Drash on Parashat Chol Hamoed Pesach
Rabbi Gersh Lazarow
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
Evolution of the Seder
Even a novice student of the Torah can affirm that Pesach has long been marked by a night-time ceremony that recalls how, following their first paschal meal and the resulting tenth plague, the Israelites made their escape from Egypt in the middle of the night. The Torah instructs us to slaughter the Korban Pesach (the
paschal lamb), to eat it with matzot and maror, and to sprinkle some blood on the lintel and doorposts (Ex.12:22). It also instructs the father to teach his son about the Exodus (Ex. 12:26; 13:6, 14; Deut. 6:12 and Ex. 10:2). These mitzvot, however, are a far cry from the many rituals that we shared in our s’darim this week, or the words that we recited from our Haggadot.
Appreciating this, I thought it might be useful during Chol Ha’moed Pesach to explore a little of how the seder as we know it today, with its ordered set of rituals and accompanying texts, came into being.
Scholars note that both the seder and the Haggadah are missing from the Second Temple period descriptions of Pesach, with no reference in either the Elephantine Papyrus (419 BCE) or the book of Jubilees (late second century BCE). Neither is it discussed in any of the writings of Philo (20 BCE-50 CE) or Josephus (37 CE-100 CE). Indeed, the first mention as we have come to see it is in the Tosefta and Mishnah – the oldest post temple Rabbinic text (Pesachim Chapter 10), with the safe and most common dating being no later than 200 CE, the year of publication of the Mishnah.
Following this rationale, in his work The Origins of the Seder, Baruch Bokser claims that Mishnah Pesachim 10 is the ‘first formulated version of the expanded rite’, and that it presents a seder composed of both old and new elements. He says that the message of this chapter is that nothing is new, that the seder ritual had always been followed. As for telling the story at the seder, he claims that it goes back to the Bible.
While I agree with Bokser that the Mishnah presents the first seder and Haggadah as we know them today, the historian in me struggles to accept the idea of their existence and observance during the Second Temple Period. For as long as the Temple stood, there seems to be little doubt that the main Pesach celebration took place there and that its central feature was the offering of the paschal lamb. Mishnah Pesachim (5:5-7) records how groups of Israelites filed into the Temple court, priests or Levites blew trumpets and held out gold and silver vessels to collect blood, and Israelites slaughtered their lambs and poured the blood into the waiting vessels.
After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Pesach night celebration, were it to continue to be observed, had to change in both form and substance. The Tosefta which documented the practices of the day, should, in my mind, therefore be best understood as a window into this evolving rite, a rite that in time gave birth to the Haggadah and became the practice that was eventually recorded in the Mishnah some 130 years later.
The major difference between the two s’darim is that in the Tosefta there is no mention of telling the story; not in the form of questions that the son asks the father, nor in the form of a midrash on verses that the father teaches the son, nor in the form of talking about the symbolic foods of the evening.
The main event is the recitation of the Hallel with Psalm 114, which is particularly appropriate for the seder as it makes explicit reference to the Exodus, which the other psalms thank God for salvation. We also know that the psalms were a cornerstone of Temple ritual, and it makes sense that they formed the basis of the first post-Temple observances. It also helps us to understand why the Tosefta makes no mention of the telling of the story, nor the questions or the midrash, as these had not yet come into being.
For me, the interesting question then becomes why, if the Tosefta’s seder was the original rabbinic response to the Temple’s destruction, was there a need for it to continue to evolve into the tradition that is recorded in the Mishnah? The answer to this becomes clear when we appreciate that our Rabbinic ancestors were not living in a cultural vacuum and the lure of the surrounding culture was incredibly enticing. This rationale has led many to accept the suggestion that the Seder is a rabbinic drash on the Greek symposium.
Simply put, it would have taken time for people to develop a meaningful ritual that did not feel like less than that which was done before. Moreover, what is clear to me is that the Toseftic tradition clearly predates the Mishnaic, and by understanding how they evolved into the modern seder, the most popular religious observance on the Jewish calendar, students of rabbinic history and literature are given a wonderful insight into how our ancestors responded (gradually) to the tragedy of the Temple’s destruction.