The Laws of Passover

| Pesah By :  Isaac Klein Posted On Feb 11, 2013 | A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice | Holidays

VII. Pesah (I)

1. Introduction

We noted in the preceding unit that the Pilgrimage Festivals have a threefold significance: historical, agricultural, and ideological. We can illustrate these as they apply to Pesah (Passover).

As a historical festival, Pesah commemorates the liberation of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The exodus looms large not only for Pesah but also for a number of other Jewish institutions. The phrase zekher letsi’at Mitsrayim (“as a memorial of the exodus from Egypt”) occurs frequently in our liturgy. Many of the mitswot have the memory of the exodus as one of their themes. The Decalogue, in proclaiming the sovereignty of God, describes Him as the God who brought us out of the land of Egypt (Exod. 20:2: Deut. 5:6). The Qiddush for Sabbaths and festivals uses the phrase zekher letsi’at Mitsrayim and in the third paragraph of the Shema’ we recite: “I am the Lord your God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt” (Num. 15:41). Thus Pesah is dedicated to the celebration of this historical event and to its memorialization.

As a festival of nature, Pesah is a springtime holiday that has its parallels in the calendars of other peoples. When nature reawakens and the fields bring forth their fruit again, man is impelled to rejoice. The month of Nisan is called Hodesh Ha’aviv, as it is written: “Observe the month of Aviv and keep the Passover unto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 16:1; the term ‘aviv designates the green ears of grain and thus refers to the beginning of the spring harvest). Consequently Pesah was also called Hag Ha’aviv, or the spring festival. As time passed, the agricultural theme of the festival was muted and the historical took precedence. However, a number of observances remain to celebrate the rebirth of nature. On the first day of Pesah, at Musaf, we recite the prayer for dew; on the second night we start counting the ‘Omer; and on the Sabbath of the festival it is customary to read the Song of Songs with its description of spring. This constitutes our recognition that the forces in the physical environment which make for physical survival and well-being have a divine source.

The historical theme of all the festivals teaches us “that in awakening in the nations the power of historical consciousness, [the Jews] have assumed the responsibility of directing that power into channels of peace and good will” (Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p. 192). Basing the festivals on historical events gives man a sense of history, and “through his sense of history, man enlarges his field of operation far beyond the range of the three generations of time with which life is usually contemporaneous” (ibid., p. 189).

The Pilgrimage Festivals all center around the early history of our people. To understand a man’s personality, psychiatrists probe his mind to learn of his earliest experiences. The experiences of infancy and childhood have a decisive influence on the entire development of a human being. This is true of a nation as well. Our destiny has been shaped by our historical experience.

But Pesah does not focus on the exodus simply as a historical event that took place long ago. In the Haggadah we recite: “One must look upon himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt, personally” (quoted from M. Pes. 10:5). The exodus is contemporary for every generation of Jews. Jefferson said: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Pesah provides that eternal vigilance for the Jewish people.

When Moses first approached Pharaoh regarding the liberation of the Jewish people, the king of Egypt asked: “who is this God that I should obey Him and free Israel?” (Exod. 5:2). Pharaoh knew of no god who redeems the oppressed. Professor Kaplan has written: “The conception of God as the redeemer of the oppressed has revolutionized the meaning and function of religion, and has placed it at the service of the ethical impulses” (Kaplan, The Meaning of God, p. 268). In the words of a contemporary theologian: “What makes the exodus from Egypt the pattern of redemption for all Mankind is the interpretation of the prophet who sees God as a redeemer from tyranny; the God of Israel makes history the place where man progresses to freedom” (Maybaum, The Face of God after Auschwitz, p. 177).

Kabbalists have understood freedom as the emancipation from the powers of evil and the realm of Satan, who lies in wait for man and tries to enslave him morally. Translated into modern categories of thought, this means moral responsibility as against subjugation to passion, impulse, and instinct. Thus Rabbi Kook writes: “The difference between a slave and a free man is not only a difference in status; that is, that by a matter of chance one person is subject to another person, and another person is not. We can find a wise bondman whose spirit is filled with freedom, and a free man who has the spirit of a slave. Authentic freedom is the exalted spirit to which a man and a people as a whole are elevated so that one is faithful to his inner self, to the image of God that is within him” (‘Olat Re’iyah, 2:245).

These ideas are not left in the abstract but are expressed in the many observances that cluster around Pesah.

