Seder thoughts 2012

Seder thoughts 2012

Multiple choice symbolism

“Why do we eat matzah on Passover?” asks Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, professor at Brandeis University, author of several books on Jewish liturgy, and scholar-in-residence at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

I sense that this is a trick question, and decline to answer.

He presses me.

“Why do we eat matzah?” he repeats.

I reluctantly answer.

“Because the bread did not have time to rise when our ancestors fled Egypt,” I say.

I was right. It was a trick question.

“That explanation,” responds Kimelman, “which almost everybody gives” – so, at least, my answer wasn’t unreasonable, even if it seems as if it’s going to prove to be less than correct – “appears in the middle of the haggadah.”

Rabbi Reuven Kimelman

Then, he adds, “But that’s not the reason given in the beginning of the haggadah.”

It turns out that my SAT-style nervousness about answering a pop quiz – my fear of guessing wrong, or of a trick question – reflects a quintessential misunderstanding about the meaning of meaning when it comes to the seder’s symbolism.

“People think it’s like a philosophical essay and things have one meaning,” says Kimelman. Instead, matzah has multiple meanings.

At the beginning of the seder, he notes, we point to the matzah and call it “lachma anya” – Aramaic for bread of affliction, poverty, or slavery.

The Torah uses the Hebrew version, “lechem oni” (see Deuteronomy 16:3.) In any language, it’s a negative symbol.

By the middle of the seder, Kimelman points, out, the explanation I gave, of matzah as the original fast food, comes to the fore. At this point, “it symbolizes the event of freedom.” What was a symbol of degradation “has undergone a major transformation.”

The symbol itself symbolizes the move of the seder from slavery to freedom.

And the story doesn’t end there, says Kimelman.

“Matzah comes up a third time when it’s eaten as the afikomen” – standing in for the Passover sacrifice that was supposed to be the lingering taste in the mouth.

“That’s quite a sacrifice for a little piece of dough,” says Kimelman.

The four cups of wine have also evolved in meaning.

“Most people will say the four cups of wine will reflect the four expressions the Torah uses to describe going out of Egypt. But initially, they just symbolized the four parts of the service,” says Kimelman.

There are the usual two cups – a cup for kiddush, beginning the meal, and a cup drunk with the grace after meals. “The seder adds two things: The recitation of the haggadah, and the recitation of the Hallel.”

That’s four cups of wine right there.

But while that may be the origin of the four cups, that was only the beginning of assigning meaning to them.

Early on, says Kimelman, it was noticed that “ancient banquets used to require three cups of wine. By adding a fourth, the seder was really luxuriating in freedom.”

And while the explanation that the four cups correspond to the expressions of freedom is found in the Talmud, the Talmud has three other explanations for the number four. Those explanations haven’t proved as popular.


“This explanation has to do with freedom. The theme of freedom remains relevant,” says Kimelman.

A more recent interpretation concerns the drops removed from the wine cup when the 10 plagues are recited. “We want to sympathize with the Egyptians who suffered,” says Kimelman. “People will say it’s a classic explanation, when it first appeared in a commentary [only] in the 1500s. Because it fits into contemporary sensibilities, it’s what is recalled.

“It’s interesting to understand the seder as a process of transformation of meanings rather than a transmission of old meanings. The haggadah is always being reinterpreted. Every century has contributed its own element to the seder.”

Kimelman will be exploring these meanings in the hagaddah and the meaning of Passover itself at a public seminar at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on Wednesday, April 4, at 8:15 p.m.