Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Notes on the Seder


Before we start, I'd like to mention that I've been reading some really persuasive arguments about the correctness of the Jewish tradition and the divinity of the Torah, and that it's really causing me to consider jumping back on the derech.  Ok, now that we've gotten the obligatory April fools day joke out of the way, let's begin.

This week we'll look at some interesting things to think about during the seder.  Next week, we'll look at the origins of the Pesach holiday itself.

Leaning to the Right

One of the four questions is about leaning to the left.  The Haggadah doesn't actually give an answer, but you've probably heard some of the common ones.  Perhaps you heard that it's a sign of luxury to lean.  Or maybe you've heard something about it being easier to swallow if you lean to the left rather than leaning to the right.  This post I read a long time ago hits the mark on the relation between the Seder and the Greek Symposia

The luxurious people you are imitating are the Greeks and Hellenized Romans, the dominant culture at the time where these rituals were being formed.  Why do you lean to the left, because if you lean on the left, it means you are eating with your right hand.  If you leaned the other way, you would have to eat with the left hand, which was generally viewed as unfortuitous.  (Left = sinister).  The relation to the Greek symposia also explains the origin of the term Afikomen which is equivalent to the Greek Epikomon, a post symposia entertainment.

Lavan tried to Destroy us all

The following passage in the Haggadah always seemed strange to me:
Go forth and learn what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh had issued a decree against the male children only, but Laban wanted to uproot everyone - as it is said: "The Aramean wished to destroy my father; and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation - great and mighty and numerous."
The verse in question is Deut 26:5.  Here is the JPS translation:
And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
Note the difference between "The Aramean wished to destroy my father" and "A wandering Aramean was my father".  The first translation is similar to what Onkelos wrote.  However, the second translation, the one in JPS, is correct.  The Hebrew is אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי and both modern commentators and ancient ones note that the translation known from the Haggadah cannot fit with biblical Hebrew grammar.  The correct translation is found in Sforno among others.

When I was first looking at some modern commentaries, I saw lots of references to "My father was a wandering Aramean," and I had no memory of this verse.  This was because the Haggadah's interpretation that I grew up with, was the way I'd always read it.  With the proper translation, is it possible to consider that this represents a deep memory about the true origins of the Israelites?  Were some portion of them originally Arameans?


One of the main ideas about myth generation and propagation is that they tend to grow over time and with each retelling.  Unknowingly, the Haggadah gives an ironic example of this with regard to the plagues.  I'll paraphrase:
Rabbi Yossi: The Egyptians were struck with 10 plagues in Egypt and 50 by the re(e)d sea.  Since the finger is described with regard to the plagues in Egypt and the hand is described at the re(e)d sea.
Rabbi Eliezer: Each plague has four parts.  Thus, the Egyptians were struck by 40 plagues in Egypt and 200 by the sea.
Rabbi Akiva: Each plague has five parts.  Thus the Egyptians were struck by 50 plagues in Egypt and 250 by the sea.
Could it be possible that the actual Exodus story grew from a story about a small group of slaves making a risky escape from Egypt and reaching Canaan, to the amazing display of divine power and miracles, based on the same type of exaggerations?

God: Kindly kill all our Enemies

We will make a big display about spilling wine when mentioning the plagues as a token of respect to all the innocent Egyptian lives lost in the divine wrath.  One might get the impression that we Jews are a civilized people who would never wish misfortune on our enemies, and feel immense sadness at their suffering.  Later in the evening we also perform a heartwarming ritual where we'll open the door for Eliyahu (Elijah) beckoning him to join us in our Seder.  And then, while the door is open, we'll say the following awful prayer:
Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You, and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.  Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of Your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord. 
If it looks like hypocrisy and it smells like hypocrisy...

Idol Worship

One of the passages of Hallel includes the following verses (from Psalm 115):
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but they cannot hear; they have a nose, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they can utter no sound with their throats. Those who fashions them, whoever trusts them, shall become like them. Israel, trust in the Lord! God is your help and shield.
I've always found this humorous for two reasons.  The first is that the same sort of criticism that the author is leveling at the idols is the criticism that atheists level at God.  As far as I can tell, God is about as effective at smelling, speaking, walking, etc, as a chunk of wood.

The second part I find humorous is that this demonstrates a major misunderstanding of the purpose of idols.  It's essentially a strawman argument.  People don't actually worship the idols themselves.  They never did.  The idols are just a way to encourage focus for the actual deity that the person is worshiping.  Judaism does the exact same thing with symbology.  The only difference between Judaism and the other religions at the time, is that Judaism was (mostly) strictly aniconic (no images) with respect to worship of their God.  It's not that big of a difference in retrospect, and it makes the kind of argument presented by these verses really silly.

The Unbroken Chain

Judaism likes to make a strong claim of an unbroken chain of tradition between Moshe (Moses) and today.  If this chain actually existed, the observance of Pesach would be the one place where we would expect to see it.  Why?  Because the Torah specifically commands that fathers tell their sons all the laws.  We see this in the Haggadah with regard to the four sons where it quotes the following verses. In Exod 13:6-8
6 Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day shall be a feast to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten throughout the seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee, in all thy borders. 8 And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.
and a few verses later (Exod  13:14)
14 And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: What is this? that thou shalt say unto him: By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage;
It seems that Pesach would be a good test of the strength of this type of chain.  A lapse in the observances of Pesach would probably indicate that such oral chains are unreliable.  So what should we make out of this (2 Kings 23:21-23) ?:
21 And the king commanded all the people, saying: 'Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant.' 22 For there was not kept such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah; 23 but in the eighteenth year of king Josiah was this passover kept to the LORD in Jerusalem. 
The Tanach admits that there was a huge gap of time in which Pesach was not observed in the proper manner, and it was only after Yoshiyahu's (Josiah) priest "discovered" an ancient "Torah" with the laws written down, did people start celebrating it again.  Even in the one specific commandment where the Torah repeatedly tells you to teach it to your children, it was seemingly forgotten. 


