Rabbinic Development of Passover

The seder takes shape in the rabbinic period.

Print this page Print this page

The recitation of Rabban Gamliel's new interpretation was made obligatory for all Jewry, thus assuring widespread compliance. The answer of the father to the child's questions, once spontaneous, was now part of a prescribed formula. According to most scholars, the content of the pre-meal portion of the Haggadah was well established by the first third of the second century. But its final form and sequence was not yet entirely determined, as can be attested to by the fact that debates loomed in the Talmud (tractate Pesachim) regarding various texts to be included in the Haggadah.

Rabban Gamliel's reinterpretation of the seder led to the practice of reclining at the seder table (Talmud Pesachim 99b), a sign of freedom because slaves ate their meal in a standing position.

Four Cups, Four Sons

The obligation to drink four cups of wine on the seder night was another rabbinic provision introduced within several decades after the destruction of the temple (Talmud Pesachim 109b). The most quoted reason for the four cups of wine is that they symbolize the fourfold divine promise of liberation contained in Exodus 6:6-7 ("I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from their bondage, I will redeem you, I will take you as my people"). The wine was intended to add joy and gaiety to the seder meal, and the drinking of the cups was spaced properly to produce joy but to prevent intoxication. To each cup was assigned a special place in the seder ritual: the first two cups when the story of slavery is recited, and the last two cups when the glory of freedom is related (Talmud Pesachim 108a).

Another high point of the Passover seder is the section of the four sons. The narrative of the four sons is based on the Bible speaking four times of "your sons" inquiring about the meaning of Passover and each time poses his question in different terms. Once (Deuteronomy 6:20), he is represented as asking, "What means these testimonies and statutes and judgments that the Lord our God has commanded us?" Another time (Exodus 12:26), he demands brusquely, "What means this service of yours?" A third time (Exodus 13:14), he asks simply, "What is this?" And a fourth time (Exodus 13:8), the question is not even framed but merely implied. This variation, said the sages, is purposeful. In each case, the form of the question typifies the character and attitude of the inquirer, who is respectively wise, wicked, simple, and too young to ask. Each must be answered differently, in appropriate fashion.

In Every Generation

Properly understood, the seder ceremony is no mere act of pious recollection, but a unique device for blending the past, present, and future into a single comprehensive and transcendental experience. The actors in the story are not merely the particular Israelites who happen to have been led out of bondage by Moses, but all the generations of Israel throughout all time.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.