This article is the second in a series. For the first article, regarding Hanukkah customs, see Conservative Judaism 53/2 (Winter 2001), pp. 41-50, which was reprinted in Insight Israel , Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2003).This article is the second in a series. For the first article, regarding Hanukkah customs, see Conservative Judaism 53/2 (Winter 2001), pp. 41-50, which was reprinted in Insight Israel , Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2003).
The holiday of Pesah has been blessed with hundreds of laws. Indeed, almost one-sixth of Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim is devoted to the laws of Pesah. It has also been blessed with many well-known customs which have been discussed and debated by various scholars.
Using the Lulav to Burn the Hametz or to Bake MatzahIn two places in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 39b and Shabbat 117b), we are told that when Rav Ami and Rav Assi happened to come upon a loaf of bread which had been used for an Eruv they would recite hamotzi over the loaf. They said: “Since one mitzvah was done with this loaf, let us do another”. These passages became the basis for reusing items which had been used to fulfill one mitzvah in order to perform another mitzvah. R. Yehudah ben Kalonymus (Ashkenaz, twelfth century) used to save the aravot (willows) from the lulav in order to burn the hametz, basing himself on the above passage, and this custom was recorded in all of the classic custom books of Ashkenaz. In modern times, Iraqi Jews used the aravot from Hoshana Rabbah. In Yemen, on the other hand, it was the custom to use the lulav, hadassim and aravot as fuel for the oven when baking matzah shemurah. Finally, the Jews of Syria, Morocco and Baghdad used the lulav both for burning the hametz and for baking matzah. Wearing White at the SederThis custom is common among hassidim, who wear a kittel, as well as among the Jews of Morocco. Many interesting and convoluted explanations have been given for this and similar customs throughout Jewish history. But the simple explanation seems to be that white is a symbol of joy on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah, Pesah and other pilgrim festivals and at weddings. “Silver and Gold Vessels”The Jews of Nadishurani and Rakoshpaluta in Hungary used to decorate the seder table with all of their gold and silver jewels. They explained that this was to remember all the gold and silver which the Israelites received from the Egyptians. Open Doors or Closed Doors? We have learned in the tractate of Ta’anit (20b): “Rav Huna (Babylon, third century) – whenever he ate bread would open his door and say: “kol man dizrikh latay v’laykhol” (whoever needs, let him come and eat)”. This custom, which Rav Huna observed all year long, is echoed in Hah Lahma: “kol dikhfin yaytay v’yaykhol, kol dizrikh yaytay v’yifsah” (whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is needy, let him come and make Pesah).Rav Matityahu Gaon (Babylon, ninth century) says that the custom of our forefathers was to leave the doors open during the seder so that poor Jews would join them, but already in his day this was no longer the custom since they would give food to the poor before Pesah so that they would not have to beg. In Yemen, many Jews left their doors open during the seder, but for a different reason. They said that the redemption would come on Pesah eve, so they left their doors open in order to allow a swift exit to greet the Messiah! On the other hand, the Jews of Libya and Djerba had the opposite custom. On the first two days of Pesah and on both days of Rosh Hashanah “a stranger could not set foot in their borders nor benefit from their possessions”. In 1938, Nachum Slouschz explained that this was a remnant left over from the Almohad persecutions in the twelfth century when the Jews observed Pesah and Rosh Hashanah in secret and were afraid lest informers enter the house and spy on them. Goldberg, on the other hand, said that the custom is based on the fact that the paschal lamb may only be eaten by those who joined a specific paschal group (Pesahim 61a), while Frija Zuartz said the purpose was to prevent non-Jewish neighbors from inundating their Jewish friends for unlimited free