The Origins of the Seder

In memory of my teacher
Prof. Saul Lieberman z”l
on his 23rd Yahrzeit
9 Nissan 5766

I) Introduction

There is no question that the Seder, which is celebrated on the first night of Pesah or on the first two nights in the Diaspora – is thecentral ritual of the holiday of Passover. But what is the origin of the Seder and the Haggadah?

The Torah instructs us to slaughter the Korban Pesah , the paschal lamb, to eat it with matzot and marror , and to sprinkle some blood on the lintel and the two doorposts (Exodus 12:22 ff.) It also instructs the father to teach his son about the Exodus on Pesah (Exodus 12:26; 13:6, 14; Deut. 6:12 and cf. Exodus 10:2) (For a summary of the biblical passages about Pesah, see Siegfried Stein, The Journal of Jewish Studies 8 (1957), pp. 13-15 and Baruch Bokser, The Origins of the Seder , Berkeley etc. 1984, pp. 14-19). These mitzvot , however, are a far cry from the many rituals which we do at the Seder and from the literary forms which werecite in the Haggadah.

Furthermore, the Seder and the Haggadah are also missing from the Second Temple period descriptions of Pesah, including a papyrus from Elephantine (419 B.C.E.), the book of Jubilees (late second century B.C.E.), Philo (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), and Josephus (A. E. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C ., 1923, pp. 60-65 quoted by Chaim Rapael, A Feast of History , London etc., 1972, p. 128 and Franz Kobler, A Treasury of Jewish Letters , Vol. 1, Philadelphia, 1953, p. 22; Book of Jubilees , Chapter 49; Philo, The Special Laws, II, 145 ff.; Josephus, in numerous passages. Regarding these passages, see Stein, pp. 15, 20-23 and Bokser, pp. 19-25. There are a number of parallels between the New Testament and Mishnah and Tosefta Pesahim (Stein, p. 23 and Bokser, pp. 25-28) which seem to indicate that the kernel of the rabbinic texts pre-dates the Destruction in 70 C.E. – see the following note).

They are first mentioned in the Mishnah and Tosefta (Pesahim Chapter 10) which scholars date to either shortly before or shortly after the Destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E (David Zvi Hoffman, Y. N. Epstein and Yosef Tabori believe that the basic texts are pre-destruction; while Stein, Bokser, Shmuel and Zev Safrai, and Shamma Friedman believe they are post-destruction. It is possible to explain most of the texts in both fashions and my tendency is to agree with the earlier dating. In any case, the exact date of these texts does not influence the main thesis of this article). What is the source of the elaborate rituals and literary forms of the Seder and Haggadah?

In the first half of the twentieth century, Lewy, Baneth, Krauss, and Goldschmidt drew attention to the fact that the forms of the Seder are based on Graeco-Roman table manners and dietary habits. But the most detailed evidence of this borrowing was provided in 1957 when Siegfried Stein published “The Influence of Symposia Literature on the Literary Form of the Pesah Haggadah” in The Journal of Jewish Studies  (Stein, pp. 13-44). Since then, Stein’s basic thesis has been adopted with variations by various scholars who have written about the origins of the Seder (See, for example, Bokser, Chapter 5; Raphael, pp. 86-92; Yosef Tabory, Pesah Dorot , Tel Aviv, 1996, pp. 367-377. Bokser thinks that the Sages adopted the symposium after the Destruction in order to find a replacement for the Paschal sacrifice, which could no longer be brought. Yisrael Yuval, Shnei Goyim B’vitnekh , Tel Aviv, 2000, pp. 77-107 maintains that the Seder was the Jewish answer to the early Christians who developed a Christian Seder/symposium at Pesach which retold the story of Jesus and his resurrection. I do not find Yuval’s theory convincing. I think that both Jews and Christians reworked the symposium, but not because they were competing with each other). Stein proved in a very convincing fashion that many of the Seder rituals and literary forms found in Mishnah and Tosefta Pesahim and in the Haggadah were borrowed from the Hellenistic banquet or symposium. Let us first compare the rituals.

II) The Seder Rituals and Vocabulary


The “hero” of Mishnah Pesahim, Chapter 10, is the shamash , the servant, who mixed the wine with water and served it, brought in the matzah, hazeret and haroset, and more. According to the Tosefta (10:5), “the Shamash dipped the entrails [in salt water] and served the guests”, while “The Banquet” of Philoxenes of Cythera (5 th -4 th century B.C.E.) relates that “the slave set before us.sweetest morsel of entrails ” (Stein, p. 28).


According to the Mishnah (10:1), even a poor person may not eat on Erev Pesah “until he reclines ” on a couch. Athenaeus relates that in Homer’s time “men still feasted sitting, but gradually they slid from chairs to couches , taking as their ally relaxation and ease” (Stein, p. 17). Furthermore, according to the Talmud (Pesahim 108a), one must recline on one’s left arm while eating. This too was the practice at symposia as seen in many ancient illustrations (For illustrations of the symposia, see Hugo Blumner, The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks , London, etc., 1893, pp. 210-211, 222; Raphael, p. 89; Magen Broshi, Al Hayayin B’eretz Yisrael Hakedumah , Tel Aviv, 1985, p. 35; Michal Dayagi-Mendels, Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times Jerusalem, 1999, pp. 87-97).