2. The Four Parashiyot

In the six weeks preceding Pesah during the months of Adar and Nisan, there occur four special Sabbaths called Sheqalim, Zakhor, Parah, and Shabbat Hahodesh. In addition, the Sabbath immediately preceding Pesah is called Shabbat Hagadol. The first four are referred to as the ‘Arba Parashiyot and are distinguished by additional readings from the Torah and special lessons from the prophets. Two of these are connected with the celebration of Passover (M. Meg. 3:4). (A good summary of the ‘Arba Parashiyot can be found in the Mishnah Berurah on O.H. 681:1, n. 1.)

Shabbat Sheqalim

In ancient days, every male Israelite twenty years and older had to contribute a half-shekel annually to the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. This had to be paid before the first of Nisan. In order to remind the people of this duty, proclamations were made on the first of Adar that the half-shekel was due (M. Sheq. 1:1). Inasmuch as Jews came to the synagogue on the Sabbath, it was instituted that on the Sabbath preceding the first of Adar, the Torah reading would include the passage describing the first proclamation of the half-shekel. On that Sabbath two Torah scrolls are removed from the ark. In one we read the portion of the week, and in the other Exodus 30:11-16, which contains this passage (O.H. 685:1). If the first day of Adar occurs on a Sabbath, three Torah scrolls are used: the first for the portion of the week, the second for the section for Rosh Hodesh (Num. 29:9-15), and the third for the section for Sheqalim (O.H. 685:1). Hatzi Qaddish is recited on the Sabbaths of the four parashiyot upon completion of the reading from the scroll prior to the one from which the Maftir is read. The Haftarah is from 11 Kings 12:1-17, which is an account of the gifts contributed for the repair of the Temple in the reign of King Jehoash. This Haftarah is recited even if Shabbat Sheqalim falls on Rosh Hodesh (O.H. 685:1).

In a leap year Shabbat Sheqalim occurs on the Sabbath before Adar II, or on Rosh Hodesh Adar II if it occurs on the Sabbath.

Shabbat Zakhor

The Sabbath preceding Purim is called Shabbat Zakhor. Again two Torah scrolls are used. In the first the portion of the week is read, and in the second, Deuteronomy 25:17-19, which tells of the battle with Amalek. This portion begins with the word zakhor-hence the name of the Sabbath. The Haftarah is from I Samuel 15:1-34, which also tells of a battle with the Amalekites. This material is associated with Purim because of a tradition that Haman was a descendant of the Amalekites since he was called an Agagite, and Agag was king of the Amalekites in the time of Samuel (I Sam. 15:8).

Shabbat Parah

The third of the four Sabbaths is Shabbat Parah. This must always precede the last of the four Sabbaths, Shabbat Hahodesh. Thus if Rosh Hodesh Nisan falls on a Sabbath and it also becomes Shabbat Habodesh, Shabbat Parah falls on the last Sabbath of Adar (O.H. 685:3-4). If Rosh Hodesh Nisan is in the middle of the week, Shabbat Habodesh falls on the last Sabbath of the month of Adar and Shabbat Parah precedes it (O.H. 685:5).

Again two Torah scrolls are used. From the first we read the portion of the week, and from the second, the laws concerning the red heifer (parah adumah) in Numbers 19:1-22. The Haftarah deals with the future purification of Israel as described in the Book of Ezekiel (36:16-38).

All Israelites carne to the Temple in Jerusalem on Pesah in order to offer the Paschal lamb. They had to be in a state of ritual purity to perform this rite. Since the ashes of the red heifer were used in the process of purification, this passage served to remind those who were not in a state of purity to take the necessary steps.

Shabbat Hahodesh

The Sabbath before the month of Nisan, or the first of Nisan if it is a Saturday, is Shabbat Hahodesh. Again two Torah scrolls are used. In the first we read the portion of the week, and in the second, Exodus 12:1-20. If Rosh Hodesh Nisan is on Sabbath, three Torah scrolls are used. In the first we read the portion of the week, in the second, the portion for Rosh Hodesh (Num. 28:9-15), and in the third, that of Shabbat Hahodesh. Qaddish is said after the reading of the second scroll. The Haftarah is Ezekiel 45: 16–46:18, which contains a description of the sacrifices to be brought on the first of Nisan, Pesah, and other festivals in the future Temple. This Sabbath celebrates the arrival of the month of Nisan, during which the liberation of the children of Israel took place.

3. Shabbat Hagadol

In addition to these four Sabbaths, the Sabbath immediately preceding Pesah is called Shabbat Hagadol (O.H. 430:1). It received the title “great” because of the importance of the approaching festival. In the opinion of at least one scholar, the Sabbath before each of the festivals was originally called Shabbat Hagadol because of the instruction sought and given respecting the observances of the coming festival (Zunz, Ritus, p. 10). The name has been preserved only in the case of the Sabbath before Pesah possibly because in this case the questions were more numerous.