food!. Whatever the reason, this custom led the Jews of Meslatah in Libya to translate the verse “kol dikhfin” into Arabic as ”whoever is hungry, let him come and taste nothing”! “The Wandering Jew”There is a widespread custom among Sefardic and Oriental Jews, according to which, various members of the family at various points in the Seder dress up as if they had just left Egypt. Other family members ask formal questions and “the wandering Jew” explains that he has left Egypt and is on his way to Jerusalem. These ceremonies differ in various details; what follows is a representative selection: a) Benjamin II (Yisrael ben Yosef Benjamin) described such a ceremony “in Asia” ca. 1853. They dress up a young man in “kley golah” (Ezekiel 12:3 – “gear for exile”) and before the recitation of the Haggadah, he appears before the participants with his staff in hand and his satchel on his shoulder. The father asks him:
From where do you come, O pilgrim?From the land of Egypt, says the lad.Did you go out to freedom from the bondage of Egypt?Yes indeed, replies the lad, and now I am a free man.Where are you going?I am going to Jerusalem, he replies.With great joy the participants begin to tell the story of the Exodus… b) R. Ya’akov Sapir described the custom in San’a, Yemen in 1858:
The seder is observed as is the custom among all Jews. One of the members of the family takes a matzah and ties it in a scarf on his shoulder and walks around the house. The others ask him: “Why are you doing this?” And he replies: “So did our ancestors when they left Egypt in haste”. c) The Jews of Morroco had the following custom:
After reading the Haggadah, all of the men put a stick with a bundle on their shoulders and they leave the house in haste, running and shouting: “So did our ancestors leave Egypt, ‘their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders’ ” (Exodus 12:34). d) Nahum Slouschz describes a similar custom in Libya before the seder and concludes: “This custom is widespread in almost all oriental lands, and in every country there is a different nusah”. Indeed, this custom was observed in the Caucasus, Iraq, Kurdistan, Djerba, Syria, and among the Sefardic Jews of Seattle. However, surprisingly enough, this custom is first mentioned in Germany 650 years before Benjamin II described it in Asia, and it is documented in Poland in the sixteenth century and in Germany and Hungary in the twentieth!
a) Rabbi Asher of Lunel states in his Sefer Minhagot, written ca. 1210 in Provence: I heard that in Allemagne (Germany), after eating karpass, they uproot the table and take the matzot and wrap them in coverings and bear them on their shoulders and walk to the corners of the house, and then they return to their places and recite the Haggadah. b) R. Shlomo Luria (Lublin, 1510-1573) devoted one of his responsa (no. 88) to the laws of the seder: After the meal, he [= the person leading the seder] takes out the hidden treasure, i.e. the afikoman as is, wrapped in a cover, and he drapes it behind him and he walks approximately four cubits in the house and says: “So did our ancestors go with ‘their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks’ ”(Exodus 12:34).
This responsum is quoted in the standard commentaries to the Shulhan Arukh and this custom may even be illustrated in the Prague Haggadah of 1526, which pictures a man with a walking staff and satchel on his shoulder next to Exodus 12:34 quoted above. c) In 1951, Prof. Alexander Scheiber documented similar customs among his students at the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest, who came from the Hungarian towns of Szatmar, Zemplen, Vatz, Tisfolgar and Puntok. In the latter town, when they reached Yahatz, the father would wrap the afikoman in a scarf, put it on his shoulder, stand up, and say to his family in Yiddish: “geimir, geimir!” (Let us go! Let us go!). d) This custom has survived among German Jews until today. When I lectured on this topic in Jerusalem before Pesah in 1991, a woman told me that in Karlsruhe, in southern Germany, her father would put the matzah wrapped in the sedertuch (white matzah cover) on his shoulder and say: “So sind die Kinder Jisroel aus Mizraim gegangen, so war es” (Thus did the Children of Israel leave Egypt, so it was).
