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).
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!
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).
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.
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).
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.
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: email@example.com. 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.