Week 4 The Passover Seder as Cultural History

Reactions to Previous Lectures

Concerning the first lecture in this series, I am still getting messages about the meaning of eidetic- noetic, noting the basic Greek meanings of having to do with the perception of images and relating to the mind, terms going back to Aristotle and Plato. Soloveitchik's use of these terms draws on their use in Phenomenology, a school of thought developed by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), based on the presentation of structures of experienced reality. Husserl, a Jewish convert to Protestantism, attracted a wide following among German Jewish students in the early twentieth century including Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), whose 1931 University of Berlin dissertation studied the prophets from a phenomenological point of view, and Edith Stein, who is about to become a saint.

Soloveitchik, who also earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Berlin, in his use of these terms seems to be saying , which I gathered with help from Professor Leonard Ehrlich of the Departments of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Dr. Edith Ehrlich, my former colleagues from western Massachusetts and current in-laws, that the biblical story offers immediate imagery that carries with it meaning for its readers. Thus Soloveitchik is using modern philosophical terminology to support a traditional understanding the Bible against modern critical understandings of it. His use of these terms gives us a window on aspects of Jewish culture in Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s. These terms are now used, especially on the web to refer to all sorts of pop psychology and computer graphics.

In other communications the Akedah raised questions about Judaism as ethical monotheism. As I mentioned in an earlier course, this nineteenth century construct does not do justice to richness of Jewish culture. In future lectures, I will examine further aspects of Jewish ethics in several contexts. As we saw last week when people reacted to the verdict against Rabbi Aryeh Deri in Israel, ethics was rarely a main consideration. When talking about the secularization of the Akedah in American Jewish literature, I should have also mentioned Bob Dylans's "Highway 61 Revisited," "God said to Abraham I want you to kill me a son. Abe said to God where do you want that killing done. On Highway 61." Other students noted my omission of one quotation that ties together the notions of blood, sacrifice, and national revival in Israel, an inscription in the cemetery at Tel Hai of the Shomerim, the early watch society: "In blood and fire Judah fell and in blood and fire Judah will rise."

Today's Lecture

Today, in anticipation of Passover, I will explore the Passover Seder, the ritual meal on the first night or two of Passover, and the Haggadah, the collection of literary materials for the Seder that grew from the first century till the twentieth, in light of these themes of blood and sacrifice and show how in general the Seder, uses midrash, piyyut, and extra-textual gestures to resolve biblical contradictions in the ceremonies as well as texts.

For today's lecture, in addition to having a Bible available at your side or on line, I would recommend a Haggadah. At this time of year it is easy to get free copies of a traditional Haggadah text at many supermarkets. There are a fantastic number of Haggadot on the market, ranging from ones with commentaries, to those with illuminations, to those with new rituals and liturgies (Reform, vegetarian, feminist, current events, etc.) Perhaps the most useful, reasonably priced edition with introduction, text, explanations, and bibliography is Nahum Glatzer's edition published by Shocken based on the work of E. D. Goldschmidt which is considered the authoritative historical analysis of the Haggadah. An intriguing version of the Haggadah, The Polychrome Historical Haggadah by Jacob Freedman, shows each historical stratum of the Hebrew text printed in a different color, while the English translation appears only in one color.

The Biblical Background

The many different biblical versions of Passover begin in Exodus 12, what is referred to as the Egyptian Passover because it was the one celebrated before the Exodus. The biblical narrative is repetitious not only in God's instructions, but in Moses' retelling of God's instructions, and then in the narrator's report of what actually happened (at midnight), where many of the details of the narrative are first introduced (verses 21-28). The centerpiece of the first Passover was the lamb that was sacrificed, its blood collected in a basin and then smeared on to the lintels of the Israelite houses with a bunch of hyssop leaves (21), and its flesh eaten with matzah and bitter herbs (8). The event had a three-fold salvific quality: the sacrifice itself (for the Lord), the blood that protected the Hebrews from the death of the first born during the final plague, and the eating of the sacrifice with girded loins, sandaled feet, and staff in hand, that served as a prelude for redemption to freedom. It is therefore important to notice that the matzah and the bitter herbs were an original part of the sacrifice and the eating of the lamb before the Hebrews left Egypt. Matzah is then introduced again as an intrinsic part of the holiday, as if we had never heard of it, although the Israelites had not yet left Egypt, which according to later verses is when their dough did not have a chance to rise (vss. 34, 39). Now, if they had already been commanded to eat matzah, not to eat leavened bread or even to possess it (the reason that today there is Kosher for Passover dog food) (vss, 17, 19, 20) it is not quite clear why they would have prepared bread or why their bread not having risen would have been of any concern.