The above is just a small sample of Pesah potpourri. We hope that these customs will enrich the sedarim of those who decide to adopt them, as they have enriched the sedarim of millions of Jews throughout the generations.Passing the MatzahWhen Persian Jews reach the ha lahma paragraph the mula takes the three matzot shemurot wrapped in a white cloth in his fingers, chants ha lahma… kadesh u’r’hatz… The three matzot go down the line from hand to hand. Young and old, men and women – each person is required to recite ha lahma and kadesh u’r’hatz until each participant has done so. What is the source of this custom? Rabbi Elazar says in the Tosefta: “One grabs the matzah for the children so that they should not sleep”. The rishonim gave five different explanations for this passage. Maimonides’ explanation was codified in his code (Hametz Umatzah 7:3): ”… so that the children will ask questions. And one grabs the matzah from one hand to another and the like”. This interpretation was subsequently supported by Rabbeinu Manoah (ca. 1264) and quoted by the Meiri (ca. 1300). So it seems that the Persian custom reflects a literal understanding of Maimonides’ interpretation of Rabbi Elazar.A Seder Plate on the HeadIn 1985, Shemuel ben Hallal, an Israeli who stems from Morocco via Venezuela, told me that in his family they recite the sentence “bivhilu yatzanu mimitzrayim” – “In haste we left Egypt” three times before ha lahma. Then the person leading the seder walks around the table three times tapping the seder plate on the head of each participant, each time tapping harder. The children like to jump up in order to hit the seder plate with their heads.As it turns out, this custom did not begin in Morocco in the twentieth century, but rather in Spain in the fourteenth century. The first evidence for this custom is in an illustration found in the Barcelona Haggadah (ca. 1350) in which a father is shown balancing the seder plate or basket of matzot on the head of one of his children. The Guadalajara Haggadah, which was printed in Spain ca. 1480, is the first known printed Haggadah. The instructions before ha lahma read: “v’nosin hake’arah al rashey hatinikot” – “and one lifts/carries the seder plate on/over the heads of the children”. The Hida, R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulay, visited Tunis in 1774. Rahamim, the servant of his host, took the seder plate and passed it three times over the head of each male participant. When he started to do the same to the women, the Hida told him not to, using a play on words based on Judges 5:30. Benjamin II mentioned above, described this custom among North African Jews, especially in Tunis, ca. 1853 and related that if a person did not have the seder plate passed over his head, “he believed that he would be unlucky for the rest of his life”. R. Alexander Levinson, an Ashkenazic Jew, visited the Jews of Omzav in the Sahara desert. When the eldest person touched his head with the seder plate, Levinson did not know what was happening. He jumped up and flipped the entire plate. When he saw that everyone was angry at him, he told them he had done so in order to remember the parting of the Reed Sea! R. Ya’akov Moshe Toledano describes the Moroccan custom in his Ner Hama’arav published in 1911, while Ida Cowen describes the same custom among the Jews of Izmir, Turkey in 1971. Indeed, it is common until today among the Jews of Libya, Morocco, Tunis and Djerba. What is the reason for this interesting custom?R. Shemtob Gaguine asked some Moroccan rabbis in 1932. They replied that they believe that if they circle the seder plate around the heads of the participants, it can protect them from all harm and a long list of blessings will come upon them. R. Gaguine himself wrote that in his opinion the custom was meant to encourage the children to ask questions. Tuvia Preschel explains that R. Gaguine guessed correctly – in an indirect fashion.The Talmud says (Pesahim 115b): “Why do we uproot the table? The house of R. Yannai said: so that children should notice and ask questions”. R. Moshe Pisanti supplies the missing link between the talmudic custom and the Spanish-North African custom in his Hukkat Hapesah, a Haggadah commentary published in Salonika in 1569. He says that he found a source which says that we must “lift the seder plate for the recitation of Mah Nishtanah… Furthermore, when they lift the seder plate, they pass it over the heads of the participants in order that they should wonder about it and ask questions…” In other words, “uprooting the table” in the Talmud so that the children should notice and ask questions became “lifting the seder plate”. In the course of lifting the plate and putting it on the side, it passed over the heads of the participants. One thing led to another and by the fourteenth century, the father was placing the seder plate on the heads of the children so that they should ask questions.Haroset with an Earthy FlavorR. Zidkiyahu ben Avraham writes in his Shiboley Haleket (Italy, ca. 1250): “Some put a little clay or grated brick [in the haroset] in memory of the clay”. The Bet David by R. Yosef Philosof (Salonika, 1740) reports that “in Salonika the elders testified that they used to put chopped calermini stone in the haroset”. The Hida, who quotes all of the above, concludes: “But it seems that this custom is not practiced in most towns”. During the American Civil War (1860-1865), a group of Jewish Union soldiers made a seder for themselves in the wilderness of West Virginia. They had none of the ingredients for traditional haroset available, so they put a real brick in its place on the seder plate! Finally, Shemuel ben Hallal informs me that his Moroccan uncle, who is a rabbi in Brooklyn, is accustomed to grating rocks into the haroset. Indeed, he adds so much rock that the haroset tastes terrible!
