18 Apr

The Passover Seder is one of the most universally observed Jewish rituals. Every year Jews all over the world trek from far and wide to the houses of their friends or family to share a festive meal, drink four cups of wine, and retell a story they have heard many times before, and it is easy to see why. The Seder is an enduring story of our people, surrounded by good food and good company, all of which is rife with symbolism. Some of it, like the matzah and the bitter herbs, are explained right there in the Haggadah, while others like the carpas (we eat a green vegetable to mark the coming of spring) or the zany occurrences in Chad Gadya require a bit of deeper digging. In the end, though, everything serves its purpose and teaches its own unique lesson that adds to the experience of the Seder.

The one exception to this seems to be korech, the eating of matzah and bitter herbs (with some charoset) and in Temple times, the paschal sacrifice, all together. At this point in the Seder we have just eaten both the matzah and the bitter herbs (with some charoset), and we have already explained them during the story, so what is the purpose of eating them all together now?

The entire text of this section of the Haggadah reads: “In remembrance of the Temple, we do as Hillel (a very famous and important Rabbi who lived in the 1st century BCE) did when the Temple still stood: He would combine the paschal sacrifice, matzah, and bitter herbs in to a sandwich and eat them together, to fulfill what is written in the Torah: ‘They shall eat it with matzah and bitter herbs’ (Num. 9:11).”

On the surface this explanation seems fine, but some basic investigation reveals one major problem with it: The verse cited is not actually talking about the paschal sacrifice that would be eaten on Passover, but rather about a make-up paschal sacrifice that would be conducted a month later for the benefit of those who were in a state of ritual impurity due to contact with a corpse during the regular time to bring the paschal sacrifice. Furthermore, the Gemarah in chapter ten of tractate Pesachim, (from where we take the structure and most of the customs of the Seder) records that most of the rabbis of Hillel’s time and of the time of the Gemarah disagreed with Hillel’s practice, fearing that the matzah and bitter herbs needed to be eaten separately or else one would not fully experience the taste (and thus not fully connect to the symbolism of both) and thus not truly fulfill either mitzvah (Pesachim 115a). Why, then is the korech sandwich included as part of our Seder?

As we learned earlier in the Seder, the bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. The paschal sacrifice represents our freedom and the joy we take in it. The matzah is referred to as both the “bread of affliction” and the “bread of freedom.” The charoset, represents slavery through its resemblance to the mortar the Israelites were forced to make, but its sweetness is also used to temper the bitterness of the herbs- just a bit- to represent the comfort we can find in God in, even in the hardest of times. The people who were mostly likely to need this second opportunity to offer the paschal sacrifice to which the verse Hillel cites refers were those who have recently lost a loved one, and Hillel’s mixture of foods representing both the bitterness of slavery and the joy freedom; hardship and comfort, and eating them as one at this joyous festival meal teaches us to try to look for the positive in all of life’s hardships. If we had not suffered as slaves in Egypt, we could never have been redeemed.

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