Many Cups of Wine

According to the Mishnah (10:1), a person must drink four cups of wine at the Seder. The Greeks too drank many cups of wine at the symposium. Antiphanes (4 th century B.C.E.) said that one should honor the gods to the extent of three cups of wine (Stein, p. 17).

Netilat Yadayim

According to Tosefta Berakhot (4:8, ed. Lieberman p. 20), the servant poured water over the hands of those reclining at a Jewish banquet. The Hebrew term is ” natelu v’natenu layadayim ” (literally: “they picked up and poured water on the hands”). Both Stein (p. 16) and Bendavid say that this is a translation of a Greek idiom which means “to take water on the hands” (Abba Bendavid, Leshon Mikra Uleshon Hakhamim , Vol. 1, Tel Aviv, 1967, p. 136 and cf. Tabory, p. 199, note 29, for a lengthy discussion of the etymology of this idiom).


According to the Mishnah (10:3), the servant brings hazeret , which is lettuce (There is vast literature on this subject. See, for example, J. Feliks, Encyclopaedia Judaica , Vol. 11, cols. 62-63, s.v. lettuce)., before his master, who dips it in salt water or other liquids until the main course is served. Indeed, the Talmud relates (Berakhot 57b = Avoda Zara 11a) that Rabbi Judah the Prince, who was very wealthy and well-versed in Hellenistic culture, ate hazeret all year long. Similarly, Athenaeus (ca. 200 C.E.), Rabbi Judah’s contemporary, mentions lettuce seven times in his “Learned Banquet”, an encyclopedic compilation about Greek and Roman food and drink (Stein, p. 16).


According to the Mishnah (10:3), the servant serves haroset with the meal. The tanna kamma (=the first or anonymous rabbi in the mishnah) says it is not a mitzvah, while R. Eliezer bar Zadok says it is a mitzvah . The first tanna was no doubt correct because the Mishnah itself (2:8) says that haroset was eaten at banquets all year long with flour. Once again, Athenaeus describes similar dishes at length, and discusses whether they should be served before or after dinner. Heracleides of Tarentum, a physician of the first century B.C.E., recommended eating these dishes as appetizers rather than as dessert (Stein, p. 16).

Hillel’s “Sandwich”

According to the Talmud (Pesahim 115a) and to the Haggadah itself, Hillel the elder used to eat a “sandwich” of the paschal lamb,matzah and marror. Similarly, the Greeks and Romans used to eat sandwich bread with lettuce (Stein, p. 17).


According to the Mishnah (10:8), “one may not add an afikomanafter the paschal lamb”. The Tosefta, Bavli and Yerushalmi give three different interpretations of this word. In 1934, Prof. Saul Lieberman proved that the correct meaning is “one should not stand up from this eating group and join that eating group” (Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:4, fol. 37d). He refers to the Greek wordepikomon – at the climax of the symposium the revelers used to leave their house and barge into another house and force the family to join in their merry-making. The mishnah is saying that this particular Hellenistic custom may not be done after eating the paschal lamb (Saul Lieberman, Hayerushalmi Kifshuto , Jerusalem, 1934, p. 521. His explanation was accepted by Daniel Goldschmidt, Seder Haggadah Shel Pesach , Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1948, pp. 11, 33; Chanokh Albeck, Sisha Sidrey Mishnah, Seder Moed, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1952, p. 179; Stein, p. 18, note 20 and p. 36; Bokser, p. 65 and the literature ibid . p. 132, note 62).

III) The Literary Forms of the Seder and the Haggadah

Stein (p. 18) explains that the literary forms of the Seder and Haggadah also echo those of the symposia:

Since Plato, a literary species, the so-called Symposia, had developed in which a description was given of a banquet held by a few learned men who had met at a friend’s house to discuss scientific, philosophical, ethical, aesthetical, grammatical, dietetic and religious themes over a glass, and very often over a barrel of wine, after they had dined together. Plutarch, one of the most famous contributors to [this] literature, summarizes earlier practice and theory in the following manner: “A symposium is a communion of serious and mirthful entertainment, discourse and actions.” It is meant to further “a deeper insight into those points that were debated at table, for the remembrance of those pleasures which arise from meat and drink is not genteel and short-lived.but the subjects of philosophical queries and discussions remain always fresh after they have been imparted.and they are relished by those who were absent as well as by those who were present at dinner”.

Let us now examine some of the Seder-Symposia literary parallels:

Easy Questions

According to the Mishnah (10:4), after the servant pours the second cup of wine, the son asks his father questions. But if the son does not have understanding, his father teaches him: “How different this night is from all other nights!” (This is the correct translation according to many modern scholars. See, for example, Raphael, p. 27). The father then, according to the manuscripts of the Mishnah, asks or exclaims about three subjects: why do we dip twice, why do we eat only matzah , and why do we eat only roasted meat (For the development of Mah Nishtanah from three to four questions, see, for example, Daniel Goldschmidt, Haggadah Shel Pesah etc. Jerusalem, 1960, pp. 10-13).

