There is an interesting little argument about the meaning of one of the more popular symbols on the seder plate. The “seder plate” holds symbolic foods which tell the story of Passover. There are bitter herbs which are reminiscent of the bitterness of slavery, there is a shank bone which is symbolic of the Passover sacrifice, there are green vegetables or herbs which are resonant with the Spring in which the Exodus took place. Then there is haroset. If you have ever taken part in a seder, or learned about one, you know that while haroset is supposed to play a supporting role—it is eaten together with the bitter herbs to sweeten the experience—it takes a more central role as a respite from the matzohs and the bitter herbs. There are many recipes for the sweet haroset paste which vary based on country of origin, family traditions, and personal taste. Even Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and jurist, published his haroset recipe in his commentary on the Mishnah.
As children, many of us were taught that the haroset is symbolic of the mortar which the Israelite slaves were forced to use to build bricks (cf. Exodus Chapter 5). Many recipes do yield a reddish brown colored paste which might look brick-like. However, the sweetness of the haroset, for me, always stood in stark contrast to its symbolic function—remembering bitter hardship.
I. One of the interesting though less well known customs of Passover is to leave the doors of one’s house unlocked all night. The custom is tied to the fact that the night of the liberation is referred to as leil shimurim/night of vigil or watch in Exodus (12:42): “It is a night of watch [leil shimurim] for the Lord, for taking them out of the land of Egypt, this night is the Lord’s, a watch [shimurim] for all the Israelites through their generations.” (Robert Alter’s translation.) The word shimurim, whose only biblical appearance is in this verse, can be understood in the sense of preserving, or waiting for; or in the sense of guarding or being guarded. The custom of leaving the doors unlocked is tied to this latter sense of being guarded. The night of Passover is a night that is guarded or protected for all the children of Israel, and therefore the security of a locked door is superfluous.
This custom reflects and ties together some of the major themes of the holiday.
The final plague which God inflicted upon the Egyptians was the killing of the first born sons. Prior to this plague, God had ordered the Israelites: “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning.” (Exodus 12:22) Then “in the middle of the night” God killed all the Egyptian first borns. Why were the Israelites forbidden to leave their houses during the hour of destruction? Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931) says that the reason is so that the Israelites would not be involved in the cycle of violence. Only God, Godself would put an end to the structures of an oppressive society. God would extract vengeance but Israel would not. The cycle of violence—first oppression and then vengeance—would be disrupted. Israel would be free to live outside of this cycle, with no need of vengeance. This was the dream.
Mark Rothko no-8-1952
From childhood, it seems, we are inculcated with the grand themes of Passover: freedom from slavery! Liberation! Then, in different ways, we translate those themes into usable models for our lives: just as we were liberated, so too must we work for the liberation of others. As Michael Walzer documented in his book Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has inspired many groups in many parts of the world to revolution, to radically change their material existence.
Sometimes however, the overwhelmingly large themes overshadow the equally important though smaller moments. Those moments are often the things that actually move the dial, make a difference in the world. There is a wonderful and very short story in the Talmud (Pesachim 115b). The story follows a detailed discussion of the intricate choreography of the seder meal, the liturgical meal that Jews celebrate on Passover eve. Food on trays is brought in and then taken out. Wine is poured and drunk, and then poured again. Foods are dipped. And so on. Continue reading