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Friday, April 7, 2017

Tasty Tidbits for Your Seder — BT Pesach 115b — #77

#1—Rav Pappa said, “One should not leave the maror in the charoset [for too long] lest the sweet spices annul the bitterness [of the maror], for we require [the bitter] taste of the maror which would not happen.”…
#2—Rava said, “One who swallowed matzah has fulfilled the obligation [to eat matzah]. One who swallowed maror has not fulfilled the obligation [to eat maror]. One who swallowed matzah and maror [together] has filled the obligation to eat matzah, but has not fulfilled the obligation to eat maror. One who wrapped them in bast and swallowed them has not fulfilled even the obligation to eat matzah.
#3—Rav Shimi bar Ashi said, “[Place] matzah before every person [at the seder] and charoset before every one. But remove the table from before only the one who recounts the Telling.” Rav Huna says, “All of them are placed before the one who Tells the Story, as well.” The law accords with Rav Huna. Why do we remove the table? The students of R. Yannai’s academy say: In order that children will notice and ask.

Toward the end of tractate Pesachim, the Rabbis finally get down to discussion the nuts and bolts of celebrating Pesach, centered on “Telling the Story” (the original meaning of “haggadah,” before it came to connote a book that guides us through the seder rituals). Torah provides only the bare bones of how to commemorate the Exodus: clear chametz out of the house for seven days, do not work the first and seventh days of the festival, eat matzah and maror, and tell your children the story of Israel’s redemption from Egypt. The Rabbis put substantial flesh on these bones. But it didn’t stop there: Every generation since has nourished the enterprise with the happy result that today Pesach is a wildly popular festival boasting a proliferation of haggadot, customs, and creative activities to teach traditions seder rituals, encourage new ones, and help people to internalize the story as their own. Above are three gems. Below are commentaries on each, followed by questions to bring to your seder table.

#1—The seder is a feast for the senses: sight, sound, scent, touch, and taste. The Rabbis tell us that tasting the bitter maror and the sweet charoset—the bitterness of servitude and the sweetness of redemption—are essential parts of the experience. There are two dippings at the seder: karpas into salt water, and maror into charoset. In the first dipping, the tears of the slaves “flavor” the sweet promise of springtime, symbolized by the green karpas; but in the second dipping, the sweet charoset of redemption can overtake the bitter maror of slavery. The Rabbis say we may not allow the charoset to entirely overpower the maror—we must still experience its bitterness. 

#2—Those who, as children, popped their peas like pills to avoid tasting them, will immediately recognize Rava’s concern. Exodus 12:18 mandates that we eat matzah, but “eating,” strictly speaking, does not require chewing, and hence does not necessarily involve tasting. It is permissible to swallow the matzah without tasting it. But the purpose of maror is to taste it—swallowing without chewing to avoid its bitterness defeats the purpose and thus fails to fulfill the obligation. Therefore, if you swallow matzah and maror together—without chewing—you have filled to obligation of matzah but not maror. Bast is tasteless fibrous plant matter (sometimes used to make matting). One who wraps the matzah and maror in bast and swallows the package has not have fulfilled either obligation.

#3—This passage paints a picture of how Pesach was celebrated during the Talmudic period: Each participant had ritual “supplies” on the table before them, but only one person conducted the seder, instructing everyone and recounting, in their own way, the story of the Exodus. It may well have been that people sat on the floor around a low table or with small trays in front of them. We might have thought that the reason the table is removed from the leader, per Rav Shimi, is so everyone can see the leader, but the students of R. Yannai explain that this is yet another device to capture the attention of children and provoke them to ask questions.


  1. We are no longer slaves in Egypt. Why, then, do we need to continue to remind ourselves of our ancestors’ misery? Does it affect our character, values, and priorities to continue to taste the maror, and all it represents, each year? We love to taste the sweetness of life, but prefer not to taste its bitterness. Is avoiding the pain and bitterness of reality a wise way to live our lives? What do we lose? Consider the pain of people we don’t know who suffer injustice, the torment that comes when we lose someone, the agony of those close to us when they are struck by illness or loss.
  2. Do you ever attempt to sidestep an obligation by doing the minimum, or by doing something that appears to fulfill the obligation? The Rabbis seem far less concerned with our tasting matzah than with our tasting the bitter maror. Pop the matzah, but chew the maror. Which part of the experience of matzah do you think is most important—and why? Here are three possibilities—by all means, suggest others! a) Eat what our ancestors ate on their way out of Egypt. b) Experience the tastelessness of lechem oni (“poor bread”). c) Eat matzah in order to be acutely aware that we may not eat luxurious, yeasty bread. Keep in mind that while one is obligated to eat matzah (at least equivalent in bulk to an olive) at each seder, there is no obligation to eat matzah during the remaining days of Pesach.
  3. A goal of the seder is to do things differently to inspire questions and discussion. What will you do differently this year to accomplish that goal?
  4. If you were to create a seder for another Jewish holiday, what would it look like? Why?

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