Meditation on Renaissance
SPRING IS THE RENAISSANCE, the rebirth of life, after a winter of discontent:
For now the winter is past,
The rains are over and gone.
The blossoms have appeared in the land.
... Arise, my darling,
My fair one, come away!
(Song of Songs 2:11-13)
On the national level the Jewish people lay dormant in Egyptian slavery
until God awakened their desire for freedom and led them out in the springtime.
On the individual level liberation is often experienced as a gift of new
options, a sudden expansion of possibilities. However, the fresh taste
of new-found freedom symbolized by Karpas is still mingled with memories
of bitterness, the salt water of tears.
Wash Hands Before Karpas?
W hy Not Say a Bracha?
JEWISH LAW REQUIRES
the ritual washing of the hands before eating bread. This washing is accompanied
by a blessing. But why do we wash before eating the green vegetable and
why in this case is no blessing recited?
Fruits or vegetables
dipped in water can acquire ritual impurity (Lev. 11:34). Washing before
eating vegetables which have come into contact with water is a hold-over
from Talmudic times. In that period many Rabbis attempted to eat all their
foods in a state of ritual purity trying to experience in their
daily eating the sense of sacredness associated with the Temple. To emphasize
that this is only a pious custom, and not even a rabbinic requirement,
no blessing is recited.
Except for the seder
night the custom has fallen into general disuse, even among the strictly
observant. But on seder night we wash at the beginning of the evening
to create the spirit of a sacred gathering conducted in purity and devotion
a Pagan Resurrection of the Spring Deities
MOST PAGAN PEOPLES celebrate Spring as a festival of liberty. But it is
remarkable that, with these peoples, it is not human beings nor the nation,
but a deity who is liberated at the festival of Spring; the resurrection
of the deity symbolizes the Spring revival of life.
Only the Jews, in their national consciousness,
have dared to connect the liberation of nature with the liberation of
the nation, with the Exodus from Egypt. Only the Jews have known how to
transform the festival of Spring into the Festival of our freedom.
(Ber Borochov, Marxist Zionist, 1913)
Return to Nature
THE EMPHASISs on spring and the rebirth of nature in this Haggadah is
typical of Zionist Haggadot. Zionism sought to return the urbanized Diaspora
Jews to their roots in the land and in its seasonal cycles. Israeli school
children and their parents often go on field trips to discover the flora
and fauna as well as the history and archeology of Eretz Yisrael.
Menu of Meanings: Why Karpas?
THE WORD Karpasderives from the Greek Karpos meaning
fruit of the soil. Though the historical origins of dipping Karpas at
the seder simply reflect the accepted cuisine of the Greco-Roman symposium,
the rabbis added their own symbolic interpretations in order to connect
the dipping to the Pesach story.
Spring Greens: April/Nisan
the spring vegetable, represents both the historic birth of Israel born
out of the womb of Egypt in the Exodus and the rebirth of nature renewed
each spring. According to Philo and to Rabbi Joshua the original birthday
of nature the Creation occurred at Pesach-time, not Rosh
Hashana. Similarly, the Italian name for spring prima-vera and
the French printemps preserve the sense of the return to the original
first time of the world.
Spring (old English)
is originally applied to the place of origin from which a stream arises.
Later it was applied to the season, the spring of the year.
A Time to March
The Latin term for
March preserves the memory of spring as a time for war under the auspices
of the god of war, Mars. Spring also has military associations in the
Torah. Gods spring victory over Egypt is portrayed in martial terms.
For example, Israels armies left Egypt armed (Ex. 13:18)
in the month when kings go out to war.