Plutarch, a contemporary of the five Sages in the Haggadah who reclined in Bene Berak, says that the “questions [at a symposium] should be easy, the problems known, the interrogations plain and familiar, not intricate and dark, so that they may neither vex the unlearned nor frighten them.” (Stein, p.19). According to Gellius, the questions were not too serious; they may deal with a point touching an ancient history. Macrobius says that he who wishes to be a pleasant questioner should ask easy questions and be sure that the subject had been thoroughly studied by the other person. Many symposia questions deal with diet and food:

-are different sorts of food or one single dish eaten at one meal more easily digestible?

-Does the sea or land afford better food?

-Why are hunger allayed by drinking, but thirst increased by eating?

-Why do the Pythagoreans forbid fish more than other foods? (Stein, pp. 32-33)

The Sages in Bene Berak

The Haggadah contains one of the most famous stories in rabbinic literature:

A story is told of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar the son of Azaryah, Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon, who were reclining at Bene Berak and were talking about the Exodus from Egypt that entire night, until their pupils came and said to them: “Our masters, the time for the morning Shema has arrived.”

Similarly, the symposia literature is supposed to include the names of the participants, the place, the subject of discussion and the occasion. Macrobius (early 5 th century C.E.) relates:

During the Saturnalia, distinguished members of the aristocracy and other scholars assembled at the house of Vettius Praetextatus to celebrate the festive time [of Saturnalia] solemnly by a discourse befitting freemen. [The host explained] the origin of the cult and the cause of the festival (Stein, pp. 33-34)

Sometimes, the symposium lasted until dawn. As early as in Plato’s Symposium (4 th century B.C.E.), the crowing of the cock reminds the guests to go home. Socrates, on that occasion, went on to the Lyceum (a gymnasium where philosophers also taught) (Stein, p. 34).

Begin with Disgrace and Conclude with Praise

According to the Mishnah (10:4), the father at the Seder “begins with disgrace and concludes with praise”. This, too, was a Roman technique. Quintillian (30-100 C.E.) says: “[It is good in a eulogy to]. have ennobled a humble origin by the glory of his times weakness may contribute largely to our admiration” (Stein, p. 37).

Pesah, Matzah and Maror

According to the Mishnah (10:5), Rabban Gamliel said that one must explain ” Pesah, Matzah and Maror ” at the Seder and he proceeds to connect each term with a biblical verse. In the Talmud (Pesahim 116b), the Amora Rav (Israel and Babylon; d. 220 C.E.) said that the items must be lifted up when explaining them.Similarly, Macrobius relates in his Saturnalia: “Symmachus takes some nuts into his hands and asks Servius about the cause and origin of the variety of names given to them”. Servius and Gavius Bassus then give two different etymologies for the word juglans(walnut) (Stein, pp. 41-44).

The Nishmat Prayer

According to the Mishnah (10:7), we must recite Birkat Hashir , the “blessing of song” at the Seder. One opinion in the Talmud (Pesahim 118a) states that this refers to the Nishmat prayer which says:

Were our mouths filled with song as the sea, our lips with adoration as the spacious firmament, were our eyes radiant as the sun and the moon.we would still be unable to thank and bless Your name sufficiently, O Lord our God.

Similarly, Menander (4 th century B.C.E.) gives an example of alogos basilikos (words praising the King):

As the eyes cannot measure the endless sea, thus one cannot easily describe the fame of the emperor.

Thus, in Nishmat , the basileus is not the emperor, but God, the King of Kings (Stein, p. 27).

IV) Conclusion

What can we learn from all these parallels? The Jewish people throughout the generations did not live in a vacuum; it absorbed much from its surroundings. But it did not absorb blindly. The Sages absorbed the form of the symposium from the Hellenistic world, but drastically changed its content . The Greeks and Romans discussed love, beauty, food and drink at the symposium, while the Sages at the Seder discussed the Exodus from Egypt, the miracles of God and the greatness of the Redemption. The symposium was meant for the elite, while the Sages turned the Seder into an educational experience for the entire Jewish people.

Indeed, this pattern repeated itself throughout Jewish history. Various scholars have shown that the 13 Midot of Rabbi Yishmael and as well as the 32 Midot are based on exegetical methods borrowed from the Ancient Near East and the Hellenistic world. Rav Saadia Gaon and others were greatly influenced by the Muslim Qal’am, while Maimonides was greatly influenced by Aristotelianism. Medieval Jewish bible commentators were influenced by Christian exegetes, while the Tosafists were influenced the by Christian glossators (Space does not allow me to list all of the literature on these topics). In most of these cases, the rabbis borrowed the literary, legal or philosophical form of their contemporaries but totally changed the contents .

We are bombarded today by a host of outside influences from the Western world. May God give us the wisdom to selectively adopt some of their forms and to fill them with Jewish content as the Sages did at the Seder.

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:

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

Photo: Traditional arrangement of symbolic foods on a Passover Seder plate. By Yoninah – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

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