The Model Seder in Tradition and History

The Model Seder in Tradition and History

THOUGHTS ON PASSOVER

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Passover 5782

This essay is dedicated in honor of AnnBeth Cohen.

The Model Seder in Tradition and History

In November 1936, during a lull in the Arab Revolt, Jewish Agency Chairman David Ben-Gurion testified before the Peel Commission about the Jewish People’s age-old connection to Eretz Yisrael. In seeking to convince the British delegation to award Palestine to the Jews, Ben-Gurion bolstered his arguments by contrasting the commemorative practices and the intensity of historical memory of the English and Americans with those of the Jews. Though only three hundred years had passed since the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock, the average Englishman or American knew no details about that event. The typical 20th century Anglo could not say what date the landing occurred, who the pilgrim leader was, how many pilgrims there were, or what food they ate while on the boat. In contrast, 3,300 years after the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish People still knew their history. “Every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows what day they left. And he knows what food they ate. And we still eat that food every anniversary. And we know who our leader was. And we sit down and tell the story to our children and grandchildren in order to guarantee that it will never be forgotten. And we say our two slogans: Now we may be enslaved, but next year, we’ll be a free people.”   The Feast of Unleavened Bread, known by Jews in the post-Biblical period as Passover, is observed for seven days (eight in the Diaspora) beginning on 15 Nisan, the anniversary of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. The Biblical holiday of the Paschal Lamb was observed in the Temple era on the afternoon of 14 Nisan, culminating in the Paschal feast observed at nightfall. The post-Temple era Seder, celebrated on the night of 15 Nisan, recalls the lost Temple ritual and marks the anniversary of Hebrew liberation.   Given that the Seder is observed on a specific calendar date because its purpose is to commemorate a particular historical event the date of which is known, I was long troubled by the following passage from the Haggadah: “One might think that the Haggadah should be recited from the first of the month. Scripture says ‘You shall tell your child on that day.’ Now, ‘on that day’ might refer to daytime. Scripture says ‘on account of this.’ ‘On account of this’ means only when the matzah and bitter herbs are in front of you.” I could not understand why anyone would think it possible -- let alone required or meritorious -- to observe the Seder at any time other than the night of 15 Nisan.   The redactors of the Haggadah borrowed the above passage from the Halakhic Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Bo Pascha 17). The Midrash addresses when to fulfill the Biblical command to instruct one’s children in the historical significance of the symbolic foods eaten on Passover. “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt (Exodus 13:8).’” A parallel passage in a later Midrashic text addresses when to begin instructing one’s child in the laws of Passover (Pesikta Zutreta Exodus 13). The two Midrashic texts are examples of a long-running dispute among the rabbis whether one ought to emphasize at the Seder a) the Exodus narrative and its homiletic embellishments or b) the legal minutiae of Passover. A careful reading of all three texts, however, makes clear that nobody ever thought it appropriate to conduct the Seder rituals prior to the night of 15 Nisan. The exposition merely clarifies when in Nisan one must engage in inter-generational learning and dialogue.   Rabbi Zedekiah ben Abraham Anav (13th century Rome) explained that one might have thought it appropriate to fulfill the pedagogical mitzvah of Haggadah on Rosh Chodesh Nisan because on that date God issued instructions concerning the Paschal lamb (Exodus 12:2). In fact, there is a Tannaitic dispute about when the community ought to begin its collective annual review of the laws of Passover. The consensus view calls for questions and answers about Passover to begin thirty days before the holiday, though Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel required a shorter period of study, beginning two weeks before the holiday (Tosefta Megillah 3:5). Public discussion about Passover among the adults could serve as an opening for a father to engage his child in a similar course of learning (Shibbole Ha-Leket 218). Alternatively, one might have thought to observe the mitzvah of Haggadah on 10 Nisan, the date on which the Israelites were bidden to designate their Paschal lambs (Exodus 12:3). Still another possible time-frame is the afternoon of 14 Nisan, while the Paschal offering was being slaughtered (12:6). The exposition of Exodus 13:8 concludes by rejecting all of those in favor of the night of 15 Nisan, the hour when the ceremonial foods are laid out on the table before the celebrants (12:8).   Scripture does somewhat cloud the issue of Passover’s date in that it permits those who have contracted corpse-impurity or who were far away from the place of national worship to offer the Paschal lamb on 14 Iyar (Numbers 9:10-11). Rabbi Akiba quite reasonably interpreted “far away” to mean the equivalent of the distance between Modi’in and Jerusalem. Yet Rabbi Eliezer held that anyone beyond the threshold of the Temple Courtyard was considered “far away” and eligible to participate in the Second Paschal (Mishnah Pesahim 9:2). King Hezekiah once observed Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the second month, rather than the first month (II Chronicles 30:13). The Talmud explains Hezekiah thought he was properly observing Passover in Nisan, but that he had erred in intercalating the outgoing year on 30 Adar, one day too late (Sanhedrin 12b). The plain meaning of II Chronicles, though, is that Hezekiah knowingly observed Passover at the wrong time in his bid to unify the northern and southern tribes of Israel under the Davidic monarchy. “They still ate the Passover in a manner not prescribed by the Law (30:18).” External – in this instance, political – considerations led to the observance of Passover on a date other than the anniversary of the Exodus.   