Other explanations have been given. According to tradition, the tenth of Nisan in the year of the exodus was on a Saturday; it was considered a great event, in fact a miracle, that the Israelites could on that day select a lamb for sacrifice without being molested by their Egyptian masters, who, at other times, would have stoned them for such daring (Exod. 8:22; O.H. 430:1 in M.A.). Another possible reason for the name is that the Haftarah speaks of the “great day” of the Lord on which Messiah will appear (Mal. 3:4-24).

A most cogent and yet novel explanation is that the people used to return from the synagogue later than usual on this Sabbath because of the unusually long discourse that was customary on this day. Thus this Sabbath seemed “great,” i.e., longer than the other Sabbaths (Shibolei Haleqet, sec. 205).

There is no change in the service or the Torah reading on this Sabbath. According to some customs we are to recite part of the Haggadah, from ‘Avadim hayinu to lekhaper ‘al kol ‘avonoteinu, instead of Psalm 104, normally recited on Sabbath afternoons in the winter (Rama on O.H. 430:1).

VIII. Pesah (II)

10. The Seder

The scriptural exhortation to tell the story of the exodus to our children (Exod. 13:8) is interpreted as a positive commandment to retell the story each year (Lauterbach, Mekhilta, Mesekhta D’pisha, 1:17, p. 149; Maimonides, Sefer Hamitswot, mitswah 157). Hence we have the Seder.

“The Passover celebration commemorates an event which will probably symbolize for all time the essential meaning of freedom–namely freedom directed to a purpose. When Israel came forth from bondage, it was not simply to enjoy liberty but to make liberty an instrument of service” (Finkelstein, The Haggadah, p. i).

“Because Jewish tradition holds that God must be worshipped not only through prayer, but in equal degree, through study and learning, the Passover celebration is arranged primarily as a lesson, in which are mingled Jewish history, literature and religion” (ibid., p. iii). Hence the Haggadah is “an anthology of Jewish literature in almost every one of its multifarious aspects, composed in many ages and under many skies, and moulded by long centuries of usage into an harmonious whole” (Roth, The Haggadah, p. v). The name Haggadah, which means “telling,” is derived from “And thou shalt tell thy son” (Exod. 13:8).


Whereas the rabbis normally discouraged displays of affluence, in the case of the Seder they urged that the table should be set lavishly with the finest silver and dishes at one’s disposal (O.H. 472:2; ibid. in Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Shulhan ‘Arukh). In many families it is customary for the chief celebrant to wear a white robe known as a Kittel (sargenes among German and Alsatian Jews). Many reasons have been given for this practice.

The Kittel is a festive garment that was worn in ancient times at all joyous celebrations. The High Priest wore white garments when officiating in the Temple of Jerusalem (Lev. 16:4), and wearing the Kittel gives the Seder the status of a sacred service in the Temple. According to the kabbalists, white symbolizes the divine attributes of lovingkindness and mercy, chesed v’rachamim, and thus reminds us that the Holy One showed lovingkindness and mercy to our ancestors in Egypt since not all of them were deserving of redemption. We should exhibit the same mercy and lovingkindness toward our fellow men. Hence the special emphasis on inviting guests who are in modest circumstances to the Seder (Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, pp. 147 f.).

A strange interpretation of the practice maintains that the Kittel resembles a shroud and is donned as a precaution lest the celebration turn to revelry (O.H. 472 in M.D. 3).

Dr. Finkeistein has suggested that the Kittel was an adaptation of the festive garment of Jerusalem in the days of the Second Temple. As a matter of fact, many of the practices connected with the Seder derive from the life of the Jews of that period, such as eating an egg and parsley, washing the hands before touching any food, and the reclining posture which becomes free men (copied from the Persians) (Finkelstein, The Haggadah, p. iv).

The Seder Plate

The Seder Plate, containing three matsot, bitter herbs, Haroset, parsley or another vegetable, and two dishes–usually a shankbone and a roasted egg, is placed before the one who conducts the Seder (O.H. 473:4).

In accordance with the principle that one should not pass over a mitswah when he meets it), the foods on the Seder Plate are so arranged that the first one to be used is nearest to the leader of the Seder, the next one next, and so on (Rama on O.H. 473:4). Hence the arrangement is as follows:

  1. Top right, the Zero’a (shankbone)
  2. Top left, the egg
  3. Center, Maror (bitter herbs)
  4. Lower right, Haroset
  5. Lower left, Karpas (parsley)

All the printed Haggadahs have fifteen words which trace the sequence of the Seder service. These are written in rhyme and were devised as a mnemonic. Abudraham quotes a variety of other mnemonic verses. The one in our printed editions has been attributed to Rashi (Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, p. 77). It is as follows: Kadesh, Orchtz, Karpas, Yachatz, Magid, Rachsa, Motzi Matzah, Marror, Korech, Shulchan Orech, Saphun Barech, Hallel Nertza. We shall explain each term and the laws connected with it.

