The Passover Seder, reconsidered
1 April 2010, 5:33 PM
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,