what’s going on—and it’s particularly hard for them to sit at the table for an extended period. But actually, sitting around a table is not a requirement of the seder, in fact, you could make quite the opposite case.


As is well known, the seder itself is partially modeled on the ancient Greco-Roman banquet, whereby people used to lie on special couches as they ate and/or drank. We still have a remnant of this practice in “reclining” at the seder table—which nowadays seems mostly to consist of sticking a cushion or pillow on people’s armrests or chair-backs. This isn’t exactly reclining, but what else can we do? We don’t have those special Greco-Roman couches anymore, and we certainly couldn’t have everyone reclining on the floor around the dinner table. How could you even see the seder plate or do all the other things that are required?


But you probably have another table in your house that’s much closer to the ground: that coffee table in the living room. The custom I grew up with (and I know we were hardly alone) was to seat everyone around the coffee table: grownups sat on cushions on the living room floor or else sat on the couch or living room chairs—either way more closely approximating real “reclining”—while kids stretched out on pillows or mattresses on the floor.


This, in my experience, is a great way to do the first part of the seder—everything right up to the shulḥan arukh, the actual meal, when everyone moves from the coffee table to the dinner table. It certainly adds to the feeling of specialness of the evening and arouses the interest of even a very young child, which, after all, is what this evening is all about. True, if you have a large family and/or many guests, this may not be altogether practical, especially in a small-sized living room. But otherwise, give it a try! For many families, it is altogether workable and a great help in carrying out the evening’s central mitzvah. The actual telling-about-the-exodus, that is, reading the haggadah itself, is thus mostly done reclining around the coffee table.



The Four Sons

Beyond the seating arrangements, there is the actual act of telling our children (or a bunch of adults telling each other if there are no children in attendance) about the exodus. The Torah actually mentions this commandment in four different passages (Exod 12:26-27, 13:8, 13:14, and Deut 6:20-21). But this very fact seems to violate the principle of Scriptural economy. This principle holds that there is no needless repetition in the Torah: every word is significant. But if so, why are there four passages that all say the same thing, “Tell your children about the exodus”? Wouldn’t once be enough?


The answer that the Haggadah gives is that these four passages are referring to four different kinds of children, the wise child, the wicked one, the “simple,” and the one who does not even know how to ask. The existence of each of these four types is derived from a subtle reading of the four passages in the Torah.


Thus, the first passage mentioned above, Exod 12:26-27, seems to be referring to a specific kind of child, whom it quotes as saying, “What is this service to you.” This wording suggests that the child is excluding himself from the whole thing, as if to say that it’s your business but not his: hence, he is the “wicked son.” Exod 13:8 doesn’t even mention a child asking anything; it just says to talk about the exodus. So the text must have had in mind the sort of child who does not know how to ask—but even such a child should be told about the exodus. In Exod 13:14, the child does ask, but barely: “What is this?” This must be a relatively young and simple child, so he requires a fairly simple answer. By contrast, the child’s question in Deut 6:20-21seems altogether sophisticated, “What are the statutes and the laws and the ordinances that the Lord our God commanded you?” Surely such a question comes from a wise child and deserves an equally sophisticated answer.


Now I Get It


Before this, the Haggadah reports a strange statement by Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, “I’m fully seventy years old, yet only now do I understand why the exodus from Egypt should be recounted at night.” This is an odd thing to say. After all, night is when the festival begins; shouldn’t people carry out the commandment to “tell your children” at the first opportunity, namely, the night of the first day of Passover?


(I should say parenthetically that I translated Rabbi Elazar as saying that he is fully seventy years old because in Hebrew he says that he is ke- seventy years old. This looks like the common particle for “like,” as if Rabbi Elazar was not really 70, but was in some way just like a 70-year-old—an understanding that has led to some interesting explanations. But in fact this seems to be one example of the relatively rare use of ke- as an asseverative [an expressionof earnestness] —rare, but found in both biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew. If you want more information, just look up “asseverative kaph” on the internet.)


