The Mystery of the Pesach Seder by Rabbi Shlomo Spero



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The Mystery of the Pesach Seder

by Rabbi Shlomo Spero

I. Introduction


Pesach is one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish calendar. Its appeal is not restricted to the religiously observant. Liberal and traditional Jewry sit down on the same day to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt with matza, maror and wine as they retell the age-old story through the Haggada. Not even a member of the present generation remains unaffected by the feeling of mystery that somehow links him with his ancestor who sprinkled the blood the Paschal lamb on the door posts of his hovel, while outside death swept through the land of Egypt avenging centuries of painful and degrading oppression. And the religiously sensitive person certainly regards Pesach night as more than just the celebration of a zekher (remembrance) of the Exodus. Certain highly symbolic and suggestive Seder rituals, insisted upon by tradition, point to something beyond themselves and beg for interpretation. Chazal ask us to look for these meanings by their statement: "ve-khol ha-marbeh le-sapper be-yetziat mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach" - "and all who elaborate upon the story of the Exodus are to be praised," and in their famous anecdote, detailed in the Haggada, about the sages in Benei Berak sitting up all night discussing the story of the Exodus.
The ritual of the Seder commanded by the Torah consists essentially of reciting the story of the Exodus: "ve-higaddeta le-binkha ba-yom ha-hu" - "and you shall tell your son on that day,"1 while eating matza and maror together with the Paschal sacrifice: "al matzot u-merorerim yokhluhu" - "on matzot and bitter herbs you shall eat it."2 The only other place in the Torah where we find a specified declaration accompanying a divine offering is regarding the tithes of the third and sixth years of the agricultural cycle, and bikkurim (first-fruits offering).3 Each of these latter declarations are designated by the rabbis as vidui - confession.4 And significantly, the "confession" of bikkurim forms the basis of the Haggada on Pesach: "ve-doresh me-arami oved avi ad she-yigmor kol ha-parasha kula" - "and he expounds from 'my father was a wandering Aramean' until he completes the entire section."5
A question is immediately raised by this analogy: Confession implies sin. What transgression is implied in the bikkkurim declaration that prompted the rabbis to refer to it as a vidui? In seeking the answer, we might also solve some other puzzling aspects of the Seder, namely:

1) Why are questions so essential, to the extent that if there is no one to ask questions a person must ask himself the four questions?6

2) What is the significance of the four cups?

3) Why is Hallel divided into two parts, with the second half only being concluded after the festive meal?

4) Why is there such an emphasis on children?7 Even the biblical commandment to tell the story is expressed specifically as a transmission to children.8

5) And most basically, why is a passage from Devarim (26:5-8, the bikkurim declaration) used as the basic text for the Haggada? Would it not have been more to the point to recite from Sefer Shemot? Instead, the story in Shemot forms secondary elaborations on the text in Devarim!


By exploring certain aspects of the Seder in depth, we may be able to answer some of these questions, and gain a deeper understanding of the themes behind the Seder and Pesach in general.

II. Parallels Between the Seder and Yom Kippur


As previously stated, there is a mitzva - a biblical or rabbinic commandment - to elaborate on the tale of the Exodus on Seder night: "ve-khol ha-marbeh...harei zeh meshubach." Is there another mitzva in the Torah that Chazal singles out for intensification by their use of that phrase (the more elaboration, the better)?
In Masekhet Yoma (86b) there is a dispute whether after having confessed once on one Yom Kippur one should confess the same sin in subsequent years on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob says: "kol she-ken she-hu meshubach, "one who repeats his confession is certainly to be praised." The repetition either brings about or expresses an intensification of regret and an expansion of teshuva - repentance. Here is the only other mitzva in which we find the expression of praiseworthiness - meshubach - employed by the rabbis in the sense of an intrinsic enlargement of a precept.9 This intriguing correspondence leads us to notice an extensive, allusive association between Pesach and Yom Kippur.
A close examination of the two holidays reveals a surprising parallelism between them which is not apparent at first glance. The symmetry of themes, customs and practices, even vocabulary, some of which are identical and others ironically contrasting, point to a deeper philosophical and theological congruence. Let us examine them and try to discover some common conceptual underpinnings:

1) The Sabbaths before each holiday are special. There are special haftarot read, giving the Sabbaths their names.


