Passover, or Pesach, begins on the 15th of the month of Nissan. It celebrates the Exodus and the inception of Hebraism, the creation of the Jewish People. (The so-called “Jewish” New Year, which takes place in the fall, is actually the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, and thus humanity.)
For seven or eight days there will be no leavened products, or chametz, in the home (barley, rye, oats, wheat, spelt, beer, liquor, rice, legumes.) We clean our houses to remove them. Chametz represents ego – being puffed up. In order to be truly free from our Inner Pharoah, we need to sweep ego from our lives, and make room for God. Mitzraim means Egypt, or slavery – a narrow, constricted place, as in the emotional paralysis or apathy following external slavery – the inability to claim autonomy, or being stuck.
“Leaven represents the evil impulse of the heart.” (Talmud Bavli Tractate Beracoth 17a.) We should seek to be as humble as a flat piece of unleavened matzah. (Talmud Bavli Tractate Pesachim.) We remove chametz to prepare for the responsibilities, commitments, and obligations that bring out our humanity and which represent true freedom.
A candle is used to search for chametz, just as the human soul is God’s candle for searching the world. According to R’Ishmael, searching with a candle symbolizes God’s mercy, as God says, “I will not search Jerusalem with the light of a torch, but only with the light of a lamp, the light of which is much smaller, so that great wrongdoing will be found out, but petty wrongdoing will not be found out.” A feather, or the lulav left over from Sukkot, may be used to sweep away the chametz, so no one touches it directly. After it is collected, the chametz may be burned. This would include all pieces larger than an olive. Alternatively, the chametz (e.g. bread) can be temporarily sold and bought back after the holiday, or it could be donated.
The Four Sons
The four sons we speak of in the Passover Seder may represent one person with different aspects: wise, evil, simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask a question – as Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal describes in his book The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, “a non-integrated person.” He explains that the rabbis taught Passover reveals the way to liberate ourselves. The story of Passover is not truly about teaching someone else, but about our inability to teach anyone until we ourselves have changed. In Kabbalah, the gematria (numerological value) of the word echad (one) is 13. 13 x 4 sons = 52. The word ben means son. Ben = 52. So, they say, we are talking about one person.
These aspects may also serve to address four different topics for discussion – the wise son, for example, may stand for the reasons we keep Torah. Most of my sources (myriad books, which I wish I had footnoted when I did this research) indicate the four sons are different types of people with whom we would communicate differently when we explain the meaning of rituals in the Seder. The wise son asks about the law God commands. To him, we would explain that we were slaves to Pharoah and God led us out of Egypt. The wicked son asks what this event means to you, thereby excluding himself from the proceedings. The wicked son is a person who just doesn’t get it – supposedly one who would not have been worthy of redemption, although personally I think redemption is a choice open to anyone at any time. The simple son just wants to know what’s going on. To him we would say God took us out of slavery and killed the first born of the Egyptians, thus every first-born Jew is dedicated to God. (I believe that because Egypt stands for Mitzraim, a narrow place within ourselves, the first-born son of the Egyptians represents the first impulses of the yetzer ha ra, the evil inclination). The son who doesn’t know how to ask is a the one to whom we offer information without being asked.
The Four Questions
Between 200 CE and 500 CE, the Mishnah lays out questions to be asked by a child. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we eat only unleavened bread? Because our ancestors had to leave Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. Why do we eat bitter herbs? To remind us of the bitterness of slavery. Why do we dip our food twice? The first time, it goes into the salt water to replace tears with gratitude. The second time, it goes into the charoset (a paste of chopped nuts, apples, raisins, and wine) to sweeten or lessen the pain of bitterness. Why do we recline? Because that’s what free people do. (Originally this question was about the roast lamb of the sacrifice. In the Temple era everyone brought a lamb.)
In Talmud Tractate Pesachim 116a, the Rabbis Shmuel and Rav debate the meanings of degradation and oppression, praiseworthiness and redemption. What is the redemptive process? Shmuel says it is physical freedom. Rav says it’s an inner, spiritual experience of God revealing Himself.
The Four Cups of Wine, and a Fifth
The four cups of wine correspond to the promises God makes in Exodus 6.6. God says, “I will” 1.) Free you from the labors of the Egyptians, 2.) Deliver you from their bondage, 3.) Redeem you with an outstretched arm and through ordinary chastisements, 4.) Take you to be My people. According to Kabbalah, four forces of spiritual impurity are removed. The fifth cup, for Elijah, is a remnant of a debate the Rabbis had over how many cups of wine should be part of the proceedings. They decided to have four, pour a fifth, and wait for Elijah to come and explain how many are correct. We might pour some of our wine into Elijah’s cup to symbolize everyone’s role in bringing about redemption.
This is the matzah which is hidden until the end of the evening. According to custom, children look for it and exchange it for a gift or treat. Historically, afikomen could have meant a dessert, entertainment, other foods, or partying. Late in the Second Temple period, Pesach became a ritualized meal, modeled on the pattern of the Greek/Roman Symposium, or discussion banquet. The idea of reclining is based on a Roman custom of lying down to eat dinner. A haggadah is supposed to be a study tool. The Rabbis discussed the meaning of not being allowed to eat dessert after the Passover offering. To paraphrase Rashi, don’t take your utensils and eat somewhere else; stay with the group you’re with. In Hellenistic terms “epikomen” was orgiastic partying, and a symposium consisted of booze, music, and intellectual discussion. The Rabbis said not to follow the eating of the paschal lamb with party hopping and whoring. We should stay focused on the spiritual dimensions of the holiday. The three types of matzah (symbolizing the shared fate of the Jewish people – the Levites, the Israelites, and the Kohanim) may be a more recent add-on.
The Seder Plate
The shank bone, zeroah, on the seder plate is a remnant of the sacrificial offering, although according to halacha we’re to use a chicken bone instead of a lamb bone, or something else – some people use beets. The egg, baytsah, is for the regular offering. The bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. The charoset represents the mortar that the Israelites used to lay bricks in Egypt. (There is a story that apples are used in memory of the Israelite women in Egypt who had to give birth under the apple trees to protect their sons.) The parsley or other green vegetable, like celery, karpas, is for Spring. The salt water represents the tears and sweat of slavery.
Ritual Steps During the Seder
- Kiddush, the blessing over wine
- Urchatz, hand washing
- Karpas, eating the green vegetable
- Yachatz, breaking the matzah
- Maggid, the telling of the story
- Rachtzah, hand washing with a blessing
- Motzi, blessing before eating the matzah
- Eating the matzah
- Maror, eating the bitter herbs
- Korech, the sandwich of matzah, bitter herbs, and charoset
- Shulchan orech, eating the meal
- Tzafun, eating the afikomen
- Barech, blessing after eating
- Hallel, songs of praise
- Nirtzah, conclusion
The Second Passover
On the 14th of the month of Iyar, there is a second Passover which allows those who were ritually impure during the first Passover to accept the Hebraic offering of the paschal lamb. The Rabbis say this proves God is always giving us second chances to change from our egotistical selves, doing our own will, to spiritual people doing God’s will. Talmud Sotah 5a quotes God, “He [the ego-driven person] and I cannot dwell in the same world.”
Rabbi Irving Greenburg wrote in his book The Jewish Way that God cares because He intervened on behalf of the Israelite slaves. Human beings are meant to be free, even if oppression makes us passive and apathetic. Messianic redemption is like a large-scale Exodus.