Kadesh: As with all festival meals, the Seder begins with Qiddush. It consists of three benedictions: one over wine, the second over the festival, and the shehechianu. On the Sabbath we begin with v’ychulu and add the appropriate references to the Sabbath. On Saturday night, before shehechianu, we insert a special Havdalah that consists of two benedictions boreh M’oire ha’esh.” and the regular Havdalah but with the variation necessitated by the festival. Here the separation is not between the holy and the profane but between the holy of a higher degree and the holy of a lesser degree. (O.H. 473:1)

Four Cups of Wine

The cup of wine used for Qiddush also counts as the first of the four cups ordained for Pesah. (O.H. 472:8, 13, 14).

Many explanations have been given for the four cups of wine. They are said to he symbolic of the four synonymous expressions for redemption used by Scripture (Exod. 6:6-7), or of the four monarchies which are to precede the final redemption (Dan. 7), or of the four figurative cups of punishment which the empire of godlessness is to drain before the event, while the four cups of comfort are administered to Israel (M. Pes. 10:1).

A modern commentator has proposed a more simple reason for the four cups. Every Sabbath and festival we have two cups of wine at the meal, one for Qiddush and one for Birkat Hamazon. Since the Haggadah has two more benedictions, one concluding the first part of the Haggadah and one concluding the second part, two more cups were added, the second for the former, and the fourth for the latter (Knebel, Haggadah shel Pesah, p. 24).

The Cup of Elijah

The question arose whether a fifth cup of wine should be drunk at the Seder, after Hallel Gadol (Ps. 136), corresponding to the fifth scriptural expression of redemption, vahevete (Exod. 6:8). Since the question remains unresolved, we pour a fifth cup but do not drink it. We call this the cup of the Prophet Elijah because when Elijah reappears to herald the coming of the Messiah, he will rule on all unanswered halakhic questions (including the question of whether a fifth cup is required). Our custom thus has been to have four cups (O.H. 481:1, but see Maimonides, Hil. Hamets Umatsah 8:10, and Rama, O.H. 481:1, who rule that the fifth is optional).

At least one modern Haggadah suggests that, following the ruling of Maimonides making the fifth cup optional, we should adopt it as our practice in gratitude for the reestablishment of the State of Israel (Silverman, Haggadah, p. 66). (For an extensive discussion of the fifth cup, see Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 94-95.)

A person who never drinks wine, either because it is harmful to him or because he does not like it, should make a special effort on Pesah to drink from each of the four cups (O.H. 472:10).

Even children, when they have reached the age of being trained in the performance of religious commandments, should have a small cup of wine before them (O.H. 472:15).


In ancient times laborers and slaves ate hurriedly, squatting on the ground. The well-to-do, on the other hand, reclined on cushions alongside the table. On the night of Pesah, when there is no distinction between rich and poor, we all recline at the table in the manner of free men.

Customs change, however, and the ancient triclinium (dining couch) has long since passed out of use. Thus, when we recline at the Seder table, harking back to the practice of the Jews in Palestine at the time of the Second Temple, we do not use a triclinium but sit propped up on cushions. The celebrant leans to his left when drinking the wine or eating the food (see Roth, Haggadah, p. xi et al.). Hence, when he sits down after reciting the Qiddush, the celebrant should drink the first cup of wine while reclining to the left (O.H. 472:2-3).

Orchatz – Immediately after Qiddush the hands are washed. This washing is necessary because we are obliged to wash our hands before touching anything that is dipped in liquid (B. Pes. 115a; Tur, O.H. 473), and the next item in the sequence of the Seder service is the dipping of a vegetable (O.H. 473:6). Since this is not the regular statutory washing before meals, the benediction on washing the hands is omitted (see Tosafot, B. Pes. 115a, s.v. kol).

Opinions vary as to whether this washing of the hands is obligatory for all the participants or only for the leader of the Seder. Since the reason for the washing obviously applies to all the participants, all should wash (see Abudraham Hashalem, p. 219). Most current Haggadahs, however, speak only of the celebrant washing his hands (see Yosef Omets 763 and Leqet Yosher, p. 88). One scholar has proposed that this is either based on an error (i.e., since the instructions in most Haggadahs are given in the singular, they were interpreted as referring only to the celebrant), or that it is sufficient if the leader alone performs the washing since the practice is only the vestige of an ancient custom (see Goldschmidt, Die Pessach-Haggada, p. 20, n. 1; see also Kasher’s comments in Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 96-97).

