February 28, 2024 |

Seder Tidbits Part 1

In 21st century America, it is no secret that the majority of Jews are deeply assimilated. By assimilated, I mean that they have chosen to identify and associate with 'American' modes of thought and behavior, rather than Jewish ones, and that they have done so willingly. The consequences of this assimilation[1] are not only that American Jews tend to dress, eat, shop, study and party like their non-Jewish counterparts, but also that they also simultaneously have stopped doing -- for the most part -- Jewish-specific activities, including Jewish study and practice.

I don't mean to say that they are not proud Jews. It's pretty darn cool to be Jewish in America. Steve Martin got up at the 2010 Academy Awards and said "Christoph Waltz played a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, obsessed with finding Jews. Well, Christoph, (gesturing across entire theater) [Here is] the mother lode." That was funny and appreciated by all the Jews watching, because it's very chic to be a successful Hollywood Jew. But that's not the same as actually doing Jewish, learning Jewish, sharing Jewish values and community etc. It's just "being" Jewish. Whereas, in the words of one of my high school classmates, Judaism is better summed up the Frank Sinatra way: "do be do be do."

Despite all the assimilating, there are some stubborn Jewish rituals that remain beloved of a comparatively huge percentage of American Jews. The three most popular actual mitzvot are fasting on Yom Kippur, lighting candles on Chanuka and attending a Passover seder. Of the three, Yom Kippur is the hardest (synagogue, long, painful, incomprehensible), Chanuka the easiest (gather the kids, flip a Bic, sit down for latkas) and, perhaps surprisingly, the Pesach seder, the most popular of them all.

The Passover seder is also, in my opinion, the richest of the Jewish experiences. First, one can fulfill two Biblical commandments: to eat matza and to recite the Passover story[2]. Second, it is an experience that blends the experiential with the intellectual, the Hebrew with the English, the cultural with the religious, it is family-oriented, communal and still done at home. So, for the next few weeks, I will go through the Passover seder, offering a few tidbits of useful and interesting information as I go:

"Seder" literally means order, which is something Jews believe in, i.e. that when God is running the world, there is always method to the madness. Passover night has always had a specific set of rituals associated with it, but the 15 steps that we learn to sing as children are of fairly late vintage, from around the 13th century. It is likely that the 15 steps were meant to echo the 15 stanzas of the song Dayenu, in which we enumerate fifteen specific acts of kindness God did for us in taking us out of Egypt and beyond. Fifteen is always the number associated with praising God[3] and the idea is that even the very structure of the Passover seder should suggest the idea of praising God for all the wonders He did for the Jewish people in the Exodus. Though the 15 steps of the seder create order, they are not meant to stifle our creativity. There are many different kinds and styles of seder one can attend. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his haggada that the genius of the seder is that it has both "structure and spontaneity" built into it. It has seder, but also flexibility.

The most common custom in arranging the seder plate is to follow the mystical custom of the Arizal. Six items are placed on the plate (from right to left descending): 1) shankbone [z'roa] (representing the Passover sacrifice), 2) egg [beitza] (representing festival offering), 3) bitter herbs [marror], 4) charoset (representing the mortar of slavery and the sweetness of freedom), 5) karpas (a vegetable), and 6) chazeret (second kind of herb). These six are placed on top of the three matzot, which are placed on top of the seder plate itself, totaling ten components. The entire structure recalls the ten sefirot, or the divine emanations of God, according to kabbala.

KADESH (Kiddush)
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner writes in his haggada that rather than calling this "kiddush", the word was changed to the imperative. Kadesh literally means "Sanctify!" as if the seder itself is urging us to do more than just recite Kiddush, but to sanctify ourselves as well and to do it now. The imperative of beginning the seder is sanctification. The Kiddush itself is the regular Festival Kiddush, which has a blessing on the wine, a blessing on sanctity of the day and the shehechiyanu blessing (called the blessing of [new] time). The major difference is that everyone drinks an entire (or at least the majority of) cup while reclining to their left.

URCHATZ (and Washing)
The big to-do about washing our hands after Kiddush is that the custom is not to say a b'racha, a blessing on the washing of the hands. One who is accustomed to eating Friday night and holiday meals knows that right after Kiddush, we wash our hands. What they are NOT accustomed to seeing is everyone NOT saying the blessing. This is weird. It gets even weirder when, instead of the usual practice of then making hamotzi and eating bread, we instead break out the parsley, or potato, or celery. It's like the Atkins diet took over the Pesach meal. These are among the seder practices which are designed to provoke the children's interest and to hold their attention until we get around to teaching them a little about the Exodus. Another such custom is to distribute candies (or nuts) to the children at the beginning of the seder, which is both appreciated at and wondered at, because since when do adults give out dessert before dinner?

KARPAS (Vegetable)
The karpas vegetable should be something over which the blessing "borei pri ha-adama" is recited, but the most striking thing about this stage of the seder is the dipping of the vegetable in salt water, representing the bitter tears of slavery. The karpas is the alter ego of the marror (bitter herbs), i.e. they are both vegetables and they are both dipped, the karpas in salt water and the marror in charoset. Rabbi Sacks notes that the dipping of the karpas represents the beginning of the slavery (at the beginning of the seder) which began with the dipping of Yosef's coat in blood by his brothers when they sold him down to Egypt. The marror, on the other hand, represents the end of the slavery, when the Jewish people dipped their hyssop branches in blood and painted their doorways on the original Passover night.

YACHATZ (he shall break)
Ordinarily, on Shabbat and festivals, we only have 2 matzot, representing the lechem mishna, the double portion of manna that fell on Friday[4]. On Pesach night, we add a third, but we quickly break it, which I usually like to do in dramatic karate chop fashion. One broken half is kept on the seder plate and this is the matza we point to when we say "ha lachma anya", "this is the bread of affliction." A poor slave would eat matza because it does not go stale and he can break it off piece by piece for many days. He will not eat it all at once, because he is not sure where his next meal is coming from. The second half we wrap up and hide as the afikoman[5]. This we eat at the end of the seder as a sign of redemption, signifying the Passover sacrifice.

Rabbi Yitzchak Mirsky, in his hegyonei halacha suggests that these two halves are actually in conflict with each other. Is matza the bread of affliction and slavery or the bread of redemption, eaten by the Jews as they race out of Egypt? Can it be both at the same time? (We LOVE dialectical tension!) Perhaps then, we break the matza in half to show that there are really two halves, two sides to the matza. It is not as simple as it appears.

And this is a grand truth in Judaism after all. One thing we can learn from the Pesach seder is that things are never as simple as they appear. The still waters of our tradition run deep. May we merit to delve deep into them. Shabbat shalom!

[1] And its sister, "acculturation", per Dr. Haym Soloveitchik the subconscious acquisition of thoughts and behaviors.
[2] Not to mention multiple Rabbinic commandments, including the four cups of wine, reclining, eating bitter herbs and reciting Hallel.
[3] It is the gematria (letter-number valuation) of God's 'short' name "Yah" (yud=10, hey=5), as in "kol ha-neshama tehalleil yah", all those with a soul shall praise Hashem.
[4] The Gra only has 2 matzot on Pesach as well.
[5] Interestingly, the original custom seems to have been that the children would seize the matzot and hide them, rather than the reverse.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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