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The Use of Drama at the Pesah Seder*

Pesah
Responsa by David Golinkin

Modern Jewish educators frequently use drama as an educational tool in order to bring a biblical or talmudic story to life, or to get a child more actively involved in the subject under discussion.

Much of the Pesah seder is also geared towards children, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of “v’higadita l’vinkha” – “and you shall tell you children” (Exodus 13:8). That is why the Talmud instructs us to distribute parched grain and nuts to children at the seder, so that they should ask questions and not fall asleep (Pesahim 109a). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that three sets of Pesah customs use drama in order to arouse the interest of children and bring the Exodus to life.

I) “The Wandering Jew”

There is a widespread custom among Sefardic and Oriental Jews, according to which, various members of the family at various points in the Seder dress up as if they had just left Egypt. Other family members ask formal questions and “the wandering Jew” explains that he has left Egypt and is on his way to Jerusalem. These ceremonies differ in various details; what follows is a representative selection: (For discussions of this custom, see Ben Ezra, pp. 236-238; Sperber, Vol. 3, pp. 113-114 and Vol. 4, pp. 185-187. Ben Ezra p. 237, note 9 says that the custom is based on Pesahim 65b, but this seems unlikely).

  1. a) Benjamin II (Yisrael ben Yosef Benjamin) described such a ceremony “in Asia” ca. 1853. They dress up a young man in “kley golah” (Ezekiel 12:3 – “gear for exile”) and before the recitation of the Haggadah, he appears before the participants with his staff in hand and his satchel on his shoulder. The father asks him:
    From where do you come, O pilgrim?
    From the land of Egypt, says the lad.
    Did you go out to freedom from the bondage of Egypt?
    Yes indeed, replies the lad, and now I am a free man.
    Where are you going?
    I am going to Jerusalem, he replies.
    With great joy the participants begin to tell the story of the Exodus… (I have translated this passage from Israel ben Joseph Binyamin, Sefer Massey Yisrael, translated into Hebrew by David Gordon, Lyck, 1859, p. 126. Cf. J. J. Benjamin, Eight Years in Asia and Africa from 1846-1855. Hanover, 1863, p. 328. The Hebrew and English are not identical; the Hebrew seems to be based on the German edition, while the English seems to be based on the French).
  2. b) R. Ya’akov Sapir described the custom in San’a, Yemen in 1858:
    The seder is observed as is the custom among all Jews. One of the members of the family takes a matzah and ties it in a scarf on his shoulder and walks around the house. The others ask him: “Why are you doing this?” And he replies: “So did our ancestors when they left Egypt in haste” (R. Ya’akov Sapir, Even Sapir, Vol. 1, Lyck, 1866, p. 89a).
  3. c) The Jews of Morroco had the following custom:
    After reading the Haggadah, all of the men put a stick with a bundle on their shoulders and they leave the house in haste, running and shouting: “So did our ancestors leave Egypt, ‘their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders’ ” (Exodus 12:34) (Lewinsky, p. 397 and cf. Dobrinsky, p. 262).
  4. d) Nahum Slouschz describes a similar custom in Libya before the seder and concludes: “This custom is widespread in almost all oriental lands, and in every country there is a different nusah” (Quoted by Lewinsky, p. 401. It is odd that this paragraph is missing in Nahum Slouschz, Sefer Hamassaot: Massa’ee B’eretz Luv, Vol. 2, Tel Aviv, 1938, p. 90, which seems to be Lewinsky’s source). Indeed, this custom was observed in the Caucasus, Iraq, Kurdistan, Djerba, Syria, and among the Sefardic Jews of Seattle (Lewinsky, pp. 395-396, 398; Wassertil, pp. 177, 354, 526; Dobrinsky, pp. 256, 276-277).

However, surprisingly enough, this custom is first mentioned in Germany 650 years before Benjamin II described it in Asia, and it is documented in Poland in the sixteenth century and in Germany and Hungary in the twentieth!

  1. a) Rabbi Asher of Lunel states in his Sefer Minhagot written ca. 1210 in Provence:
    I heard that in Allemagne (= Germany), after eating karpass, they uproot the table and take the matzot and wrap them in coverings and bear them on their shoulders and walk to the corners of the house, and then they return to their places and recite the Haggadah (Simha Assaf, ed., Sifran Shel Rishonim, Jerusalem, 1935, p. 157. This passage is later quoted in Orhot Hayyim, Florence, 1750, fol 79b; Kol Bo, Lvov, 1860, fol. 12a; and R. Moshe Pisanti, Hukkat Hapesah, Salonika, 1569, fol. 8a).
  2. b) R. Shlomo Luria (Lublin, 1510-1573) devoted one of his responsa (no. 88) to the laws of the seder:
    After the meal he [= the person leading the seder] takes out the hidden treasure, i.e. the afikoman as is, wrapped in a cover, and he drapes it behind him and he walks approximately four cubits in the house and says: “So did our ancestors go with ‘their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks’ “.

