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Study of the Ancient Seder and Modern Observance

Dr. Joshua Kulp
| 13/02/2009
Symbols and Rituals

After 10 years of studying the rabbinic texts that went into composing the seder, after reading numerous studies on the development of the Haggadah, and after writing (and rewriting, and rewriting) a critical commentary on the Haggadah, I can safely say that at least one thing has changed in my life-my family no longer has to starve before the main meal is served at our seder. At my childhood seders and at the first seders that I myself led, we were allowed to eat a sprig of parsley dipped in salt water (two, if we were lucky) before the seder began and then we waited, and waited for at least two hours until we could finally eat some matzah. I remember being jealous of my friends who had potato for their karpas. Potato – an appetizer fit for a king! And all of this was after a day in which the only food we could find in the house consisted of yogurt, eggs and cashew crunch. Is this the way to begin a banquet? Who came up with such a crazy idea?

Now, however, at the seder I run at my own home, no one sits and starves while we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus from Egypt. For this, my family can thank a Haggadah manuscript discovered in the Cairo Geniza and eventually published by Daniel Goldschmidt. In this thousand-year old Haggadah, there are four different blessings recited over a course of appetizers that most likely included vegetables, fruits, eggs, rice, and meat. In another ancient Haggadah, recently published by Ezra Fleischer, a blessing is recited over some sort of (kosher for Pesah) pastry. These ancient Haggadot remind us that the seder is a banquet enjoyed by people celebrating their freedom. Free people don’t celebrate by starving themselves (or by eating parsley). They celebrate their freedom by eating good food. Indeed, in the Greco-Roman symposium – after which many elements of the seder were patterned – one did not typically engage in discussion without having first satiated one’s elemental need for food. It seems that the modern custom to refrain from eating before the seder is a distortion of what the seder was truly intended to be. Hence, at our seder we attempt to correct this wrong by making sure that while discussing the Exodus from Egypt, we are not so ravenous that all we can think about is food.

This is just one example of how modern scholarship can enhance modern observance of the seder. Separating the study of the seder into two separate fields – one that examines the history of the seder, and one that examines the meaning of the seder and how we observe it today – is an unnecessary and fruitless separation. By understanding how our ancestors celebrated this night, and allowing this understanding to inform our modern customs, we emerge with a richer perspective on our history and observance of the evening’s rituals.

Several examples of this can be found in my commentary in The Schechter Haggadah. When I wrote out the ritual instructions for The Schechter Haggadah, Professor Golinkin commented to me that some of them were terribly confusing-when do we lift the plate, when can we put it down, when do we pick up the wine, how long do we have to hold it for and when can we finally drink it? I readily agreed; it is indeed confusing and distracting. One can become so concerned with whether he/she is holding the correct object that the meaning of the words being recited becomes completely lost.

All of this lifting and putting back down becomes simpler when we examine the origins of some of this confusion. In mishnaic times, people ate formal meals while reclining on couches. Small tables were brought to each couch, each table with food enough for one or more people. When the course of appetizers was completed, the tables were removed. In the post-talmudic period, people no longer used small tables; rather, in Europe they ate off tables similar to those used today. Hence, the removal of the tables would have been terribly cumbersome and indeed, meaningless, because tables were not normally removed. It was in this period that a custom began to lift up the seder plate, instead of removing the table. Now this makes no sense-we are supposed to be removing the table not lifting it (or something like it) up! Some halakhic authorities opposed the custom and suggested moving the plate to the end of the table instead. From here, all sorts of customs flourished. Some people lifted it up, some lifted it and then moved it away, and some just moved it away. When we remember that the source of this confusion is merely a European adaptation to material reality which differed drastically from that which existed in Eretz Yisrael a thousand years earlier, we can at least be assured that our modern confusion is nothing new.

Finally, I would like to discuss a slightly more textual example. The beginning of the arami oved avi midrash states that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh, as Pharaoh decreed against the males whereas Lavan wished to uproot all of Israel. Numerous commentators, both traditional and modern, have attempted to explain how Lavan was worse than Pharaoh, or why the Haggadah would make such a statement. Indeed, it makes little sense. Lavan may not have been a praiseworthy character, but he is hardly an arch-enemy like Pharaoh. When we examine two talmudic parallels, we can see that this statement in the Haggadah is an adaptation of an earlier statement made with regard to either Amram or Haman. Amram wished to “uproot everything” because, according to midrashic legend, he forbade Israelite men from having intercourse with their wives, as a result of Pharaoh’s decree to cast the boys into the Nile. In a similar piece found in Megillat Taanit, Haman is worse than Pharaoh, for Haman wished to kill off the Israelites, both men and women. It seems that someone picked up on this familiar trope (“so-and so is worse than Pharaoh”) and added it on to thearami oved avi midrash, perhaps in an attempt to emphasize that Israel faces enemies “in each and every generation.”

These examples, and many, many more that I have written about in The Schechter Haggadah, demonstrate that study of the rich history of the seder and Haggadah is not merely an “academic” exercise. It has the possibility to deeply impact how we celebrate our seder and give us an enhanced understanding of our modern-day Haggadah.

Dr. Joshua Kulp is a lecturer of Talmud at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. As author of The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary, he presents a discussion and anaylsis of the historical development of each aspect of the Seder. Along with the traditional Hebrew text and English commentary, The Schechter Haggadah is adorned with over 100 illuminations from Haggadot from the medieval and modern periods, edited by Prof. David Golinkin. To purchase the Haggadah, go to the Schechter Bookstore.

Photo: The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary, by Josh Kulp; ed. David Golinkin, Jerusalem: 2009

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