I do not believe that these customs are based on a scribal error in Rashi or Rashbam. Rather, this is an attempt to illustrate the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt in a very “concrete” fashion!
Parched Grain and NutsIn the talmudic period, parched grain and nuts were the equivalent of candy and chocolate today. Thus the Mishnah in Bava Metziah (4:12), which lists unfair business practices, says that “a storekeeper should not distribute parched grain and nuts to children because he accustoms them to come to his store”.This is the background for Rabbi Yehudah who says in a beraita (Pesahim 109a) that one distributes parched grain and nuts to children on Erev Pesah so that they should ask questions and not fall asleep.The Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesahim 10:1, fol. 37b) adds that Rabbi Tarfon used to do so. This halakhah was codified by Maimonides (Hametz Umatzah 7:3 and Yom Tov 6:17-18). The Soncino Haggadah published in 1486 says that the seder plate must include parched grain and nuts “for the children so that they should ask questions and not fall asleep”. A modern equivalent would be to distribute candy or chocolate to the children so that they should not fall asleep.Hibuv Mitzvah (Affection for Mitzvot)The concept of hibuv mitzvah, which is found in a number of Talmudic passages and medieval halakhic works, is the source for two Pesah customs. R. Isaiah Horowitz, the Shelah, (Frankfurt am Main, Prague, Israel 1565-1630) says that it is customary to kiss the matzot and maror at the seder because of hibuv mitzvah. His contemporary R. Yosef Yuzpah Hahn (Frankfurt am Main, 1570-1637) says that “when eating [the afikoman] he should put his hand under his chin, so that if crumbs fall from his mouth, they will fall into his hand and he will eat them because of hibbat hamitzvah”. The Power of the AfikomanThe afikoman was believed to have protective powers. In seventeenth century Poland they would “break a piece off of the afikoman, pierce it and hang it on the wall”. Indeed, Hebrew author David Frischmann (1859-1922) published a story “Akhan Asher B’varsha” which describes a Jewish boy in Warsaw who was so hungry that he ate the afikoman hanging on the wall! In Lybia and Tunisia, the afikoman was carried by sea travelers as an antidote for a raging sea. In Persia, it was kept in the pocket as a charm for plenty and blessing. It was also used as a charm for pregnant women to ensure male children, to cure someone who is mute, to ensure silos full of grain, to protect against bullets, and to prevent a river from overflowing its banks. “Shefokh Hamatkha” – “Pour Out Thy Wrath”Quite a few scholars have already detailed the history of these verses, which are recited after Birkat Hamazon and before Hallel. We shall describe here three customs related to these verses, which they do not mention:a) The apostate Antonius Margaritha (born ca. 1490) relates in his book Der Gantz Judisch Glaub published in Augsberg in 1530 that when Jews open the door for shefokh, someone in costume enters the room quickly, as if he is Elijah himself coming to announce the coming of the Messiah. R. Yosef Yuzpah Hahn (1570-1637) mentioned above says “how good is the custom that they do something in memory of the Messiah. One falls into the entranceway at the beginning of shefokh to show during the night of our first redemption our strong belief in our final redemption”. Apparently, someone would pretend to be Elijah coming through the door, and Rabbi Hahn thought that this was a wonderful custom. But R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach (1638-1701) was opposed to this custom: “But what the servants and maids are accustomed to make the figure of a man and the like, something frightening when the door is opened – this is only licentiousness and derision”. This custom clearly fits in with the Cup of Elijah and other Elijah customs at the seder. It may have been another tactic to keep the children awake. On the other hand, this may be a misunderstanding of the “wandering Jew” skit which took place, as we have seen, at many different points in the seder.
b) In the Haggadah Shel Pesah with the commentary of the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) first published in Warsaw in 1905, we find another custom related to Elijah. In the instructions, the author says that after drinking the third cup of wine, we fill the fourth cup, and we fill another cup in honor of Elijah the Prophet.
