Anniversary of the Birth of Freedom
IT SEEMS SOMEWHAT paradoxical that Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year,
occurs in the fall, while the first month of the Hebrew year is counted
from Pesach, the spring holiday. The Jewish calendar reflects a double
commitment -- a celebration of the Creation of the world (traditionally
associated with the fall, the beginning of the rainy season in the Middle
East) and a commemoration of national liberation (associated with the
springtime Exodus from Egypt). The origins of life and freedom, the universal
and the national, orient our values and our measurement of time. Freedom
is a second birth, a watershed from which life begins again.
Pours the Wine?
Roman and Rabbinic Table Manners and the Role of Women
ON PESACH the Rabbis
asked us to play a double role remembering our slave status by
eating the bread of poverty and bitter herbs, yet reiterating the freed
status that we achieved on this very night in Egypt. How does one behave
in a style befitting a free being?
The Rabbis took their
cues from Greco-Roman citizens, a privileged minority whose freedom and
dignity were displayed in their participation in elegant symposia. Aristocratic
dining meant reclining on cushioned couches, sipping excellent wines
with hors duvres dipped in appetizing sauces, eaten from ones
finest silver and ceramic dishes, while conducting a leisurely intellectual
exchange of views according to a well-known format set by the host. (The
term school derives from the Greek word for leisure -- schole).
On seder night the
Rabbis require this format from even the poorest Jews. Practically speaking,
this means that the community tzedakah fund must provide at least four
cups of wine for needy men and women. All must be able to celebrate their
freedom with the same basic material comforts, because all Israel
are regarded as children of kings. For that reason it is customary
that someone else pour your wine for you, just as aristocrats are served
However, we must note
the vigorous dissent from this custom, by Rabbi Y. M. Epstein (Poland,
19th C.). He feared it would lead to what a contemporary might
call blatant sexism or the exploitation of women to pour wine for the
haughty and arrogant to order ones wife to serve him wine. After
all he is no more obligated to drink wine than she. Therefore, we ask
that everyone pour for him or herself.
There is a simple
solution to this problem. Participants may form pairs and each person
pours for the other. top
to the Left: An Outmoded Custom?
ONE OF THE FOUR questions is: Why on seder night must we eat reclining,
while on all other nights we may eat either reclining or sitting up?
Clearly the question presupposes a social world in which as in the Greco-Roman
nobility, meals were often taken while the guests reclined on their left
arms on couches, leaving their right hand free to dip and taste. At each
couch was a small table with individual portions, like todays seder
However, since the
European Middle Ages, it is no longer the way of nobility to recline.
In fact, eating while reclining on pillows is the way of the sick.
Avi HaEzri led the Ashkenazi tradition in declaring the commandment to
recline, obsolete and no longer binding. (Rabbi Eliezer
Ben Joel, 12th C. Germany).
All things considered,
we commend the view of Rabbi Y. M. Epstein that everyone should be provided
with a pillow precisely because it is an outmoded and outlandish custom.
For the point of the seder is to introduce changes into the meal, so the
children will be aroused to ask: Why is this night different from
all other nights? By the same token it would be ideal for everyone
to have their own seder plate. top
Centrality of Women on Pesach
RASHBAM (11th C., France) says women must
be involved in the celebration of Pesach for they were the catalysts of
the redemption by continuing to procreate and to hide their children in
order to thwart Pharaohs genocidal plan. Therefore women are obligated
to drink four cups of wine at the seder.
In contrast to the
traditional exemption of women from time-specific mitzvot, all the commandments
of the seder night are their privilege and duty. The redemptive role of
Moses mother Yocheved and sister Miriam, like that of Queen Esther
in the Megillah, won women exceptional recognition on both Pesach and
Kids Need Wine?
THE RABBIS were of two minds over the appropriateness of wine for children.
The Talmud reports their dispute:
is obligated to drink four cups of wine: men, women and children ... But
Rabbi Yehuda said: What good is wine for children? Give them popcorn*
and peanuts on Pesach night in order to prevent them from falling asleep
and in order to arouse them to ask questions (T.B.
Now is an appropriate
time to distribute to the children candies and nuts along with wine or
grape juice. Some families fill the childrens cups with candies.
refers to toasted grains, permissible on Pesach according to the Talmud
and eaten on Pesach by Sefaradim).
Everyone Is A Priest
THE SEDERis no ordinary meal. It is a highly orchestrated rite of eating,
questioning, telling, and singing. As Philo put it:
At this time
the whole household takes on the sanctity of a temple. The sacrifice becomes
a seder meal. The invited guests cleanse themselves in water. They come
not to fill their gullets with wine and their stomachs with food as at
other symposia, but to celebrate with song, prayer (and story).