In any case, Rabbi Elazar’s comment originally had nothing to do with Passover or the exodus. It is presented in the Mishnah (Berakhot, 1:5) as part of the laws governing the reciting of the Shema. As is well known, the Shema consists of three different passages from the Torah. The first two, Deut 6:4-9 and 11:18-21, specifically say that we are to recite the Shema morning and evening, “when you lie down and when you get up.” But the third passage that we recite (Num 15:37-41) has no obvious connection to the other two passages; it is all about the law of fringes (tzitziyot). True, it makes sense to require this be read when one gets up in the morning, since that’s also when a person gets dressed—and hence, when one should be reminded to wear a garment with the prescribed fringes. But why should this third passage be recited at night, when fringes are not at all required?


Rabbi Elazar says that only now has he come to know the answer, thanks to his colleague Ben Zoma. We recite this passage at night as well not because of what it says about fringes, but because of its very last verse, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.” Since this verse mentions the exodus, however fleetingly, it is deemed to fulfill the commandment of Deut 16:3, which requires us to recall the exodus “all the days of your life.” The word all suggests (by the same rule of Scriptural economy mentioned above) that something more than a once-a-day mention of the exodus is being required: all the days of your life is interpreted to include both day and night—hence the duty to say this third passage of the Shema not only in the morning, but at night as well. (But of course none of this mentions the reading of the Haggadah on the first night of Passover!)


Wicked Laban


The Haggadah instructs us to mention what wicked Laban the Aramean sought to do to his nephew (and our ancestor) Jacob, something which, it says, was even worse than what Pharaoh tried to do the Israelites in Egypt, “since Pharaoh decreed [death] on the newborn males, but Laban sought to eliminate all [newborns, boys and girls alike].” This is actually an adaptation of an old midrash that had nothing to do with Laban. It was all about the events preceding Moses’ birth.


The Torah reports that at a certain point Pharaoh decreed that all newborn boys be cast into the Nile—apparently out of fear of that as grown men they might organize an uprising. Newborn girls, however, were to be spared (Exod 1:22). Amram, the future father of Moses and a leader of the people, gave up in despair; according to this midrash, he divorced his wife Jochebed lest she bring forth boys to be slaughtered at birth.


At this point, Amram’s daughter Miriam objected: “Father, your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s! Pharaoh’s decree only applied to newborn boys, whereas what you are planning will put a stop to all births, boys and girls alike.” At this Amram reconsidered and took his wife back. That is why it says (Exod 2:1) “a man of the house of Levi went out and married a Levite woman.” First Amram “went out,” then, on his daughter’s advice, he reconsidered and “[re]married a Levite woman,” his former wife Jochebed.


What the Haggadah says, namely, that “Pharaoh decreed [death] on the newborn males, but Laban sought to eliminate all [newborns, boys and girls alike]” is clearly an adaptation of Miriam’s words in the old midrash to apply to wicked Laban.


Thus It Concludes


The Haggadah proper ends (for Ashkenazim) with the assertion, “Thus concludes the proper arrangement (siddur) of Pesah according to its rules (hilkhato), its laws and regulations. Just as we have had to privilege to arrange it, so may we have the privilege to carry it out (literally, “to do it”).  This has stymied some commentators, since, coming at the end of the Haggadah, the participants seem to have already “done it” or “carried it out.” Some have suggested that “arranging it” refers to the seder meal and narration that have just been celebrated, whereas “doing it” refers to celebrating the festival in the land of Israel after the redemption and the coming of the Messiah.


Actually, these lines come at the end of a long poem written in the eleventh century by R. Joseph ben R. Samuel Tuv Elem, Rashi’s teacher. The poem was intended to be recited on the Shabbat preceding Passover, Shabbat ha-Gadol; its purpose was to explain some of the rules and procedures for the festival. The last lines are thus saying, “Just as we have been able to go over the rules of Pesah today, on Shabbat ha-Gadol, so may we be able to carry them out next week, on the festival itself.” Apparently, these and the very last lines came to be so beloved that they were inserted at the end of Haggadah as well, where they are sung to a haunting tune.


Happy Passover!

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