Author Archives: David Dishon

David Dishon

About David Dishon

David Dishon has been with the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978 and founded their Torani High School for Boys, where he currently teaches.

The Meaning of the Seder (Part 2)

The Maggid section of the seder–recounting the story of the Exodus and various interpretations–is very complex, yet vital to the purpose and meaning of the seder. This article highlights certain elements of the Maggid section. It is by no means an exhaustive list of everything that takes place in this section. Reprinted with permission from A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute.

The Bread of Poverty

As everyone knows, the Jews eat unleavened bread because the dough they brought out from Egypt in their rush to leave never had a chance to rise. Matzah is then the bread of liberation. It is a mark of an exodus whose rapid pace overtook them unprepared. The Egyptians who enslaved them suddenly expelled them after God brought the plague on the first born.

a family passover sederYet “ha lahma” the first official explanation for matzah in the Haggadah, calls it the “bread of poverty and persecution”based on Deuteronomy 16:3, “You shall eat unleavened bread, bread of oni [distress]–for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly.” Here matzah is a memorial not of liberation, but of slavery. The life of oppression is marked by a pressured, “hurried” pace, for the slaves do not control the rhythm of their existence.

The Four Questions

Why were the Rabbis so insistent that the Exodus story open with a spontaneous question?

First of all, one can view this as an educational device. Teachers know that if they can just get their students to pay attention, get their minds working on something they find interesting, then the teachers have gone a long way towards creating an openness to learning new things. The Rabbis wanted to remind the leaders of the seder not just to focus on the story–but first to make sure to have an active, attentive audience.

On a deeper level, the Rabbis may have reflected that questioning is an essential part of the freedom celebrated on the seder night. The whole Talmudic literature is in the form of questioning and dialogue–not the meek questioning of inferior to superior but the give-and-take interaction of adamant rivals pitted against one another, and sometimes even against God! (8.7: Bava Metzia 59 b)

The Meaning of the Seder (Part 1)

Kiddush: Blessing Over Wine

The Kiddushsanctifies not the wine, but the holiday. Pesach is dedicated “to remember the Day of your Exodus from Egypt” (Ex. 13:3). [On Shabbat remember to insert the additional words in your Haggadah.] 

Offer to pour the wine or grape juice into someone else’s cup. In turn each one is served by another as befits royalty. Having attained the high status of freedom, we celebrate it in style, preferably with red wine, because the rabbis considered it more elegant.

Stand to recite the Kiddush, then reclineto the left to drink the wine as befits nobles who once reclined at symposia (intellectual drinking banquets). If there are no pillows on the chairs, ask the children to bring as many as possible.

The Four Cups and the Four Verbs: The rabbis identified each cup of wine with the fourfold promise of redemption: “God spoke to Moshe [Moses]: Tell the children of Israel: I will bring you out… I will rescue you… I will redeem you… I will take you for me as a people and I will be for you as a God…” (Exodus 6:2-7).

Photo: Flickr – Michael Ignatieff

Urhatz: Washing Hands

Jewish law requires the ritual washing of the hands before eating bread. This washing before bread is accompanied by a blessing [whereas this first washing of hands at the seder has no blessing attached to it]. 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 (Leviticus 11:34). Washing before eating vegetables that have come into contact with water is a holdover 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.

The Meaning of the Seder (Part 3)

This article highlights certain elements of the seder that occur after the meal. Among the items omitted here are the songs that take place at the very end of the seder. Reprinted with permission from A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah published by the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Afikoman: The Hidden Matzah

Pesach is a holiday celebrating our reunion with the lost parts of ourselves. Often, hiding and separation are essential stages in our life. In the Biblical story of the Exodus, both Moshe [Moses] and God played "hide-and-go-seek." Moshe was hidden for three months from Pharaoh until he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Then the grown Moshe went out to seek his brothers.

The divine face too was hidden for hundreds of years of servitude until God’s revelation to Moshe at the burning bush. Initially Moshe hid his face, but eventually he helped all Israel to encounter God face to face at Mount Sinai. On seder night, we hide and then seek the afikoman, reuniting the two parts separated at the beginning of the seder. May we learn to discover the lost parts of ourselves, to become reconciled with relatives who have become distant and to find wholeness in a Jewish tradition from which we have become alienated.

Elijah’s Cup

Now the seder focuses on the hope for the future redemption symbolized by Elijah the Prophet, bearer of good news.

In Egypt, the doors of the house were shut tight on the night of the tenth plague. Blood marked the lintels of the doorposts where we now place the mezuzah. However, in the contemporary seder the doors are opened wide in expectation. This is no longer a night of terror but the dawn of hope. It is, as the Torah calls it, a Night of Watching in expectation of great changes for the better.

The Hassidic rebbe Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (died 1817) used to invite all the participants of the seder–in order of their place at the table–to pour from their personal cups into Elijah’s cup. This symbolizes the need for everyone to make their own personal contribution to awaken the divine forces of redemption by beginning with human efforts (hee-to-ra-ruat dee-l’ta-ta) [Aramaic for "the awakening from below"].