The eight-day Biblical festival of Pesach (Hebrew for Passover) begins this Wednesday night (Exodus 12). It is the central family event in Judaism, the Seder that Orthodox Jews outside Israel mark on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel it is only one night.) The family gather around the dining room table, with their best tableware — no, let’s not call it “chinaware” — their best crystal, their finest flatware, their finest tablecloths and napkins, and they begin the Seder. The word “Seder” means “the Order [of things],” and it is called that because 14 specific rituals ensue, each according to its seder, its proper order.
The Seder begins with Kadesh, the reciting of a prayer over a cup of wine, giving thanks to G-d Almig-ty for having delivered us from Egyptian slavery and persecution. An additional prayer, with extra meaning this coronavirus year, thanks G-d for having sustained us alive to this moment. We then sit and drink the majority of the wine while leaning physically to the left in the manner of free people in Roman times when these traditions were formalized. That is, no need to sit stiffly upright, but symbolically to relax. Some even set up a pillow as an extra seat cushion for the Seder. The wine ideally is of a red varietal because that color seems richer, fuller bodied. For those who cannot drink wine, red or purple grape juice is substituted. The glass capacity is at least 3.3 ounces of liquid and is filled to the brim; one should drink at least half that cup. The numbers will add up because there are four cups, so if using a cup that hold 3.3 ounces, one will drink seven ounces or so over the night. If using eight-ounce glasses, it will be a bunch more. Practical experience teaches that it is best to drink dry wine, not the Manischewitz syrupy stuff, because lots of sugary wine on an empty stomach never works out well an hour later. By contrast, the dry stuff does not catch up until you are asleep.
We next arise and ritually wash our hands. This is Step Two of the Order: U-r’chatz. Jewish law, dating back thousands of years, long before contemporary science caught up, requires washing hands before eating foods that entail hand-dipping. We return to our seats and take a small piece of a green vegetable — usually parsley or celery — and dip it into salt water. The green vegetable represents the onset of spring. The salt water represents the bitter tears of slavery. This was Step Three of the Order, the Seder: Karpas.
There is stack of three matzos pre-set on a plate. These are not the matzos you find in the “Kosher” (or “Jewish”) aisle in the supermarket. If you look carefully at those in the supermarket, you will find they often are labeled “Not for Passover Use.” Rather, these matzos must have been baked through completely within 18 minutes from the moment when water first was added to the flour to start making the dough. At the matzo factories, they work rapidly, building the dough, then flattening it, rolling it flatter and flatter, then piercing lines of holes into it to assure that the finished product bakes through completely and rapidly within those 18 minutes. Ideally, for the Seder night the matzos are special-order “shmurah” (guarded) matzos, from which the very wheat (or oats or spelt) that is used for making its flour has been under strict rabbinical supervision from the day the grain stalks were cut, through the milling, and continuing under rabbinical supervision through the shipping of the flour by trains from the grain fields to the matzo-baking factories. Although machine-baked square matzos are more common, the most traditional ones are the big, round, handmade ones.
The person conducting the Seder takes hold of the stack of three matzos and breaks the middle matzoh. One part comes out smaller, and one part bigger. In some 40 years of conducting sedarim (seders), I never saw a perfect 50-50 split. I started offering a thousand dollars to anyone who could split it perfectly. One year, some eight-year-old kid almost did it. So I stopped offering the bounty. The smaller piece of the broken matzo is placed back in the middle; the larger piece is set aside as “Afikoman” for after dinner. Kids hide it, and the parents later search for it at dessert time. If the parents cannot find it then, they give the kids a gift for letting them know where it is. In some homes, the parents hide it, and the kids find it to get the gift. The kids always end up with the gift; the parents end up with broken matzo. This was Step Four of the Seder Order: Yachatz.
There then begins the longest part of the Seder, Step Five — Maggid, where the people at the table tell the story of Egyptian slavery and Jewish liberation. It is the story of a family of 70 people led by the Patriarch Yaakov (Jacob) descending to Egypt and finding themselves, after having contributed mightily to the country’s continued success and prosperity, ultimately persecuted a generation and more later when a new Pharaoh arises who did not know or recognize the Jewish contributions of the Viceroy Joseph who had saved Egypt from starvation and famine (Exodus 1:6-8). We became slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and now we are free. Maggid begins with inviting the hungry and the needy to join us for the Seder. It then moves to the hallmark of the night, the youngest child(ren) present singing the “Four Questions” that actually are five:
The Haggadah — the formal prayerbook-type volume that contains all the rituals and text — offers a standard exposition about freedom, tracing the Biblical narrative, offering some classical rabbinical commentary, reminding us that in every generation there are those who mean to harm us, but G-d ultimately saves us from their hands. We recount G-d’s miracles, the Ten Plagues, and we express thanks for the many wonderful things G-d wrought for us. If He only had taken us out of Egypt, that would have been enough. If He only had split the Sea of Reeds for us, that would have been enough. If He only had fed us the manna from Heaven in the Sinai Desert for 40 years, that would have been enough. The words are sung to the refrain of “Dayenu” — that would have been enough. Here is a version.