Karpas – A piece of parsley or some other vegetable is given to each person at the table and dipped in salt water. It is eaten after the recitation of a benediction. This practice is meant to arouse the curiosity of the children (Tur, O.H. 473).

Historically, the dipping of the vegetable goes back to the fashion of eating meals a few thousand years ago. The meal began with an hors d’oeuvre, or dish of a slightly pungent flavor, steeped in some liquid of a similar nature. This ultimately became identified with the bunch of hyssop which was dipped in the blood of the first Paschal sacrifice at the time of the exodus and used for marking the doorways of the houses of the children of Israel as a sign to the angel of death (Roth, Haggadah, p. 8).

Yachatz – The leader takes the middle matsah and breaks it into two pieces. One portion is left where it is. The larger portion is wrapped in a cloth and hidden somewhere in the room–generally under the tablecloth or between the celebrant’s cushions (O.H. 473:6 and in B.H. 19). The breaking of the matsah represents the bread of affliction–i.e., of the poor man who eats crumbs rather than whole loaves (B. Pes. ll5b-116a).

We use three matsot at the Seder because on Sabbaths and festivals it is customary to have two loaves of hallah on the table in recollection of the double share of manna which fell in the wilderness on the sixth day (Exod. 16:22; B. Shab. 117b). Since one of the matsot is broken in two at the beginning of the Seder, there must be three matsot at the outset so that two whole ones will remain for the meal (Seder Rav ‘Amram, ed. Goldschmidt, p. 113).

The custom of hiding the Afiqoman and rewarding the child who finds it is intended to keep the children interested until the end of the Seder (Wahrman, .Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 144).

Magid – The story of the exodus is recited. As mentioned above, the telling of the story is one of the commandments connected with the observance of Pesah, hence the Haggadah.

The Haggadah as a whole has two main divisions. The first contains most of the ceremonies, and the recital of historical and expository passages explaining the reason for the Seder celebration. The second part comes after the meal. The passages recited here are hymnal and glorificatory, also expressing our hopes for deliverance.

The first part, which begins after Qiddush and the few preliminary rituals, is referred to as Magid. It comprises the following sections.

Lifting the plate and reciting the introductory passage, ha lachma.

The display of the plate, and particularly of the matsah, occasions the child’s questions ma nishtana after the qe’arah (plate) has been put down and the cups filled.

The answers follow, with illustrations of the duty to recount the story of the exodus, the description of the four sons, and the exposition of Joshua 24:2-4 and Deuteronomy 26:5-8, leading to an elaboration of the ten plagues. Then follow psalms of thanksgiving and the prelude to the meal with its attendant ceremonies.

Usually it is the youngest son who asks the four questions. In ancient times the questions were spontaneous, and the child had to be prepared in advance if he was not alert enough to ask questions on his own. Later the questions became set with a permanent text which the children had to learn. If the children cannot ask the questions, or if there are no children, the wife may ask them, or another adult, or the celebrant himself reads the questions (B. Pes. l l6a; O.H. 473:7).

It is customary to spill a bit of wine from the cup at the mention of each of the ten plagues. This is also done when the mnemonic of the plagues is said. This practice probably originated in an ancient belief that in so doing we ward off evil–nolo me tangere (Roth, Haggadah, p. 27). Some explain that since the wine is usually spilled by dipping a finger into the cup, the practice refers to the verse “This is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:15). A more rationalistic explanation is given by Don Isaac Abarbanel. The spilling of the wine is a sign that our cup of joy is not full since our deliverance involved the punishment of others; our joy is made incomplete by the fact that the Egyptians suffered so that we might be liberated.

Before the conclusion of the first part of the Haggadah, marked by the drinking of the second cup of wine, the first two paragraphs of Hallel are recited, as they were during the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb (M. Pes. 9:3, 10:6, 7). The usual blessing is omitted (Tur, O.H. 473 in Bet Yosef). The blessing is recited only when all of Hallel is recited without interruption, or when Hallel is recited by day (see Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 139 f.).

The first part of the Haggadah ends with the second cup of wine, which is preceded by the blessing on wine (O.H. 474:1 in Rama).

Rachsa – As before every meal, each participant washes his hands and recites the blessing al ntealat yadaim (O.H. 475:1).

Motzi Matzah – After the washing of the hands, the leader takes the matsot from the Seder plate and recites two blessings, the usual hamotzi and the special blessing for matsah, achilat matzah, and then distributes a piece of the uppermost matsah and a piece of the broken middle matsah to each participant; these are eaten while reclining to the left (O.H. 475: l). When a large group is present, the participants can use other matsot. The eating of matsah is an obligation only at the Seder, and is optional during the rest of Pesah. The requirement of abstaining from leaven applies to all of Pesah (O.H. 475:7; M. Pes. 10:5).

