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YEAR OF THE SEDER

01/19/2024 01:42:55 PM

Jan19

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Bo, the last of the plagues and the beginning of the flight from Egypt into the wilderness. It contains some key verses that appear in our Passover Haggadahs, not just because Passover commemorates this story, but because the Torah itself tells us directly in this parasha that we must retell the story each year in the vein of the seder. Since 5784 is Ner Shalom’s YEAR OF THE SEDER I thought this would be a good time to dive into these verses, how the Passover seder developed, and why we are doing seders for nearly every holiday this year. 

Let’s start with situating the key verses in their narrative context. Pharaoh hardened his own heart for the period of the first seven plagues. He consents to let the people go, then reneges, over and over. Finally, in this week’s Torah portion, God prepares to bring the final three, the most horrifying of the plagues, and the parasha opens with God saying, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart,” which is troubling for a lot of people, but which the rabbis generally wave off by explaining that Pharaoh has brought this on himself by hardening his own heart up to this point, and now God is ready for the big finale and does not want Pharaoh to give in just at the last minute. The quote itself is: “HaShem said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am God.” (Exodus 10:1-2).

This is the first time that God sets up the narrative of the Exodus as a pedagogical tool. God plans the grand finale, and prepares for Pharaoh to stay mad long enough to get through it, in order that we will have this big, dark, meaningful story for our descendants for all time. The Torah continues through the plague of locusts and the plague of darkness. At this point, Egypt is barren, terrified, a post-apocolyptic hellscape of darkness and destruction and fear and mistrust, and the worst is yet to come. HaShem prepares the Israelites for the final plague. As God describes the specifics of how the lamb is to be killed, how the blood is to be painted on the lintels, how the families are to eat the lamb, how they are to prepare for their quick escape come sunrise, God also gives some directions for how this miracle will be celebrated in the years and millenia to come. The abstinence from leavening is decreed, and the cessation of work on the first and seventh day of this week-long holiday every spring is commanded, and then - most importantly for our purposes - HaShem again specifies that all of this is to be used as a pedagogical tool: “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’, you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to יהוה, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’” (Exodus 12:26-27). 

The specifics of the Passover Seder as we know it were not set for many years to come, but it is clear that from the beginning, the celebration and the rituals and the teaching tools of the story of our people’s slavery and freedom were very important to God that they be a part of our people’s mythos and that our children be well educated on this specifically. There are other holidays in the Torah, which have some level of commandment to them from the outside, but none are framed quite this way, with the constant reminder that we teach this to our children. It is unclear how much pedagogy actually occurred in the days of Temple worship. Presumably there would be communal feasts and some amount of retelling of the story with extended families, as everyone from around the land of Israel, and in the second Temple period perhaps even from around the Jewish diaspora, would gather in Jerusalem to bring their lamb sacrifices, of which some was redistributed back to the people for eating. But since so much of the writings about Temple life are specifically about Temple rituals, and not necessarily about what the families did with their Holy BBQ leftovers after they made their sacrifices and still hung around Jerusalem for a week, we don’t know for certain. 

In the time of the Mishnah, shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, references to what became the seder start to crop up. It is believed that Rabbi Avika, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Tarfon held the first seder, in the vein of a Greco-Roman symposium. I am not sure they would have admitted directly to copying their occupiers pastimes, as Rabbi Akiva especially was a known anti-Roman supporter of the Bar Kokhba revolt. However, none of us are without the outside influence of popular culture, and Greco-Roman culture was popular then, and symposiums were all the rage. Side note: why do we today use the term to describe dry all-day lectures, when in the origins they were more like seminars, with conversation and debate and rhetorical questions, usually held at night, and always accompanied by food and often accompanied by wine. Petition to have more open-forums and snacks and booze at modern symposiums. I’m ok with keeping them during daylight hours though. 

Anyway, the Mishnah sets out rules for a seder, including how the ritual foods must be held up and explained, how soft-ball questions must be lobbed at the group so that the children or the otherwise uninformed can still participate, and how to scale up explanations to participants according to their intelligence and background knowledge. The Mishnah decrees the four cups of wine, the need to recline, and the beckoning in of visitors. Anecdotally, the Mishnah refers to how late into the evening seders tend to go, and to some of the foods that became central to the seder meal, beyond the matzah which is the only thing commanded in the Torah that continued in the post-Temple period (eating lamb on Passover was frowned upon in the Mishnah, and continues to be frowned upon in many communities to this day, as a bastardization of the sacrificial lamb we are no longer able to offer on the Temple altar). 

Similarly, these are all things that were a classic part of the Greco-Roman symposium. Various writings from ancient Greece and Rome talk about the banquets and how food was held in the air and explained before consumed, how the discourse would begin with easy questions to engage everyone and then escalate philosophically as the night went on, and how they would recline while they dined and discussed. Slightly similar to welcoming in strangers, often symposiums would migrate from one home to another as revelers got drunk and excited about the conversations, encouraging new participants. Symposiums were largely held among elite adults, but they still held a pedagogical purpose: to engage in philosophical discussion and endeavor to reach deeper understandings of each other and the world around them. As the Seder developed and came to mimic the symposium in many ways, I believe it expanded around the pedagogical elements and downplayed somewhat the revelry element, though of course Passover meals and services are still intended to be celebratory and involve plenty of wine. 

The origins of the Tu BiShevat Seder, as we will celebrate next week, come from the Kabbalists of 16th century Tzfat. It models itself off the Passover Seder, and so of course, also off the Greco-Roman symposium. The origins of the Rosh HaShana seder are a little more scattered. Symbolic foods and puns announced at the holiday meal go back to the beginning of the Second Temple period, and there are references to the “Rosh HaShana Seder” throughout the medieval period, but it doesn’t appear there was a lot of actual “order” (the translation of the word Seder) and ritual to Rosh HaShana meals until much more recently. As far as I know, there have never been seders for any other holidays. Until this year, at Ner Shalom. While we have worked collectively to revamp and make special our Rosh HaShana and Tu BiShevat seders this year, and will do the same for Passover, I have created whole cloth the Simchat Torah and Chanukah seders for our community this year, and will do the same for Purim, Shavuot, and Yom HaShoa, and possibly other minor holidays. These Seders are also modeled from the Passover seder, and in turn from the Greco-Roman symposium, with the idea that these foods and conversations engage our brains and bodies more fully in the rituals of the holiday than the frontal prayer services we’re used to for most holy days. Seders are sensory, they’re family based (even when they’re communal in the synagogue, you can sit around a table with your own family and friends), and of course simply - people love to eat. I don’t expect to continue to do these seders every year. Our ancestors instituted certain prayer services and rituals for specific holidays for a reason, and I do love to honor proper seasonal liturgy and songs. But my hope is that by experimenting with the holidays in this way throughout the Hebrew year of 5784, we are allowing ourselves to understand these holidays more deeply, and recounting to our children what God has done for us, not just in Egypt 3500 years ago, but throughout our history and around the world. 

May the Year of the Seder be a year of celebration, philosophical depth, intergenerational connection, and communal growth for all who call Ner Shalom their home. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 


 

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784