In subsequent books of the Bible, the holiday develops further. A year later, in Numbers 9:1-14 , the Passover is celebrated in the desert, but those who are unclean must wait another month for a second seating. In Numbers 28:16-25 the holiday involves many more kinds of sacrifices, also with bitter herbs, explicitly offering atonement for sins, in addition to being accompanied by the requirement to eat matzot for seven days. In the book of Deuteronomy 16: 1-8 and 26: 6-8 the story is retold and the sacrifice is now required to take place at the place which the Lord will designate, moving the holiday from the family unit to a central shrine. In Second Kings 23: 22-23 it seems that the holiday had not been observed for a while until it was revived by King Josiah as part of his reforms and cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, where the holiday continued to be celebrated with sacrifices.

With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the central problem of Passover is how to keep the Passover sacrifices in the Jewish consciousness, without repudiating them, but not as an actual part of religious life. The Haggadah thus preserves the memory of the cult while changing it to a symbolic level. In doing so, the Haggadah asserts the validity of the biblical text and the power of the divine word found in it while at the same time developing an alternate method of expression and belief.

Jews, nevertheless, continued tacitly to assert the efficacy of the biblical sacrificial cult while at the same time they seemed to have ceased to seek the fulfillment of the cultic sacrificial needs in their life. It may be argued that the need for cultic fulfillment and forgiveness is not so easy to repudiate and that one of the gnawing desiderata of Judaism has been for sacrifice and cult, including the efficient use of blood. As I mentioned in an earlier course, there is evidence that after the destruction of the Second Temple Jews continued to offer sacrifices on its ruins, and to this day some Jews continue to prepare for the establishment of the Third Temple, while many actively pray for such an event. During the middle ages, as I argued in the past two lectures, such a need was filled, in part, by martyrdom and child sacrifice. If we read the Haggadah carefully and especially if we examine the rituals of the Seder, we can still see how it preserved both the repudiation of sacrifices as well as traces of sacrifice during the centuries.

The Seder Setting

Before even turning to the text of the Haggadah there are a number of items that appear on the Seder table, some of which are not even mentioned in the Haggadah text, which are reminders, direct or indirect, of sacrifice. The shankbone (zroah), as we shall see is explicitly connected with Temple sacrifice. The egg (beyztah), which is never mentioned, is often scorched, also indicating a connection with sacrifice, a connection that is heightened with the association through the talmudic tractate associated with Yom Kippur called Beytzah, and further heightened when dipped in salt water, associated in Leviticus 2:13. The bitter herbs were explicitly mentioned as connected with the Passover sacrifice in Exodus, and the parsley (karpas), with all the dipping it is put through, stands in for the hyssop leaves with which the lamb's blood was spread on the doorposts in Exodus (12:22).

Jumping ahead to the middle of the Seder where some of these items are explained, we see a careful interplay of acceptance of the sacrificial significance of them and a studied avoidance. At the section that begins, "Rabban Gamliel used to say," (without specifying which one) there is a ritual discussion of the Passover sacrifice, Matzah, and Bitter Herbs. The text only identifies the sacrifice with the Temple and not with Egypt or the period of the desert. But rather than talking about the actual Passover sacrifice, the paragraph moves to discuss the fact that God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and saved them . In the discussion on matzah, the paragraph goes directly to the later explanation which involves the hasty departure from Egypt without any mention of the matzot having been associated with the original sacrifice, or subsequent sacrifices as depicted in Leviticus 2:4-5. Similarly when discussing the bitter herbs, all meanings associated with sacrifice are displaced in favor of a figurative explanation that the lives of the Hebrews were embittered by hard work in Egypt based on Exodus 1:14, nothing much to do with the actual Passover story, and about as close as the whole Haggadah ever gets to the Moses story. When the bitter herbs are blessed and eaten (Korekh), they are, however, mentioned, in the name of Hillel as a remembrance of the Temple, but not the actual Temple sacrifices since the text limits the meaning to the fact that when the Temple stood Hillel would make a sandwich of matzah and bitter herbs, making explicit reference to fulfill what is written in Numbers 9:11 about the Passover sacrifice, but avoiding, even purportedly in the time of the Temple, explicit reference to sacrifice.

