Time To Study The Seder


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 6:57 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 6:1-8:36
Haftorah: Malachi 3:4-24
Havdalah: 7:57 p.m.

It’s Shabbat Hagadol again, the “Great Shabbat” that precedes the seder. No one knows exactly how this anticipatory Shabbat got its name — no Jewish source uses it until the Middle Ages, by which time, no one remembered what it meant.

Whatever its etymology, it announces Passover as our greatest holiday because it gave us our birth as a nation and introduced freedom as a supreme value for all humanity.

Either message should be enough to stop us in our tracks; together, they should bowl us over with amazement. Where would the world be without Judaism, the Jewish Bible, and the panoply of great Jews who have made history happen? As for slavery, numerous countries and cultures practice it still, officially or unofficially, openly or insidiously.

“God wants freedom” is a simple sentence on which the integrity of the Jewish People depends and the fate of the world turns. Any seder that does not drum home the audacity of this central Jewish affirmation should be judged a failure. The “Great Shabbat” was established to rehearse the Haggadah in anticipation of making this old and venerable message sound altogether new.

Over the years our Haggadah has undergone countless attempts to retain this freshness of message. Originally, there was no printed text at all; in an oral era, people made it up as they went along. Early on, the Four Cups of wine, taken to represent God’s acts of deliverance in the past, were supplemented by a fifth cup to anticipate a final act of redemption. By the late Middle Ages, that became “Elijah’s Cup.” And nowadays, some people have added “Miriam’s Cup” as well.

The meal, which now comes half way through the night, was originally eaten first, so that its foods might prompt discussion. Instead of standardized “questions,” children offered spontaneous observations prompted by the meal. The Rabbis merely suggested examples of what to point out to children who found nothing worth noticing. When people began to “eat and run,” however, the meal was postponed to make guests sit through the discussion before satisfying their appetites. With no preliminary meal to prompt children’s curiosity, the rabbinic examples became standardized as the “Four Questions” (the Mah Nishtanah), as that children ask today. 

At first, the seder’s high point was an opaque account of some “wandering Aramean” who was worse than Pharaoh. Traditional seders still include that Midrash, although those who say it are unlikely to know that it was a veiled reference to Roman domination. Change the vowels and the Hebrew “aRaMi” (Aramean) becomes “RoMi” (Roman). After the Crusades, a new climax was added: opening the door for Elijah, and hoping for the Messiah. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we began saying.

Droves of new Haggadahs now appear annually, and by all means, get a good one, but more than a new Haggadah, seders need leaders, not just facilitators. Consider actually leading the seder this year! Try asking people for a “fifth question,” the one that we should carry home to bother us this year. Take time for guests to express the slaveries that eat away inside themselves, and what freedom might look like for them, personally. Remember that fifth cup? Reinvent it. Then take a vote on how much of it we should drink — how much has freedom advanced this year?

The book that celebrates freedom should not be oppressive itself, so skip Haggadah readings that make little sense to you — the point of the seder, after all, is not its readings but its message: the Jewish People’s mission to see a world redeemed from degradation.

Whatever you do, apply that message to our time. Don’t just reiterate calmly what happened once; imagine boldly what might happen still. Slavery abounds, to this day, in the wide, wide world without and in our personal lives within. “God wants freedom.” Passover is the time to believe once again in all its possibilities.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman,  co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at the Hebrew Union College, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.