I was at my friends Deb and Rick's house for first Seder. Deb's father led and Rick did most of the cooking. There were 30-something there. It was a lovely Seder and great food. My kids were with their other mother, but I brought the woman I've been dating for a few months and her daughter. We all had a wonderful time.
I hosted second Seder. Usually I do a fairly large one, or at least large for my tiny apartment. We can, if we really squeeze, manage to fit 16 people sitting down. I do larger dinners sometimes, but they're buffet, and for Seder you need to all be sitting comfortably. So I usually have 14 or so for Seder, but with planning a big bat mitzvah that will be in a couple of weeks (and will include a large Friday night dinner I'll cook at my house and serve buffet style) I figured I'd go with a smaller crowd. So it was just me and the kids, Vicki (woman I'm dating mentioned above), her daughter, and two of my kids' friends. Everything came out great and a wonderful time was had by all. We had:
Chips and Dip
Deviled Eggs (Kendra made them)
Haroses (with 3 kinds of nuts and 3 kinds of fruit)
An assortment of bitter herbs (horseradish, radicchio, arugula, artichoke)
Roasted Chicken Wing (which represents the roasted shank bone which represents the sacrifice at the time of the temple - my mother always used a chicken wing and so do I)
Roasted Beet (for the vegetarian seder plate - because it bleeds)
The Festive Meal
Soup with Knaidlach (two kinds - chicken and vegetarian)
Poached Salmon with Dill Sauce (I don't like gefilte fish)
Spicy Brisket from the Red Pomegranate (best brisket I've ever tasted - it's a mix of sweet and spicy flavors)
Roasted Asparagus and Brussels Sprouts
Macaroons and Fruit Salad
Then yesterday I gave the dvar (sermon) at shul. Carie, my rabbi, had asked me the week before to do it for the second day of Pesach. I was a little reluctant, what with preparing for Pesach and a bat mitzvah, but I had fun the first time I did one and thought I would give it a try. I decided to talk about the history of the seder, with some personal stuff about my own seder experience.
Hag Sameach. I hope everybody had lovely Seders. This is the good part of Pesach – while you’re still grooving on the Seders, and before you’re sorely sick of pesahdikka food.
The Seder is what I’m going to talk about today. No, not recipes for haroses, or a rating scale for bitterness of bitter herbs, or what to do with all those leftovers, or why in the world did anyone ever think that gefilte fish was a good idea? All of those are worthy topics for a dvar some other day. Today I want to talk about the history and nature of the Seder. How did the Seder as we know it arise? What are its origins? How is it evolving now? I also want to say a little bit about my own Seder history and talk a bit about the Seder as practiced by American Jews and why it is such an enduring custom even among unaffiliated and secular Jews here and now.
I’ve got some resources to recommend that I used and a few visual aids, too, as they say in the ed biz.
When did the Seder arise? It seems like it has always been with us. It has a timeless feel to it. And, in fact, work at making it feel timeless is part of the Seder. We are instructed to imagine ourselves at the Seder as if we were personally slaves in Egypt and – as individuals – rescued by the Outstretched Arm of G-d. So the suggestion is almost of a seamless ritual dating back to the Exodus. But of course that’s not the case.
Clearly the Seder started a long time ago. I think probably most people here have heard from their Christian neighbors and friends that the Last Supper – depicted in the Christian Bible and in western art and literature ever since – was a Passover Seder. Often Christian Churches hold mock Seders at Easter to commemorate that. Could it be true? Jesus, if he was an historical figure, lived at the time of the Second Temple. Were there Seders during Temple times?
Well, that depends on what you consider to be a Seder. I think we all realize that when someone says that the Last Supper was a Seder they don’t mean that they served brisket and the youngest child said the four questions and they had Barton After-Seder mints just before the hunt for the afikomen. But I think they generally do mean that it was in its essential aspects the Seder we know now: the most important ritual of the Pesach holiday, a liturgically enhanced banquet with certain specified foods and readings, following a specified order (which, after all, is what Seder means) as laid out in the Hagaddah. Soooo, by those standards, were there Seders in temple times? No. The main ritual of the Passover holiday in the time of the Second Temple was the Pesach sacrifice. There was no Hagaddah yet, nor the four questions. The earliest version of the Ma Nishtana shows up in the Mishnah, redacted in 200 CE (and it’s somewhat different from the questions we ask now, btw).
