A Formative - and Food-related - Moment

Rabbi Gamliel proposes that the seder menu be recited at the table, not as an auxiliary text but rather as a key element in the meal. If menu is not recited, the commandment to observe Passover has not been performed.

Yakov Z. Meyer
Yakov Z. Meyer

According to the literal interpretation of the biblical text, the purpose of the festival of Passover is to preserve the story of the Exodus from Egypt in the collective Jewish memory: "And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in thy mouth; for with a strong hand hath the Lord brought thee out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:9). With the help of the narrative of the Exodus in the Haggadah, which is recited at the seder each year - such a collective memory is indeed created and transmitted from one generation to the next.

Each Jew is commanded to tell the Exodus story, a linear narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. This is a dramatic saga about a formative moment in Jewish history, and it is expected that every Jew will be overwhelmed with fear when considering what would have happened if the Exodus had not taken place, as the Haggadah says: "If God had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children's children would be Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt."

Unlike the practice current today, the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus, according to the Mishnah, should involve textual improvisation that conforms to certain predefined rules: It must be rendered in a fashion suitable for the children ("A father must teach his son according to the level of the latter's understanding" ); it must begin with deprecatory statements and end with praise; and it must be composed as a commentary on certain verses in the Torah. As the Mishnah instructs, "The reader must interpret the biblical text from 'An Aramean [Laban] tried to kill my father [Jacob]' (Deuteronomy 26:5 ), and must continue until the very end of the entire story" (Mishna, Tractate Pesachim, 10:4 ).

From the moment the story of the Exodus is once again remembered and recounted at the seder, the event is torn out of the pages of history, as it were, and it comes to life in the hearts of those seated around the table. This act of reviving the story is the essence of the fulfillment of the commandment to remember the Exodus narrative.

In the Haggadah, there is, on the one hand, the axis that extends from negative statements on to words of praise, and that involves various interpretations of the biblical text, and on the other hand, the biblical "skeleton" that the narrator of the story of Exodus uses to interpret that story. Both the axis and the skeleton are linear elements in the context of which the story unfolds until it reaches the end, advancing all the while along a chronological continuum. The narrator is personally located on this continuum, at the end of the process of the Jewish people's redemption or still throughout that process. Thanks to the relative maneuverability allowed in recounting the Exodus saga, the narrator can also easily identify with it, as the above Mishnah also instructs: "In each generation, every individual must look upon himself as if he personally participated in the Exodus from Egypt."

However, in addition to the obligation to recount the linear narrative, the Mishnah introduces Rabbi Gamliel's view, which is quoted in the Haggadah and became a practical obligation. His view offers an alternative way of reconstructing the national memory: "Rabbi Gamliel would say: If you have not said the following three things on Passover [at the seder], you have not fulfilled your obligation [of telling the story of the Exodus]. These three things are: pesach, matza u'maror [i.e., the Passover sacrifice; the unleavened bread eaten during the holiday; and the bitter herbs - all of these found on the seder table]" (Mishna, Tractate Pesachim, 10:5 ).

Rabbi Gamliel obligates each Jew to recite a text at the seder table in order to preserve the collective memory, but that text is strictly defined and final, leaving no room for improvisation. What is even more important is that this text is not a narrative. Rabbi Gamliel instructs each person to recite a list of three foods so as to fulfill the obligation of celebrating Passover. It should be emphasized, however, that he talks about reciting the words - besides eating the meat of the sacrifice, the matza or the bitter herbs; indeed, the Mishnah discusses the consumption of these items elsewhere. Thus, according to Rabbi Gamliel, these three items are the "bearers" of the collective memory, creating necessary connections and transmitting all recollections of history to the next generation.

Furthermore, each of the three foods mentioned has a predefined meaning, as per this same talmudic source. And each brings to the surface, as it were, yet another facet of the story of the Exodus. Pesach, that is, the sacrifice, embodies the fact that God "passed over" the homes of our ancestors (the root of pesach, peh-samekh-het, means "to pass or skip over" ), thus saving them from the 10th and final plague - that of the killing of the first-born, which ultimately afflicted only Egyptians, whose human offspring and animals thus perished. The matza recalls the departure from Egypt, when there was no time to lose and bread had to be taken out of the oven before its dough had time to rise. And the bitter herbs recall the arduous tasks the Egyptians forced our enslaved ancestors to perform, thus embittering their lives.

Rabbi Gamliel also proposes bringing another way to tell the story at the seder table, a way that is neither linear nor chronological. This is a section that does not begin at the beginning or end at the end, but rather moves between non-chronological coordinates. This is the section that is "mediated" by awakening tastebuds and directed toward the "memory glands": He proposes that the menu of the seder be recited at the table, not as an auxiliary text but rather as a key element in the meal. Accordingly, if the menu is not recited, the commandment to observe Passover has not been performed.

Rabbi Gamliel challenges the perception of the story of the Exodus as a linear, historical narrative and in essence breaks it into segments, rearranging it according to themes - in terms of food, actually. He is asking: What is memory? How can it be reconstructed? How can intimacy be created between the narrative and the listener, between his senses and his mind? How can a person feel he is part of the Exodus from Egypt for one day, for one moment? Rabbi Gamliel's reply is surprising: The key is to be found not through immersing oneself in the ancient biblical text, nor through reconstruction of the narrative per se, but rather by paying special attention to the meaning of what has been placed before us on the seder table - and by reciting out loud: pesach, matza u'maror.

Illustration from the 'Copenhagen Haggadah' of 1739.

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