The Meaning of the Seder (Part 1)

From the first cup of wine to the breaking of the matzah

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A Time to March: The Latin term for March preserves the memory of spring as a time for war under the auspices of the god of war, Mars. Spring also has military associations in the Torah. God's spring victory over Egypt is portrayed in martial terms. For example, Israel's armies left Egypt "armed" (Exodus 13:18) in the month when kings go out to war.

"God took Israel out of Egypt precisely in the best month for an exodus. Not in Tamuz (June-July) when there is the chamsin (hot summer winds), not in Tevet (December-January) when it is cold (and rainy), but in Nisan (March-April) when it is neither too hot nor too cold to be on the march" (Bamidbar Rabbah 3).

A Guilty Memory/Dipping in Blood: The dipping of greens is reminiscent of the historic dipping that led Israel into exile in Egypt and the dipping that facilitated their redemption. The descent to Egyptian slavery began when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and dipped his coat of many colors into a slaughtered goat's blood in order to mislead their father Israel about his beloved son's true fate. The ascent from exile--moral and physical--began when every family gathered together with their neighbors to share a lamb on seder night and to dip in its blood a hyssop plant and to dab it on the doorposts and the lintel as a protection against the tenth plague.

Yahatz: Breaking the Middle Matzah

On Shabbat and holidays, we celebrate the double gift of abundance with two whole loaves just as in the desert the Jews received a double portion of manna (Exodus16:22) every Friday for the weekend. ("Manna from heaven" was suspended on Shabbat).

However, the seder night is unique in that the Rabbis mandated that half a loaf is better than one, for matzah is called the "bread of poverty" (Deuteronomy 16:3). Therefore, the seder begins by breaking the matzah in two and explaining that "this is the bread of poverty and persecution."

Of the three matzot, two remain whole, in order to symbolize the abundance of freedom, but one must be broken to recall the deprivation of slavery. The Rabbis noted that the poor in their era were "savers," experts at delayed gratification, who would never consume a complete loaf at one sitting, but would always put something aside against the uncertainty of the following week. In the midst of the seder banquet, the broken matzah--the symbol of poverty--is meant to jar us out of our sense of complacency. Maimonides explains that the Torah repeats so often the verse, "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt," because it fears that growing up in wealth tends to breed arrogance and insensitivity.

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Noam Zion

Noam Zion is the Director of Shalom Hartman Institute's Resource Center for Jewish Continuity. He specializes in teaching Jewish Holidays, Bible and Art, and has edited several educational books for the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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.