The Hagaddah was likely created sometime in the Talmudic period. The Hagaddah we use now quotes rabbis from that period. It seems likely the text evolved over time, but unfortunately we don’t have a record of that evolution. This is not a problem limited to Haggadot. In general, there is a huge gap in Jewish documents. We’ve got the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are by far the earliest surviving documents and then we have nothing until the Cairo Genizah, with documents beginning in the ninth century, and we have a number of medieval documents from a variety of places and times. So there’s this huge gap of hundreds of years with no documents surviving, so we can’t know what haggadot -or anything else - looked like in that period.
What do we have? What we have is the Passover ritual as outlined in Mishnah Pesachim, as described in the Talmud and various later commentaries, and as determined by the Hagaddah. The earliest extent haggadot are from the medieval period. By the 11th, 12th, 13th century we do know the Hagaddah was very much like the ones we have today – at least the more traditional ones. There are a lot of places where you can see medieval haggadot, and some of them are available as facsimile reprints. Doran and I saw a great display of medieval haggadot in the British Library when he came along with me on a business trip to London a few years back, and I brought with me a Hagaddah with illustrations from those, if anyone wants to see. What struck us both was how similar they were to the haggadot we have now, how we felt we could use one of those to do a Seder today. So, although there have been some changes and additions – particularly in recent years – the established Seder was there and recognizable to us, at least by the medieval period.
It didn’t arise out of nothing. The original Seder, as developed during the rabbinic period, and the ritual meals that preceded it (of which the Last Supper may be an example) likely were strongly influenced by the Symposium tradition. Jews at the time were greatly influenced by Greek culture, and the Symposium was an important feature of that culture. We see a number of its influences in our Seders today.
The best known description of the ritual meal known as the Symposium is Plato’s Symposium. Who here has read it? Who here was supposed to read it but read the Cliff Notes instead? Who read it recently enough to remember it?
If you read it – and I really recommend you do, it makes great reading – what you’ll see is a kind of ritual dinner party where the participants discuss and wrestle with the question of what is the nature of love. I think it’s fair to say that to some extent our Seders are ritual dinner parties where the participants discuss and wrestle with what is the nature of freedom. And that’s not the only connection to the Symposium tradition. Some of the others? They drank a bunch of glasses of wine as part of the ritual; they had water poured over their hands; they began with asking questions. And they reclined – to the left. I have a picture here from the Tomb of the Diver, showing a symposium. This is a fresco from 475 BCE. These guys could be at a Seder, don’t you think? There they are, reclining and asking for more wine in their cups. Well, the two guys on the right who are more interested in each other than what’s going on might only be welcome at some Seders, but I think you’ll see the connection between this symposium from 2500 years ago and our Seders today.
So the Seder arose as a replacement ritual after the destruction of the temple and was much influenced by the symposium ritual. The Hagaddah and the Seder as we know it has been pretty set for close to 1000 years. But as familiar as old haggadot look, the Seder hasn’t stood still during that time. Different times, different places and different Jewish cultures have put their own stamp on the Seder. And since it is a home-based ritual, so have different families. It’s also a food-based ritual, so the influences of different culinary traditions show up as well. When two people form a household together – or even just have a joint Seder – they often have to navigate the differences between their family traditions. Is your charoses pasty – like mortar, the paste advocates argue – or chunky (a better culinary experience say the pro-chunk)? Do adults hide the afikomen and children find it and get a prize or do children hide it and adults ransom it back? Does maror mean horseradish to you or do you have some other, less sharp and more bitter alternatives, like arugula and radicchio? Do you have an orange on your Seder plate? A beet? The Seder is definitely a living and changing ritual. Those differences can lead to conflict but they also lead to synthesis and to new enhanced ritual.
