Matt Brundage

Seder and the night of deliverance

The defining Jewish ritual

The Jewish seder is considered the Passover Meal (Fishbane in Earhart 443); that is, the last meal the Israelites ate before God delivered them out of Egypt. Passover refers to God's "passing over" of the Jewish living quarters and instead striking down the first-born sons of Egypt (Exodus 12:23). God's instructions for the meal were as such: "That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire … This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord's Passover." (Exodus 12:8-11; see also Exodus 12:1-30)

God gave the Jewish people explicit instructions to ritualize this seder: "This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord – a lasting ordinance." (Exodus 12:14) God goes on to give specific instructions on the "Feast of Unleavened Bread" — such as the times and duration of the feast, avoidance of yeast in breadmaking, et cetera. (Exodus 12:14-20)

Central to the seder is a recitation of the Haggadah, a series of questions and answers about the Passover night and God's deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt. (Fishbane in Earhart 443) The Haggadah, however is much more than this series of questions, for it involves:

  1. Sanctifying the holiday
  2. Washing the hands
  3. Eating the green vegetable dipped in salt water
  4. Breaking the middle Matzah
  5. Reciting the Narrative
  6. Washing the hands (before eating the meal)
  7. Blessing for the bread and the Matzah
  8. Eating the bitter herb
  9. Eating the Matzah with the bitter herb
  10. Eating the meal
  11. Finding the Afikoman
  12. Reciting the grace after meals
  13. Singing Psalms of praise
  14. Concluding with the hope that one has reenacted the Exodus with the appropriate intention.

Adapted from Hurvitz, "A Growing Haggadah"

The Passover mealOther food eaten at the seder includes hard-cooked eggs, potatoes, and an apple sauce for the matzah. "The matzah, or unleavened bread (eaten during the entire festival), as well as the herbs and condiments eaten symbolize the suffering of the ancient Israelites and the mortar for the bricks during their forced labor." (Fishbane in Earhart 444)

The miracle of the Passover night is God's "striking down" (v. 23) the Egyptian first born. God's divinity wasn't necessarily manifested in a physical form, but He definitely made his presence known. A popular retelling of the Exodus, the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, depicts God manifested as a dense smoke or fog. The 1998 animated film Prince of Egypt depicts God similarly, but the smoke is almost anthropomorphized and carries the sound of God's breath — presumably inhaling. But however God was manifested that night, the hierophany of the Passover made it evident to the Israelites that the Lord was on their side. The loss of every firstborn son of Egypt persuaded the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Jews leave Egypt (v. 31), and eventually wander into Caanan.

The seder is celebrated because God made his presence known and brought the Jews out of Egypt. Interesting of note is God's divine manifestations after the Israelites left Egypt: "By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to five them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people." (Exodus 13:21-22) God was intimately involved with the Israelites' deliverance; his various hierophanic interventions prove His devotion to His chosen people.

The agricultural foundations of Passover can be found in Exodus 13:3-4: "Then Moses said to the people, "Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the Lord brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast. Today, in the month of Abib, you are leaving." (Note that Moses said this before the Israelites had even crossed the Red Sea.) Abib (or "Aviv" in modern Hebrew) originally referred to a time when the barley grain would ripen. Moses is instructing a set time of the year in which to commemorate Passover. "You must keep this ordinance at the appointed time year after year." (v. 10) Its foundations did not "evolve" to accommodate the hierophany as instructions for its yearly commemoration were handed to the Israelites even before the Exodus! (See Genesis 12.)

Fishbane's claim that "Passover was reinterpreted in biblical antiquity as a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt" (440) is misguided. Exodus 23:15 clearly states that celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the seder) is to occur in Abib, "for in that month you came out of Egypt." (see also Deuteronomy 16:1) Fishbane intimates that Passover was originally a celebration of the barley grain. (440) More accurately, it is a commemoration of the Exodus that occurs each year when the barley grain ripens.

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Works Cited

Fishbane, Michael. "Judaism: Revelation and Traditions" Religious Traditions of the WorldReligious Traditions of the World: A Journey Through Africa, Mesoamerica, North America, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan. Ed. H. Byron Earhart. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Hurvitz, Rabbi Mark. "A Growing Haggadah" Accessed 28 July 2005.

Orthodox Union. "The Four Questions – Pesach at OU.ORG" Accessed 28 July 2005.