How Is This Night Like Other Nights?

The construction and rituals of the seder ceremony are rooted in the 'symposium' custom observed in the ancient Hellenistic world, and even has adopted some of its bad habits

Amir Or
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Amir Or

What does the one kid that Father bought have to do with the Passover holiday? Unlike at our seder, there was a time when they really did lead a young goat out to be slaughtered. The biblical festival of Pesach is our feast of the sacrifice, like the Muslims' Id al-Adha - a shepherds' holiday, in which a double sacrifice served as the holiday meal (mutton) and as protection against demons (goat). Pesach is the word for the sacrificed animal itself, and the kid was a scapegoat intended to appease the forces of darkness.

In the popular religion of pre-Islamic Arabia, one would offer such a sacrifice in front of a tent on the occasion of a wedding, or as part of a ritual intended to protect against plague. People would sprinkle blood from the sacrifice on the "doorposts" - "mezuzot," or something you moved aside - as a charm against demons.

Judaism, which took shape as a new prophetic religion in the second half of the first millennium B.C.E., "inherited" this type of sacrifice from the ancient Hebrew religion, but changed its customs substantially. The festival gradually became a holiday without a sacrificial animal.

But it wasn't just the barbecue during the Hebrew holiday that disappeared: The entire content of the festival changed. In the Diaspora, Passover ceased to be a nature holiday as it was originally, and became a festival of a historical myth: The theme of spring was replaced by the stories of Egypt. Moreover, the holiday shed its ancient rituals and took on Greek airs and graces.

In our festival, we no longer sacrifice lambs and kids in front of the house and we don't smear blood on our tent flaps. What the celebration does involve, however, is eating and drinking and lots of talking, as well as many other customs of which there is no trace in the Bible, but which were practiced universally in the the Greco-Roman world.

The Passover seder familiar to us was shaped in the Hellenistic period: It is a proper "banquet" in the tradition of the Greek symposium (meaning "drinking together"). The symposium was conducted with the participants reclining on their sides on special couches. Drinking at the symposium was not done freely, but rather at the command of the master of ceremonies, who presided over the order of the speakers, too. "We all recline," as at the Greek banquet, and similarly, the drinking and the talk are not freely done, but proceed according to the ceremony's set order, as presided over by one of the participants.

At the banquet's outset in ancient times, a libation of wine to Dionysius was poured from a special vessel, from which it was forbidden to drink. The vessel's entire purpose was to invite the god to attend and to deliver his spirit to the banquet and the guests. The same applies to the cup of Elijah the Prophet, who has replaced Dionysius for us - you mustn't drink from it, but must leave it for him, to ensure that he visits the house and blesses it.

As may be learned from the Haggadah itself, initially the seder did not follow a predetermined ritual, but rather was a banquet-discussion involving wise men, just as might have been held by Socrates and his colleagues in their day. The custom of telling the mythical stories and delivering homilies on the history of the celebration - as well as the songs and the other elements aimed at instructing the young - also derives from the custom at the traditional Greek symposium.

The "Symposium" writings of Plato and Xenophon, as well as the banquet songs that have survived to our days, testify to the participants' devotion to conversation and instruction as far back as the 6th century B.C.E. The poems written by Theognis to his beloved Cyrnus, along with many other works, were collected into a large corpus of didactic banquet poetry, the aim of which was to initiate young people into the circle of culture and society.

The injunction "thou shalt not partake after the afikoman" and the elucidation of this in the Jerusalem Talmud, where we read that "no one from this company shall rise and go join another company," are also connected to this tradition. The afikoman prohibition does not relate to the "hidden" matza, but rather to the customs of the Greek symposium. It is a warning against epikomos - the drunken debauchery that often occurred at the close of a symposium. It was customary for bands of tipsy Greeks to wander from a symposium and invade other houses uninvited and there, in jest or not, make noise and raucously demand food and gifts. A trace of this can be found in a comment by Rashi, who still interprets the meaning of afikoman as afiku man - "bring out delicacies" - and explains that it was "the way in ancient times they ended their meal with delicacies."

Nevertheless, the connection between the epikomos - after-meal, or in today's lingo, after-party - and the stealing of the "hidden" matza is also not mistaken. The instruction in the Haggadah is "no food may be partaken after the afikoman." The "ransom" custom became so rooted that instead of eliminating it entirely, a way was found to include it: In the course of the seder, the hidden matza is "redeemed" from the children with presents, but they, and certainly not the adults, are not allowed to roam from one house's table to another and demand such ransom in each place. The ransom of gifts with which the afikoman is redeemed from the children is in fact connected to the Greek "ransom" custom.

The purloining of delicacies and gifts in the epikomos part of the seder apparently developed from popular culture and is documented in the customs observed by children during the Festival of the Swallows - a Greek holiday during which they would make the rounds of the houses and sing out the demand for "presents for the swallows." In the urban reality of Greek and Hellenistic society, the custom was adopted by licentious young people, who generally exceeded the boundaries of good taste.

In conclusion (though not recommended for teaching to children), here is the "Swallow Song" from the Island of Rhodes:

Came, came the swallow

with pleasant seasons,

with the beautiful year.

It is white underneath

and black on the back.

You, roll the fruitcake

out of the rich mansion

and a cup of wine,

and a basket of cheese:

nor wheat bread shall the swallow,

nor pulse bread

refuse. Now should we leave? or else receive?

If so, then give, or else we're not content

We'll take the door or the lintel above it

or the woman, she who is sitting outside it,

she's small indeed, an easy load;

if you will bring, bring something large:

now open, open the door for the swallow,

we are not old men, but only children."

(English translation from H.M. Chadwick and Nora K. Chadwick, "The Growth of Literature," Volume 1, Cambridge University Press, 1932)

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