This responsum is quoted in the standard commentaries to the Shulhan Arukh  (Ba’er Heiteiv to Orah Hayyim 473, subpar. 19 and in a briefer fashion in Magen Avraham ibid., subpar. 22 and Mishnah Berurah ibid., subpar. 59). and this custom may even be illustrated in the Prague Haggadah of 1526, which pictures a man with a walking staff and satchel on his shoulder (The picture is reproduced in Goldschmidt, p. 136).

  1. c) In 1951, Prof. Alexander Scheiber documented similar customs among his students at the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest, who came from the Hungarian towns of Szatmar, Zemplen, Vatz, Tisfolgar and Puntok. In the latter town, when they reached Yahatz, the father would wrap the afikoman in a scarf, put it on his shoulder, stand up, and say to his family in Yiddish: “geimir, geimir!” (Let us go! Let us go!) (Scheiber, p. 6).
  2. d) This custom has survived among German Jews until today (Wassertil, pp. 84-85). When I lectured on this topic in Jerusalem before Pesah in 1991, a woman told me that in Karlsruhe, in southern Germany, her father would put the matzah wrapped in the sedertuch (white matzah cover) on his shoulder and say: “So sind die Kinder Jisroel aus Mizraim gegangen, so war es” (Thus did the Children of Israel leave Egypt, so it was).
  3. II) “Shfokh Hamatkha” – “Pour Out Thy Wrath”
    Quite a few scholars have already detailed the history of these verses, which are recited after Birkat Hamazon and before Hallel (Kasher, pp. 177-180; Goldschmidt, pp. 62-64; H. D. Chavel, Sinai 63 (1968), pp. 91-92; Zekhariah Goren, Mehkerey Hag 6 (1995), pp. 95-96; Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, Haggadat Hazal, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 174-176).

The apostate Antonius Margaritha (born ca. 1490) relates in his book Der Gantz Judisch Glaub published in Augsberg in 1530 that when Jews open the door for shfokh, someone in costume enters the room quickly, as if he is Elijah himself coming to announce the coming of the Messiah (These and the next two sources are taken from Sperber, Vol. 4, pp. 169-170, and Joseph Guttman, “The Messiah at the Seder”, in: Sh. Yeivin, ed., Studies in Jewish History… Presented to Raphael Mahler, Merhavia, 1974, pp. 29-38. Regarding Margaritha, see EJ, Vol. 11, col. 958-959). R. Yosef Yuspa Hahn (1570-1637) mentioned above says “how good is the custom that they do something in memory of the Messiah. One falls into the entranceway at the beginning of shfokh to show during the night of our first redemption our strong belief in our final redemption” (Yosef Ometz, Frankfurt am Main, 1928, p. 172, parag. 788).

Apparently, someone would pretend to be Elijah coming through the door, and Rabbi Hahn thought that this was a wonderful custom. But R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach (1638-1701) was opposed to this custom: “But what the servants and maids are accustomed to make the figure of a man and the like, something frightening when the door is opened – this is only licentiousness and derision” (Mekor Hayyim, ed. Pinness, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1984, p. 464).

This custom clearly fits in with the Cup of Elijah and other Elijah customs at the seder (The Cup of Elijah has been discussed by Israel Levi, REJ 67 (1914), pp. 125-128; Kasher, pp. 94-95, 161-178 (Hebrew pagination); Rabbi Yehudah Avida, Koso Shel Eliyahu Hanavi, Jerusalem, 1958; Rabbi N. Wahrman, Hagey Yisrael Umoadav, Jerusalem, 1959, pp. 148 ff; Dov Noy, Mahanayim 44 (1960), pp. 110-116; Yehudah Rosenthal; Mehkarim Umekorot, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1966, pp. 645-651; Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Torat Hashabbat V’hamoed, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 145-15; Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, Haggadat Hazal, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 177-178). It may have been another tactic to keep the children awake. On the other hand, this may be a misunderstanding of the “wandering Jew” skit which took place, as we have seen, at many different points in the seder.

III) The Parting of the Reed Sea
The last customs we shall discuss take place not at the seder, but on the seventh night of Pesah. According to the Sages, our ancestors crossed Yam Suf, the Reed Sea, on the seventh night of Pesah. Various groups of Jews have developed ways of reenacting the splitting of the Reed Sea.