In medieval Ashkenaz, the custom developed of reciting the Maggid section of the Haggadah – from “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” through “to atone for all our sins” -- on the afternoon of Shabbat Ha-Gadol. The custom is first mentioned by Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau (15th century Austria), author of Sefer Ha-Minhagim. Rema cites the custom in his glosses on the Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 430:1). While the Mishnah Berurah seemed to favor the practice, justifying it by noting that the redemption began on Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the Vilna Gaon opposed the practice because it was in direct conflict with the above Midrashic passage “One might think…” The custom was designed to stimulate popular interest in the Exodus narrative and its Aggadic extensions in advance of the holiday. Opponents of the practice would counter that a premature telling of the story, in effect a “practice round,” necessarily detracts from the excitement generated when the story is told at the Seder proper.   Passover is not the only Jewish holiday concerning which a custom developed to perform a holiday ritual in advance of its official observance. Examples include: In the Tannatiic period, Jews who lived on the farm, or in small villages away from centers of liturgical proficiency, were permitted to read the Megillah on the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth of Adar, despite Purim’s properly being observed on 14 Adar (Mishnah Megillah 1:1). The Minor Tractates record an old custom observed in some Jewish communities of reading the Megillah on the Saturday nights in Adar preceding Purim (Soferim 14:15-16). The shofar is sounded every weekday morning throughout the month of Elul in preparation for Rosh Hashanah (Shulhan Arukh Orach Chaim 581:1). The confessional prayer is recited in the afternoon of Erev Yom Kippur lest a mishap at the pre-fast meal prevent someone from reciting the requisite prayers on the Day of Atonement itself (Yoma 87b).   The Model Seder, a pre-Passover gathering that mimics an actual Seder in its table settings, liturgical readings, and specialty foods, has its origins in early 20th century America. During the inter-war period, the Model Seder became an increasingly popular program among Talmud Torahs and synagogue Hebrew Schools. By the late 1940s it had become ubiquitous, an annual feature of American Jewish life in synagogues and schools of all denominations. My family cherishes memories of Model Seders conducted in the early 1930s at New Lots Talmud Torah, in the late 1950s at Oakland Jewish Center, and in the late 1980s at North Shore Hebrew Academy. Staples of the institutional Model Seder include long white tablecloths, dozens of hard boiled eggs, loaves of gefilte fish, bowls of horseradish, and the Nathan Goldberg (“Yellow and Red”) Haggadah on every seat.   The Model Seder served several purposes: a) It provided an opportunity for children to showcase the liturgical proficiency they had developed in school, much to the delight of the parents, grandparents, and teachers in attendance. b) It afforded children from non-traditional homes an opportunity to see a Seder conducted to specification, even if not on the correct date. c) It offered Jewishly unlettered, but sincerely curious parents an opportunity to witness a Seder, the lessons from which they could apply in their own homes on Passover night. d) It fostered a sense of community in a joyful and Judaically-rich environment. For many youngsters, the Model Seder was the highlight of their Jewish year.   There are, however, several halakhic drawbacks to a Model Seder. The kiddush and blessings over the Haggadah, matzah, and bitter herbs are all blessings recited in vain if uttered in advance of Passover. It is also contrary to longstanding Ashkenazi tradition to eat matzah in the weeks leading up to Passover. Those obstacles are certainly not insurmountable. The Model Seder’s liturgy can be amended to ensure that blessings are recited without God’s Name spoken in its sacred form; and egg matzah can be substituted for real matzah.   Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit, the foremost cultural historian of American Jewry, notes that the children’s Model Seder was not the only type of off-hour Seder. American Jews cherish their personal autonomy and have learned to adapt religious rituals to suit personal convenience. If darkness occurs at too late an hour (especially so during Daylight Savings Time), some Jews will start their Seder feast early in the evening of Erev Pesach, even though the sun is still above the horizon. If the official Jewish calendar inconveniently schedules the Seder for a weeknight, some Jews will assemble the family for a “Seder” on the preceding Sunday. Such bending of the rules is consistent with an American Jewish community that tinkered with some or all of “kosher-style” delis, shortened “shiva hours,” Sunday Sabbath, and the September Bar Mitzvah. From the 1920s until the 1980s, some ideologically motivated American Jews attended an annual event known as the “Third Seder.” That event typically occurred in the days preceding Passover or during the intermediate festival days of Chol Hamoed. The Arbeiter Ring (Workman’s Circle) and Labor Zionst Farband both held Third Seders. These events, held in grand hotel ballrooms, were all-day affairs replete with food, ceremonials, liturgy, pageantry, and performing arts. The ancient tale of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt was tweaked to reflect a need for modern-day redemption as envisioned by believers in a socialist or socialist-Zionist vision of the future. It was also an opportunity for attendees to hold onto the Yiddish culture of their upbringing.   While the various types of off-hour Seders may have served useful purposes and created fond memories, they all lack the critical element of proper timing. Whether instructional, farcical, or whimsical, they simply cannot compare with ritual done to full specification. The Talmud teaches that a mitzvah done in its “hour” is most cherished (Pesahim 68b). The Talmud speculates that a religious observance dislodged from its proper time might simply be waived altogether (Megillah 5b). And certain cultic obligations, whether in the Temple or the synagogue, offer no compensatory opportunity; when the moment has passed the commandment is permanently lost (Berakhot 26a).   With Rosh Chodesh Nisan far behind us, I hope that we have all begun contemplating the Exodus account and have initiated our review of the intricacies of the Laws of Passover. But as for the grand family gathering around the table laden with the Biblically and Rabbinically mandated foodstuffs, let us wait for the “night of safeguarding,” the anniversary of our people’s liberation from the house of bondage. May we merit the full flowering of the redemption speedily in our days.