Because so many American Jews have become so utterly lost and disconnected from anything approaching authentic Judaism, they have diluted the Seder and made a mockery of it by publishing their own “contemporary” Haggadahs that read more like the articles of incorporation and bylaws of the ACLU. They add all kinds of garbage. The feminists add an orange on the table. I imagine that the Bernie Sanders people go completely red, as in Marxism, and add a cherry. There are “Climate Change” Haggadahs, Green New Deal Haggadahs, Haggadahs about every imaginable leftist cause, every imaginable group associating their freedom with the Jewish Seder. I await the Pluto Haggadah, when the people of Pluto express their yearning to have their homeland regarded once again as a planet, just like Venus, Mercury, and Saturn. All these Haggadahs are baloney, not worth the windmill-fueled, recycled bamboo paper they are written on. The same Jewish leftists who scream and cry about “cultural appropriation” when someone Caucasian wears a kimono or a sari see no hypocrisy in culturally appropriating Passover and the Seder to agitate and whine over whatever leftist cause du jour floats their boat that month. They are useless, and their children grow up to be non-Jewish or, worse, anti-Semites like the people who surround and endorse Bernie Sanders. A few of their kids, though, produce the ultimate punishment: they abandon their parents’ drek and became Orthodox Jews who study Judaism with rabbis like me.
As the Maggid ritual winds down, we again rise to wash hands. This is the Jewish way. We are about to eat matzo, the “bread” of Passover, and we must always wash before eating bread of any sort — bagels, pita, challah, rolls, white bread. The rabbis of the Talmudic era had many rules for washing: to wash hands upon awakening, to wash every time one exits the restroom, to wash before eating bread, to wash hands after a meal where bread has been eaten. We return to the table from having washed and recite a prayer thanking G-d for the many commandments by which we may serve Him, even by washing our hands as He ordained. This is Step Six of the Seder: Rachtzah.
The person conducting the Seder now takes hold of the stack of three matzos, of which the middle one now is the smaller half that had been broken. He shifts his hands and takes hold of the top two and recites a prayer thanking G-d for the commandment to eat matzo on Passover night, then shifts his hands to hold the top and bottom matzo, reciting a traditional prayer of thanks for bread-like foods. His first prayer — for the commandment of matzo — entailed holding that broken middle piece because matzo is deemed the bread of affliction, and enslaved and downtrodden people accept bread that is broken. His switch of hands for his second prayer was because the traditional bread prayer is recited over two complete bread substances when recited on a holiday or Sabbath, in memory of the miracle in the Sinai Desert when G-d dispatched a double portion of manna from Heaven every Friday so that no one would have to undertake to gather bread on the Sabbath (Shabbat) (Exodus 16:22). This is Step Seven of the Order: Motzi Matza. Everyone at the table is given a piece from the upper matzo and a piece from the broken middle matzo, and additional matzo from a nearby box is added to each person’s distributed portion so that, in all, everyone is eating a meaningful portion of matzo, not just little pieces.
Bitter herbs then are distributed to everyone at the table. This is Step Eight: Maror. Although many use grated fresh horseradish for this purpose, many others use the root of iceberg lettuce or chicory or endive because the root is bitter and because a meaningful amount should be eaten. It is impracticable to eat a meaningful amount of fresh grated horseradish in one or two swallows. Back in 1983, we had a married couple among our Seder guests. He was a newly arrived immigrant from Ukraine, and he insisted he could down any amount of fresh grated horseradish, so we accommodated him. He passed out. The lettuce or fresh grated horseradish is dipped into a sweet mixture of chopped apples, walnuts, nutmeg, wine, and whatever else they put into it. The mixture is called Charoset, and it looks like a reddish-clay paste. It symbolizes the mortar by which the enslaved Jews of Biblical times were compelled to build the pyramids. Since we earlier dipped parsley into salt water, this was the second dipping of food that was asked about earlier in the “Four Questions.”