The whole people,
old and young, ascend to the status of priests to conduct the holy service
(the seder). For they all celebrate the great migration, when over 600,000
men and women happily exited from a land of cruelty and animosity towards
(Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws, the first Jewish
Cry Over Spilt Wine"
A PUBLIC MESSAGE from the Hosts to All Their Guests:Dont Cry
over Spilt Wine.
Rabbi Akiba Eiger
(Germany, 18th C.) used to be very strict about the mitzvah
of hospitality especially on Pesach. Once when he was leading a large
seder, one of the guests happened to spill a cup of wine. The clean white
tablecloth was stained. Seeing the guests enormous embarrassment,
Rabbi Eiger himself bumped the table spilling his own glass of wine. He
exclaimed: Oh, this table must be off-balance.
The Gift of Fire
IF PESACH FALLS on Saturday eve, havdalah is recited over the Pesach candles
(not over a special havdalah candle). This blessing over the light celebrates
the technological revolution by which human beings learned to make fire
and to illuminate the darkness. The Rabbis trace this advance to a gift
of knowledge from God to Adam and Eve who were frightened by the dark
that set in after the first Shabbat of creation.
Since fire is a divine
gift for human benefit, the blessing is recited over the use of the light.
Often people examine their fingernails in the light of the candles when
reciting Me-orei Ha-eish, the blessing over the fire.
IT WAS AN OLD heirloom, with ancient wine stains. It had come down from
the days of her grandfather. The book contained many boldly and brightly
colored pictures. As a little girl, she had often looked at it so eagerly
on Passover evenings.
Heine, The Rabbi of Bacherach, German Romantic poet, 19th
First Thing God Wants Us To Know
THE VERY FIRST THING God tells us about Himself at Sinai is this: I
am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. God tells us
that, before telling us not to steal and not to kill, before telling us
to observe the Sabbath day and not to worship other gods. It is as if
God thinks we need to be reminded of the great favor done for us in order
to be sure that we will reciprocate by observing Gods commandments.
I brought you
out of the house of bondage is the first of the Ten Commandments.
It commands us to know for all time that our God is a God of freedom,
that the commandments God offers us are gifts, not burdens, that the acceptance
of those commandments is not a form of self-denial but a form of liberation.
God does not want our gratitude; God wants us to understand that nothing
matters to God more than our freedom, and then to teach us that freedom
depends upon law.
Tonight, at the great
festival of our freedom, we are, all of us, from the youngest to the oldest,
colleagues in the celebration of freedom.
At the same time,
we are partners in a seder - which means order. We might have chosen to
celebrate and remember our liberation with noisy carnivals; others have.
But we have been taught something different.
Fein, author, social activist, U.S.A.)
Our Slavery --
Zeicher Litziat Mitzrayim
IN THE KIDDUSH, Pesach is called the time of our liberation.
Reading aloud one of the following stories may help us focus on the meaning
behind the Kiddush on Passover.
Birthday Dear Israel"
ON JANUARY 27, 1990, the rabbi came to shul as usual to greet the older
men who were his morning minyan regulars. One challenged the rabbi playfully:
Arent you going to wish me Happy Birthday?
Sure, how old
are you? replied the rabbi.
Who are you
kidding, you must be at least 75?
No, today is
the day I celebrate as my birthday. Forty-five years ago I was reborn
when the Allies liberated me from Auschwitz. The gift of life and
the gift of freedom are for me inseparable.
In the same spirit as the story told above, the Torah calls on Israel
to regard the spring month (Nisan), the month of its liberation, as its
first month starting over its life as a nation: The Lord
said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt. This month shall mark for
you the beginning of the months. It shall be the first of the months of
the year for you (Ex. 12:1-2).
Rags to Riches: A Folktale
IRAQI JEWS tell the tale that in one country the king was always chosen
in a special way. When the old king died, a bird called the bird
of good fortune would be released. On whomsoever's head it landed,
the people would place the crown making him their next ruler.
Once the bird of good
fortune landed on the head of a slave. That slave had been a simple musician
who entertained at the masters parties. His costume consisted of
a feathered cap and a belt made of the hooves of sheep.
When the slave became
king, he moved into the palace and wore royal robes. However, he ordered
that a shack (a kind of sukkah) be constructed next to the palace and
that his old hat, belt and drum be stored there along with a giant mirror.
The new king was known
for his kindness and love for all his people rich and poor, free
and slave. Often he would disappear into his little shack. Once he left
its door open and the cabinet ministers saw him don his feathered hat,
put on his old belt and dance and drum before the mirror. They found this
very strange and asked the king:
After all, you are a king! You must maintain your dignity!
The king replied:
Once I was a
slave and now Ive become a king. From time to time I want to remind
myself that I was once a slave lest I grow arrogant and treat with dis-dain
my people and you, my ministers.
English term, auspicious day or inauguration day
preserves an echo of the Roman custom of consulting the flight of birds
as an augur for the future).