Why are served egg and salt water on Pesach?…ask the rabbi

March 19, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Questions on Pesach….Rabbi Raymond Apple answers them.

LIKE THE BREAD OF AFFLICTION

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Why do some Haggadot say “Ha Lachma Anya” – “This is the Bread of Affliction” while others say “K’ha Lachma Anya” – “This is *like* the Bread of Affliction”?

A. They are indicating that the matzah we use is a replica of the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt, not the actual bread itself.

We’re not even certain of the taste of the original matzah. Maybe it was crisp like ours; maybe it was limp like pittot (which is how some Sephardim make it).

Professor David Daube had a theory that the distinction was a Jewish response to the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation, which says the Eucharist wafer and wine become the body and blood of Jesus through the prayer of the priest.

The source is the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels and I Corinthians 11:23-25, as well as the Bread of Life sermon in John 6, as seen by Latin theologians.

Mark 14:22-24 reads: “He took bread, broke it and gave it to them, saying: ‘Take this; this is my body.’ He took a cup and gave it to them; they all drank from it, saying, ‘This is my blood of the covenant shed for many…’” (cf. Matt. 26:26-29, Luke 22:17-19). Mark 14:12 says this was “when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered”.

Whether the meal was a Passover Seder or a fellowship meal, Jews would have been aghast at eating human flesh or drinking blood. Jesus would have respected this rule, though he claimed to transcend it.

We are uncertain whether there were objections to his words about the blood, since the Gospels do not record all that was said. Though the NT writers mention wine, some early Christian groups used water for the communion.

In referring to “my body…my blood”, Jesus was asking his disciples to feel at one with him and somehow share his fate, in line with the Passover rule, “In every age a person must see himself as if he came out of Egypt”. He often used figurative language, e.g. “I am the door” (John 10:9), “I am the way” (John 14:6), and “You are salt to the world” (Matt. 5:14). He wanted his disciples to know that in a mystical/spiritual sense (believers in transubstantiation think it was literal) he would be with them.

Transubstantiation, while important to Christians, has no place in Judaism, since Jesus’ life, death and status do not figure in Jewish belief and practice.

But in the Middle Ages the Jews were accused of desecrating the “host” (the communion wafers) by stealing wafers from churches and “torturing” them, thus re-enacting the crucifixion. It was even said that the stolen wafers writhed in agony and blood gushed out. These accusations led to riots and attacks in which many Jews lost their lives.

Daube thinks that the declaration, “This is the bread which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt” might be misread as a hint of transubstantiation, so some texts altered it to “This is like the bread which our ancestors ate…”

EGG & SALT WATER

Many families have a hard-boiled egg in salt water at the beginning of the Seder meal.

No-one is certain of the reason, though there are separate explanations for the Seder plate having salt water (it recalls the salty tears of the Hebrews in Egypt) and the egg (it symbolises the springtime offering). Some people say that the combination reflects Jewish history.

Jews are accustomed to suffering for their faith (hence the salt water “tears”) but they get more and more determined to live and thrive (like an egg which gets harder and harder the more you boil it).

SITTING OR LEANING?

When I first got to know the Haggadah I was puzzled beyond belief by the Mah Nishtanah question about leaning whilst we eat at the Seder table.

It just didn’t square with the good manners with which I had been brought up. To be told that “on all other nights we eat either sitting or leaning” was quite incredible.

In my childhood no-one was ever allowed to lounge or lean whilst we ate. We had to sit nicely and eat properly. That was the way, the only way, of behaving at the table. And now came the Haggadah and told us something different. Was there really anyone who ate whilst leaning?

After a few years, when I became passionately interested in history, I learnt the answer. The Mah Nishtanah question which had bothered me derived from Roman times, when the upper classes reclined on three-legged divans as they ate. I even saw these couches in films like “Ben Hur”.

What the Haggadah was doing was to transport us to the world of the free people who were not coerced or dragooned into unwilling compliance with the rules set by taskmasters.

Then I learnt a further thing. This question about leaning was not in the original Mah Nishtanah at all. The Seder-table questions all had to do with foods, things we ate to show how free we were. There was no mention of leaning, but there was a question about meat.

“On all other night,” it told us, we could eat meat cooked whatever way, “but on this night only roast meat”.

All very well in the time of the Temple, when the Biblical command set out in the 12th chapter of Exodus could be carried out and the roasted paschal lamb was integral to the festival. But when the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices were suspended, this passage became a problem. A problem exacerbated with the rise of Christianity, which posited that the sacrifice of the lamb was fulfilled in Jesus.

Judaism now had to face new circumstances and inserted a question about leaning to replace the one about roast meat.

The Talmud provided a halachic framework for the leaning question: “When eating matzah we have to recline. We recline on the left side. A woman need not recline but an important woman should. A pupil should not recline in the presence of his teacher as a mark of respect”.

Some later authorities said that reclining could be dispensed with because in later ages sitting upright was a sign of independence and freedom. Others added that eating whilst reclining even gives the impression that one is unwell. However, the Shulchan Aruch says that leaning is a practice that must be followed.

Back to my childhood memories. It became the custom for us to spend the second Seder night at the home of my teacher, the late Dr Samuel Billigheimer, in Westbury Street, St. Kilda. Actually I spent many a Shabbat afternoon at his table, but for second Seder they invited our whole family.

Dr Billigheimer did as many observant people do: he sat in a fine chair at the head of the table with a large cushion behind his back. A pupil should try to emulate his teacher, and this became my practice too.

If only I could emulate the true piety and great poetry of his exceptional mind and soul…

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