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The Passover Seder, reconsidered

I suspect many of you have been to a seder, possibly this past week. For those that have not, the seder is a ritual meal for the holiday of Passover that traditionally involves the eating of certain symbolic foods and saying prayers over them, and the reading of some portion of a text. The text is fairly standard—or, rather, well, it’s more complicated than that, and deserves its own paragraph.

Most seders (as I understand it, not doing a survey or anything) use a haggadah, a sort of special prayerbook; there are many, many, many different versions of the haggadah, but most of the text in the haggadah is standard from version to version. There are some differences, but there is a core that is traditional. In addition to the slight differences from book to book, there are much larger differences in terms of what any particular group does or does not actually read. Most will read at least some of it, many will read highlights, perhaps bits of it in English and bits in Hebrew, or perhaps Hebrew followed by English (I am talking, here, about American Jews, of course, although the same will apply to the vernacular elsewhere), some will add songs or stories in various languages, some will neglect to do any part of the ritual after the eating is over. Some people take pride in how long the seder lasts, some in how quickly it is over. People are different one to another.

Anyway, the core of the seder, I would say, includes the following things: some blessings over the ritual food, which includes the statement that we are commanded to eat matzah and bitter herbs and so on; the mah nishtanah, perhaps translated best as what a difference!, in which the youngest attendee points out four differences between Passover and the rest of the year; an explanation that these differences are connected to the Exodus story; a recitation of the Ten Plagues; an explanation of three elements of the ritual meal: the shankbone, the matzah and the bitter herbs; the grace after meals (I think most seders include at least a small portion of this, but not the entire thing); welcoming Elijah the Prophet. Moses does not appear in the traditional text; the Exodus story is alluded to, but not, properly speaking, retold.

Many of the bits included in the hagaddah but often skipped are tales of the early sages, some of our friends from avot: Eleazar ben Azariah, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Akiva. There is, in particular, a tale of five rabbis having an all-night seder in a cave at Benebarak under the Roman occupation. I bring that up because it will become important later, I think. There are also lots and lots of songs and poems (including the many Psalms that make up the Hillel service, which most of us skip)

So. Are you with me so far? Those who attend seder regularly, please correct and clarify. Those who do not, please ask questions. Because the next bit is some musing on the seder, performative aspects thereof, and it will be easier for you to chime in if you feel like you know what the hell I’m even talking about.

OK, right. I’ve been reading Josh Waxman’s stuff over at the parshablog, most of which I’m afraid goes right over my head, what with my not understanding Hebrew, but oddly enough I have been finding lots of provocative ideas in the parts I do understand. Which is the case for his note on some thoughts on ha lachma anya. The reference is to the part in the seder, early on, where we uncover the previously covered matzah and say something quite like this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Rabbi Waxman is looking at some variants in the text which may imply that, at least in some versions, it would be closer to say this is like the bread of affliction…. He describes some possibilities of how this fits in to the question of re-enactment.

Which brings up another line I’ll need to quote: we are told that In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt. We often describe the seder as a reenactment in that sense: there are several points in the text where we say that we were slaves in addition to saying that our ancestors were slaves. We take up the rhetorical pose of continuity, in order to emphasize our gratitude for the miracles of the Exodus.

On the other hand (are y’all still with me? Because I’m getting to my point here, I promise), all of that stuff is in the text that we recite. That is, we don’t just say that we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, we say that we should say that we were slaves. We recite the injunction to look upon ourselves as if we had been delivered from slavery; we recite an example (in the Four Sons) of those who violate that injunction. If we are reenacting the Exodus, it is a very Brechtian kind of drama, in which we effectively hold up placards saying that we are reenacting the Exodus, whilst reclining in our seats.

So. What is going on here? When we say This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate, or when we say This is like the bread of affliction… are we saying that this matzah exists in Scriptural time, that is, outside of chronological time, and is the subject of a kind of intertemporal transubstantiation, as we are ourselves taken back to the Exodus? Or are we saying, as we do with other ritual symbols on the table, that the matzah is a tool for us to remember? Because if it is the latter, as I think it is for us now (for various definition of usness), it is a mistake to think of ourselves as reenacting the Exodus.

But what are we doing? Are we simply engaging in a ritual-assistant mnemonic practice, where we keep the information about the Exodus in our active-use memory by way of these sayings and symbols? Are we cramming? Because I don’t think that’s it, either.

I think we are reenacting, but we are not reenacting the Exodus story. I think we are reenacting the seder at Benebarak. The rituals and text are made to imagine the ancient retelling of the Exodus, not the (even more ancient) Exodus itself. What we are saying, when we are saying the text, is not this is the bread of affliction, nor even this is like the bread of affliction, but rather Akiva called this the bread of affliction. As you read through the text, again and again we take on our roles, behaving as the sages did in the days of the Roman oppression. Or at least as they are recorded as doing, you know. We model for our children the proper behavior of Jews, and the proper behavior of Jews is not so much to be delivered from slavery but to remember that we were delivered from slavery. We are telling of the departure from Egypt, and we are telling it as they told it in Benebarak. In obvious and subtle ways, we enforce the important truth: that we are Rabbinic Jews, the inheritors of Judah the Prince.

