Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson
Before detailing the laws of the Seder, let us briefly survey the mitzvot we fulfill on the Seder night.
Two elements constitute the foci of the Seder: The first is commemoration of our Exodus from Egypt and emancipation from slavery and reflection on the significance of Israel’s freedom. The second is to transmit our tradition to the next generation. Both of these are included in the Torah’s commandment to tell the story of the Exodus on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan.
In order to make this commemoration tangible, the Torah commands us to eat the korban Pesaĥ (Paschal sacrifice), matza, and maror on this night. The Paschal sacrifice recalls God’s miraculous slaying of the Egyptian firstborn while "passing over" the houses of the Israelites, sparing their firstborns. The matza recalls the matzot our forefathers ate when they left Egypt for freedom. And the maror recalls the hard labor and bitter enslavement our forefathers experienced at the hands of the Egyptians.
Because the Temple is now in ruins, we are unable to offer the Paschal sacrifice; we eat the afikoman in its stead. On the Torah level, the mitzva to eat maror is contingent on eating the Paschal sacrifice; when the Pesaĥ sacrifice is not offered, there is no mitzva to eat maror. However, the Sages instituted eating maror even after the destruction of the Temple.
No change has taken place regarding the mitzva to eat matza. Thus, even after the destruction of the Temple there is a Torah commandment to eat an olive’s bulk (kezayit) of matza.
The Sages also instituted the integration of four cups of wine into the recitation of the Hagada, which we drink as an expression of joy and freedom.
They also instituted that we eat matzot and drink wine while reclining, as a demonstration of freedom.
2.Preparing for the Seder
As noted, one of the two key objectives of the Seder is to transmit the tradition of the Exodus to our children. In order to keep younger children alert, we do many unusual things at the Seder: we dip vegetables in liquid twice, wash our hands twice, and give the appearance of beginning the meal before suddenly starting to recite the Hagada. In addition, the mitzvot of eating matza, drinking four cups of wine, and reclining also prompt the children to ask: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
The Sages also instruct one to give nuts and candy to small children at the beginning of the Seder, so they see yet another change and ask: "Why is this night different?" (SA 472:16). It is good to give them small candies throughout the Seder, keeping them alert and happy.
An effort is made to buy new clothes for the children and the entire household before Pesaĥ, in order to make everybody happy. Indeed, the mitzva to be joyful applies to each of the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesaĥ, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot), and it is therefore a mitzva to buy clothes and jewelry for the women and girls, give young children candy and nuts, and serve meat and wine to men at each festival (SA 528:2-3). However, we are even more careful about buying new clothes for Pesaĥ, because wearing them for the Seder evokes a special sense of excitement for this exalted night.
It is proper to set the table and arrange the Seder plate before evening, so that kiddush can be recited as soon as possible after the Ma’ariv prayer. In this way, there is no wasting of the precious time when the children are still alert and can still participate in reciting the Hagada, eating the matza, and drinking the wine. However, kiddush should not be recited before tzeit ha-kokhavim (the appearance of three distinct stars), because kiddush must be recited at a time when matza can be eaten, i.e., the night of the fifteenth of Nisan. Moreover, the kiddush wine is the first of the four cups, and one must drink all four cups at night (ibid. 472:1; MB ad loc. 4).
When setting the table, one should put out comfortable chairs so that participants will be able to recline. Ideally, the table should be set with the finest silverware and dishes. During the course of the year, we refrain from setting the table with overly attractive utensils, in remembrance of the Temple’s destruction, but on Shabbat and holidays we do everything we can to enhance the table’s beauty (SA 560:2; MB ad loc. 5). On the Seder night, it is a mitzva to beautify the table with the absolute best utensils, as it expresses freedom and joy (SA 472:2; MB ad loc. 6).
3.The Seder Plate
Before the Seder, one must prepare the Seder plate, on which all of the special Seder foods are arranged. Setting the Seder plate is not merely to keep the foods close by and at the ready, but also because each food commemorates and emphasizes a particular idea, and we must keep all the foods in front of us to express the uniqueness of the Seder. These foods are placed on the Seder plate:
Three matzot with which we fulfill the Torah’s commandment to eat matza. We place them on the Seder plate so we can recite the Hagada in the presence of matza and maror, fulfilling the verse: "Tell your child on that day: ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt’" (Shemot 13:8), which the Sages interpret: "‘because of this’ means when matza and maror are before you" (Mekhilta Bo 17). Additionally, matza is called "leĥem oni" – "poor man’s bread" (Devarim 16:3), which the Sages interpret to mean "bread over which we ‘onim’ – answer or say – many things." The matza must therefore be uncovered while we recite the Hagada. However, out of respect for the matza, which is the most important food on the table and over which we recite the "ha-motzi" blessing, we do not recite kiddush while the matza is uncovered. Therefore, we cover the matzot during kiddush and when we lift our wine glasses, but otherwise they remain exposed while we recite the Hagada. Some have a custom to separate the three matzot with cloth (based on the writings of Arizal), and others have a custom not to separate the matzot (Ĥayei Adam).
