Understanding the Nuances of the Passover Seder

Though the Passover seder may be the religious rite that's most familiar to the majority of Jews, a University of Pennsylvania professor recently posited that these same individuals may, in fact, be unaware or misinformed about the origins of the assorted rituals they recite year in and year out.

Dr. Jeffrey H. Tigay told an overflow crowd gathered on a damp Friday afternoon that, though the seder was, of course, inspired by the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt, what is practiced today in Jewish homes had its origins 1,000 years later, mostly in the Mishnah, which dates from the Talmudic period (around 200 C.E.). It was during this period, he said, that the rabbis gave the Haggadah — the seder's "libretto" — an important and very particular thrust.

Tigay, A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at Penn, delivered his remarks at a March 7 program held at Drexel University's Hagerty Library. The presentation, attended by close to 75 people packed into a small lecture room, was one of several events scheduled this academic year to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Drexel's Judaic Studies Program. Tigay's appearance was co-sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society.

'I Will Pass Over … '

A handout, highlighting some of the details of the exodus story and its embodiment in the Haggadah, accompanied Tigay's wide-ranging remarks. It included, for example, a section from Exodus 12, which details what the Israelite families were expected to do on the night before they left Egypt. It speaks of slaughtering and eating a roasted lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, but first taking the blood and putting it "on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat."

"For that night," Exodus 12 continued, "I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt … . And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt."

Within that passage, Tigay said, is a brief description of some seder elements, but also one of the little glitches that's been carried over into modern practice: Passover is a mistranslation. "The word," the professor said, "actually means 'protect' or 'protection.' The Pesach sacrifice is really a protection sacrifice."

Somehow, he added, the word got mistranslated, and the mistake became part of the overall culture.

He next pointed out that, after Exodus 12 speaks of what's to be done the night before the Israelites flee, it moves on to discuss what must be done in the future to commemorate this momentous event. Of the utmost importance in all these instructions is the interchange between children and parents. These passages were what the rabbis built upon in the Mishnah, said Tigay, fine-tuning them until the Haggadah achieved its "classic form."

When the child questions all the rules that dictate the structure of the seder — what is to be eaten, and how and when — the parents must explain what lies behind it all. And the various seder ceremonies devised by the rabbis, noted the professor, were meant to be transmitters of tradition.

This point is best demonstrated in the account in the Haggadah where several learned rabbis recline at a seder table in B'nei B'rak and spend the entire night discussing the Exodus until their students must come and drag them off to morning prayers.

"This is obviously the best way to do it [the seder], to discuss all through the night," explained Tigay.

Much of the structure and specific ceremonies of the seder come from the Greek symposia, continued Tigay, which were basically drinking parties — both "mirthful and serious pastimes."

"These were gatherings where people reclined, where lots of drinking was done, and where appetizers were dipped. In essence, it was a meal where you picked up a piece of food and talked about it."

Yet another mistaken element of the seder comes from a symposium tradition. Why is it, asked Tigay, that we cannot eat anything else once we've found and partaken of the afikomen?

" 'Afikomen' is a Greek word," he explained, "which refers to a practice at the end of the symposium where the participants got up, left and went somewhere else, generally barging into another house to get the people there to join in the revelry. What the rabbis were saying is 'Don't make an afikomen.' We must not be frivolous.

"And so the seder reflects a symposium practice, but in this instance rejects it. What we learn from all this is that Jews didn't live in a vacuum. They were influenced by cultures around them. But they also did not just absorb ideas and customs. They did all sorts of variations upon them.

"The seder was not to be frivolous," Tigay continued. "It was to be an educational experience for all Jews — the richest and the poorest alike, the youngest and the oldest, and not just something for the elites and intellectuals."



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