Marror – The participants take a piece of bitter herb, usually horseradish root, dip it into the Haroset to reduce its sharpness, and eat it after reciting the blessing al achilat marror (O.H. 475:1).

Korech – The leader breaks the bottom matsah into smaller pieces and makes sandwiches of bitter herbs between two pieces of matsah. These are eaten after reciting zecher l’mkdash k’hellel while reclining on the left (O.H. 475:1). Customs vary as to whether Haroset is used here again (ibid. in Rama).

The eating of bitter herbs is a biblical commandment (Exod. 12:8; Num. 9:11). It is a symbol of the bitter servitude our ancestors experienced as slaves in Egypt (M. Pes. 10:5).

The Haroset, which lessens the sharpness of the Maror, is a compound of apples, almonds, raisins, and spices, chopped very fine into a paste with the addition of some wine. Its admixture with the Maror, dulling the sharpness of the bitter herbs, may be taken as symbolic of God’s loving-kindness, which dulled the bitterness of the Egyptian bondage. The color and general composition of the Haroset remind us of the mortar which the Hebrew slaves used while working on the building projects assigned by their taskmasters.

The principal ingredient of the Haroset, the apple, recalls an ancient legend regarding Pharaoh’s heartless sentence against the male Hebrew children. Jewish mothers, fearing for the lives of their infants if they were boys, used to give birth in the secrecy of orchards, unseen by human eyes, and there, we are told, angels came down from heaven to help them. The source of this explanation is a midrashic comment on the verse in the Song of Songs: “I raised thee up under the apple tree; there thy mother brought thee forth” (Song of Songs 8:5; Exodus Rabbah 1:16; Rama on O.H. 473:5). The other ingredients of the Haroset are also fruits to which the people of Israel have been compared (O.H. 473:5 in Rama; detailed explanation in Qitsur Shulhan ‘Arukh 118:4; Roth, Haggadah, p. ix; see also B. Pes. 116a in Tosafot, s.v.).

Shulchan Orach – The meal is an integral part of the Seder service. The heart of the service in ancient times was the eating of the Paschal lamb, which had to be consumed within the confines of Jerusalem and in a state of ritual purity. Nowadays the table becomes an altar, and eating performed in the right spirit becomes an act of worship.

A spirit of reverence, therefore, should pervade the meal. Immoderate eating or drinking would be blasphemy (O.H. 476:1 in Rama), and loose language should be avoided. By such measures the commonplace is sanctified, becoming an act of divine service (Roth, Haggadah, p. 44).

It is customary to start the Seder meal with a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water. Classical scholars, recollecting the traditional description of a Roman meal (ab ovo usque ad mala), consider the egg to be no more than a relic of the customary hors d’oeuvres of the typical meal of ancient times (Finkelstein, Haggadah, p. ix; Roth, Haggadah, p. ix; Wahrman, .Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 147). It has been pointed out, however, that popular lore throughout the world generally associates eggs with the spring season.

While the egg may be a relic of an ancient custom, it can be given a fresh symbolic value (Roth, Haggadah, p. ix). Various explanations in this vein have been offered. Eggs are a symbol of mourning (round things are generally eaten in a house of mourning), and thus the egg at the Seder is said to be a gesture of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem, added in place of the special festival offering, which can no longer be offered. This interpretation is emphasized by the fact that the ninth of Av always falls on the same day of the week as the first night of Pesah. (O.H. 476:2). Hence the salt water at the Seder symbolizes the tears we shed over the destruction of the Temple (Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 147).

Rabbi Moses Sofer (the “Hatam Sofer”) offered a more fanciful interpretation. In general, the more a food is cooked, the softer it becomes. With the egg, however, the opposite is the case. This is symbolic of the people of Israel. The more they are oppressed by the nations of the world, the harder they become in their determination not to yield and to remain faithful to the covenant.

The rest of the Seder meal follows the custom of the land regarding festive meals. In certain places, however, roasted meat is forbidden at the Seder because the Paschal lamb was roasted, and roasted meat might be construed as being a Paschal sacrifice, which is forbidden today. In some other places, there is no restriction on roasted meat but an entire lamb may not be roasted, since it would be too similar to the Paschal lamb (O.H. 476:1).