Thus the symbols on the table, especially in light of the biblical texts known to all, point to aspects of the bloody sacrifice of animals, but the text on the page removes from the surface almost all mention of these rites and rationalizes the presence of some symbols and ignores others. For example, according to some customs, unsupported by any explicit instructions in the Haggadah, Jews eat hardboiled eggs soaked in salt water, but others pass the Seder night without partaking in any egg at all, . (As one professor of mine once said when asked where the egg came from on the Seder plate, "The Easter bunny dropped it on its way by.") and certainly there are no Jews who eat the shankbone.

The sacrificial aspect of the Seder reaches an unstated but visually profound presentation with the recitation of the Ten Plagues. Then, in a tradition that can be dated back only to Safed in the sixteenth century, Jews dip their finger in their wine and then drop the wine on their plate (or a napkin for the more refined). Modern apologetics say that this is done to diminish the joy of the wine because of the great Egyptian losses. Although this explanation is rooted in a midrash protesting the song that the Israelites sang after the Egyptians drowned in the sea, in the context of the Seder such an it is both unlikely and relatively recent. A more probable explanation dipping the finger in the wine is the convergence of two facts about this ritual. 1) It directly imitates the actions of the priests offering sacrifices as described in the book of Leviticus (4:6) where they dipped their finger in the blood of the sacrifice and sprayed it seven times towards the Lord at the holy curtain of the ark. 2) One of the features of the Safed community was their strong desire to reestablish the ancient aspects of Judaism including the Sanhedrin, ordination of rabbis, and Temple sacrifice, as well as the desire of some of them to die a martyr's death (all these trends were embodied in the life of Joseph Caro the editor of the Shulhan Arukh). Thus it seems that this ceremony both consciously as well as subliminally reenacts the sacrificial behavior of the priests.

Blood, Vengeance, and the Seder

Despite the vehemence of Saul Tchernichowski's poetic call for Jewish vengeance against the nations of the world which we mentioned last week, it was not a new call. Such a call appears in the Haggadah in at least two places. 1) In the section on the plagues the Haggadah moves from the usually accepted number of ten plagues to show that there were really 250 of them. The basic textual reason for such an expansion is that in the narratives of Exodus and Deuteronomy no number of plagues is explicitly given and in Psalm 78 other numbers and different orders for the plagues appear. This section of the Haggadah, therefore, takes on the quality of a brutality auction where the rabbis outbid each other in describing the number and ferocity of the plagues that afflicted Egypt. 2) After the third cup is drunk, a quaint medieval custom has it that the door is opened for Elijah the Prophet to visit. (Just as Santa Claus can go down all the Christian chimneys in such a short time on Christmas Eve, so too Elijah the Prophet can make it to all the Jewish Seders on one night of the year. While there aren't as many Seders as Chimneys, Jews provide both an incentive for Elijah to get around, by offering him wine instead of milk and cookies, which ultimately may slow him down as he imbibes along his route-- I am looking forward to your mail . . .)

The historical reason for opening the door and setting the cup for Elijah has to do with the fact that during the middle ages the Jews were accused of kidnapping Christian children at Passover time and using their blood to bake matzah. Such an accusation, fanned in the wake of the Crusades when Jews, as I mentioned last week, sacrificed their own children, was therefore not difficult for Christians to imagine. (A fascinating controversy on this subject was launched in the journal Zion with an article by Israel Yuval in 1993; the articles are in Hebrew with English summaries). Thus the Jews felt it necessary to open the doors of the Seder to show that there were no Christian corps strewn about. Because of this libel Jews also switched from red to white wine to allay further suspicions against their use of blood. The focal point of the opening of the door is the glass of wine. However, while going through this gesture of openness and candor, Jews recite a string of curses against the gentiles of the earth: Listen to the sound in Hebrew: "Shfokh hamat-khah al hagoyim, asher lo yeda-uha ve-al mamlakhot asher beshimkhah lo kara-u." "Spill out your wrath on the goyim who have not known you and on the kingdoms who have not called in your name."

The themes of sacrifice and vengeance are two themes that run through almost all the piyyutim that are sung at the end of the Seder, except for America the Beautiful, O Canada, God Save the Queen, and Hatikva, which seemed to be added to most Haggadot to soften some of the desires for a return to the sacrificial cult and the calls for vengeance against gentile neighbors. "And it came to pass at midnight," an acrositic piyyut by Yannai, describes the carnage wreaked upon Israel's enemies. Similar sentiments are found in Kalir's "And so you shall say: 'It is the sacrifice of the Passover,'" and "Mighty is He," or "Adir Hu," ask for the Temple to be rebuilt. And "The Only Kid," "Had Gadya," deals with an allegorical food chain of revenge.