  1. a) The Gerer Hassidim gather in the shtibl on the seventh night of Pesah; they drink wine and they dance. They then pour a barrel of water on the floor, lift up their long cloaks, and “cross the sea” while declaring the towns which are located on the way to Gur. At each “town” they drink l’hayyim and then continue to Gur. When they “reach” Gur after “crossing the sea”, they once again drink l’hayyim and thank God for reaching their destination (Ben Ezra, p. 245).

A similar custom from Reishe, Galicia, in the 1890s is described by my great uncle Herman Leder (1890-1973) in his Yiddish memoir Reisher Yidn:

There were several other Jews who were devoted to certain mitzvot more than to others. One of them, was Reb Ephraim Tzibele.

Until today I don’t know why he was called “Tzibele” (onion). As a child, I frequently asked, but no one knew the answer. He lived on Melamdim Street. He was an extremely frum (pious) Jew who sat day and night studying and praying. His special distinction lay in the fact that he demonstrated with his children how the Jews crossed the Reed Sea after they were redeemed from Egypt.

He lived in a little wooden house which consisted of one room for himself and his family. One heard little about him all year long and one took little interest in him. But when the seventh day of Pesah arrived, everyone talked about Reb Ephraim Tzibele, because on that night he used to lead his wife and children through the Sea of Reeds. Since there was no sea in his house, he created a miniature “sea”. He turned over the keg of water which stood by the door and flooded the room with water. He then took his family and crossed the “sea” with them, from one side of the room to the other. Many people used to gather there that night to witness the demonstration (Herman Leder, Reisher Yidn, Washington, D.C., 1953, p. 73).

Similar customs were observed in at least six Hungarian towns until the Holocaust (Scheiber, p. 6).

  1. b) In Jerusalem, on the other hand, the hassidim of Reb Arele (1894-1947) in Meah Shearim recreate the splitting of the Reed Sea in a different fashion. The disciples act as the sea and the rebbe represents the Children of Israel. The rebbe passes through them and the students slowly part, allowing him to pass through (Regardiing Reb Arele, see EJ, Vol., cols. 325-326. I was told about this custom at one of the lectures I delivered about Pesah customs. I have been unable to find any written record of this custom).
  2. c) Finally, R. Ya’akov Moshe Harlap (1883-1951) developed a custom which was continued by his disciple, R. Shaul Yisraeli (d. 1995). Hundreds of Jews – young and old, hassidim and mitnagdim, halutzim, yeshiva students and soldiers – would congregate at his house in the Sha’are Hessed neighborhood of Jerusalem. Rabbi Harlap would deliver divrey torah interspersed with singing. At twelve midnight, Rabbi Harlap would stand up, put on a white kittel and begin to chant Shirat Hayam (Exodus 15). He would sing a special niggun (tune) with the assembled, followed by responsive singing of Shirat Hayam, one verse at a time. After Shirat Hayam, they would sing the Melekh Rahaman paragraph from the Musaf service and dance with great fervor. Indeed, those who were there said that Hayam was an abbreviation of Harav Ya’akov Moshe ( D. Yehudah, Mahanayim 25 (1955), pp. 90-91; A. Malkiel, Duchan 8 (1966), pp. 55-59; Leah Abramowitz, In Jerusalem, April 1, 1994, p. 7).

In conclusion, we see that our ancestors used drama as a teaching tool at the Pesah seder. We hope that these customs will enrich the sedarim of those who decide to adopt them, as they have enriched the sedarim of many Jews throughout the generations.

Abbreviations

Ben Ezra = Akiva Ben Ezra, Minhagey Hagim, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1962
Dobrinsky = Herbert Dobrinsky, A Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs, New York, 1986
EJ = Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1971
Goldschmidt = Daniel Goldschmidt, ed., Haggadah Shel Pesah, Jerusalem, 1960
Kasher = Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher, Haggadah Sheleimah, Jerusalem, 1955
Lewinsky = Yom Tov Lewinsky, ed., Sefer Hamoadim: Pesah, Tel Aviv, 1948
Scheiber = Alexander Scheiber, Yeda Am, 1/7-8 (Nissan 5711), p. 6
Sperber = Daniel Sperber, Minhagey Yisrael, 6 Volumes, Jerusalem, 1989-1998
Wassertil = Asher Wassertil, ed., Yalkut Minhagim, third edition, Jerusalem, 1996

* This article is an excerpt from an article entitled “Pesah Potpourri”, which is slated to appear in the Spring 2003 issue of Conservative Judaism magazine.


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.


Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: golinklin@schechter.ac.il. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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