Oh the Times, They Were a Changin’… How the rabbis invented our seder

March 31, 2017

Torah Thought

Passover in the time of Deuteronomy: What a spectacle! We all got up and made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, pitching our tents on the surrounding hills. The priest helped us accomplish our lamb sacrifice, which we enjoyed in the evening cool of Nisan. It was a peak experience, away from home and its leveling routines.

Alas, all that came to an end in the year 70. The Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was not simply the destruction of a synagogue. That would already be tragic, but this was worse. The Temple was unique. It was the only place in the world where Jewish sacrificial worship could be accomplished. The entire practice of Judaism was based on this central institution.

The Judaism that we practice is based on the work of the rabbis. And the Rabbinic movement was successful because it gave the Jews a program to help them survive as Jews in a world without the Temple.

Try to imagine when the now-familiar seder was new. The rabbis remembered a time when the Paschal lamb was the main mitzvah and also the main course of the holiday celebration. But they substituted matzah, and to some degree, bitter herbs, as the central symbols of the ritual. The ceremonial “afikoman” is a piece of matzah eaten last, to guarantee that the taste of matzah would be what lingered. This was a change from the older tradition, “no afikoman after the pesach-meat.”

If we look closely, we also see how the rabbis adapted the customs of a Greco- Roman banquet to the observance of Passover. A proper banquet began with a ritual hand-washing, allowing the diners to partake of the hors d’ouevres. That’s what we do: a washing, without the blessing over washing, because we are about to eat “karpas” (hors d’oeuvres) rather than matzah. Then, the various appetizers, until finally we are ready for the main course. Then, a second hand washing and the meal. In a “symposium”—style banquet, we also had ritualized toasts with multiple cups of wine, and a philosophical topic for discussion. The Rabbinic adaptation of the symposium was the structuring of the seder around four cups of wine and the definition of the topic—the meaning of freedom in our age. That explains the “maggid,” with its meditation on celebrating Passover even when the Romans were running things with a heavy hand.

Greco-Roman—but only up to a point. The rabbis were Jews, and while they were willing to appropriate customs from the outside world, they insisted on Judaizing those imports. So no post-meal torchlight processions from one home to another, perhaps ending in an orgy (the Greek meaning of “afikoman”)! A Jew has meaningful interactions with the non-Jewish world, but unless there are limits, we lose our special and precious identity.

So, our Passover, which is descended from the Bible through the intermediate step of the Rabbinic Passover, reflects the balance of Tradition and Change which is always the hallmark of authentic Judaism.

Wishing all our readers a Happy and Kosher Passover!

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel

Letter to the Editor