Maror is lettuce or horseradish. When the Temple stood, there was a Torah commandment to eat maror with the korban Pesaĥ, but since the destruction of the Temple, the mitzva to eat maror is rabbinic.
In Temple times, the meat of the korban Pesaĥ was also put on the Seder table, but with the Temple’s destruction, the Sages enacted that two cooked foods be placed on the table: one to commemorate Paschal sacrifice, and the other to commemorate the korban ĥagiga (pilgrimage sacrifice), offered on every pilgrimage festival (Pesaĥim 114a-b). Customarily, the Paschal sacrifice is commemorated with a zero’a, alluding to the fact that God redeemed us with an "outstretched arm" ("zero’a netuya"). We roast the zero’a, just as the Paschal sacrifice was roasted. Sephardic Jews customarily use the foreleg of a lamb or goat, whereas Ashkenazim use the wing of a fowl. The korban ĥagiga is customarily commemorated with a roasted or boiled egg. Eggs are customarily served to mourners, as their round shape consolingly reminds them of life’s cyclical nature. At the Seder, the egg similarly reminds us that the Temple will be speedily rebuilt and we will again be able to offer the Paschal and ĥagiga sacrifices. Additionally, the Aramaic word for egg, "bei’a," can also refer to prayerful petition – alluding to our petitioning God to redeem us once again (SA 473:4). The custom in most communities is not to eat the zero’a on the Seder night (see below section 32).
We also place karpas and either vinegar or salt water on the Seder plate. Karpas is the vegetable that we eat before reciting the Hagada. It is dipped in vinegar or salt water both to make it tastier and to create the need for an additional hand-washing, which causes the children to ask more questions.
We place ĥaroset on the Seder plate as well. Ĥaroset alludes to the clay mortar our forefathers made when they were enslaved in Egypt. Before eating the maror, we dip it in the ĥaroset.
Wine is not placed on the Seder plate because it is a drink, not a food.
4.Arranging the Seder Plate
The Talmud does not mention the Seder plate, but it does say that "matza, lettuce, ĥaroset, and two cooked foods" are served to the person leading the Seder (Pesaĥim 114a). The Rishonim and SA (473:4) state that all of these foods should be placed on a plate. However, this is not obligatory. The main thing is that these foods be placed before the Seder leader. It is not necessary to place a Seder plate before each participant or even before each married participant. Rather, it is enough to place the plate before the Seder leader (MB 473:17). Nevertheless, some have a custom to place matzot before the head of every household, while the complete Seder plate is placed in front of the Seder leader only.
Since a number of foods must be placed on the plate, the question arises: what is the best way to arrange them? There are several opinions on this matter.
According to Rema, the principle is that the earlier a food appears in the Seder, the closer to the Seder leader it should be placed. This is done in order to avoid "passing over the mitzvot." For example, if the matzot were closer to the leader than the karpas, he would have to pass over the matzot when reaching for the karpas, and this would be somewhat disrespectful to the matzot. Therefore, according to Rema, one should place the karpas and salt water closest to the leader, because these are eaten at the beginning, even before reciting the Hagada. Next come the matzot, which are eaten at the start of the meal. Then come the maror and the ĥaroset, because after eating matza we eat maror dipped in the ĥaroset. Furthest away on the plate are the zero’a and egg, which commemorate the Paschal and ĥagiga offerings.
Some say that there is no need to be particular about arranging the Seder plate in a manner that will prevent "passing over mitzvot," because such behavior is only improper when one is presented with the simultaneous opportunity to perform two mitzvot. However, on the Seder night, each mitzva has a specific time of its own, and there is no problem in passing over a mitzva whose time for fulfillment has not yet arrived, in order to get to a food that must be eaten now.
The Seder plate arrangement based on Arizal’s teaching alludes to the ten kabbalistic sefirot. 1 This arrangement is practiced today by most Sephardic, Ĥasidic, and even some non-Ĥasidic Ashkenazim. Other Ashkenazim follow Rema, while still others follow the Vilna Gaon. Many Hagadot contain diagrams of the Seder plate arrangement, and each of these varying customs has a place in Jewish law.
^ 1.. Arizal’s arrangement is as follows: The three matzot are on top, corresponding to the sefirot of ĥokhma, bina, and da'at. Under the matzot on the right is the zero’a, corresponding to the sefira of ĥesed, and the egg on the left corresponding to gevura. Underneath them in the middle is the maror, which corresponds to tiferet. Below the maror on the right is the ĥaroset, corresponding to netzaĥ, and on the left is the karpas, corresponding to hod. Underneath them in the center is the maror used for the korekh sandwich, corresponding to the sefira of yesod. The plate itself corresponds to the sefira of malkhut (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 473:58).
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