The two week-long festivals – Pesach and Sukkot – share many common features, such as mikra kodesh (holy convocation), the prohibition on work, special sacrifices, and an important home-centered religious activity (Lel haSeder and the Sukkah), but there are also differences between them. The Torah wants Sukkot to be a happy holiday, v’samachta b’hagecha (“and you shall rejoice in your festival,” Deut 16:14) and that verse enjoins us to include the slave, the stranger, the widow and the orphan in the celebration.
This inclusive approach was followed for other holidays as well. According to the book of Nehemiah, Ezra the scribe told the people “to send food to those who have nothing prepared” so they too could celebrate Rosh Hashanah. And, of course, in Megillat Esther Mordechai legislates the duty of matanot evyonim, gifts for the poor on Purim, in addition to the festive meal (seudah) and presents one exchanges with friends and relatives (mishloach manot), to assure that society’s unfortunate and marginal can celebrate as well. Maimonides goes a step further and says that gifts for the poor are more important than mishloach manot and seudah, so if one has extra money to spend on the Purim mitsvot, it should go to matanot l’evyonim.
The tone in the Torah for Pesach is different. Each Israelite was bidden to take a lamb for a family, a lamb for a household. A family slave who converts may take part in the meal from the korban Pesach, and small families may double up if the paschal lamb is too big, but the Torah says nothing about non-family members or the needy and unfortunate. It does specify who is to be excluded (Ex. 12:43-45). The emphasis on finishing the meal that night and not leaving any by morning means that one needs to plan carefully how much to prepare. Unexpected guests could upset the calculus. Pesach in the Torah lacks the express community inclusiveness we find in Sukkot.
The tone changes in the rabbinic period. The first mishna in Chapter 10 of Psachim, the perek dealing with Lel haSeder, introduces the concept of the four cups of wine by saying that the poorest of Jews should have four cups, even if it comes “from the soup kitchen [hatamchu’i].” The communal social welfare institution is thus commanded to worry that the Seder needs of the poor are provided for. The Shulchan Aruch on the point is fascinating. In the very first clause about Pesach (O”H 429:1), where R’ Yosef Karo says that one begins studying the laws of Pesach 30 days ahead, the Ramah (R’ Moshe Issereles) writes: “and it’s customary to buy wheat for the poor for Pesach.” The Ramah clearly considered providing for the Pesach needs of the poor a matter of high priority and too important to leave for the last minute.
This makes the line at the beginning of the Maggid (Telling the Story) section of the Haggadah very interesting:
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are needy come celebrate the Passover.
This declaration of invitation, recited fairly soon after people have sat down at the Seder table, is part of the Halachma anya paragraph, added in the Geonic period (8th – 9th Century). It is Aramaic, a language still used at the time. While many Jews today live far from the city center where the poor are most often found, it evidently reflects a time in Babylonia when the poor were nearby and quite possibly expected to be invited in. The inclusion in the Haggadah could originally have been a reminder to people to look to see if, even at this late hour, there were poor or homeless still in need of a place for Seder. And, in the spirit of the Ramah’s comment, it is a reminder to us, well before the holiday begins, to also be concerned for those Jews in the community who might not be able to provide for their Pesach needs. As Maimonides wrote: There is no greater happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the converts.” And there is no more fitting time to do so than Pesach.