  1. Last point: What is your take on the response of apologists?

    כַּפֶּסַח הַזֶּה

    There wasn't previously a Pesach LIKE this one since the times of the judges. when the masses came to Jerusalem to observe it. Observance had obviously lapsed, but the wording doesn't suggest that Pesach wasn't observed previously,

    1. I don't think I implied that it wasn't observed at all, just that it wasn't observed in a "proper manner." The point is that if you can't trust the "oral chain" for the observance of pesach, the one holiday where it is explicitly commanded several times in the Torah, to be a valid check on the introduction of new features, then how can you trust the oral chain for anything else? If all you needed was an authority figure, like a king or a king's court, to rewrite history to further their agenda, and that new version can become accepted by a population, then it's impossible to claim that anything actually goes back to Sinai.

      We know that other cultures often used history as a form of propaganda, retrojecting current desired policies into the deep past. The Israelites did the same.

  2. > If you leaned the other way, you would have to eat with the left hand, which was generally viewed as unfortuitous.

    And awkward for most people. You're right that the left was seen as bad, but think comfort is a better explanation than superstition.

    > The idols are just a way to encourage focus for the actual deity that the person is worshiping.

    Some peoples believed that the idol was a conduit to the god. Others believed that, once consecrated (in elaborate ceremonies), the idol was inhabited by a god/spirit. And others believed that the god would sometimes inhabit his images. You're right, though, that the whole thing is a strawman. It's one that comes up again and again. For example, the Rashi about Avraham smashing his father's idols, or the medrash about how the Egyptians were spiritually deficient because the Nile, rather than rain, was the source of their water, so they had no need to pray - even though the time of the rising of the Nile was an annual religious holiday. Or the idea that idolatry is so obviously ridiculous, the only reason anyone worshipeed avodah zara was because of a special powerful (anthropomorphic?) yetzer hara for it which was killed, and that's why it's obvious to us but not to those in the past.

    1. >And awkward for most people.

      If you're right handed. If comfort was the sole driving force, neither direction would be preferred. It's possible you're right, I wouldn't hang too much on this argument.

      >Others believed that, once consecrated (in elaborate ceremonies), the idol was inhabited by a god/spirit.

      I admit I was a bit glib. It's interesting though to compare this idea to the one in Judaism where God's shechinah takes up residence inside the mishkan/temple, sitting on its ark-throne, after the consecration ceremonies. It's pretty much the exact same idea.

      I also love the Avraham and the idols midrash. It's just so easy to flip the argument and apply the same logic that Avraham uses to God, or the defenses that religious people use (like, God works in mysterious/hidden ways) to a defense of the idols.

  3. I actually texted an orthoprax friend of mine this morning that I'm going back on the derech and doing teshuva. Glad I was 'mechavein' to the Rebbi's April fools prank.

    Another excellent and clearly written post! I'm impressed that our yeshiva education (notwithstanding) has somehow produced some pretty talented writers.

    I've never seen anyone point to the exaggerations of the makkos as a possible glimpse into how the exodus story, and probably every other biblical story came to where it is today. In 3200 years, a daring escape of 15-20 Egyptian slaves could easily evolve into 'yetzias mitzrayim'. A great example would be how Brian Williams helicopter story evolved in just 2 years. (I am a semi-expert in the field of memory and deceit, and am convinced Brian williams wasn't lying. Memories evolve and grow with time).

    Keep Kem coming Kefira!

  4. @Kefirah - the slow dance to the Kuzari ? Like the Boxer softening up the opponent with jabs and body blows before the knock out. Anyway, another great post.

    The Gemorah (or was it the Midrash ?) has an interesting lesson along these lines. When the Egyptians are drowning, the angels are rejoicing. God rebukes them saying how dare you all rejoice while my children drown.
    How touching. But was there a political agenda behind midrashim like this ? The Egyptians could be an ally or an enemy so the masses had to be 'influenced' to suit the politics of the time. No doubt, an important part of the evolution of Judaism was a reflection and reaction to the vicissitudes of historical events.

    FYI I wrote up a post on Origins of Passover.

    1. Cocker, can you please link your article? Ice and fire, niggunim are for chassidish Rebbes, Kefira is a kalte litfak!

    2. Link to my passover post -

      FYI - My family and extended family for the most part range from Modern Orthodox to Strict Orthodox (now called 'Blacks'), a term that did not exist when I was growing up. Virtually all Litvak, Misnaggid. For the most part we did not look very kindly towards 'Chassidum'.

    3. Wow Cocker, good thing I have 8 days of constipation on pesach to read that post. Looks very thorough. Looking forward!

  5. wheeloficeandfireApril 2, 2015 at 6:56 AM

    Great post, Rebbe! Any chance we could sing a Kofer Niggun?

  6. As always, interesting and full of juicy kefirah!
    Keep 'em coming.