Saphun – After the meal, the half-matsah that was put aside early in the evening is distributed to the participants, each of whom eats a piece to conclude the meal. This is the Afiqoman. The word afiqoman has been given various interpretations. The most logical is that it is the Greek word for “dessert” (Roth, Haggadah, p. 44). For us the Afiqoman represents the Paschal lamb, which was traditionally the last thing to be eaten at the Seder so that its taste and recollection would remain uppermost. Therefore nothing is eaten after partaking of the Afiqoman (O.H. 478: l). Some Sefardic rites preface the eating of the Afiqoman with the words zecher l’karban pesah hanechal al hasava (“in remembrance of the Paschal lamb which is eaten when one is sated”) (Goldschmidt, Haggada, p. 71). There is a difference of opinion about drinking after the Afiqoman. Some authorities only permit the drinking of water–with the exception, of course, of the last two of the four statutory cups of wine (O.H. 478:1 in Mishnah Berurah). Others forbid fermented beverages, since drinking these may lead to intoxication (O.H. 478:1 in B.H.).

Barech – The third cup of wine is filled and Birkat Hamazon is recited. It is the usual Grace after meals with the addition of yaleh v’yavo and the harachaman for the festival, with r’tze on a Sabbath; the cup of wine, which is generally optional, is obligatory at this service (O.H. 479:1).

Hallel – After the Birkhat Hamazon and the drinking of the third cup, the fourth cup is filled and the rest of Hallel is recited (O.H. 480:1). During the Middle Ages shefoch chamatcha, consisting of verses from Psalms 79:6 and 69:25 and Lamentations 3:66, was inserted before the Hallel (Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 149). The old Haggadahs do not have it (see Seder Rav ‘Amram, ed. Goldschmidt; Maimonides, Mahzor Vitry, ed. Hurwitz, p. 282). These imprecations seem vengeful and vindictive to us, and unworthy of a festival which includes a number of rituals showing compassion even for the Egyptians. The fact that they date from the Middle Ages, when persecutions of the Jews had become common, explains the mood (see Abudraham Hashalem 234).

It is customary to pour an extra glass of wine, known as Elijah’s cup, and keep the door open during the recitation of shefoch chmtcha. This is a symbolic act which shows that we are not afraid, despite the oppressive cruelty we face, and that our faith in the final redemption and the final triumph of righteousness is unshaken (O.H. 481:1 in Rama, B.H. 3). It has been suggested that originally the door was open throughout the entire Seder. During the Middle Ages, when it was dangerous to do so, the door was kept closed, but it was opened just for this passage (see Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 149). In Jewish lore, Elijah the prophet has become the harbinger of the coming of the Redeemer. We call this cup the cup of Elijah to reaffirm our faith in his coming to announce the final redemption (ibid., and Yosef Omets 788; also, see above p. 123). A commendable effort has been made to use this passage as an occasion for the memorialization of the six million martyrs who perished at the hands of the Nazis and for the heroes of the ghetto uprisings. When recited in relation to these tragic events, the words no longer seem unduly vindictive.

After this, Hallel is continued. The customary final benediction, Melech M’hulal b’tesbachot, is omitted because the later benediction al melech gadol b’tsbachot, serves as the closing benediction for the entire section (see B. Pes. 118a in Tosafot, and in Abudraham Hashalem, p. 236; O.H. 480:1 in B.H. 3).

The Haggadah divides Hallel into two sections because the first part of Hallel, which mentions the exodus, fits the mood of the Haggadah passages preceding the meal, all of which are variations on the same theme, while the second part of Hallel is hymnal and thus fits the songs of praise which are the substance of the second part of the Haggadah (Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 140 f.; Abudraham Hashalem, p. 236).

After Hallel we recite Hallel Gadol (Ps. 136) and Birkat Hashir (B. Pes. 118a), which we call Nishmat (O.H. 480:1 in Rama, B.H. 3), ending with the benediction melech el chai haolamim. After this the fourth cup is drunk and the Berakhah Aharonah is recited.

Nertza – marks the end of the Seder with an appropriate hymn—chasal sedor Pesah and shanah habaah b’yerushalim. Some hymns have been added at the end of the service. We recite euvchen v’yhe bchatzi halaylah of Yannai on the first night and euvchen v’amrtem zevach pesah on the second night. In addition there are three other playful songs. Though the commentators have read profound meanings into these songs, they were simply intended as a means of holding the attention of the children until the very end.

The rest of the evening should be spent in serious discussion or in study consonant with the spirit of the celebration (O.H. 481:2).

With the exception of the slight variation mentioned above, the Seder on the second night of Pesah is celebrated exactly as on the first night (O.H. 481:2 in Rama).

IX: Pesach (II)

15. The Concluding Days of Pesah

The seventh and eighth days of Pesah (in Israel the seventh day) equal the first days in sanctity, and the same regulations apply to them.

