Rabbinic Development of Passover

The seder takes shape in the rabbinic period.

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The development of the seder in the first century was guided by the specific function of the celebration--the reenactment of the historic events of the fourteenth of the month of Nisan, the night the Exodus took place. This led to the introduction of herbs, which were dipped in vinegar, or possibly red wine, and then eaten. The Talmud (Pesachim l14b) at a later period explained this practice as an incentive to children to be curious about the procedure and ask questions. Some trace the origin of the custom to the reenactment of the biblical account of the dipping of the hyssop in the blood of the Passover lamb and the smearing of the blood on the doorposts of Jewish homes. The haroset, reminder of the mortar (Talmud Pesachim l16a), also fitted in with the broad objective of the early version of the Seder meal.

The questions asked by the child during the course of the seder meal have been changed over the centuries. The earliest version of these questions was preserved by the Jerusalem Talmud (Chapter 10 of Pesachim). This text contains only three questions, the first one begin­ning with the Hebrew phrase "mah nishtanah"--why is it different?--which is used in our day as well.

The Seder in the Post-Temple Era

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE brought an end to the pilgrimages to Jerusalem. This made for the discontinuance of the paschal lamb, and the chanting of the Hallel at home was no longer required. The ritual of the bitter herbs, which was linked to the eating of the paschal lamb, was also likely eliminated. There was even serious doubt whether the biblical obligation to eat unleavened bread survived the destruction of the Temple.

All that definitely remained was the negative injunction to refrain from eating hametz (leavened bread and food). The duty to reevaluate the seder now fell upon Rabban Gamliel II, the first head of the academy after the destruction of the Temple. The first basic statement of the reevaluation of the Passover ceremony was given in the famous dictum of Rabban Gamliel, "He who does not stress these rituals on Passover does not fulfill his obligations: the paschal lamb, matzah, and maror [bitter herb]" (Talmud Pesachim l16a).

The commemoration of the paschal lamb (called the "pesach") was to be stressed as a lesson pointing to the fact that God had passed over ("pasach") the homes of the Israelites in Egypt during the slaying of the first-born Egyptian children. With this addition, the pageantry of the seder was no longer confined to only a reenactment of the events of the 14th of Nisan. The plague of the death of the firstborn took place after the historic feast of the paschal lamb, and now the doors were opened for the recitation on the Seder night of wondrous events occurring both prior and subsequent to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt.

Regarding the unleavened bread, Rabban Gamliel's dictum associated the symbolism of matzah with redemption rather than affliction. This added a note of hopefulness to the Passover meal. The symbolism of the maror, the bitter herbs, remained the same as in previous centuries, representing the tears of the Israelites in Egyptian slavery.

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.