The themes of blood and sacrifice are also brought together in the various illustrated Haggadot from the middle-ages to the present, many of which are regularly offered in reproduction editions, especially at this time of year. The classic work on Haggadah illustration is Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's Haggadah and History which has recently been reissued by the Jewish Publication Society of America. In a recent article "Infanticide in Passover Iconography," in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 56 (1993): 85-99 (if you plan on reading or copying this article, be sure to go to the back of the journal for the art reproduction plates which are not in the article itself), David Malkiel asserts that an ancient Jewish legend, which left traces in Midrash Rabbah, Rashi, Midrash Hagadol, and other classical sources, tells how Pharaoh developed a case of leprosy which could only be cured by bathing in the blood of Jewish children. Such a legend, which parallel to Christian claims against Jewish use of blood, shows that Jews also accepted, despite any possible negative polemical implications, the efficacy of the use of blood for medicinal purposes. Thus, while not part of the Seder ceremony, the Haggadah illustrations presented their readers with the image of Pharoah bathing in Jewish blood, with graphic depictions of the babies being slaughtered, their blood being drained, and their corpses strewn about. Indeed these pictures are found in the section of the Haggadah involving the plagues (their exact significance is connected with the reading "Vanitzhak," see below) heightening the non-verbal significance of this section. Malkiel takes this point one step further by showing that the slaughter of the children was depicted in the form of human sacrifice, which he then connects back to the theme of the Akedah, martyrdom, and child sacrifice, themes also depicted in Haggadah illustrations of the Akedah and Solomon's decision to cut the baby in half (in Yerushalmi, see plates 10, 45, and 92).

Some Haggadahs also have pictures of men wearing armor, carrying a sword, riding horses, joined by dogs, sounding trumpets, hunting rabbits through the woods. Rabbits, explicitly commanded in Leviticus, are not kosher and weapons were also not always allowed to medieval Jews. Clearly, this is not a typical scene from Jewish life from which we can derive some sort of positivistic information. The reason for such a picture is found in the text of the Haggadah. As in several junctures both in the Haggadah and in the Talmud, the procedure is reduced to an abbreviation as a mnemonic. Located near the picture of the rabbit hunt, at the beginning of the Haggadah, intended to clarify the order of the Seder when it falls on a Saturday night: Wine (Yayin), Sanctification (Kiddush), candle (Ner), End of Sabbath (Havdalah), Reaching the Holiday Time (Zeman), is the abbreviation Y.K.N.H.Z., which can be pronounced Yaken Has, which in German means rabbit hunt. A mundane arrangement of basic prayers turns to be an exciting, somewhat bloody, hunt scene, a scene in which Jews could not participate in real time, but in the virtual reality of the Seder they could. This new dimension mixed the highly charged combinations of forbidden foods with rituals, Sabbath blessings with activities (blowing, carrying, and riding) that were clearly forbidden on the Sabbath.

Both the depictions of child sacrifice and the rabbit hunt reflect Christian European cultural influences and are not found in Haggadot from Islamic countries, showing the rootedness of the Jews in their surrounding culture.

The Haggadah as Midrash

Most Jews tend to lose interest with the section of the Haggadah called the "Maggid," from the same root as Haggadah, meaning the narration in which the Passover story seems to be told in a myriad of details. What I would like to do for the remainder of this talk is to show some of the often overlooked, but fascinating ways in which the Haggadah builds its own narrative by integrating contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical text.