Shabbat Shuva

Shabbat Ha-gadol
2) There are special rituals practiced on the day before the holiday to sharpen anticipation of the main mitzvot of the holidays and to emphasize their respective themes. On Erev Yom Kippur there is a mitzva to eat, to enhance the effect of the next day's fast,10 while on Erev Pesach there is a restriction on eating matza and drinking wine until the Seder, so that our appetites will be sharp when we fulfill these mitzvot in the evening.11
Mitzva to eat to enhance fast

Restriction on eating to enhance Seder
3) On Erev Yom Kippur we have the custom of kapparot - the circling of a fowl around the head - to emphasize the theme of sacrifice and atonement,12 while on Erev Pesach we burn the chametz to emphasize the prohibition of eating or benefiting from all types of leaven.13
Kapparot - theme of atonement

Burning chametz - theme of prohibition of chametz
4) On both Erev Yom Kippur and Erev Pesach, we do not recite the daily Psalm of Mizmor Le-toda.14
No Mizmor Le-toda on Erev Yom Kippur

No Mizmor Le-toda on Erev Pesach
5) A main feature of Yom Kippur is vidui, confession. It was true in Temple times and it is so today. As mentioned above, a main feature of Pesach night, as well, is vidui.
Vidui on Yom Kippur

Vidui on Pesach night


6) Furthermore, the timing of the recitation of the vidui on both holidays is similar. The Talmud states that on Yom Kippur vidui begins "Erev Yom Ha-kippurim mi-shetechshakh" - as it gets dark,15 the same time as the Seder begins.16
Timing of vidui on Yom Kippur

Timing of Seder, with vidui
7) And an established old custom adds a further enhancing detail to the similarity: the donning of the kittel. A white smock-like garment, symbolic of the shroud and therefore a reminder of our mortality, is worn for both the Seder and the Yom Kippur service.17
Kittel on Yom Kippur

Kittel at Seder
8) Even more basically, the central commandment of Yom Kippur, fasting, is expressed in the Torah by the term ve-initem (et nafshotekhem), "you shall afflict your souls."18 The matza commandment for the Seder in the Torah is expressed by precisely the same root - lechem oni - the "bread of affliction."19
Ve-initem on Yom Kippur

Lechem oni on Pesach
9) A most fundamental symmetry is apparent in the halakha of the sacrificial rituals of both holidays. One of the major sacrifices of Yom Kippur is the korban chatat - the sin offering, on Pesach night the korban Pesach, the Paschal lamb. Both are from the flock and both are exceptional with respect to other sacrifices. All other korbanot are kasher she-lo li-shema - valid even if they were sacrificed without proper intention at the time of offering, except korbanei chatat and Pesach, which are profaned by "she-lo li-shema."20
She-lo li-shema is invalid for the chatat of Yom Kippur

She-lo li-shema is invalid for the Korban Pesach

Furthermore, in both cases if the sacrifices become "ownerless," that is, in the case of chatat the owner dies, and in the case of korban Pesach all the partners decide to eat with another group and relinquish their rights to their original lamb, the animal can no longer be sacrificed and is put to death.21


10) In addition, there is a similarity in the time limits for eating the sacrifices. Both korbanei chatat and Pesach must be consumed by midnight of the day on which they were slaughtered.22
Korban Chatat must be eaten by midnight

