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Secularism and Our Heritage: The Origins of Pesakh

April 9, 2017

by Max Rosenfeld

Published in Spring, 1967, in Jewish Currents

THE TRADITIONAL explanation for the holiday of Pesakh is to be found in the twelfth chapter of Exodus: “Tell all the congregations of Israel,” God said to Moses, “that on the tenth day of this month, every household must sacrifice a lamb,” and if the family is too small for a whole lamb, God continues, it is permissible to join with a neighbor. The animal is to be roasted and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The meal is to be eaten in haste. And each household must take some of the blood of the lamb and smear it on the two side-posts of the house.

“For I will go through the Land of Egypt on that night and smite all the first-born. And when I see the houses with the blood on the doorposts, I will pass over them. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial . . . for on that day I brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

Despite this apparent connection between the Hebrew words pesakh (the name of the sacrifice) and pasakh (pass over), most modern scholars are convinced that the ceremony of the lamb, as well as that of unleavened bread, were observed by the Hebrews long before the exodus from Egypt was either experienced or imagined, and that they were originally two separate observances. Moreover, it is almost certain that not all the tribes of Israel, if any, were “led out of Egypt,” because some of them never got there, having stayed behind in Palestine. Securely lodged in the folk memory, however, was the story of a sojourn of some part of the early Hebrews in Egypt, the “land of Goshen.”

FROM PARALLELS among other peoples, and in the light of present historical knowledge, it is possible to construct the reasonable hypothesis that Pesakh was a festival designed to cement ties of kinship among the members of the group, a practice observed by many peoples at the beginning of each new agricultural cycle. The act of eating together sealed the community covenant.

Since this was a sacred occasion, however, the quality of the food eaten was vital. Special care had to be taken that it was pure and free from any putrescence -- that it was not beginning to spoil -- and in a Near Eastern country this meant that it had to be eaten immediately, “in haste.” Once the meal was finished, it was then necessary to mark the homes of those who had participated in the ceremony. Thus the blood on the doorposts.

The story of the Hebrews in Egypt and of their liberation from slavery is told in countless legends. The making of the hagode, therefore, was more a work of selection than composition. It tells us what folk memories the Jewish sages thought most worthy of preserving. The hagode contains the story of the exodus, a number of prayers and hymns extolling God’s greatness, interpretations of various Biblical passages about the festival, several cumulative-type songs meant for joyous singing, and an explanation of the symbols and ceremonies. The oldest sections of the hagode are about 2,000 years old and the youngest are about 500, except for one addition our own tragic time has made -- the Ani Maamim (I Believe), in commemoration of the Holocaust. Many secularists, however, have adopted the practice of singing Hirsh Glick’s Partisan Hymn, Zog Nit Keynmol, at this point in the seder.

Woven into all of this is a set of values that can be no less meaningful for us than they were for our ancestors. Gone of those values, which cannot be transcribed here, is the beauty of the original Hebrew or Aramic, an insofar as beauty is lost in translation, that particular value is diminished. I say this because, in my opinion, the sound of fateful words eventually assumes almost as much weight in tradition as the meaning (think of “Four score and seven years ago”).

Ho lakmo anya, begins the hagode in Aramaic: “This is the bread of poverty that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy share our Passover feast.” What is this reminder of humble ancestral origins if not a call to understand others in similar circumstances? You cannot fully enjoy this feast, says the hagode, so long as there are people who lack the means to do so. (It has been noted by one scholar that the Bible repeats thirty-six times the warning against mistreatment of the “stranger in your midst.”)

B’khol dor vodor -- “In every generation each person must look upon himself as if he came out of Egypt.” Again, identification with the enslaved; a declaration that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; a reminder of the debt we owe to those who fought for freedom. This reminder of the Hebrew liberation from slavery is the touchstone, the central frame of reference, of the Torah. It is repeated again and again in various forms. The very first commandment characterizes the God of Israel as the One who “brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

CRYPTIC AND PROVOCATIVE is the brief, one-paragraph story of the rabbis at Bnai Brak. “A tale is told of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eleazer ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiba, and Rabbi Tarfon, who once reclined together at Bnai Brak telling about the exodus from Egypt all night, until their students came to them and said, Masters, the time has come to read the morning Shema.”

Jewish folklore asks: Bnai Brak was Rabbi Akiba’s home town; the other rabbis did not live in that part of the country; what were they doing there? Why didn’t the students participate in the seder together with their teachers? Why was it necessary to inform the rabbis that morning had come -- couldn’t they see for themselves?

Answer: Rabbi Akiba was a leader of the rebellion against Rome. The Roman authorities had forbidden all gatherings of Jews for study or any other purpose under penalty of death. Therefore it must be that the rabbis were in a concealed place, such as a cave, planning the rebellion, and the students were outside keeping watch.

The story itself here is not the important thing. More revealing are the reasons offered by Jewish lore for the inclusion of this story in the hagode.

THE MAIN CHARACTER in the story of exodus is Moses. And the folklore about him is voluminous. One would expect, therefore, to find his name on every page of the hagode. Yet actually Moses is mentioned only once, and only in passing. Why? Perhaps for the same reason that Moses “disappeared into Heaven” when he died and no one knew where he was buried. Jewish lore wanted nothing to do with shrines, which have been known to lead to idolatry.

Furthermore, as important as Moses’ leadership was in liberating the people from slavery and in shaping them into a national body, no one man was to get credit for all of this. Those who wish to can give credit to the Almighty. But certainly it was not one infallible human being. There was no cult of the individual with our sages. All the important figures in our mythology, Moses included, were human beings with human frailties and human virtues and the human capacity for error. And they all had to pay, in one way or another, for their errors, as the Biblical story makes very clear . . .

The pedagogic values in the seder have long been apparent. The whole ceremony, in fact, seems to have been designed for the children at the table, to keep them interested, involved, and awake. The Four Questions, the Afikomen, the symbols, the singing, have left indelible impressions on generation after generation of Jewish children. The Bible itself, after all, is very explicit about this: “And you shall tell your child [son] on that day . . .” But the hagode is not content with merely “telling your child.” It wants to make sure you reach him. So it describes four different kinds of children, four different kinds of personalities, each of which presents a different kind of problem and needs a different approach.

The khokhem -- the intelligent child, the one with the keen, interested mind, but be given a thorough explanation, everything the child can absorb. The rosho -- the bad child, who asks “What does all of this mean to you” and sets himself apart from the group, must be answered sharply. The “simple” child needs to be instructed simply, on his own level. And the child who is too young, or too shy, must be drawn out, stimulated, encouraged. How? “Ptakh lo,” says the hagode. You must open up with him . . .

Happy Passover!

Max Rosenfeld was a pioneering secular Jewish educator and writer, a member of our editorial board, a leader of Philadelphia’s Sholem Aleichem Club, and a devoted translator of Yiddish literature.