One of the most well-known examples is this section of the Haggadah is the Four Children. In reality, what is usually depicted as a morality tale involving the various states of moral development of four prototypical children, is in fact a simple exegetical exercise with little ethical base at all. There are four places in the Torah narrative, connected in one way or another with the Passover story, where the biblical narratives proposes how to formulate the story in case a child asks about it. 1) Deuteronomy 6:20, "If your child asks you tomorrow, 'What are the rules, laws, and statutes which the Lord God commanded to you?'" 2) Exodus 12:26: "If it should come to pass that your children say to you, 'What is this service for you?'" 3) Exodus 13:14: "If it should come to pass that your child asks you tomorrow, 'What is this?'" 4) In the final instance no hypothetical question is mentioned, but an answer is given concerning the Exodus. The Haggadah thus took each of these questions and associated it with certain qualities of different types of children. 1) The first question is associated with a wise child. I suspect that the reason is because it mentions the sophisticated aspects of rules, laws, and statues. The answer proposed is based not on the biblical text but on rabbinic law. The actual response suggested in the Bible, "We were slaves in Egypt and the Lord God . . ." is removed from the context of this exchange and placed at the head of the entire section as the rubric for the response to the Four Questions. 2) The second question is associated with a wicked child. I suspect the reason is the terseness of the question. The answer proposed by the Haggadah, however, which notes that he excluded himself from the group by asking what the laws meant "to you," is problematic because the wise child used similar phrasing. The actual answer proposed in the Bible, has been moved, as we saw above, to be the centerpiece of the explanation of the shankbone as suggested by Rabban Gamliel. 3) The third question is associated with a simple child. I suspect that the reason is because the question is so short. The answer proposed in the Bible is offered here as well. 4) Because the fourth question was not actually asked in the Bible, it is associated with a child too young to ask a question. The answer given is the one proposed in the Bible, "You shall tell your child on this day, saying, "Because of this the Lord God did for me when I left Egypt."

The abovementioned Elijah's cup also represents a similar exegetical compromise around the table. In addition to its connection with the blood libel (and I am not yet sure which came first) it represents a resolve of a problem with biblical interpretation. The four cups of wine that are blessed and consumed throughout the Seder are connected with four verbs in Exodus 6:6-8: "I took you out from the burden's of Egypt and saved you from their slavery and I redeemed you with an outstretched arm and with mighty judgments." A fifth verb in the passage, however, has yet to be fulfilled, "and I brought you to the Land," so the compromise that commentators see is that the cup is poured but not drunk. In shopping today in Jerusalem I picked up a couple of commentaries that may help unravel whether the cup preceded or followed the exegetical tradition and at what stage the door opening and cursing were added. I also found in many book stores in both Hebrew and English a Haggadah depicting how Passover was celebrated in the Temple with elaborate references to the sacrificial cult, showing that such interest is still alive and well.

The redundancies of the biblical text are thus neatly packaged into a collection of prototypes that add much to the drama of the Seder and ultimately return value-added meaning to the biblical text itself.

One intellectual tour de force of the Haggadah is the midrash passage developed shortly after the Four Children, immediately after the cup of wine is lifted and then lowered. The premise of this section is that two different versions of the retelling of the Passover story can be coordinated. The two versions are then integrated sort of like Dueling Banjos in the film Deliverance. First a few words from Deuteronomy 26:5-8 are strummed: "A wandering Aramean was my father. . . few in number." After the interjection of a few other passages these verses are linked with passages from Exodus 12. To amplify but a few passages here and to return to the example mentioned above concerning Pharoah's bathing in the blood of Jewish children, Deuteronomy 26:7 says: "We cried to the Lord the God of our ancestors, the Lord heard our voices, and saw our distress, and our burden, and our oppression," which is linked to the death of Pharoah, the connection is made to Exodus 2:23, "It came to pass in the course of all those days that Pharaoh the King of Egypt died and the children of Israel groaned from the servitude and cried out." Thus the vagueness of Deuteronomy, as integrated here, seems naturally to refer to the events of Exodus where Pharoah died and the Israelites complained. Yet the sequence raises the problem of why the Hebrews would cry out if their oppressive king had just died, a problem that is resolved with the illustration showing that Phaorah did not actually die, but became infected with leprosy, considered a form of death in the Bible (Numbers 12:12).

Conclusion

A current joke that reflects the banality with which the Seder can be treated summarizes all Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat. Unfortunately, the Jewish education establishment both in Israel and abroad, which still depicts the Hebrews as building pyramids, for which there is no evidence whatsoever, have reduced the Seder to a "model seder" of sponge cake, grape juice, four questions, and matzah crumbs. Even more theologically sophisticated contemporary Jews use the seder as a telescope to observe the distant historical event of the Exodus from Egypt and the attendant notions of salvation and redemption. The Haggadah, despite these trivializations and abstractions, nevertheless remains a force in Jewish culture because it carries a powerful charge. The Haggadah deals with matters of life and death, blood and sacrifice, at many different textual and sensual levels so that each year, and for much of the year for serious aficionados, it shapes in a profound way a visceral feeling of connectedness with the proceedings. Aware of the fact or not, Jews connect with the Passover Haggadah because it not only preserves memories, but creates them. Each generation has added to it and it has played a major part in the formation of evolving Jewish consciousness.


 

 

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30 Aug 2005 / 25 Av 5765 0