Korban Pesach must be eaten by midnight
The theme of Yom Kippur is explicitly stated in the Torah: "Ki ba-yom ha-zeh yekhapper aleikhem le-taher etkhem" - "for on that day shall (the high priest) make an atonement for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins before the Lord shall you be clean."23 Its rituals, described in Sefer Vayikra, relate explicitly to the theme of sin and forgiveness. But the relationship of the Seder ritual to the main theme of the holiday is more abstruse. The Torah itself alludes to this absence of clarity by noting how the children of the generation that left Egypt will ask their fathers the reason for the ritual of the first night: "And it shall be, when your son asks you in time to come saying, 'what is this?'"24 The rabbis elucidated the relationship by their organization (Seder) of the Passover Eve ritual and the liturgy of the Haggada.
If we examine the declaration of bikkurim closely, we notice that it is preceded by a prologue in which the Israelite state to the priest:

"I profess this day to the Lord your God, that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us."25



This declaration is obviously connected with the murmuring of the Jews in the desert and their doubting that God will indeed bring them to the land of Canaan.26 And clearly it is an embarrassed confession that the Jew makes to the kohein. He implies, in effect, by his prologue: "We were wrong to doubt God. He did truly keep His promise!" The vidui of bikkurim, which follows, is essentially an elaboration of this confession. By reviewing his history, the Jew emphasizes the sin of his forefathers with respect to the land. The "Arami" is either Abraham or Jacob,27 who lived most of their lives outside the Land of Israel!
Here we have the clue to the mystery of the Seder. It is connected with the Jews' obstinate reluctance to enter the Promised Land.
On the passage in Eikha (3:15) "He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated with wormwood," the Midrash Eikha Rabba (3-4) states: "'He has filled me with bitterness,'" on Erev Pesach; "'He has sated me with wormwood,'" on Tisha Be-av." Clearly, the rabbis saw a connection between Pesach night and the destruction of the Temple. The spies Moses sent to Canaan returned with their discouraging negative report, according to tradition, on Tisha Be-av. That night the disillusioned people wept bitterly, decrying their fate to be left dying in the desert. God then angrily swore, say the rabbis, "You wept a weeping for no cause, I shall establish for you a weeping for generations!"28 And this link, incidentally, is the basis for the wide-spread custom to eat hard-boiled eggs, a food of mourners, at the Seder. Furthermore, Tisha Be-av will always fall on the same night of the week as the Seder in any given year.
The Zohar (Lekh Lekha) states that the exile in Egypt was a punishment for Abraham's descent into that country during a famine.29 Abraham should have remained in Canaan despite the famine! The Midrash Bereishit Rabba (40:1) also speaks of Abraham's descent being a foreshadowing of the exile of Egypt. But how can descendants be justly punished for the sins of their fathers?
The Talmud asks the same question, relating it to an apparent contradiction in the Torah. In the Ten Commandments, God speaks of "punishing the iniquities of the fathers upon the children,"30 but in another context, the Torah states: "Fathers shall not be put to death for children, neither shall children be put to death for fathers."31 The Talmud answers that when children cling to the evil deeds of their fathers, they are punished for their fathers' sins as well as for their own.32 The midrash utilizes this principle to make the Jews of Egypt responsible for the sin of their father Abraham in disdaining the Holy Land. And indeed, the Israelites exhibited this characteristic throughout their wanderings from the time they left Egypt until they entered the Land under Joshua. And even in Egypt, according to a midrash, four-fifths of the Jews died during the plagues because they refused to leave.33 And in the desert the Jews had to be prevented from returning by armed intervention.34
It is this characteristic resistance to settling the land that is confessed and atoned for on Pesach night. Chazal lead us, in a surprisingly modern pedagogical way, to discover this true reason for the atonement through the Seder. The Talmud describes the thematic form of the Haggada - "matchil be-genut u-mesayem be-shevach," - "one must begin with the shameful [origins of the Jewish nation] and conclude with praise."35 There is a debate between Rav and Shemuel as to what constitutes genut, "shame." Rav says it is because "at the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers," and Shemuel says it is due to the fact that, "we were once slaves."36 One can understand that idol-worshipping origins is embarrassing to a nation that so fiercely believes in One God. But why would the rabbis consider slavery an embarrassment? Subservience to Egyptian taskmasters was forced upon an innocent population against their will; the people did not choose to be slaves! However, Chazal, consistent with their philosophy, maintain that in certain respects, the Jews did choose to be slaves. "Be-derekh she-adam rotzeh le-lekh, bah molikhim oto," - "in life, a man (or a nation) is led (by Heaven) in the direction he (it) chooses."37 By their continual regrets at having left Egypt and their hankering after its fleshpots, they showed their true desire.38 Hence the need for confession and atonement on the holiday of freedom, Pesach.