God took Israel
out of Egypt precisely in the best month for an exodus. Not in Tamuz (June-July)
when there is the chamsin (hot summer winds), not in Tevet (December-January)
when it is cold (and rainy), but in Nisan (March-April) when it is neither
too hot nor too cold to be on the march. (BaMidbar
A Guilty Memory: Dipping in Blood
The dipping of greens
is reminiscent of the historic dipping that led Israel into exile in Egypt
and the dipping that facilitated their redemption. The descent to Egyptian
slavery began when Josephs brothers sold him into slavery and dipped
his coat of many colors into a slaughtered goats blood in
order to mislead their father Israel about his beloved sons true
fate. The ascent from exile moral and physical began when
every family gathered together with their neighbors to share a lamb on
seder night and to dip in its blood a hyssop plant and to dab it on the
doorposts and the lintel as a protection against the tenth plague.
Half A Loaf Is Better Than One"
ON SHABBAT and holidays, we celebrate the double gift of abundance with
two whole loaves just as in the desert the Jews received a double
portion of manna (Ex. 16:22) every Friday
for the weekend. (Manna from heaven was suspended on
However, the seder
night is unique in that the Rabbis mandated that half a loaf is better
than one, for matza is called the bread of poverty
(Deut. 16:3). Therefore, the seder begins by breaking the matza
in two and explaining that this is the bread of poverty and persecution.
Of the three
matzot, two remain whole, in order to symbolize the abundance of freedom,
but one must be broken to recall the deprivation of slavery. The Rabbis
noted that the poor in their era were savers, experts
at delayed gratification, who would never consume a complete loaf at one
sitting, but would always put something aside against the uncertainty
of the following week. In the midst of the seder banquet, the broken matza
the symbol of poverty is meant to jar us out of our sense
of complacency. Maimonides explains that the Torah repeats so often:
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, because
it fears that growing up in wealth tends to breed arrogance and insensitivity.
Story of the Compulsive Saver
IN THE JERUSALEM neighborhood of Talpiot lived an eccentric old man in
a large villa. He visited the synagogue religiously whenever a kiddush
was served with cakes and kugel. At shul everyone filled themselves with
sweets but this elderly man took twice as much, filling his pockets and
his mouth. His fellow Jews smiled at his anxious hoarding and wondered
how a man living in a large house could be so desperate for a little cake.
Once a curious Jew asked him to explain. The old man replied heavily:
In the concentration camps in Poland there was never enough bread.
I have never liberated myself from my fear that tomorrow there may not
be any more food. top
Principled Debate: Two Matzot or Three?
THOUGH ALMOST ALL contemporary rabbis sanction the use of three matzot
at the seder, the Gaon of Vilna (18th C.)
insisted that only two matzot be used.
For the two matza
tradition, matza is primarily a recollection of poverty. While
on all other holidays we eat from two whole loaves, here we eat from one
broken matza and one whole one. The seder re-enacts our common suffering
out of which we generate our solidarity and our moral commitment to the
stranger and the deprived. The concern for the outsider breaks into our
family banquet symbolically in the form of a broken matza marring our
sense of wholeness.
While even the three-matza
tradition includes one broken matza, it chiefly emphasizes the seder as
a Thanksgiving Dinner. The three matzot recall the minimal thanksgiving
offering described in the Torah (Lev. 7:12).
That offering was shared within a community of friends and relatives;
the hosts praised God who had redeemed them from illness, imprisonment,
or danger (Ps. 107:22). On Pesach, families
retell how their children were threatened by Pharaoh and how they suffered
degradation and injustice in Egypt. While sharing the thanksgiving offering
of matza, they sing Hallel to thank God.
The two-matza tradition
makes this evening resemble a communal Solidarity-with-the-Poor
Box Lunch, while the three-matza tradition is reminiscent of a family
Thanksgiving Night Banquet.
THE PESACH family gathering is in fact a thanksgiving banquet during
which we retell our national salvation. It is also appropriate to weave
into the seder, memories of personal deliverance from danger.
Invite the family
and guests to recall their own family stories of redemption from illness,
from danger, or from persecution. Perhaps they can discuss the personal
lessons they drew from these crucial events in their lives.