Afterwards, it is customary to open the door in honor of Elijah the Prophet, and it is fitting to say this while the door is open: “May the All-merciful send us speedily Elijah the Prophet of blessed memory, and may he tell us good tidings, and salvation. As it is written (Malakhi 3:23-24): “Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet, before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” And it is written (ibid., v. 1): “Behold, I am sending My messenger to clear the way before Me, and the Lord whom you seek shall come to His Temple suddenly. As for the angel of covenant that you desire, he is already coming.” This is indeed a beautiful custom, but we now know that this haggadah, first published by Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg (1859-1935), was also written by R. Yudl Rosenberg! This prolific author, who happens to have been Mordecai Richler’s grandfather, was also the author of Nifl’ot Maharal, first published in 1909. That work is the main source for the idea that the Maharal created a Golem. Both works are based on manuscripts supposedly found in the “Royal Library of Metz”. The only problem is, that such a library never existed! These works and others were the products of R. Yudl’s fertile imagination. c) Some modern Haggadot include an alternative version of Shefokh Hamatkha instead of, or in addition to, the traditional verses. Rabbi Leopold Stein (1810-1882) was a German Reform rabbi who published numerous Reform prayers and prayerbooks over the course of forty years. In his Seder Ha’avodah, published in Mannheim in 1882, he printed the following instead of Shefokh Hamatkha:
Shefokh ruhakha al kol bassarV’yavo’u kol ha’amim l’ovdekhaShekhem ehad v’safah ahatV’hayta lashem hamelukhah.
Pour out Your spirit on all fleshMay all nations come to serve YouTogether in one languageBecause the Lord is the Sovereign of Nations. In Hatza’ah L’seder, a new Israeli Haggadah published by the staff of the Midrasha at Oranim Teachers’ College in 2000, the following addition appears after the three traditional Shefokh verses:
A piyyut which exhibits a different attitude to non-Jews:Shefokh ahavatekha al hagoyim asher yeda’ukhaV’al mamlakhot asher b’shimkha kor’imBiglal hassadim shehem ossim im zera ya’akovU’meginim al amekha Yisrael mipi okhleihemYizku lirot b’tovat b’hirekhaV’lismoah b’simhat hagekha.(found in a Haggadah manuscript from the early sixteenth century). This prayer was first published by the bibliographer Naftali Ben-Menahem in 1963. It was supposedly discovered by Rabbi Hayyim Bloch (1881-ca. 1970) in a beautiful manuscript on parchment from the estate of Rabbi Shimshon Wertheimer (1658-1724). The Haggadah was supposed to have been edited in Worms in 1521 by “Yehudah b”r Yekutiel, the grandson of Rashi”, but the manuscript was lost during the Holocaust. However, a number of scholars have pointed our that this prayer was probably invented by Hayyim Bloch himself, who was born in Galicia and later moved to Vienna (ca. 1917) and New York (1939). He was one of the rabbis who published the Kherson letters attributed to the Besht and his disciples, which later turned out to be forgeries. He also published a letter from the Maharal of Prague, whose authenticity was already disproved by Gershom Scholem. Finally, from 1959-1965 he published three volumes containing over 300 letters of great rabbis opposed to Zionism, but Rabbi Shemuel Hacohen Weingarten has proved that these “letters” were invented by Rabbi Bloch himself! Therefore, we may assume that “Shefokh Ahavatkha” was not composed in Worms in 1521, but rather by Rabbi Hayyim Bloch ca. 1963!