III. The Emphasis on Pedagogy


In view of what we have discussed, the heavy emphasis on "questioning" in the Haggada can now be readily understood. The four sons, as poetically imagined by the rabbis, ask (or, in the case of the fourth son, should have asked) their father about the Seder. Their real question is "Why must you atone? What sin have you committed?" And the father answers, somewhat abruptly in all cases, "God took us out of the land of Egypt!" Even in the case of the wise son, the answer is curt and unfinished. The subsequent silence implies the true answer: "We were supposed to continue on to the Land of Promise but we resisted God's will and remained in the desert for forty years." One should note that in the Torah it is the children of the generation that left Egypt who question their fathers. That questioning generation ultimately would enter and settle the land, while their ancestors died in the desert due to their lack of faith.
The "four questions" now also take on additional meaning in light of our outlined parallels between Yom Kippur and Pesach night.

1) The first question is phrased to reflect the deprivation we experience on Seder night, correlating it to Yom Kippur and atonement for sin. Whereas all year we may eat as we please, on Pesach night we eat only matza! The oni - ve-initem parallel is emphasized. Restricting our choice of so staple a food as bread is an "affliction" and therefore an atonement.

2) The second question refers in the same way to the variety of vegetables eaten all year, in contrast to Pesach night when we are restricted to bitter herbs.

3-4) The last two questions, involving dipping the herbs, are also put into the context of a restrictive injunction, for on all other nights ("she-bekhol ha-leilot") we are free to do as we please at our table. The Jerusalem Talmud, interestingly, has only three questions in its version of the Seder ritual. Bitter herbs are not mentioned and reclining is replaced by the question "on all nights we eat roasted, parboiled and cooked, but on this night we eat only roasted?"39 Again, the question is phrased to emphasize the restrictive nature of the Seder menu - hence a deprivation of freedom to eat as one pleases.


The prominence of the child on Pesach night is now more comprehensible. The father, reluctant to enter the Land of Promise, is condemned to die in the desert. His child fulfills the Promise, enters and redeems him.
Another peculiarity of the Pesach Seder, as well, is better understood according to the above principle. Women, although obliged to eat matza,40 are not duty-bound by the Torah to bring the Passover-eve sacrifice,41 and they relate the story of the Exodus (sippur) only as a rabbinic ordinance of "af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes," - "they too were involved in the miracle."42 The women of the generation of the desert, in contradistinction to the men, showed an exceptional desire to enter the land. Chazal point out that they did not participate in the unfortunate plot of the spies.43 Said Rabbi Natan, "The power of women is better than that of men, for the men said 'Let us appoint (nitna) a leader and return to Egypt, while the women said 'Give us (ten lanu) a portion in the land!'"44
The arba kosot, according to our explanation, are thematically linked together and not merely four occasions of berakhot over wine deliberately placed together to construct the Seder ritual. Each is predicated on some aspect of the Land of Israel.
1) Kiddush is zekher li-yetziat mitzrayim, "a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt," a prelude to entering the Land.

2) The second cup, "asher ga'alanu" - "Who has redeemed us," refers again to the Exodus and also to a future service in a rebuilt Temple in the Land.

3) The third cup, associated with the ritual of grace after meals, has as a central blessing: "al ha-aretz ve-al ha-mazon" - first the Land, then our food.

4) And on the fourth cup, we recite that portion of the Hallel which speaks of sacrifices in a future Temple in the Messianic era. That, too, is based on the Land.


