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The Circle of the Seder Plate; The Cycle of Our Fortunes

Rabbi Liron Levy
| 13/04/2015

When recalling my Jewish childhood, the first memory that comes to mind is from Seder night – the immaculate house, the set table covered with a white tablecloth, the taste of the holiday foods, and primarily the feeling of contentment after long days of hard work and preparation. The stars of the evening were the children, for whom the Seder was fashioned as a unique and fascinating experience, engaging all of the senses in order to allow us to absorb both the explicit and hidden messages of the Haggadah. The telling of the story was led by my grandfather, who would stand and hold the full Seder plate over the heads of the participants, as a symbol of abundance, blessings and success, while those seated would sing with great fervor, “This is the bread of our affliction… all who are hungry may come and eat…next year we shall be free.”

What is the connection between passing the Seder plate over everyone’s head and the words “This is the bread of our affliction…?” The story of the Exodus begins with this paragraph:

In haste we left Egypt.

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat;

Whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover.

This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel.

This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.

The opening words of the Haggadah story invite the poor to partake of our celebration and to be part of our lives. Brought to mind are opposing concepts such as rich and poor, host and guest, slavery and freedom, exile and redemption. The past, present and future blend so that these opposites become fluid and open to change at each moment….just like our wheel of fortune.

There are many Biblical injunctions concerning looking after the poor and giving charity. Following is a section from Deuteronomy that sharpens and adds a dimension to this commandment: “You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give unto him; because that for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work, and in all that you put your hand unto. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shall surely open your hand unto your poor and needy brother, in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:10-11).

The Torah aims to link the intent with the deed. Whosoever gives cheerfully and with his whole heart will be blessed. Also, the Torah stresses that human existence entails lack and that there will always be the poor in our society.

The Rabbis were troubled by these verses. They explain the words “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” as follows:

It was taught, R. Eleazar ha-Kappar said: Let one always pray to be spared this fate [poverty], for if he does not descend [to poverty] his son will, and if not his son, his grandson, for it is said, because of this thing, [etc.].  TheSchoolof R. Ishmael taught: It is a wheel that spins in the world.

R. Joseph said: We hold [as tradition] that a Rabbinical student will not suffer poverty. But we see that he does suffer poverty? Even if he suffers poverty, he [nevertheless] does not engage in begging.

R. Hiyya said to his wife: When a poor man comes, be quick to offer him bread, so that others may be quick to offer it to your children. What, are you cursing our children!, she exclaimed. A verse is written, he replied: ‘because of this thing’, whereon the Schoolof R. Ishmael taught: It is a wheel that spins in the world. It was taught: R. Gamliel Beribbi said: And He shall be merciful and have compassion upon you, and multiply you (Deuteronomy 13:18). He who is merciful to others, mercy is shown to him by Heaven, while he who is not merciful to others, mercy is not shown to him by Heaven. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 151b).

The Rabbis understood the words “For the poor shall never cease…” to mean that everyone at some point in his life finds himself in a state of poverty. The first three Rabbis mentioned speak of good times and hard, and Rabbi Ishmael goes so far as to describe this as a wheel that goes round and round in the world. These Rabbis each offer their own suggested method of coping with this ever-spinning wheel.

Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kappar suggests prayer for a merciful deliverance from this fate; Rabbi Joseph believes that Torah study can prevent poverty, or at least obviate the need to beg alms; and Rabbi Hiyya teaches that only the active deed of charity can save us from hunger.

Rabbi Gamliel closes the discussion with an exegetical comment on another verse from Deuteronomy. He prays that God should instill within us compassion for others, and states that those who show empathy with their fellowman will merit compassion from Heaven. This commentary provides the link between the verses to the Talmudic discussion and sheds light on the circular movement of human and Divine compassion.

Rabbi Raphaël Kadir Sabban of Djerba (Tunisia) in the 20thcentury, and later the Chief Rabbi of Netivot for 40 years, expands upon this connection between the ever-changing status of one’s finances and the Seder plate passed over the heads of those around the table:

“This is the bread of affliction, etc.” – it is a fixed custom in Israel to pass the Seder plate over the heads of those sitting while reciting this paragraph. It can be said that the establishment of this custom hints at what is written in the Gemara: ‘R. Hiyya said to his wife: When a poor man comes, be quick to offer him bread…. Do you curse them?, she exclaimed. He replied: It is a wheel that spins in the world.”

Thus, when the host declares to the poor, ‘Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need …,’ lest he say this with his lips only and not with his heart, the act of passing around the plate strengthens his heart to remember that in future he may need to celebrate Pesach in another’s home.” (Rabbi Raphaël Kadir Sabban, Commentary on the Haggadah, Sabban Press, Djerba 1945).

In this last sentence, Rabbi Sabban alerts us to the potential gap between inviting the poor into our homes and the sour feeling that can easily accompany the giving of charity. He shows us the educational purpose of holding the Seder plate in a circular motion – to create a visual and emotional experience that transmits the lesson of charitable giving to all present. We are reminded that although today we are blessed with plenty in our homes, we must not forget that tomorrow we may find ourselves in need of the support of others.

The way to cope with the capriciousness of fate may perhaps be found in Rabbi Sabban’s reference to Rav Hiyya’s suggestion that feeding the poor will ensure being fed by others when in need. R. Sabban even goes so far as to state that moving the Seder plate in a round motion is a fixed custom that we are obligated to carry out.

The Moroccan Mimouna celebration held after the end of Pesach also reminds us of circularity, and the stimulation of our senses that we experienced at the Seder is repeated. Instead of Matza and Haroset, we eat Mufleta, a thin pita spread with honey and butter; and we again open our homes and courtyards to family, friends and neighbors, without regard to wealth or status. The essence of this celebration is told from its name, which comes from the wordmimun, meaning good fortune, and the holiday features symbols of prosperity, blessing and sweet success – nuts, honey and dates. At the end of Mimouna, we bless each other with the words “may you prosper and may you aid others” – i.e., may you be wealthy and share the wealth.

May our homes be blessed with health, prosperity and happiness, and may we always know how to share these blessings with our family, friends, and those in need.

A happy and kosher Pesach!

Rabbi Liron Levy is Coordinator of Internship Programs at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and is TALI rabbi at the Masorti Neve Hannah Boarding School.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt

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