The Parting of the Reed SeaThe last customs we shall discuss take place not at the seder, but on the seventh night of Pesah. According to the Sages, our ancestors crossed Yam Suf, the Reed Sea, on the seventh night of Pesah. Various groups of Jews have developed ways of reenacting the splitting of the Reed Sea.a) The Gerer Hassidim gather in the shtibl on the seventh night of Pesah; they drink wine and they dance. They then pour a barrel of water on the floor, lift up their long cloaks, and “cross the sea” while declaring the towns which are located on the way to Gur. At each “town” they drink l’hayyim and then continue to Gur. When they “reach” Gur after “crossing the sea”, they once again drink l’hayyim and thank God for reaching their destination. A similar custom from Reishe, Galicia, in the 1890s is described by my great uncle Herman Leder (1890-1973) in his Yiddish memoir Reisher Yidn:
There were several other Jews who were devoted to certain mitzvot more than to others. One of them, was Reb Ephraim Tzibele.
Until today I don’t know why he was called Tzibele (onion). As a child, I frequently asked, but no one knew the answer. He lived on Melamdim Street. He was an extremely frum (pious) Jew who sat day and night studying and praying. His special distinction lay in the fact that he demonstrated with his children how the Jews crossed the Reed Sea after they were redeemed from Egypt.
He lived in a little wooden house which consisted of one room for himself and his family. One heard little about him all year long and one took little interest in him. But when the seventh day of Pesah arrived, everyone talked about Reb Ephraim Tzibele, because on that night he used to lead his wife and children through the Sea of Reeds. Since there was no sea in his house, he created a miniature “sea”. He turned over the keg of water which stood by the door and flooded the room with water. He then took his family and crossed the “sea” with them, from one side of the room to the other. Many people used to gather there that night to witness the demonstration. Similar customs were observed in at least six Hungarian towns until the Holocaust. b) In Jerusalem, on the other hand, the hassidim of Reb Arele (1894-1947) in Meah Shearim recreate the splitting of the Reed Sea in a different fashion. The disciples act as the sea and the rebbe represents the Children of Israel. The rebbe passes through them and the students slowly part, allowing him to pass through. c) Finally, R. Ya’akov Moshe Harlap (1883-1951) developed a custom which was continued by his disciple, R. Shaul Yisraeli (d. 1995). Hundreds of Jews – young and old, hassidim and mitnagdim, halutzim, yeshiva students and soldiers – would congregate at his house in the Sha’are Hessed neighborhood of Jerusalem. Rabbi Harlap would deliver divrey torah interspersed with singing. At twelve midnight, Rabbi Harlap would stand up, put on a white kittel and begin to chant Shirat Hayam (Exodus 15). He would sing a special niggun (tune) with the assembled, followed by responsive singing of Shirat Hayam, one verse at a time. After Shirat Hayam, they would sing the Melekh Rahaman paragraph from the Musaf service and dance with great fervor. Indeed, those who were there said that Hayam was an abbreviation of Harav Ya’akov Moshe. Abbreviations
Ben Ezra = Akiva Ben Ezra, Minhagey Hagim, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1962Dobrinsky = Herbert Dobrinsky, A Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs, New York, 1986EJ = Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1971Goldschmidt = Daniel Goldschmidt, ed., Haggadah Shel Pesah, Jerusalem, 1960Kasher = Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher, Haggadah Sheleimah, Jerusalem, 1955Lewinsky = Yom Tov Lewinsky, ed., Sefer Hamoadim: Pesah, Tel Aviv, 1948Scheiber = Alexander Scheiber, Yeda Am, 1/7-8 (Nissan 5711), p. 6Sperber = Daniel Sperber, Minhagey Yisrael, 6 Volumes, Jerusalem, 1989-1998Wassertil = Asher Wassertil, ed., Yalkut Minhagim, third edition, Jerusalem, 1996
* This article was originally published in Conservative Judaism Vol. 55, No. 3 (Spring 2003), pp. 58-71. It is reprinted here with the permission of the Rabbinical Assembly. Some of the notes have been updated. An excerpt of this article entitled “The Use of Drama at the Pesah Seder” was published in Insight Israel , Vol. 3, No. 7 (April 2003) and was subsequently printed in my book Insight Israel – The View from Schechter , Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 31-38. That book can be ordered from www.schechter.edu or fromwww.amazon.com .
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: mailto:email@example.com.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.