According to the Jerusalem Talmud,45 the four cups of the Seder are based upon the four expressions of salvation mentioned in Sefer Shemot (6:6-8): "ve-hotzeti, ve-ga'alti, ve-hitzalti, ve-lakachti."

And I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will release you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to me for a people.



But there is a fifth expression in this sequence: "ve-heveti" ("and I will bring you in unto the land") - yet there is no cup for it! Rambam mentions pouring a fifth cup if one desires.46 But it is definitely not part of the traditional ritual. What is the reason for its nonappearance at the Seder?
The four cups are meant to point to the fifth. The fifth expression is ve-heveti - "and I will bring you in unto the Land," i.e., God will bring the Jews to the Promised Land. But He will not do so unless the Jews themselves desire it. And they did not at the time. God brought the Jews out of Egypt and intended to bring them to Canaan immediately, but they resisted. The four cups are part of the atonement for the reluctance to fulfill "ve-heveti."
A question arises, based on our interpretation. If the evening of Pesach is reserved for confession of a sin, why is it then celebrated with cups of wine - especially the second cup, which is dedicated to the confessional part of the Seder, the haggada section? The answer is that confession brings atonement and subsequently the mercy of God. That, indeed, in the eyes of Chazal, is a cause for celebration. In truth, the Seder's parallel - Yom Kippur - should have been ushered in with a traditional cup of wine too, except that the Torah prohibits drinking on that day.47
This theme - of atonement brought about by our confession - also explains why the Hallel is divided into two parts on the Seder night. The first part refers to the Exodus, and is an element in the atonement through the confession of the haggada. The second part, referring to the future glory of messianic times, is joyously associated with atonement achieved and the consequent salvation.
One may then legitimately ask: "If confession is so basic and fundamental to the Seder, why is this theme not more explicit in the Haggada - as are, for example, the themes of Pesach, matza, maror, concerning which Rabban Gamliel says, "if one has not said these three things he has not fulfilled his obligation?"
The Torah often conceals references to the sins of the Jewish people in allusions, as if unwilling to embarrass the nation for its backsliding. At the beginning of Sefer Devarim, the Torah refers to landmarks identifying the place where Moses spoke his last words to the people of Israel - "be-arava mol suf, ben tofal," etc. The Sifre states that these are not places, but rather are intimations of sins committed by the nation in the desert. The Torah did not wish to expose them openly, in order to preserve the honor of the nation. Thus, they were veiled in allusions.48 In the bikkurim declaration, the sin of refusing to enter the Land is only alluded to by implication. It is not explicit because the reluctance to take over and settle the land is an embarrassment to the nation. But in the Haggada on Pesach night, although still indirect, the rabbis elicited the idea of this failing by the questioning of the children, thus calling attention to their ancestors' offense from the time of Abraham: "va-yimasu be-eretz chemda."49

IV. Conclusion - The Doubled Importance of Confession


The Talmud states that sins committed against God should be confessed quietly, to oneself, while sins committed against one's fellow man should be confessed out loud so that the sinner would be ashamed.50 The first part of the declaration of bikkurim, which relates to the sin of each individual Jew in doubting God's word that he would bring them to the Promised Land, is said quietly. But there is also a national aspect to this sin. When the spies returned and gave a discouraging report, all the people wept - and as a consequence, the entire nation wandered forty years in the desert. Therefore the Torah demands that the second half of the bikkurim confession be recited be-kol ram, out loud!51 By refusing to enter the land, or in the case of Abraham, in descending to Egypt, the Jewish people were made to suffer exile. Surely, this sin was against one's fellow man. And this confession forms the major part of the Haggada, also recited aloud.52
In Masekhet Pesachim,53 the mishna directs the reader of the Haggada to complete the bikkurim declaration at the Seder - ve-doresh kol ha-parasha kula. Our practice is not to do so. The part which mentions the land, "va-yevianu el ha-makom ha-zeh" - "and he brought us to this place," is deleted. This is the gravamen, the most serious accusation, of the bikkurim confession. Since the Haggada, as we have received it, was mainly developed in the Galut, the rabbis wished to spare the Jews further embarrassment on Pesach night, so it was left out. It is possible that in Temple times it was indeed part of the Haggada. May we soon reach the level of being able to recite this serious accusation out loud, as a manifestation of our teshuva gemura and of the final redemption.