I have said, here and elsewhere, that it seems to me that the Story of Judaism can be expressed in a sentence: We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. I have discussed how I became dissatisfied with that answer, but I had not really come up with a better one. And perhaps the better one is that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon once spent the first night of Passover in a cave at Benebarak, telling the story of the Exodus, until their students came to them and told them it was time for the morning Sh’ma.

The name of Moses does not appear in the Haggadah, but Rabbi Akiva’s name is prominent. That is something that bears thinking about, as our children ask why this night we do what we do how we do it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


My favorite bit from the seder this year, which I'd never seen in a Haggadah before, explained how God not only slew the first born of the Egyptians but essentially locked up the Hebrews in their homes while He did it, the point being that God took all the guilt and blame, kept us from committing murder in His name, and did not even allow us the opportunity to give the Angel of Death a fist pump or a "Go Get 'Em" as he/she flew by (that's not a direct quotation from the Haggadah of course).

Seems like it's a similar situation to the anamnesis of the Christian Eucharist (though I'm no specialist in either). We say explicitly we are remembering Christ's words and actions even as we are doing something that in some way replays his words and actions. We are not re-enacting the Last Supper every Sunday the way someone might re-enact the Ramayana (or an actual Passion play)--no one is assigned roles of Jesus/Judas/John, etc., no one sneaks out to alert the authorities, etc. We are performing a ritual, not a re-enactment. (If you want to say that what we are doing is a reenactment of the early Church's ritual, you might be able to make that argument--certainly the post 1979 Episcopal ritual was actively trying to build off early templates.)

The seder's probably a little closer to a re-enactment of its target, because you can make it so--it's a big deal that happens once a year, so you can put more effort into it than into a semi-big deal that happens every Sunday--but neither of them are a play, very true.

I think it's interesting to think of the seder as a reenactment of some sort, but also inaccurate. Textjunkie correctly differentiates between ritual and reenactment as performative categories. The seder, as we practice it now, is or contains elements of ritual.

One could argue that ritual is always reenactment of earlier ritual, but in what way is making that equivalence useful?

The haggadah exhorts us to actively participate in story-telling and dialogue, explanation and explication. The haggadah reminds us of the commandment to do so, instructs us to do so, starts us along the path, and provides examples. And while I've seen many reasons why Moses is glaringly absent from the haggadah, the reason I prefer is that telling the story of the departure from Egypt then requires us to go beyond the text of the haggadah, rather than be lulled into thinking that reading the haggadah (no matter how thoroughly) satisfies the commandment. We are participating in a liturgy which is designed to force us to go beyond the liturgy, a ritual for which parts are deliberately left as exercises for the reader.

No matter how often we are told to go beyond the text, we too often fail to do so. Our practice falls short of the sages' ideals, and our ideals are frequently different. We find comfort in ritual, in tradition and liturgy.

I grew up with a traditional haggadah, and I've created a version of it which is designed to improve access and clarity while still being a traditional haggadah. I've updated some translations, added transliteration and sheet music, added an explanation of the orange on the seder plate, and inserted a couple of Holocaust remembrance paragraphs developed several decades ago. I've left out my own commentary and refrained from eliding the most problematic passages, because I want my haggadah to fully satisfy people who are seeking a traditional haggadah. But if I were to add a single statement to this traditional haggadah, it would be to say that the most praiseworthy act in Judaism is to create your own updated haggadah.

To the extent to which we use Rabbi Eliezer and his crew as exemplars, go beyond reading the text of the haggadah and actually engage with the Exodus story, we still do not reenact their seder. We don't eat the same foods, we have no elements of historic clothing or decor, we carefully use quotatives to mark their reported discussion, and most importantly we do not replicate or even echo their manner or character.

And thus we model for our children the proper behavior of Jews, to disagree.

My extended family wrote its own haggadah in the 1970s, and revised it in the 80s (and is forever planning another revision -- next year in Jerusalem!). It pulled from many sources both liberal and traditional, and, historically, us rewriting it was part of that general 1970s flowering of American cultural innovation, as the counterculture filtered into the everyday -- things like the Jewish Catalog, which was clearly a Jewish version of the Whole Earth Catalog, and cousin to "Free To Be You and Me"(another crucial text of my childhood).

Our Haggadah has a lot of Moses, a little Hillel, a little Elie Wiesel, a little "Go Down, Moses", a lot of drawings by us kids, Dayenu, Avadim Hayinu, Pitchu Li, the four cups, the Four Children, the Four Questions (though as you observe, they are in fact four observations, or four self-answered questions, anyway), the seder plate, now-out-of-date ruminations on the plight of Soviet Jewry, Elijah, the plagues, chad gadya, and "who knows one?", but it does not, iirc, have any Rabbi Akiva.

I've only been to one seder which had a traditional haggadah (one which presumably mentioned the seder in the cave at Benebarak), but it was in Israel, with another branch of my family, and everything was in very fast Hebrew -- with all the interruptions, jokes, cross-conversations, and pilpulistic arguments over minute details that characterize all branches of my family, with the result that I understood very little.