The services are exactly the same as during the first days, except that the shortened version of Hallel is recited during the morning services, each day has its own specially assigned reading from the Torah and the Prophets, and memorial services for the deceased are recited on the last day. The shecheanu is omitted from the candle lighting and evening Qiddush.

The shortened form of the Hallel is recited for the following reason. According to tradition, the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea on the seventh day of Pesah. When the ministering angels saw the hosts of Pharaoh drown, they wished to sing praises unto God. God rebuked them, saying: “Shall ye sing praises unto me while my creatures are drowning?” (B. Meg. 10b). Hence we shorten the hymns of praise on this occasion. Another suggested reason is that normally the complete Hallel is recited only at the beginning of the festival, as is done on Pesach. Only when the succeeding days have some theme peculiar to themselves do we say the complete Hallel on those days as well. During Sukkot each day saw a different number of sacrifices offered in the Temple, and on each night of Hanukkah a different number of candles is lit, giving each day a significance of its own. The complete Hallel is therefore recited on each of these days (B. Arak. 10a-b).

The Torah reading on the seventh day is Exodus 13:17-15:26, telling of the crossing of the Red Sea, which took place on the seventh day, and the song that Moses and the children of Israel sang when they were saved. The Maftir is the same as the reading from the second scroll on the Intermediate Days. The Haftarah is II Samuel 22:1-51, also a song of deliverance.

On the eighth day the reading is Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17. On a Sabbath the reading starts with 14:22. The Maftir is the same as the day before. The Haftarah is Isaiah 10:32-12:6, which speaks of the future deliverance of the children of Israel.

The Memorial Services follow the reading of the Torah and the Haftarah. The present-day practice is to have Hazkarat Neshamot at the end of each festival, i.e., the eighth day of Pesach, the second day of Shavu’ot, the eighth day of Sukkot, and on Yom Kippur, which, because it is connected to Rosh Hashanah by the Ten Days of Penitence, is considered to be like the last day of a festival.

The custom of remembering the dead in the synagogue is an old one and is based on the belief that such prayers are of help to the dead (Midrash Tanhuma, Ha’azinu 20:8; Pesiqta Rabbati 20). This was done individually by people when they were called up to the Torah and pledged a gift for charity (O.H. 284:7 in Rama). In some synagogues this is still the practice, in other synagogues a memorial prayer is recited after the Torah reading, or on the Sabbath at Minhah after the Torah reading when the names of all those whose Yahrzeit will be held during the coming week are mentioned in a memorial prayer, el maleh rachamim.

A collective memorial prayer with the entire congregation joining in originally took place only on Yom Kippur. it was recited not only for the dead (O. H. 621:6) but also to put the living into a contrite mood (Kol Bo 70). Among German Jews this custom is still maintained (Me’ir Netiv, p. 144; see also Siddur Rashi, ed. Buber, par. 214).

Those whose parents are living customarily leave the place of worship during the yizkor service. Many reasons have been given for this practice: lest we arouse the jealousy of those whose parents are dead; to prevent those who do not have to say yizkor from falling into the error of saying it by mistake, thus tempting fate; lest we be in the awkward position of remaining silent when those around us are worshipping. Obviously some of the above are superstitions, but the custom has nevertheless persisted.

Among the Sefardim no one leaves the service during yizkor. Many Conservative synagogues have adopted the Sefardic custom (see Eliyahu Kitov, Sefer Hatoda’ah 1:56).

That the yizkor service has such wide appeal in our day is to be welcomed, for it helps to bind the generations together in filial piety. Death does not end or break this bond. The virtues of the fathers work to mitigate some of the faults of the children, and the virtues of the children work to remove some of the imperfections of the fathers. “Moreover, to pray for the dead is not an unjustifiable corollary of the belief in God’s boundless mercy. Unless we are prepared to maintain that at his death the fate of man is fixed irretrievably and forever, that therefore the sinner who rejected much of God’s love during a brief lifetime has lost all of it eternally, prayer for the peace and salvation of the departed soul commends itself as of the highest religious obligations” (Singer, Lectures and Addresses, p. 72, quoted in Abrahams, Companion to the Authorised Daily Prayer Book, pp. ccxxi f.).

The rest of the service is exactly as on the seventh day. The same is true of Minhah. The Ma’ariv service is a weekday service, with ata chonantanu inserted in the fourth benediction.

The festival is concluded with Havdalah on wine, both at the synagogue and at home, as at the end of the first two days. On a Sabbath the benedictions for fire and spices are added.

Excerpted from:
A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Isaac Klein (Supplement by Rabbi Joel Roth)
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York and Jerusalem, Copyright 1979, 1992