Insights into the Seder

With Pesach approaching I wanted to help enhance one of the most central parts of our Pesach celebration – the seder. The purpose of the seder is to convey the story of the exodus from Egypt and connect us to one of the most seminal events in the history of the Jewish people. The fact that Jews have held a seder in their homes on Pesach universally across the world and throughout every generation means that the seder itself links us directly both to our own ancestors and to every other Jew.



The Torah calls Pesach “Chag Hamatzos.” But we call it “Pesach.” Why is this so? Rav Chaim Volozhiner (1749 – 1821) explains the difference that the word Matzos (מַצוֹת) and the word Mitzvos (מִצוֹת) are spelled exactly the same in Hebrew. Therefore, “Chag HaMatzos” can also be read “Chag HaMitzvos.” This means that when the Jews left Egypt and received the Torah, they gained the opportunity to connect with G-d through His commandments and earn great reward through keeping them.


Pesach, on the other hand, means Passover: G-d “passed over” the houses of the Jewish people. By calling it Pesach, we emphasize the good that G-d has done for us. Our Sages teach us not to serve G-d with an eye to the reward; rather we should serve Him out of a sense of love and gratitude. By calling it Pesach we de-emphasize the reward that each Mitzva brings, and instead focus on the good that G-d has done for us.


The second explanation from the Ariz”l,  Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572) because the word Pesach (פֶסַח) is a compound word which means Peh (פֶה) mouth, and Sach (סַח) speaks, hinting that on this night we retell the history of the Exodus.


The seder

The Maharal, Rabbi Judah Löwe ben Bezalel, (1520 –1609) known as the Maharal of Prague, explains that the Seder has 15 parts, corresponding to the fifteen steps which led up to the Temple. Our Sages say that our table is like an Altar, and this is particularly true on Seder-night, when our family table is a tool to achieve new spiritual heights. Similarly, just as the Temple helped the Jewish People sense the Divine Order in the world, so too, the Seder, the Hebrew word for order, is a reminder that G-d guides world history.



The Talmud explains that by beginning the Seder meal in an unusual way, with a vegetable instead of with bread, the children will be curious and ask, “Why are we beginning the meal with a vegetable instead of bread?” Once their curiosity is aroused, they will be more attentive to the story of the Exodus.


The Four Cups

The cups parallel the four expressions in the Torah which describe our freedom from Egypt. The first cup which we drink at Kiddush, parallels “I will take you out”. This is the essence of Kiddush sanctification – the realization that the Jewish People play a unique role in this world. The Haggada, the story of our physical exodus from Egypt, is recited over the second cup, symbolizing our physical salvation, which is parallel to “I will save you.” Birkas HaMazon, (Blessings after the meal) remind us that G-d provides for our sustenance, is recited over the third cup, paralleling “I will redeem you” – the goal of the Exodus was the formation of a unique relationship with G-d. Hallel is recited over the fourth cup. Hallel is the praise we bestow on G-d, recognizing that He said “I will take you to be My nation.”

The Four Questions

More so than any other festival, the Seder-night is dedicated to children, because the Torah dictates that we must tell the history of the Exodus to our children on this night. The Haggada directs us to do many unusual things to arouse the children’s curiosity so that they will want to know “why this night is different than all other nights.” Immediately following Kiddush the curiosities begin. We wash hands as on each Shabbos or Festival, but on Seder-night we wash without a blessing because we first eat karpas (a vegetable) and not bread. Just as karpas whets our appetites for the matzah, so too, this unusual procedure interests us in the secrets of this night.


Even adults are naturally inquisitive and like children should not be afraid to ask. The custom of providing treats for the children not only helps keep them awake, but also serves as a stimulus for their questions, and as a reward for their participation.


The Four Sons

The late Rabbi Uziel Millevsky, former Chief Rabbi of Mexico and senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem explains that the author of the Haggada hints at the danger of a lack of education by his unique order of the Torah’s four sons. He feared degeneration from monotheism to self worship (a form of idol worship), the opposite path from that traversed by our ancestors. A wise child who asks questions demonstrating a basic knowledge of Judaism and is not answered properly may be so bitter that even if he himself is observant, his child (the second generation son) will move away from the practise of Torah and Mitzvos.