Which brings me to my own personal Seder history and then I’ll say a little about the enduring appeal of the Seder to American Jews. Neither of my parents had much of a Jewish education and they were mostly quite secular, but they strongly identified as Jews. They just weren’t sure what to do about that. It was all complicated – when I was a small child – by the fact that we lived in rural North Dakota, in a town full of Norwegian Americans. We were the only Jews in the town; my brother Joel was the first Jewish child in Northwood Public School; my sister Kayo was the first Jew born in the town – my mother went home to give birth for us older kids. My brother Joel and I were the oldest and to us what being Jewish meant was just something we were that nobody else was – we had no other referent for the word. When we were truly shocked to hear our grandparents were Jewish my parents decided they had to do something about this.
So they decided we needed some sort of Jewish education. The nearest Jewish community was in Grand Forks, 40 miles away. There wasn’t a Hebrew School but there was a rabbi, and he agreed to give Joel and me lessons. So every Sunday my mother drove us to Grand Forks for lessons with the rabbi. Joel and I called him “the Jewish rabbi” because we found out that he was, too!
And we started having Seders. The first time we had a Seder we did it from a Passover Coloring Book the Jewish rabbi had given us. But over time – and particularly with moving to Connecticut, when I was 7, joining a Conservative shul and starting Hebrew School – our Seders became more elaborate and more traditional. Well, the tradition was Judaism as interpreted by Maxwell House, but we had ritual meals with family and friends and told the story of Pesach and developed our own family traditions. It was my favorite holiday.
As some of you probably know, my parents disowned me when I came out at 19, so I lost that family connection. And it took me a long time to get over that and develop my own Seder traditions, but I did. Our Seder has traditions from my family of origin (we do kids hide afikomen and parents ransom) and traditions I’ve learned over time through reading and adult ed and others that we’ve added from a variety of sources. Doran saw a Passover Around the World movie in Hebrew School here when he was 7 or 8 and was completely captivated by a Sephardic custom of hitting each other with scallions during the chorus of dayenu. We do that every year.
My feminist sensibilities have led me to add the orange on the Seder plate and Miriam’s Cup. My incurable pedantry has required that I get the *right* story of the orange, quoting Susannah Heschel and debunking the various urban legends that arose around the ritual she created. And my family history dictates that I always mention the connection with my childhood – when Sue Heschel was in college she taught at our Hebrew School and my brother Joel – a few years younger than her - was in her class. My little speech says “Not only is she a professor at Dartmouth College, a distinguished Jewish scholar and the daughter of Avraham Joshua Heschel, she was also Uncle Joel’s Hebrew school teacher and a real babe. The year Sue Heschel taught him was the only time Uncle Joel got to Hebrew School on time.” The kids always chime in on the real babe part.
It has taken time, but I think I’ve fashioned a Seder ritual that works for me and my family, melding tradition and innovation. Which brings me to the final topic I wanted to discuss. Why is the Seder so popular, even among those who are not Jewishly involved? I am not alone in having felt that it was important to me to go to a Seder, even at a point where I felt so disaffected with and abandoned by Judaism that I did nothing else throughout the year. And although I am truly grateful that I managed to find a place for myself and my family within Jewish community and Jewish practice, a lot haven’t.
I looked at several different surveys of American Jews and you get some different numbers depending on who is surveyed and the questions that are asked, but there are some consistent patterns. One is this – fewer than half of American Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, temple, havurah, JCC or other Jewish institution. Only about a quarter of American Jews light candles on shabbos or go to services once a month or more or take Jewish adult ed courses. Lots of Jewish practices are honored much more in the breach in this country. But there are two religious practices that a large majority – somewhere from around 70 to 85%, depending on which survey you look at – of American Jews consistently participate in. Obviously, one of them is a Seder, or I wouldn’t have brought this up. Guesses on what the other one is?
