By Shlomo Riskin ~
“Your children shall ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’
You must answer ‘It is the Passover service to God’” (Exodus 12:26,27)
This week’s Biblical portion details the genesis of the first great holiday of the Hebrew calendar as well as of Jewish history, the festival of Passover. But what is the real nature of our celebration? Is it a national holiday, the commemoration of our birth as a nation? Or is it a religious holiday, the commemoration of our acceptance of fealty to the God of Israel and the cosmos? The ramifications of this question are quite far-reaching, both in terms of who should celebrate Passover as well as what ought to be emphasized during our lengthy discussions around the seder table!
The Biblical verses in this week’s portion are ambiguous as to what precisely is to be the major message of the seder. The entire Hebrew community in Egypt was commanded (Exodus 12:3-9) to slaughter the Pascal Sacrificial lamb on the afternoon (“between the evenings”) of the fourteenth day of Nissan, take the blood from the sacrifice and place it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes, and eat the sacrificial meal with matzot (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs – during that evening (the night of the fifteenth day of Nissan).
Now the fourteenth day of Nissan is referred to in the Bible as the Festival of Passover. It is the commemoration of the attachment of the Hebrews to the God of Israel and the world, risking their lives by sacrificing the lamb-god (Ares) of Egypt and placing its blood on their doorposts. This was clearly a religious act of commitment to God, which took place while they were still servants in Egypt, before the tenth plague; the destruction of the Egyptian first born. The actual consumption of the meat, however, took place at the seder in Egypt on the evening of the fifteenth of Nissan, the date of the exodus.
Does the seder hark back to the previous day’s religious devotion to God?
Or does it look forward to their actual freedom from Egypt at the end of that long night, when they entered the desert with their unleavened bread as a newborn nation?
In our Tannaitic literature, there are two separate accounts, which attest to the two possible subjects of the seder evening. Our Passover Haggadah quotes the Mishnah (B.T. Pesachim, chapter 10): “There is a story told of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon who were reclining at the seder feast in B’nei Brak discussing the exodus from Egypt all night, until their disciples came to inform them, ‘our masters, the time has arrived to recite the morning Sh’ma….’” Clearly it was the exodus from Egypt – our birth as a nation – which animated the seder in Bnei Brak.
However, the Tosefta in Pesachim (10,12) gives a parallel account of a seder celebration: “There is a story told of Rabban Gamliel and the sages who were reclining at the seder feast at the home of Boethius the son of Zunim in Lod and were immersed in studying the laws of Passover all that night until they heard the crowing of the rooster; they then removed the seder table and prepared to leave for the House of Study for the Morning Prayer.” Clearly, it was the laws of the Pascal Sacrifice – and the dedication to the religious laws of God – which animated this seder in Lod!
Interestingly, there is a difference of opinion in the Talmud as to when the seder must end, which likewise reflects these two opinions: Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah maintains that the eating of the afikomen –the conclusion of the seder meal – must take place no later than
midnight, whereas Rabbi Akiva argues that one may extend the seder until daybreak, the actual time when the Hebrews left Egypt “in haste” with their unleavened bread (see B.T. Berahot 9b). The first opinion would emphasize the religious nature of the seder, whereas the second would stress the national nature of our freedom from Egypt.
Normative halakha – as well as the conduct of these sages themselves – would seem to be in accordance with the conclusion of the first Mishnah in Babylonian Talmud Berahot, which rules that “Whenever our sages limit a ritual to midnight, it may be performed until the rise of the morning star; the limitation is only to keep us far from transgression.” (See too Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Acts of Sacrifices 10:8).
I would therefore argue that we celebrate our national freedom on Passover, but the ideal of, and the necessity to fight and sacrifice for, freedom is rooted in the Divine creation of every human being in the image of God; our fealty to God demands that we work towards the freedom of every moral human being!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.