Now that Purim has passed, it is time to turn our attention to Pesach and to consider once again the most important and fascinating of our Jewish rituals: the Pesach Seder.
In the next few weeks, I want to share some thoughts on different aspects of the Seder. I hope that you will take the time to consider these ideas and how they can impact your holiday observance.
One of the highlights of the Seder for many is the recitation of the four questions. The source for the asking of questions at the Seder is found in the Mishna, in which we read that after the second cup of wine has been poured, the child “asks his father”. The Mishna then proceeds to say that if the child does not have the ability to ask, the parent teaches the questions: Mah Nishtana Halayla Hazeh Meekol Halaylot… Shebechal Halaylot…
It is not clear whether these specific questions must be asked at each Seder or if these are the specific questions the parent teaches a child who can’t ask on his or her own. But, one way or the other, the Mishna gives a set of four questions to be asked.
It is important to note that the four questions of the Mishna are actually different from our four questions. One difference is minor: the fourth question in the Mishna which corresponds with our third question mentions that on all other nights “we only dip once” while at the Seder we dip twice. Our text reads: “we don’t dip even once”. This apparently reflects the fact that one dipping as a first course was more common at the time of the Mishna than in subsequent eras.
But, the more significant difference is found in the third question in the Mishna. This question states that on all other nights we prepare meat in many different ways but “tonight we eat only roasted meat”. This refers to the Pesach sacrifice which, according to the Torah, must be roasted. After the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of sacrifices, this question became irrelevant, as there was no longer a requirement to eat only roasted meat. So, the question was dropped from the ritual.
However, perhaps in an effort to insure that four questions be asked (to fit in with four cups of wine and the four children of the Seder) a fourth question was added in later years referring to the fact that we recline during the Seder: “On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, tonight we recline.”
The idea of reclining at the Seder presumably has its origins in the tradition of reclining during banquets in the Greek and Roman world. Assuming some aspects of the Seder are related to the philosophical symposia of the Greek world, it is not surprising that our ancestors reclined during the ritual. In later generations, this tradition remained a part of the Seder even after it was no longer familiar in other settings. Therefore, it became a reasonable subject for a child to ask in the context of “how this night is different from all other nights”.
The word for reclining is misubin and it is generally taught that reclining is an expression of freedom and of the comfort that the redemption from slavery allowed our ancestors. Today, the leader and many participants symbolically recline by leaning on a pillow during the Seder.
Clearly, this is what the word misubinmeans in the context of the four questions. But, there is a beautiful commentary on the word which I believe can make a significant difference in how we conduct our Seder while we recline.
There are some who relate the word “misubin” to the Hebrew word “misaviv” which means “around” or “in a circle”. These commentators proceed to teach that at the Seder table, we should sit in a circle.
Think about how important this is.
A circle is defined as the set of points which are equidistant from a specific point. At the Seder, the central point should be where the leader sits and the Seder plate is placed. Thus, if the Seder plate is placed in the middle of the table, sitting in a circle insures that each individual at the Seder is equidistant from this central point so that all feel equally a part of the ritual.
In our day, many are accustomed to setting up long Seder tables (often with a “kids table” off to the side). In this configuration, the leader usually sits at the head of the table and some sit further away from the leader than others.
This is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the Seder. The Seder should be a shared experience. Each and every individual, including those who might be relegated to the periphery for whatever reason, must be part of the conversation and must be recognized as an equal.
Not everyone can have a circular table but I offer two suggestions to those who would like to follow this advice.
First, especially if you have young children at your Seder, you might try getting up from the table and sitting around in a circle (maybe even on the floor as if around a campfire) for Maggid: the storytelling part of the Seder. This may be unusual but it might make for an unforgettable evening for the youngest in the family.
But, if you prefer to sit at the table for the entire Seder, at the very least be sure that the leader of the table is not at one end or the other. Place the leader closer to the middle of the table where the Seder plate is so that no one feels superfluous. Everyone then becomes part of the action and attention and no one feels too distant. This is a night to be shared equally among all Seder participants and no one should feel less a part of the discussion and ritual.
We all recline.
But, it’s particularly important at the Seder that we recline in a circle.