April 22-23, 2016 – 15 Nisan 5776
Torah (Exodus 12:21-51): Etz Hayim p. 385; Hertz p. 257
Haftarah (Joshua 3:5-7, 5:2-6:1, 6:27): Etz Hayim p. 1299; Hertz p. 1009
From Function to Symbol: Four Foods Whose Meaning Took Shape at the Seder
Dr. Joshua Kulp, Rosh Yeshiva, is a co-founder of the Conservative Yeshiva, a co-author of the Schechter Haggaddah: Art, History and Commentary, and the creator of the CY’s Daf Shevui program.
“This matzah that we eat—what is its meaning?” Thus begins Rabban Gamaliel’s famous requirement that at the Seder not only are we commanded to eat the pesah (sacrifice), matzah and marror, but we are also commanded to talk about the symbolic significance of each of them. Food at the Seder is not just good for eating, but is good for talking. As the cliché goes, “it’s food for thought.” The Torah already provides symbolic meaning for these three foods. But today we look at virtually all of the “mandated foods”—those foods that are part of the ritual—as having symbolic meaning. What many people do not realize is that these foods began just as foods, meant to fulfill a culinary function. Once they became part of the Seder ritual, Jews began to look at them as meaningful reminders of the central message of Pesah—we were slaves in Egypt and now we are free. Thus they went from food, to ritual to symbol. Let’s look briefly at four such examples.
The first is wine. Today, if you ask most Jews, they will tell you we drink four cups of wine to recall the four verbs with which God took us out of Egypt (Ex. 6:6-8). But originally wine had a simple function—to gladden people’s hearts. Already in early in their development, the four cups were used to punctuate the meal and to provide weight for four aspects of the ritual. Finally, they were connected to the four verbs. Thus food (in this case drink) began as sustenance, was transformed to ritual and finally became symbolic.
What we call “karpas” is a descendent of the lettuce that Greeks and Romans ate as part of the appetizer course. Lettuce was used as a spoon of sorts to scoop up dishes and sauces placed in front of banqueters. Eventually, this function was lost, lettuce was transformed into any vegetable except for lettuce, and the notion developed that we eat the vegetable as a symbol of spring. The symbolic meaning of karpas did not appear until the late medieval period.
Ask any child and they will tell you that the salt-water in which we dip the karpas is symbolic of the tears the Israelites shed in Egypt. But this salt-water is in actuality a descendant of the sauces into which lettuce was dipped during the appetizer course. Although I have not researched this issue extensively, the symbolic meaning of the salt-water does not seem to appear in Jewish sources until 1930!
The shank bone which we place on the Seder plate is a descendant of the cooked dish mentioned in the Talmud, food that was simply intended to fill one’s stomach at the Seder. Already the Talmud says that the meat in this dish is symbolic of the sacrifice. The word-play which associates this “z’roa” with God’s outstretched arm does not appear until the post-Talmudic period.
There are more examples of this phenomenon—from food, to ritual, to symbol. When you sit down at your Seder this year, I challenge you to join this Jewish process that has been going on for three thousand years. Transform the food you are eating into a reminder of one of the most central stories in the history of the world.
A Vort for Shabbat Hag HaPesach
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty
Exodus 12 stresses that the Pesach meal was carefully limited to one’s household (also Mishnah Zevachim 5:8), but the Haggadah opens on a different note:
כל דכפין ייתי וייכול, כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח
Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat;
Whoever is in need, let her come and celebrate the Pesach festival.
The commentators did not see the repetition as merely literary style. The first phrase urges us to worry about those who actually lack food. The second, R’ Shmuel Avidor HaKohen (Israel, 20th) said, refers to those who, despite having food, lack a social setting and the ability to experience simchat hag, holiday joy. To them we should extend a kind word, a sense of belonging and the opportunity to take part in a shared experience.
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
Pesach is the holiday most associated with sitting around the table, learning, discussing and sharing our ideas (and enjoying good food!) Here are a few questions to think about:
1) Why do you think that it is important to remember our Exodus from Egypt?
2) We are commanded to tell the story of our Exodus from Egypt, especially to our children. Why do you think that the Torah put the emphasis on telling it to our children? (Children and adults might have different ideas.)
3) The Haggadah gives us one versi
on of the story of our Exodus from Egypt. Which central figure in the familiar story is missing from the Haggadah version? Why do you think the Haggadah version omits him? Whose role is emphasized?
4) Matzah is a central component of the Seder (and of Pesach). What does it symbolize? (There may be several answers to this.)
5) There is a custom to drip a drop of wine from our full wine glasses as we read each of the 10 plagues that God brought on the Egyptians. Why do you think we do this? What is it telling us in the middle of all the festivities?