Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes, discusses the connection between the rituals of the ancient Greek symposium and many of the Seder rituals. Jewish communities throughout the generations did not live in vacuums; they absorbed much from their surroundings. generations did not live in vacuums; they absorbed much from their surroundings. Yet they did not absorb other people’s traditions indiscriminately. What can we learn from all these parallels?
This article was first published in Jpost.
Where did the Seder come from?
There was no Seder in the Biblical period. The Torah instructs us to eat the paschal lamb with matzot and marror and that the father should teach his son about the Exodus from Egypt. Similarly, the Seder is not mentioned in Second Temple sources such as Philo and Josephus. It is first mentioned in the Mishnah and Tosefta (Pesahim Chapter 10), which date from shortly before or after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. What is the source of the elaborate rituals and literary forms of the Seder?
Siegfried Stein proved conclusively (The Journal of Jewish Studies, 1957) that many of the Seder rituals and literary forms were borrowed from the Hellenistic banquet or symposium. Let us first compare the rituals.
The Mishnah (Pesahim 10:1) states that all Jews at the Seder must recline on a couch. Athenaeus relates that in Homer’s time “men still feasted sitting, but gradually they slid from chairs to couches, taking as their ally relaxation and ease” (Stein, p. 17). Furthermore, one must recline on one’s left arm while eating (Pesahim 108a); so, too, at a symposium.
At the Seder, hazeret (i.e., lettuce) was dipped in salt water or other liquids until the main course was served (Pesahim 10:3). Similarly, Athenaeus (ca. 200 C.E.), mentions lettuce seven times in his “Learned Banquet” (Stein, p. 16).
Haroset was an integral part of the Seder (Pesahim 10:3). Once again, Athenaeus describes similar dishes at length, and discusses whether they should be served before or after dinner (Stein, p. 16).
Hillel the Elder used to eat a “sandwich” of the paschal lamb, matzah and marror (Pesahim 115a and the Haggadah). Similarly, the Greeks and Romans used to eat sandwich bread with lettuce (Stein, p. 17)
The Mishnah rules that “one may not add an afikoman after the paschal lamb” (Pesahim 10:8). Prof. Saul Lieberman proved that this Mishnah is opposed to the Greek custom of epikomon, as explained in the Talmud Yerushalmi: “one should not stand up from this eating group and join that eating group” after eating the Paschal lamb (Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:4, fol. 37d).
Stein (p. 18) explains that the literary forms of the Seder and Haggadah also echo those of the symposia:
The four questions (Pesahim 10:4) are really quite simple. Compare Plutarch (45-120 c.e.): The “questions should be easy, the problems known, the interrogations plain and familiar… so that they may neither vex the unlearned nor frighten them…” (Stein, p.19). Many symposia questions discuss food: Does the sea or land afford better food? Why is hunger allayed by drinking, but thirst increased by eating? Why do the Pythagoreans forbid fish more than other foods? (Stein, pp. 32-33)
The Haggadah relates the famous story about the five Sages reclining at Bene Berak, “talking about the Exodus from Egypt that entire night”. Similarly, Macrobius (early 5th century C.E.) relates: “During the Saturnalia, distinguished members of the aristocracy and other scholars assembled at the house of Vettius Praetextatus to celebrate the festive time solemnly by a discourse befitting freemen. [The host explained] the origin of the cult and the cause of the festival” (Stein, pp. 33-34)
Sometimes, as at the Seder, the symposium lasted until dawn. At Plato’s Symposium (4th century B.C.E.), the crowing of the cock reminds the guests to go home (Stein, p. 34).
One must explain Pesah, Matzah and Maror at the Seder and “the items must be lifted up when explaining them” (Pesahim 10:5 and Pesahim 116b). Similarly, Macrobius relates that “Symmachus takes some nuts into his hands and asks Servius about the cause and origin of the variety of names given to them”. Servius and Gavius Bassus then give two different etymologies for the word juglans (walnut) (Stein, pp. 41-44).
At the Seder, we recite Nishmat: “Were our mouths filled with song as the sea, our lips with adoration as the spacious firmament, were our eyes radiant as the sun and the moon…we would still be unable to thank and bless Your name sufficiently, O Lord our God…”. Similarly, Menander (4th century B.C.E.) gives an example of a logos basilikos (words praising the King): “As the eyes cannot measure the endless sea, thus one cannot easily describe the fame of the emperor” (Stein, p. 27).
What can we learn from all these parallels? The Jewish people throughout the generations did not live in a vacuum; it absorbed much from its surroundings. But it did not absorb blindly. The Sages absorbed the form of the symposium from the Hellenistic world, but drastically changed its content. The Greeks and Romans discussed love, beauty, food and drink at the symposium, while the Sages at the Seder discussed the Exodus from Egypt, the miracles of God and the greatness of the Redemption. The symposium was meant for the elite, while the Sages turned the Seder into an educational experience for the entire Jewish people.
We are bombarded today by a host of outside influences from the Western world. May God give us the wisdom to selectively adopt some of their forms and to fill them with Jewish content as the Sages did at the Seder.