1 Shemot 13:8.

2 Bemidbar 9:11. Although the verse refers specifically to Pesach Sheni, the Rabbis apply it to the regular Pesach as well. See Pesachim 115a.

3 Devarim 26:1-15.

4 Bikkurim 2:2.

5 Mishna Pesachim 10:4.

6 Pesachim 116a: "Our Rabbis taught: If his son is intelligent he asks him, while if he is not intelligent, his wife asks him, but if not, he asks himself. Even two scholars who know the laws of Pesach ask one another."

7 Pesachim 115b: "Why do we remove the table?...So that the children may perceive the unusual proceeding and inquire as to its reason." Also 116a: "We dip twice...on account of children," and 108b-109a:

"We distribute parched ears of corn and nuts on the eve of Pesach, so that they (the children) should not fall asleep and ask the questions...It was related of R. Akiva that never did he say in the study hall 'It is time to rise and cease study' except on the eve of Pesach...because of the children, so that they might not fall asleep (at the Seder)."



8 See Shemot 10:2; 12:26; 13:8, 14.

9 Chazal do use phrases similar to this one, but never in the same sense. In Berakhot 34b, 45b; Rosh Ha-shana 32b; Yoma 84b, 86b; it is used in a comparative sense. In Mo'ed Katan 22b and Sanhedrin 40a, it is used to praise haste in burying the dead and in saving lives; in Nidda 13a, in terms of the number of times a woman examines herself for her menstrual flow.

10 Berakhot 8b; Yoma 81b.

11 Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:1; Bavli Berakhot 35b; Pesachim 107b; Rambam, Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 6:12.

12 Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 605.

13 Ibid. 445:1.

14 Ibid. 51:9.

15 Yoma 87b.

16 Bemidbar 9:3,11; Devarim 16:6.

17 See Shulchan Arukh and Taz on Orach Chayim 472, 610.

18 Vayikra 16:31; 23:27, 32.

19 Devarim 16:3.

20 Zevachim 1:1.

21 Horayot 6b; Mishna Pesachim 7:9; 9:9-11.

22 Zevachim 5:3,8.

23 Vayikra 16:30.

24 Shemot 13:14.

25 Devarim 26:3.

26 See Shemot 14:11; Bemidbar 11:4; 14:1-4; 16:1-14.

27 See Ibn Ezra and Rashbam on Devarim 26:5.

28 Ta'anit 29a.

29 Bereishit 12:10.

30 Shemot 20:5.

31 Devarim 24:16.

32 Berakhot 7a.

33 Mekhilta Chap. 18.

34 Yerushalmi Sota 1:10, cited by Rashi on Bemidbar 26:13.

35 Pesachim 10:4.

36 Ibid. 16a.

37 Makkot 10b.

38 See, for instance, Shemot 4:11; 16:3; Bemidbar 11:1-7; 20:5; Devarim 1:27.

39 Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:4.

40 Pesachim 43b.

41 Ibid. 79b.

42 Ibid. 108b-109a; Megilla 4a, Tosafot ad locum.

43 Bemidbar Rabba 21.

44 Yalkut Shimoni 773:27. Note the play on the root n-t-n (נתן).

45 Pesachim 10:1.

46 Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 8:10.

47 Eruvin 40b.

48 See Rashi, ad locum.

49 Tehillim 106:24.

50 Yoma 86b.

51 Sota 32b.

52 Pesachim 36a; 115b - "lechem she-onin alav devarim harbei." Note the similarity to "ve-anita ve-amarta" of the bikkurim declaration.

53 10:4.






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