The Judaism I was taught, heavily influenced by the Reform and Zionist movements, re-emphasized (its own readings of) pre-Talmudic elements, keeping much of the legacy of Akivah and Judah the Prince at arms'-length, or performing upon it the same trick of apparently reverential rewriting that the Talmudists perpetrated on the Tanakh -- revering it, elevating it, declaring it central while completely recasting, even inverting much of its meanings. A favorite trick of ours. Anyway, your post makes me newly intrigued by the traditional Haggadah.

One thing I'm intrigued by -- and here I have to echo Michael -- when you say, "Moses does not appear in the traditional text; the Exodus story is alluded to, but not, properly speaking, retold," you do mean the story is not retold in the Haggadah, right? Or do you in fact mean that it is not actually retold, at all, at the seder? Because it seems to go beyond Brechtian and into Pinterian to hold a festive meal in which you declare that "you shall tell your child on that day", that we are all required to tell the story, that even if we were all wise and men of learning, we would still be required to tell the story... and then not tell the story!

In our Haggadah, the group retelling of the Exodus story, piece by piece, round-robin, in our own words, is the central element.

As to the element of re-enactment; as Michael says, it is clearly not re-enactment as in a play -- we do not assign roles or dress up for the part. In fact much of what is evident is the glaring discrepancies between what we say we are doing and what we are in fact doing, or what is in fact the case; as when we say "most nights we never dip one food into another, but tonight we dip TWICE!", despite the fact that we often have nachos, or when we say "most nights we dine between sitting and lying down, but tonight we are all lying down", when in fact the lying-down has shrunk to a vestigial pillow in the leader's chair, in which the afikoman is hidden before being stolen by the children.

Nonetheless there is more, I think, than a mere use of symbols as mnemonics. The text does not merely say "the matzah helps us remember how the Israelites were in a rush." Not only is there the constant, paradoxical, stated demand that we regard ourselves as having been personally freed from Egypt -- reinforced by my least favorite part of the seder, the Dissing of the Wicked Child ("for me and not for you, for had you been there, you would not have been saved"), which in our family is followed by a ritual argument about whether that part of the Haggadah should have been retained. Perhaps even more, the very Brechtian look-what-I-am-doing elements, the fact that you are telling your child "you shall tell your child on that day" on that day, the Escher-recursion reflexivity, creates, above all an atmosphere of sacred time. The four rabbis in the cave at Benebarak, being exemplars of piety, were clearly following the traditional haggadah which included the story of the four rabbis in the cave at Benebarak, just as my family's revised seder today includes ritual arguments about our revisions to the seder. We retell the exodus, we re-enact the retelling of the exodus, but most of all we re-enact ourselves re-enacting ourselves re-enacting the seder, on that day, just as I myself went forth from Egypt.

Sorry for being slow to respond, y'all. Letting it kick around in the old brain. I'm liking the analogy to communion/mass, and also the idea of haggadah creation as the essence, which are not necessarily compatible, so I'm trying to think that out a bit...

I'll add for the moment my own experience growing up, having seder at home every year where my father led, was that we read from the printed haggadah, some English and some Hebrew, and did not, to my memory, expand on the story of the departure from Egypt more than was in the haggadah. We talked about the haggadah, sure, and my parents and grandparents and their guests told stories of their childhood seders, but I certainly don't remember telling the Moses part of the story in our household. In my own seders, the last few years, we have been telling at least part of the Moses story as during-dinner chat with the kids, but I don't remember that as a feature of the seders I grew up with (Conservative shul, Dad atheist but traditionalist, Mom more of a believer, neither observant).


OK, a couple of thoughts I want to get down on pixels.

First is that while we don't reenact the Exodus in the sense of playacting, with parts and costumes and all, we do reenact it with symbols. Within the symbolic vocabulary of the holiday, we are participants in the Exodus. We leave our leavening behind, we recline (or at least claim to) in celebration of no longer being in bondage, we display the bones of our paschal sacrifice, we give thanks to the Divine for our deliverance, we grieve over the deaths of our enemies.

Or, if (as I am suggesting is an element) you emphasize the symbolic reenactment of the seder at Benebarak, we notionally eat what they ate: we do as Hillel did in Temple times and eat it (the passover offering) with bitter herbs and Matzah in a Hillel sandwich. We wear costumes, covering our heads as (again, notionally) the Rabbis did in the cave. Or we don't—seders, like people, are different, one to another.

While it is true that all ritual is reenactment of earlier iterations of the ritual, not all ritual is reenactment in the way that the Passover seder is. A wedding ceremony has lots of rituals that refer to ancient customs and events, but does not not make symbolic claim that we are participants through the ritual in those ancient times. The sukkah, on the other hand, is fundamentally a reenactment of the wilderness years. I don't see tashlich as a reenactment, while I do see the Shofar service that way. It's complicated, and clearly any particular service can have elements of reenactment without reenactment being the entire point. But I think that the seder is traditionally held to be a (symbolic) reenactment of the Exodus, that when the Haggadah and its commentaries consider it that way. This would be a question for somebody more knowledgeable than I am--perhaps I will ask my Rabbi.

Enough for one comment; more later, I'm sure.


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