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.
In this article, we shall discuss some of the lesser-known Pesah customs – or at least lesser-known to Ashkenazic Jews. Some started in Sefarad and migrated to Ashkenaz and some migrated in the opposite direction. Most are still practiced by one group of Jews or another. Many rabbis and educators will find these customs welcome additions to their repertoire of minhagim.
- 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 Arukhand 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).
- 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”.