The Meaning of the Seder Experience

  • Rav Ezra Bick

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur

The Meaning of the Seder Experience


By Rav Ezra Bick


The conglomerate we call the "seder" consists of a number of distinct mitzvot, joined together in a "seder," which means "order" - an organized structure. Understanding that structure is our goal.

What are the mitzvot of the seder night?

1. Matza - one is commanded to eat matza, unleavened bread (bread which has not risen). Matza is referred to in the Torah as "lechem oni," bread of affliction, or bread of poverty. The minimum amount is one "kezayit" - the equivalent of an olive. This is not the same as the prohibition on eating leavened bread, which applies for all seven days of Pesach. Here there is a positive commandment on this one night to eat some matza.

2. Marror - bitter herbs. In the absence of the pesach sacrifice (below, 3), this mitzva is not a Biblical obligation, but only a rabbinic enactment. Here too, the minimum amount is a kezayit.

3. The Pesach Sacrifice - When the Temple existed, every Jew was commanded to join in a group bringing a sacrifice, which was offered on the fourteenth of Nissan, and eaten by the group at home that night (the first night of the holiday we call Pesach). This sacrifice was to be eaten "al matzot u-merorim" - with matza and marror. Since the lamb had to be eaten in one night, with nothing left over, it was generally necessary for a number of families to join together. This is the only sacrifice incumbent on every Jew, and also the only one where the eating (rather than the sacrificing) is the crux of the mitzva.

4. Sippur Yetziat Mitzraim - retelling the story of the exodus. Simply put, one is commanded to talk. Despite what may appear to be a natural Jewish propensity, this is the only time it is a mitzva to talk, and, as we state during the seder, "the more, the better." The Torah formulates this mitzva as "telling others," specifically, "your children." This mitzva forms the framework for all the others.

5. There are rabbinic additions to this framework, notably an obligation to drink four cups of wine during the course of the seder. Other additions, of a lesser level of obligation, are charoset (a "mortar-like" paste made of all sorts of different ingredients), and karpas (a green herb dipped in salt water or vinegar).

6. Reclining - the matza and the wine are to be eaten in a reclining manner, reminiscent of the Roman aristocracy of ancient times.

7. Hallel - the hallel is a series of songs of praise to God, recited in response to a miracle of redemption. This is the only time that it is recited at night.

Well, what does it all mean? We all know that Pesach celebrates the exodus from Egypt and the beginning of Jewish history. So what are we doing with all these ceremonial mitzvot?

In order to answer that question, we have to understand the nature of the Jewish year-cycle. For obvious reasons, most of us believe that the year begins with Rosh Hashana (which means, "the beginning of the year"), which falls exactly six months later (or earlier) than Pesach. But in the introduction to the first Pesach, the Torah explicitly calls the month of Nissan, in which Pesach falls, "the beginning of the months, the first of the months of the year." This gives rise to the simple but perplexing rabbinic formulation that Tishrei (the month of Rosh Hashana) is the beginning of the year, but Nissan is the beginning of the months of the year.

What this means is that the natural world and God's relationship with it begins in Tishrei - after all, we correctly associate Rosh Hashana with the day of judgment, when the destinies of the coming year are decreed from on high. This parallels the agricultural seasons, the harvest coming to an end in early fall, and, in Israel, the onset of the rainy season, the source of life for the next year about to begin.

What begins in Nissan, after the rains? - The cycle of HUMAN life-experience. The year of months and holidays is a cycle of life, whereby we relive the experiences necessary to develop into Jews, capable of a spiritual relationship with our world and with God. Man can never stand still - his achievement is not to BE but to BECOME. One is always moving. The holy-days of the year are not summits, holier than other days because they are "higher," but stations on a journey, whereby we reclaim those spiritual gifts which God gives us, gifts whose origin is supra-natural. A year is a mini-lifetime of development, which must be relived annually (hopefully on a higher level, as in a rising helix). The first of these stations, the starting point, is Pesach, and the seder is the experience.