Lighting Hanukah candles. And it’s clear, I think, why Hanukah. Much as I hate the whole trope of Hanukah as the Jewish Christmas, that’s what it is for a lot of American Jews, and particularly the unaffiliated. Lighting Hanukah candles gives you an excuse for Hanukah presents and for feeling like you’ve got something to do in December, too.
So why Hanukah is clear. But why Pesach? Why a Seder? I have a few theories. One is that it’s a home-based ritual. A whole lot of Jews in this country don’t belong to shuls because they are deeply distrustful of organized religion. Of course, that’s partly because being unaffiliated they don’t realize how *disorganized* Jewish religion is, how non-hierarchical we are, how many different kinds of communities there are to meet different needs and different beliefs. But it’s pretty clear that a large percentage of our community is antipathetic to Jewish institutions but still wants to feel Jewish. A ritual in a home meets that need.
Another reason, I think, is the Seder has a kind of widespread appeal. There’s a universality to its theme of freedom from oppression. It’s not controversial to be against slavery – it’s a pretty popular sentiment. And there’s universal appeal to a lot of other things about the Seder – to a ritual that’s based on dinner (everyone likes to eat) and storytelling (everyone likes stories) and on the parent/child relationship.
Related but a little bit different, I think, is the Seder’s adaptability. The freedom theme lends itself to a lot of embellishment and addition, and people have been able to add or substitute rituals that are meaningful to them. I’ve mentioned the feminist rituals that have been added by some. I’d also note that a number of modern haggadot include a practice I’ve found common – singing “Let My People Go” at the Seder. Like the ancient Jews borrowing from Greek tradition, we use the spirituals from African American tradition, linking our freedom from slavery with theirs.
I’d like to mention a couple more adaptations. One I learned about just recently. I’m taking Meah and our class was lucky enough to have a field trip to the rare book room at JTS Library, courtesy of our teacher, Rabbi David Kraemer, who in addition to being a professor of Talmud is the JTS librarian. He showed us some wonderful ancient manuscripts and codices. But he also showed us a few copies of a small paperback booklet, not unlike the ones many of us use as haggadot at our own Seders. This one was different, though. It was made for a Seder service in Munich in 1947, attended by American Jewish soldiers and Jewish Holocaust survivors. It wasn’t a Haggadah per se, not having the whole text, but it was what they used for their Seder. And it reflected the experience of the participants. I was particularly moved by the page where we saw that instead of saying “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” it said “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany.” That’s universality and adaptability in a nutshell.
The other example of adaptability I want to share is a more personal one to me. My sister Sharon and her wife Tina host second Seder every year. And every year they’ve had at their Seder a young friend of theirs named Justin. Tina is a special ed preschool teacher and Justin had a long time ago been one of her students and Sharon and Tina befriended his family. Justin was multiply and profoundly disabled. He never was able to acquire language, spoken or receptive. Sharon worked really hard to develop a Seder ritual inclusive of him. While she led the service, Tina held Justin on her lap and did a parallel Seder with him – an all tactile parallel Seder. He touched, he tasted, he felt, he ate, he drank. Sharon and Tina truly fulfilled the commandment to tell the story even to the child who cannot ask. Justin died a few months ago, at age 13, still with no language. This was their first Seder without him and they adapted to that, too, but he left a big hole in their ritual.
Adaptation isn’t necessarily without pain and struggle, but I do think the Seder’s adaptability, its universality, and its placement in the Jewish home make it an enduring feature of Jewish life and one that is bound to continue to grow and change while retaining its essential character. Hag Sameach.
Here's the picture I passed around:
So yes, there was some slash content in my dvar. And, in the once-a-librarian-always-a-librarian-vein,
And, while I'm discussing all things Passoverian :-), I'll throw in a plug for what I think is one of the very few Pesach slash stories. It's called Different from All Other Nights and it tells what happens when Jean-Paul "Northstar" Beaubier goes home with his lover Adam Greenfield and spends Pesach with Adam's mother in Brooklyn.