The Seder: the culinary & cultural dimensions

March 30, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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The Seder meal has both culinary and cultural dimensions.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

There are Biblical precedents for both, beginning in the 12th chapter of Sh’mot.

The Seder meal began the first year after the exodus from Egypt, developed accretions as it went, was added to in the days of the Greeks and Romans, and became what Cecil Roth called “a fossilised domestic feast of twenty centuries ago”.

There are two ranks of Seder foods.

Top priority goes to the Biblically-ordained “pesach” (roasted lamb), matzah and “maror” (bitter herbs). Without them a Seder is incomplete, and Rabban Gamli’el says that one who does not expound these three items has not done his duty.

Now that the Temple service is in limbo, the Passover offering is no longer possible, and Judaism and Christianity handle the problem differently.

Judaism leaves the list unchanged but moves up the other two foods, with matzah now receiving top billing and the lamb left symbolically to the “z’ro’a” (bone). Christianity avers that the sacrifice remains, though in a new form with Jesus as the “lamb of God”.

This is not the only problem. What should we use for maror?

The Talmud uses the Hebrew name “chazeret” (Pesachim 39a), which many writers (e.g. Mishnah B’rurah 203:10) identify with “chrain”, horseradish. However, it is “chassa” in Aramaic (lettuce in modern Hebrew). Rashi calls it “letuga”, akin to lettuce.

What ranking do we give to the wine? Though not Biblically-ordained at Seder, we consider it highly important. Its role is not unique to Pesach. It is part of every happy event: Psalm 104 says, “Wine gladdens the heart of man”.

The second-level foods – egg (“betzah”), sweet paste (“charoset”), vegetable (“karpas”) and salt water (“mei melach”) emerge from the history of Pesach.

The egg represents the festival offering, the charoset recalls the mortar binding the bricks used by the slaves, the salt water symbolises the tears which the Israelites wept.

The karpas is not important in itself but is needed for the dipping of sweet into sour (the sour is dipped into the sweet when we dip maror into charoset). The meal customs derived from the Roman gentry include appetisers dipped in condiment.

There is a range of theories about karpas, focussing on its name, its nature and its purpose.

The name is Greek or Persian and is found in Megillat Esther. Karpas is sometimes explained as a vegetable and sometimes as a fabric. In a drama that begins with Joseph and moves into and out of Egypt, either view has Biblical precedents in the dipping of Joseph’s coat or alternatively hyssop.

There is a light-hearted thought that karpas is a “notarikon”: kartoffel (potato) / radish / parsley / celery.

THE WHEEL KEEPS TURNING

Why do we wish each other “Chag Same’ach”?

It derives from the Torah command, “v’samachta b’chagecha”, “you shall rejoice on your festival” (Deut. 16:14).

It sounds like a simple, straightforward mitzvah, and yet, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out, the Vilna Gaon regarded it as the most difficult commandment in the Torah.

Wiesel says, “I could never understand this puzzling remark. Only during the war did I understand.

“Those Jews who, in the course of their journey to the end of hope, managed to dance on Simchat Torah, those Jews who studied Talmud while carrying stones on their back, those Jews who went on whispering ‘z’mirot shel Shabbat’ while performing hard labour ­- they taught us how Jews should behave in face of adversity.

“For my contemporaries one generation ago, ‘v’samachta b’chagecha’ was one commandment that was impossible to observe ­yet they observed it.”

This reminds me of a London family I knew which suffered a bereavement.

The family patriarch, a highly respected public and communal figure, had died. The funeral was on Friday.

One might have thought nobody would have been in the mood for Shabbat. But the widow had other ideas. In that home Shabbat was Shabbat and always had been.

She made certain that everybody assembled on Friday night as usual. Candles were lit, Kiddush was recited, they ate, they sang z’mirot, they bensched.

The simchah of Shabbat was hard to observe, but they observed it.

If the Jews whom Wiesel had described had decided that yom-tov was over for ever for them, if the London widow had said, “Shabbat has died with my husband”, one would have understood. But giving in to despair is not the Jewish way.

To paraphrase a famous passage in Holocaust literature, a Jew says when necessary, “God, no matter how hard You sometimes make it to keep Your commandments, we are going to observe them nonetheless.”

Not that it is only tragedy that tempts us to find yom-tov difficult. It’s also a problem when things are going well and we are so taken up with our affluence and achievements that we can hardly spare a thought for God, for the commandments, and even sometimes for the festivals.

The wheel turns from tragedy to triumph and we have to follow the Jewish pattern in both circumstances.

The word “chag” is connected with “chug”, a circle.

Whatever the wheel of life brings, it should be our privilege to observe the circle of the year.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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