During the seder, one relives slavery and freedom, one leaves the state of slavery, servitude that is part and parcel of living in this world, and enters on a journey to freedom. How is this done? In two ways.

a. By RETELLING the story ("sippur"). The collective memory of the Jewish people preserves the actual experience of our forefathers. The decisive halakhic principle of "sippur" is called "matchil bi-genut u-mesayem be-shevach" - one starts with the low point, with the subjugation, and finishes with praise, with redemption. Hence the emphasis on telling the CHILDREN - my personal retelling, even as it imprints on my own consciousness the experience of slavery and exodus, connects to the living tradition of parent-to-child, an unbroken chain of three thousand years. This is not merely a story - it is personal memory!

b. By acting out the story - telling it through actions. We eat matza, the bread of affliction; we eat bitter herbs; we dip greens in salt-water tears; we recline and drink cups of wine as masters of our fate, free to follow our own destinies. The section before the eating of the matza and the marror states: "In every single generation one is obligated to see himself as though he himself had exited from Egypt." The Rambam has two slight emendations to that version, which makes the point crystal clear: "In every single generation one is obligated to SHOW himself as though he himself had NOW exited from Egypt."

In the modern world, we tend to take freedom for granted, and perhaps that is why it seems so shallow and empty at times. Halakha sends the Jew back into slavery every year (or perhaps it would be more correct to say that Halakha recognizes that man slips back into slavery every year), so that he can be liberated anew. Freedom is a journey, a station on the road, and without the experience of liberation, without the living memory that NOW you have just left the house of bondage, you are not really free.

If you do not free yourself every year, you slip back into subjugation - one either increases freedom, or becomes enslaved. At the very beginning of the seder, we cite a halakhic rule - "The more one tells the story of the exodus, the more meritorious it is." Freedom is an inner struggle, a process, a path, not a static state; and the more one relives the moment of liberation, the farther one travels on that path.

The seder meal is the archetypical example of a halakhic feast, centered around "chesed." The rules practically require, in its original Temple-era form, that one invite others to join together. This is an interesting example of how halakha mandates voluntary generosity. The Torah could have commanded that the Pesach sacrifice be eaten by two families - but then it would not have been true chesed, sharing, at all. Instead the Torah commands that the sacrifice be finished completely in one night. Instead of commanding generosity, the Torah teaches an important lesson, which should lie at the base of generosity - I have too much for myself. If I take a whole lamb for myself, it will be left over, so I may as well share it with others. There is a great "mussar" (ethical) point here. Sharing with others out of pity is often supercilious, arising from a sense of superiority. The nobleman gives, and thus insures his power over his dependents. True sharing derives from the knowledge that I have more than I nee, more than I deserve. It should not really be mine to begin with. The Pesach sharing is that of equals, joining together and joining their lives.

Now the point here is that slaves have nothing to share, a slave can never be generous. A slave can not have too much, for he has nothing of his own. The group sharing on Pesach is neither aristocratic philanthropy to the lower classes nor the fellowship of want - it is the free community of equals. The mitzva (6) of reclining is based on a halakhic criterion that on Pesach one should exemplify aristocracy, all of us together. There is a phrase - and this is a halakhic legal one, not a rabbinic sermon: "All Israel are noblemen ('bnai melakhim')." If you told the story and acted out its implications, you can eat in fellowship a meal of celebration of freedom.

Today we cannot offer the Pesach sacrifice. But somehow, without explicit instruction, Jewish inner memory still sends families to eat together, with guests. The seder meal is the largest feast of the Jewish year, not because Halakha says so, but because we REMEMBER, even after more than nineteen hundred years, what it was like to eat the pesach sacrifice, together with matza and marror.

The recitative telling of the story is introduced by "the four questions." Halakhically this reflects the requirement that the story be told in the form of questions and answers. There are a number of aspects of the Pesach seder whose only reason is so that "the child shall see and ask." In fact, this aspect of the telling is one of the points which distinguishes the mitzva of the seder night from a daily mitzva to "remember the exodus from Egypt." Why is the mitzva on seder night framed as a dialogue?

