December 9, 2021 |

Seder Tidbits Part 3

All festival days are characterized by a meal (a se'udat mitzva) celebrating the day and its sanctity. At these meals, we make kiddush over wine, wash hands and make a blessing over a double portion of bread (matza on Pesach), eat meat and fine foods and say the birkat ha-mazon (benching after the meal.) Physical delight is part of the idea of yontef. However, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (in "An Exalted Evening")suggests that this seder meal is different in its own way. If it were 'just' a meal, it would not need its own step of the seder. He makes the same argument for "kadesh", which is not JUST kiddush, but also the first of the four cups of wine. In practice, we wait to begin our seders until nightfall, because even though regular kiddush can be made earlier, the four cups must be drunk when it is definitely night. So, too, the seder meal is not just a meal, but part of the experience of the liberation and even of the telling of the story. Rambam writes: "when one feasts [on that] night he needs to eat and drink while he is reclining, in the manner of freedom." (Laws of Chametz and Matza 7:7) In other words, he also thinks that the meal is part of the seder reenactment itself (and therefore one must lean) and the telling of the story should continue.

This word means "hidden" and it refers to the afikoman, which has been hidden away since before Maggid. Ironically, it is only now that it is revealed. This marks the beginning of the transition of the seder from the past to the future. After the meal, we begin to dwell on the future, not only thinking about the Passover sacrifice that we used to eat (represented by the less tasty matza) but the one we will bring in the future, when the future is brought out of its own obscurity and revealed.

Rav Chaim Brisker (cited in "Haggadat beit ha-Levi") used to keep his afikoman at his side during the whole seder. He felt that it should be present, like all the items on the seder plate, but covered and guarded. This was part of the idea of Pesach being a night of watching, a leil shimmurim. It seems like he did not allow the children to "snatch" the afikoman, which is mentioned in the Talmud[1]. Of course, our custom is to carefully hide the afikoman, but allow the children to search for it and, if they find it, to claim a reward or ransom. Shira and I have discussed this and wondered what kind of message we are sending our children about the appropriate way to behave and to treat adults. Do we teach our children to steal and ransom, to blackmail our fathers and uncles? Perhaps it's all in good fun, but it seems odd for the evening to give way to such frivolity. My novel suggestion for how to approach it is that if the children are able to find Abba's afikoman, then it obviously wasn't hidden very well, or safely. By taking it and finding a better hiding place, they have actually done their father a favor. When, at the appropriate time they show their father what good care they have taken with his afikoman, he promises to reward them for their mitzva.

The third cup is poured before benching and then drunk immediately afterwards. Rabbi Sacks notes that the three primary blessings of the Grace after Meals follow a pattern that is often found in our prayers. The first blessing - the blessing of ha-Zan - concerns itself with God's care and kindness for the whole world. The second blessing concerns itself with the land of Israel and the Torah, the physical and spiritual gifts of the Jewish people. The third narrows in even further to Jerusalem and the Temple, the nexus of our history and identity.

Alternatively, one could say that the three blessings follow our history chronologically. The first blessing, written by Moshe, reflects the Exodus. The second, by Joshua, reflects the entrance and acquisition of the land of Israel. The third relates to Kings David and Solomon who took the land and brought it to its highest level of sanctity with the Temple.

The fourth cup of wine is poured for Hallel. Prior to this, we actually pour the fifth cup of wine -- one of the childrens' favorite parts of the seder -- and hold open the door for Eliyahu the Prophet. As a child, we always imagined that Eliyahu was coming to drink the wine, getting drunk by visiting all the world's seders, like the Jewish version of leaving milk and cookies for Santa. In fact, welcoming Eliyahu has everything to do with the fifth cup, but nothing to do with him drinking it. In some seder traditions, there actually IS a fifth cup of wine, which is optional to drink and does not come with a blessing. The sages were unsure if the fifth cup should be added to the seder. One possibility for inviting in Eliyahu is that he is the one who is supposed to alleviate all our doubts in the future. Whenever the Talmud cannot decide the law, they say "teiku", an acronym for "Let it stand until Eliyahu the Tishbite will come and resolve all our questions/doubts." Perhaps Eliyahu is needed to tell us if we should drink this cup or not.

Another reason for inviting in Eliyahu at this time also has to do with the four cups of wine, each of which stands for one of the languages of redemption mentioned in Sh'mot 6:6-7. ("and I shall bring out", "and I shall save", and "I shall redeem" and I shall take") In Sh'mot 6:8, there is a FIFTH language of redemption ("and I shall bring you to the land"). This fifth language was not given its own cup because the entering of the land of Israel didn't happen at the time of the Exodus, but forty years later. Or, perhaps, the "bringing to the land" is the future redemption of the Jewish people in the messianic age. Since Eliyahu will be the harbinger of the Mashiach, we welcome him now when we pour the fifth cup. It is also the end of the seder, I have mentioned, and we have turned our thoughts towards the future of the Jewish people. The only thing that still needs explaining is why we don't wait until after we have drunk the fourth cup, but that question will have to wait for another time.

The Abarbanel (in "Zevach Pesach") suggest another progression for the four cups. Cup one stands for the choosing of Avraham at the dawn of Jewish history. Cup two is the redemption from Egypt (during the telling of the story). Cup three is for protecting us in the present (at the end of the meal we have eaten) and cup four is for the redemption still to come. The singing of Hallel is akin to our singing of Dayenu ("it would have been enough") earlier, saying that we are happy to praise Hashem for the three initial redemptions even though the fourth is yet to come.

Nirtza is almost a non-step of the seder. It is related (per Rabbi Soloveitchik in "Harrerei Kedem") to a final stage in the offering of a sacrifice in the Temple, in which we offer a prayer to Hashem that our offering shall be accepted. Here, we linger at the end of our seder (though it's really over) in the hopes that Hashem found our seder pleasing. The customs of the end of the seder are ways of showing that the seder was not a chore or a burden, but a pleasure for us. So we sing songs that continue the themes of the seder itself. The song "Who Knows One" begins with God and wends its way up, finishing with the 12 tribes of Israel and returning to God's 13 attributes of mercy. The song Chad Gadya begins with the one kid (possibly representing the Jewish people) and ends with God, taking care of business in the universe. In some households, they continue all night to study the laws of Passover and/or the Mishna on tractate Pesachim. You can find this printed at the back of some haggadot.

May our seder find favor in the eyes of God and man and may we merit to see the redemption. Next year in Jerusalem!

[1] It's not 100% clear there who was snatching from whom. Some interpret "snatching" as in "eating very quickly", but both explanations - snatching or scarfing down - were both designed to keep the children's interest in the seder.


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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