Step Nine is Korekh. Some more bitter herbs — again, this is why lettuce is preferred to horseradish — and some more charoset are made into a little sandwich made from the remaining matzo that had been bottom-most on the original stack of three. Throughout we continue to lean physically to the left each time we eat or drink something ritually — the wine, the matzo, the green vegetable. The only time we do not lean is when we eat the bitter herbs.
We now eat a full dinner. This is Step 10 — Shulchan Orekh. For most assimilated leftist Jews, they skip 90 percent of the rituals, gush over the orange at their table and Bernie Sanders, and go straight to Step 10. Their children will grow up not Jewish, anti-Semitic, or they will grow up Orthodox. But for the normative mainstream observers of Judaism, the main dinner is a wonderful opportunity to socialize with loved ones, friends, and family after 90 minutes or more of rituals and educated and emotionally impactful discussions of Jewish generations of oppression and of ensuing Jewish survival.
After dinner we retrieve the Afikoman, the hidden piece of the broken middle matzo that has kept the little kids awake all night, waiting to find what their parents hid or waiting for their parents to give up on finding what they hid. This is Step 11: Tzafun. They get promised a present, and that allure motivates them to remain awake all night. The group then recite the traditional prayer known as Birkhat HaMazon, the Grace After Meals, which always is recited after a meal with a bread-like substance. That is Step 12: Barekh. Step 13 — Hallel — follows, as certain Psalms of David are recited, praising G-d. And the Seder ends at Step 14 — Nirtzah — the recital of hope that G-d has found favor in our Seder, whose 14 rituals were commemorated in the traditional order. A few traditional songs close out the night. The kids love the songs, so that keeps them awake for the home stretch. Here are links to “Who Knows One?” and to two versions of “Chad Gadya” (“One Sheep”). This version is more traditional. Only Shulem Lemmer could do justice to the second version.
Interspersed throughout the Haggadah evening have been the drinking of four cups of wine. Those four cups commemorate the four verbs, the four actions by which G-d told Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) to tell the Jews that He would deliver us from the Pharaoh:
Wherefore say unto the children of Israel: I am the L-rd, and I will [i] bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will [ii] deliver you from their bondage, and I will [iii] redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will [iv] take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a G-d; and ye shall know that I am the L-rd your G-d, Who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians (Exodus 6:6-7).
Some rabbis thought there should be a fifth cup because of the fifth verb in the ensuing Biblical verse: “And I will [v] bring you in unto the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the L-rd.”
The rabbis were divided. All agreed on the first four cups. Some felt that the delivery into the Promised Land likewise was an integral part of the exodus from slavery because what good would the exodus have been if there had been no ultimate intended destination but only eternal wandering in a desert? Others felt that, yes, the delivery to the Land of Israel should be celebrated but not on the night that focuses on deliverance from slavery to freedom. So the compromise was that a fifth cup would be poured at the Seder but not drunk, left instead for a future generation when the Prophet Elijah, who alighted to heaven on a fiery chariot and never died on Earth (II Kings 2:11-12), will return to declare the coming of the Messiah and to answer all unresolved questions of Jewish ritual practice (like whether or not to drink a fifth cup). That special pouring is called the “Cup of Elijah.”
Traditionally, families hold large multi-generational seders to which they also invite friends. This tradition hearkens back to the original Passover night when all gathered to eat a lamb, the paschal lamb (from the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach”), and it was supposed to be consumed completely so that, if the family did not have enough people to eat all of it, they were to invite neighbors (Exodus 12:4). This year, because of social distancing, enforced quarantining, and dire warnings that children inadvertently may endanger the lives of their beloved parents and grandparents who may be more susceptible to COVID-19, Passover Seders will be smaller in size, sometimes only a married couple, sometimes only an individual alone in his or her home. In a way it will be a Seder that is different from all other Seders, but it actually will be a night that is truer to the account in Exodus 12 of the original Seder on the night the Jews got out of Egypt. Outside their doors that night death lurked, as G-d smote the first-borns of Egypt. But inside they were safe. Those were their explicit instructions: stay inside and do not venture out tonight, and G-d will pass over your homes as He visits punishment on Egypt and on its gods (Exodus 12:12-14). And so it will be this year. Outside, the lurking dangers. Inside, the sense of solitude and mortality mediated by the comfort of knowing that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, were slaves to Rome, later were slaves to Hitler, to Stalin, to Hafez al-Assad in Syria and to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And today we are free.