I think that by DISCUSSING the exodus (questioning and answering is the way Jews discuss!) we are doing more than REMEMBERING it. It is not just that psychologically it is more vivid this way. Intellectual penetration and analysis is viewed by the halakha as genuine recreation - the experience LIVES in our minds, not merely residing in our memory. By provoking wonder and question, and by initiating a grappling with the need to understand, the seder ritual makes the memory into a live, growing, and vitally creative experience.

In other words, "sippur" is learning. That is also why the haggada is not told by quoting the narrative of the exodus as it appears in the Torah (Sefer Shemot), but in the form of a rabbinic homiletic on a short series of verses from Deuteronomy - we explain each word of the verses through reference to the story. Even more significantly, the "sippur" section opens with a list of halakhot of sippur - this forms a distinct subsection of the haggada, beginning immediately after "avadim hayinu" and continuing past the section of the "four sons." The vividness of the exodus for us is based on the fact that the seder is a LEARNING experience, and hence, as Jews have always studied, it is done with others, questioning each other and answering, subjecting the text to analysis, examining the laws involved, looking for more hidden imports, delving into the underlying meaning.

Let us now try and categorize the different mitzvot we opened with. What does each commemorate?

1. Matza - This is in fact a difficult case. On the one hand, matza is specifically called by the Torah "bread of affliction." This is the reason why the matza on which we recite the blessing is a broken one, like a poor man eating scraps. On the other hand, the matza surely commemorates the matza eaten by the Jews as they LEFT Egypt, where the exodus was so sudden and hurried that they had no time to let the dough rise. This is a sign of redemption. An unmistakable halakhic sign of this is that the matza is eaten in a reclining position, unlike the marror. Apparently, during the seder, matza represents both ends of the equation, slavery AND freeedom. Perhaps it is a sign of the incompleteness of physical exodus - the Jews are free, but also must flee, only now starting on the journey towards freedom in the fullest sense.

2. Marror - The bitter herbs represent the bitterness of life under slavery.

3. The Pesach sacrifice - A meal of freedom, taken in fellowship of free men, dedicated to God. By being brought as a sacrifice before being eaten, the meat is defined as "from God's table," a royal meal. In fact, slaves cannot sacrifice at all, which is emphasized in the original argument between Moshe and Pharaoh - "Let my people go and sacrifice to God."

4. Sippur yetziat Mitzrayim - reliving the whole experience, specifically the moment of liberation. We combine two opinions mentioned in the Talmud (Pesachim 116a). Shemuel states that the actual story should begin with slavery. Rav goes back further in time - the story should begin with the fact that the fathers of Abraham were idolaters. Liberation begins with the life of Abraham; the enslavement of Egypt is part of a spiritual story begun five hundred years earlier.

5,6. Wine and reclining - a position of freedom and nobility.

7. Hallel - This SONG of praise is not merely thanking God, or even praising Him. A song is recited "spontaneously," in response to the immediacy of the experience. Right now I am writing prose - and I can state, with total intellectual seriousness, that we owe God thanks for rescuing us from the Egyptians. But exactly at the point that we relive the exodus, we "break out" in song. The hallel of the seder night is truest hallel of the year, a response to the moment, totally true at that second. After beginning the hallel before the meal, we recite a blessing, which contains the prayer that God restore the Temple so that we can bring the Pesach sacrifice again - and then "we shall recite a NEW song..." When there will be a new redemption, there will be a new song. The essence of song is that it is new, alive, immediate.

8. Chicken soup - No, that is not really a mitzva. It just seems to be a necessary accompaniment of any serious Jewish experience. I really do not know why.

A parting assignment: The haggada is long, and rather complicated. Sit down BEFORE Pesach and review it, looking for the different parts we have discussed. There are plenty of details I did not even touch on. Every section has to fit into the framework, and has a purpose. If you figure it out beforehand, the seder will mean a lot more on Pesach night. Remember, "We ask about and discuss the laws of Pesach for thirty days before Pesach" (Pesachim 6a).


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