The Tales We Tell

The seder as a key to Jewish continuity

In comparison with the fate of many of the laws and customs associated with Jewish tradition, it appears that none are practiced by such a broad segment of contemporary Jewry as the Passover seder. Long after other aspects of Jewish tradition lose their significance for many contemporary Jews, the Passover seder remains meaningful.


Why is this so? I believe it is because the Passover seder embodies the essential cultural and educational mechanism that has guaranteed the continuity of Jewish existence throughout the generations. 

Tell Your Children

The central aspect of the seder is the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt. More specifically, the Passover seder is the fulfillment of the biblical command mentioned in Exodus 13, 8: “And on that day you shall tell your child, for this God has taken me out of the Land of Egypt.” One may ask, what specifically is one obligated to “tell” his or her child “on that day”? What is “that day” in which he or she is obligated to actually tell the story? And finally: what is the character and purpose of the story to be told?

The answer to these questions is found in the very same chapter from the book of Exodus that this verse is taken, and indeed the delineation of that answer provides us with a clear understanding as to the mechanism of Jewish continuity throughout the ages.  

Photo: Flickr – Creap

“And it shall be, when God will bring you to the land… that was promised to your forefathers …you shall perform this service in this month…. . And you will tell your child on this day, saying: for this God did unto me when I exited from Egypt. And you shall have [them] as a sign upon your hand and a remembrance between your eyes so that God’s teaching shall be upon your lips. …And it will pass in the morrow that when your child asks what this is, you will tell him, with a strong hand God took us out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”

Present and Future

First we note that the command to tell the story of the exodus is given in a past that was once “present”; that is, in the actual “present” of the exodus from Egypt to which an entire generation was witness. But the command itself spans a stretch of time that includes not only that present but also a future in which the children of that generation will have already entered the Land of Israel. It is in this future, upon the acting out of the “service” that includes a reconstruction of the eve preceding the exodus, that the curiosity of the children’s generation is aroused so as to confront their parents with questions concerning their past and the past of their people.

One is particularly obligated to tell the story of the exodus only after the children turn to their parents and ask “what this is?” (referring to this ritual reenactment). The story of the exodus from Egypt–as constructed in the above biblical text–appears, in this sense, to be conveyed in the context of a dialogue between generations that is aroused by the children’s questioning. 

Experiencing the Exodus

Clearly, the point of the telling of the story of the exodus is to bring within the scope of the consciousness of a later generation all that had happened previously, at the time of the exodus itself. This, apparently, is what the Rabbis meant when they commanded, in regard to the Passover seder: “In every generation one is obligated to see himself as though he [too] came out from Egypt” (Mishnah Pesahim 10, 5).

The point is not that the Jews of later generations directly experience what their forefathers had already experienced at the time of the exodus. This would be impossible. But rather, the story of the exodus, as told by the previous generation, must become so much a part of the later generation’s consciousness that the later generation could not possibly conceive of itself, as it does, without recourse to the realization that its present existence and character is in some way the product of the fateful events that happened previously, which are subsequently told and retold throughout the generations.

This, of course, means that the command to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt is not one that can be fulfilled in a technical fashion. It instead requires great literary, cultural, and educational ability. The story must be told in a way that makes the children’s generation receptive to its hearing, and for this reason the story can only be told in response to a question that proceeds from the mouths of the children themselves. But at the same time, the parents’ generation is always responsible for arousing such a questioning, an interest or curiosity in their children concerning the family’s past.

Jewish Continuity

This point makes for somewhat of an interesting challenge concerning the continuity of Jewish existence; a challenge that touches directly upon the continuing popularity of the Passover seder. The continuity of Jewish existence is dependant upon the success of Jewish parents in every generation to convey the story of its past to its children. Should it ever happen that the parents no longer have a story to tell; or if the children are no longer interested in hearing the story of their past, the existence of the Jewish people will then come to an end. This, I believe, is the root of assimilation.

We find at times that for one reason or another many parents no longer have a story of the Jewish past to tell. Sometimes it is the children who are so enthralled with matters having nothing to with Judaism that they are disinterested in hearing the story. From a pedagogical viewpoint this means that those parents who have little or no knowledge of the Jewish past must acquire such knowledge and develop through it an emotional affinity for that past. They must then convey that affinity to their children at an age before the child becomes pre-occupied with matters that will later make the child’s involvement in the Jewish past superfluous.

This principle, as we all know, is embedded that part of the seder that prescribes the ways in which the story is to be told to the four children. The response suggested to the child who “does not [yet] know how to ask” is particularly significant here.       

On this background we may understand the educational significance of the Bible’s command, noted in the above text, that one “shall have [them] as a sign upon your hands and a remembrance between your eyes.” In rabbinical tradition this verse is seen as a reference to the tefillin, or phylacteries, worn at the time of the morning prayer service. But what are they a “sign” and “remembrance” of?

According to the above text, they are a sign and a remembrance of the exodus. The significance of the act of putting the tefillin on one’s body is not to be found in the act itself, but rather in the successful telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, a telling that if it indeed is successful results in familiarity with the traditions of the past.

And, indeed, without such a successful telling of the story of the peoples’ past no Jew would ever think of performing such a ritual act with his daily prayers. For without such a successful telling of the story, there is really nothing at all to bind the present generation that was not a witness to past events, with the traditions of its parents.

A quick look at our own times exposes a most problematic situation that the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt is meant to resolve. The vast majority of laws and customs have been forgotten by most Jews alive today. And yet, the Passover seder continues to be a popular event in the contemporary Jewish world. What may we learn from this?

We may learn that over time the successful telling of the story has been considerably weakened. Ant yet, at the same time, despite this cumulative weakening, enough of the initial story is still present within community so as to know that all is not lost, and that with proper commitment and steadfastness the process may one day be reversed.

Reprinted with permission from the
 Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
 in Jerusalem.

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