This wayward second generation son will refuse to educate his children properly (the third generation son). This relatively ignorant third generation son will never understand his parents’ rejection of Judaism. He will be curious, but not overly interested in his heritage. He will produce a fourth generation son which feels that the Torah could not possibly be intellectually satisfying. He is therefore so far removed from Torah that he has no interest in participating actively, nor does he know how to begin investigating. If he does not unearth the depth of Torah, the fifth generation will not even attend a Pesach Seder.


The Wicked Son

What does he say? “What does this drudgery mean to you!” The wicked son’s question is a quote from the Torah: “When your children will say to you…what does this drudgery mean to you!” The key to his wickedness lies in the word “say.” He doesn’t ask a question at all; rather, he “says. Therefore…You should knock out his teeth and say, “It’s for this that G-d did for me when I left Egypt.” “For me and not for him.”


The word “him” is in the third person. Since the wicked son’s question is rhetorical, it gets no direct response. To whom, then, is the father speaking? To the son who “doesn’t know how to ask a question.” He, like the wicked son, asks no questions. Therefore, he is in danger of developing into a “wicked son” himself. The father looks at this son and warns him, “for me and not for him…Don’t let his sarcastic smirk fool you … Had he been in Egypt, he would have assimilated into Egyptian society, and would not have been redeemed.”


According to Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah Abrabanel, (Lisbon, 1437 – Venice, 1508), the wicked son is also pointing out a contradiction: On the one hand, we recline like free people and dip our food like aristocrats. But, on the other hand, we eat “bread of affliction” and bitter herbs. Are we celebrating freedom here, or are we commemorating the slavery?

The answer is both. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G-d, our G-d, took us out from there with a ‘strong hand’…” Tonight we experience the transition from slavery to freedom.


And it is This

“…which has stood for our fathers and for us; for in each and every generation they stand against us to destroy us, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu rescues us from their hand.”

Exactly what “This” refers to is not immediately clear. Is it the promise made to Abraham, mentioned previously? Or that “G-d will ultimately redeem us from our oppressors?” There is another possibility which gives us a unique insight into the phenomenon of anti-Semitism: This, that “in each and every generation they stand against us to exterminate us”This refers to the fact that as hard as we may try to forget our Jewish identity and assimilate the ways of our host nation, sooner or later they rise against us, remind us of our uniqueness, and awaken our commitment to Judaism. It is worth remembering that historically, one of the most established, culturally integrated and assimilated Jewish communities in recent generations was in Germany in the early part of the 20th Century.


Pesach, Matzah and Maror

Today, without the Temple we cannot fulfil the Mitzvah of the Korban Pesach (the Paschal offering), but we symbolically remind ourselves of it by roasting a bone for the Seder-plate. Also, without the Temple, we cannot perform the Mitzvah of maror (bitter herbs) and eating the maror today is of Rabbinical status. Of these three Mitzvos, only one is a Torah commandment today: The eating of the Matzah itself.


The Festive Meal

One of the unique aspects of the Seder is that we interrupt the saying of the Hallel with a meal. Why is that? The Netziv, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Mir, Russia, 1816 – Warsaw, Poland, 1893) explains as follows: The purpose of going out of Egypt was to receive the Torah. With the Torah we gain the ability to serve G-d not only through “spiritual” means, such as Torah study and prayer, but through “physical” commandments as well, such as marriage, enjoying Shabbos, eating matzamarror, and the Pesach offering. We eat in the middle of Hallel in order to praise G-d for sanctifying and elevating our physical existence. Even “mundane” things like eating are elevated when we do them in the service of G-d.



In our lowliness, he remembered us…and redeemed us from our oppressors. He gives food to all flesh…Praise G-d of the heavens! These last four phrases of Hallel can be seen as paralleling the four cups we drink tonight. Over the first cup we make kiddush and declare, “You chose us from all the nations.” Why did G-d choose us? The Sages explain that G-d chose the Jewish people because of their humility. “In our lowliness” –  in our humility, “He remembered us” and chose us. The second cup goes together with the Haggadah, where we tell how G-d “redeemed us from our oppressors.” During Bircas Hamazon, the blessings after the meal we recognize that “He gives food to all flesh.” This is said over the third cup. And with the fourth cup we sing Hallel…”Praise G-d of the heavens!