It began simply and recognizably enough as a cultic ritual presided over by the priests who had charge of what went on in the Temple at Jerusalem. On Passover Eve, pilgrims to the city would consume the paschal lamb they had sacrificed that afternoon while retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt free of any elaborate prayers and rituals. It must have been quite a party--an all-nighter unrestrained by the accepted tales of yore and open to all possibilities.
But then something happened, namely the destruction and occupation of the City of Peace by the Roman legions circa 70 A.D. With that, there was no longer a fixed definition of what this strange religion of the Jews should stand for. And so various sects, including a nascent Christianity, competed at defining the meaning of the holiday and indeed the meaning of the Jewish religion itself.
A new structure of prayers and ceremonies was clearly needed. A people suddenly without a land of its own was shattered and had to debate its future, which inevitably meant debating the significance of its past. A new format for religious observance had to be invented. And the format chosen was that of the Hellenic world the Jews now lived in and wandered through, namely a Socratic-style symposium featuring philosophic conversations around the dinner table. And thus the Passover seder was born.
This Greco-Roman model was adopted from the more cosmopolitan Greco-Roman culture. And so its practices, like reclining at the table, were imbued with Jewish values and transformed into what we now know as the Passover haggadah--a written narrative or story. Jews continue to recite it at a seder, or order of service, that hasn't changed much till the present day.
Despite the tumultuous history of the Jews, some aspects of our history display a remarkable continuity. The same kiddush, or blessing over the wine, inaugurates the festive and unique meal. And special attention is paid to the children present, for they are the centerpiece of this age-old show. They are present not only to be instructed but to instruct the rest of us. The tables have been turned.
"Now in the presence of loved ones and friends," the leader of the seder begins, "before the emblems of festive rejoicing we gather for our sacred celebration. With the household of Israel, our elders and young ones, linking and bonding the past with the future, we heed once again the divine call to service. Living our story that is told for all peoples, whose shining conclusion is yet to unfold, we gather to observe the Passover, as it is written: You shall keep the feast of Unleavened Bread, for this very day I brought your hosts out of Egypt. You shall observe this day throughout the generations as a practice for all times. We assemble in fulfillment of the commandment. Remember the day on which you went forth from Egypt, from the house of bondage, and how the Lord freed you with a mighty hand.
For this is the season of jubilations, and with it comes all the duties and obligations of a free people, not just to rejoice but to know why we rejoice. For along with the reasons to rejoice, we must learn why we rejoice. Tonight is to be an education all of itself. And surely will be if only attention is properly paid.
So it begins, this education in a single long night, and so it must never end as this long trek, Lord willing, is not to end till the ultimate night is shattered by the ultimate dawn.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 04/04/2018
Print Headline: Notes on the Passover seder