One of the most often asked questions at Passover Seders is one that doesn't appear in writing: "When do we eat?" Many of us recall waiting until late in the evening, with only some parsley and salt water to wet one's mouth. But according to Dr. Joshua Kulp, a Talmud instructor at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, this wasn't always the case.
"If you look at Haggadoth that are over a thousand years old," he said, "you can see that before they even got to the "Ma Nishtana" - the Four Questions - people would enjoy a rich course of appetizers, including rice, meat and eggs, even some kind of kosher-for-Passover pastries.
These and other surprising findings are now gathered in Kulp's "Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary," which the Conservative movement's Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem published earlier this year. Schechter's latest Passover project is divided into three parts: the text and translation of the Haggadah, a rich collection of illustrations selected and annotated by Rabbi David Golinkin, Schechter's U.S.-born president, and finally Kulp's scholarly commentary. While the many illustrations - ranging from medieval German to contemporary American art - are impressive, the work's highlight is the commentary, which seeks to go to the root of many of the laws and customs that everybody recognizes but few people know much about.
"People are interested not only in the meaning of what we do, but how the customs and the text we have today came to be," Kulp told Anglo File. "Take the 'Ma Nishtana' for example. Today we have four questions, but in the original version there were only three questions, and only one of them has remained unchanged until today."
Kulp, who grew up in New Jersey, says he finds "that people attach more meaning to rituals they observe if they can see where they came from." The Modi'in resident continued: "A lot of people are really engaged, on a religious and spiritual level, with history. And when they're told to observe a certain law and they don't know where it came from, it's less powerful for them. But if they can connect it with history, if they can see how their ancestors observed these customs, it puts them into a context of Jewish history that brings greater meaning to their Seder table, even if we can't observe things exactly like they used to be observed 2,000 years ago."
One such custom is eating horseradish, which symbolizes the bitterness of slavery, to fulfill the commandment of eating maror, bitter herbs. Kulp - like many others - was used to eating it every Seder with his family. Only after he moved to Israel and started researching Passover customs did he discover that the original maror was lettuce or endives.
Horseradish didn't even exist in Talmudic times, while lettuce did not yet have the sweet taste we are accustomed to today. But because no lettuce grew around Passover time in cold countries, most Ashkenazi Jews had to use horseradish as a substitute.
While Kulp - who belongs to an Orthodox egalitarian congregation in Modi'in - is firmly rooted in the Conservative movement, he insists the "Schechter Haggadah," which follows last year's "Lovell Haggadah," is not an ideological work and contains nothing opposed to Orthodox ideology.
Indeed, the book received a positive review on the Orthodox site "Traditions Seforim Blog." Rabbi Elli Fisher called the Haggadah "remarkable" and wrote on the site that the "commentary is at its best when engaging in source criticism of the Haggadah and its antecedents."
Children, not sons
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, whose "Lovell Haggadah" was published by the Schechter Institute last year, believes his book cuts across denominational lines - though he notes a staunchly Orthodox person might find some aspects of his "contemporary egalitarian" translation and his innovative commentary a tad too modern.
For instance, God is always God and never "He" - one time Berkowitz even translated "She" - and the Four Sons become the Four Children, "so everyone can identify with the characters and put themselves into the story." Two of the children are represented by Deborah the Prophetess and Queen Jezebel.
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