Something Practical – On the Seder table
It’s such a beautiful day, in the middle of the beautiful springtime. We shouldn’t forget: Pesach is named ‘the Feast of Unleavened Bread’ and ‘the Season of our Freedom’, but it is also called ‘the Festival of Spring’ – short as that brief season may be in the Middle East. For all our preoccupation with history and its politics at the Seder, we should remember that this is also a celebration of the earth, its gifts and its beauty.
At least four of the special foods on the Seder table are products which grow, and which, with little more than a single green finger we could grow for ourselves. I had my best lesson ever in this regard last Monday. Leslie Lyndon and I, who work the synagogue garden together as a rabbi-and-cantor-team, were digging away. I was plastered in soil and manure from top to toe, when out came the children from our pre-school: ‘Can we do some?’ they begged when they saw us planting herbs. ‘Rabbi Jonathan, Rabbi Jonathan, can I have a go!’ I’ve rarely felt so proud and happy to be called ‘rabbi’.
Karpas, or ‘greens’ can be any vegetable eaten raw, except what we use for the bitter herbs. Parsley, celery, tomatoes, or a mixture of them all: why not grow them ourselves? It’s not just that I’m a gardening fanatic; far more importantly, the blessing feels different when you’ve grown something yourself. You appreciate the world more deeply when you say ‘Blessed are you, God…who creates the fruit of the earth’. For some of these herbs, even a pot on a window-ledge will do.
The Maror must be bitter, but it need not be horseradish. It turns out that horseradish, which is hot and fierce rather than bitter, is a mediaeval introduction which has had its detractors: ‘Many people eat less than the required minimum of an olive’s size because of the pungent flavour of the horseradish’, wrote the Chacham Tzvi, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (1658 – 1718), ‘Thus they neglect the mitzvah of maror. And the meticulously observant Jews who do eat an olive’s size of the horseradish are endangering their health’. Endives, chicory, bitter lettuce, – they may all be a better choice for the bitter herbs. What about a pre-Pesach tasting, to decide which one really represents bitterness? ‘Sweetish at first, but with a bitter aftertaste’ say the rabbis, because initially being in Egypt was a boon for the Children of Israel. Don’t have so much as to detract from the commandment to eat maror at the Seder, just enough to determine which is best, or rather worst.
The charoset should be thick and sticky to represent mortar, and with bits in it to look like straw. Thus runs the familiar tradition. But a deeper interpretation tells us that it should be made of fruits, drinks and nuts mentioned in the Song of Songs, for the charoset also symbolises the love which bound the Children of Israel together despite their slavery, the solidarity which so often unites the oppressed. If you don’t have a family recipe (which usually expresses just that kind of intergenerational bond, sweet but sometimes sticky) look on the internet and see the amazing range of possibilities, or choose with your family and friends three ingredients which you feel have to be included. Or, best of all if you can, use something from your own garden!
Matzah is most often made from wheat, water and absolutely nothing else. But I’m going to leave that for tomorrow, when we’ll be making our own in the synagogue kitchen.
Something about the Haggadah – on the symbols of the Seder
‘Seder’ means order, and the Haggadah has a clear and ancient structure and order. It is usually printed on the first page, even before the Kiddush with which the celebration commences. It lists the fifteen traditional parts of the ceremony and is itself considered part of the ritual. Unlike the contents pages of most books, it is customary to sing or recite it.
It’s interesting to consider the role and importance of order in a story. Order is neither boring nor ‘uncool’. After all, try convincing a small child that this night their bedtime story is Goldilocks and the Two Bears or Snow White and the Eight Dwarves. They’ll soon put you right. Order is part of the ritual of how we form and celebrate memory and identity. Jews, argued Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his remarkable book Zakhor, wrote little history until the modern period. Instead, we live it through our rituals and celebrations. We re-enact it in the story of the Haggadah; we taste it in the unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
I would argue the very structure and ritual of the Seder are at the heart of its theme of freedom. Going through the whole Haggadah in every detail can indeed be made a burden, if we feel enslaved by it and do it by rote, without spirit. We may, or may not, decide to shorten several sections, but we should certainly enliven and personalise them all. That’s the point: having a structure gives us the freedom to improvise; having an identity in the world gives us the liberty to discover ourselves within it; having a shared narrative allows us to make it our own by weaving our own experience into and around it. As we tell the Pesach story we speak of ourselves; as we debate its values we ponder, discuss and determine who we are and for what it is that we stand.