The Origin of the Seder
The Passover Rite and early Rabbinic Judaism
By Baruch M. Bokser
Jewish Theological Seminary Press, 2002, 188 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 20, 2011
This reprint of the 1984 classic by Professor Bokser explains the origin of the Passover Seder meal ritual. He notes that the Pascal sacrifice was an important part of Jewish ritual and was biblically required. Every year hundreds of thousands of Jews traveled to the Jerusalem temple to offer the sacrifice. But the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and the sacrifice could no longer be brought there. What could the rabbis do to replace the Pascal sacrifice? Bokser states that the rabbis instituted the Seder, a home ceremony rather than a temple oriented one, and organized a set of procedures that the Jewish family should do at home together. The rabbis minimized the importance of the sacrifice in the Seder so that the people wouldn't dwell on its loss and feel that the Passover holiday was no longer significant and relevant.
How the Seder differed
Unlike the Pascal sacrifice, the Seder was not a pilgrimage rite from home to Jerusalem ending in the offering. The rabbis' Seder is a celebratory meal at home commemorating the exodus from Egyptian slavery; unlike the biblical sacrificial ritual, the Seder became both a family festivity and an intellectual endeavor; "the narration of the Exodus experience (became) a central part of the (home) ceremony"; the "child's question (introduced as part of the Seder narration did) not depend on the procedures surrounding the sacrifice and its blood"; the family "uses wine instead of meat from the sacrifice to express one's joy"; "the unleavened bread and bitter herbs were originally secondary but have been elevated in status equal to that of the Passover sacrifice"; while the Levites monopolized the singing in the temple, all Jews "sing psalms to God; and Jews not only focused on the nation's past history, but were required to identify their own lives during the Seder "with the Exodus experience." Since the new emphasis is on the present and future rather than the past, "the lack of reference to Moses (in the narration) is only natural. While Moses had a role in Egyptian liberation, he does not figure in any of the later instances of redemption."
About a century and a half later, around the year 200 CE, the editor of the Mishnah, the first Jewish collection of laws and other things, described the newly-developed home ritual for the first time in writing. Bokser discusses all of the information contained in the Mishnah. He notes that although the Mishnah is presenting a new way of observing Passover, it tries to cover the fact that it is offering an innovation, and leaves readers to believe that it is simply codifying "a well-tried and established road." This Mishnaic ceremony was itself later changed in many ways. For example, the Mishnah has the youngster ask three questions at the Seder, one of which concerned the Pascal sacrifice. This was later amended to four questions, the Pascal sacrifice query was dropped, and two new ones inserted.
Where did the rabbis get their idea about a home ceremony?
Bokser states that the rabbis derived their scheme to turn the Temple ritual into a family celebration from the depiction in Exodus 12 of the family celebration in Egypt just prior to the exodus from slavery during which families gathered in their homes and ate a roasted lamb with matzah and bitter herbs. The rabbis renewed this one-time Egyptian event and expanded it into the Seder.
Some scholars disagree. They insist that the Seder is a copy of the Greek symposium and not Exodus 12, described by Plato and Herodotus in books called The Symposium. But Bokser shows that the Seder is radically different. The symposium was an informal gathering of men where food was eaten and lots of wine drunk. Conversation was usually a part of the symposium, but the subjects discussed were not generally pre-set and formalized.
The Seder, in contrast, is a requirement, not an occasional event, with a set time, and women and children attend. Even a poor person must recline at the meal and all must drink at least four cups of wine. It is not a time of revelry like the symposium; a blessing is said over each of the four cups, the amount of wine in each cup is set, and the wine may not be too strong. Several ceremonies must be performed, such as dipping foods, and certain foods must be eaten, such as the matzah. The subject of conversation is set, the exodus, certain readings must be recited, and a minimum of prescribed questions asked. Unlike the symposium that ended in drunken frivolity, after-dinner frivolity at the Seder is prohibited.
Bokser's analysis of the Seder origin is persuasive. However, the analysis would have been improved if he would have recognized that the family celebration in Egypt mentioned in Exodus 12 was not a Pascal sacrifice, as I describe in my article Why was the first Passover different from all other Passovers? and if he would have answered the question, why was the Pascal sacrifice a lowly lamb rather than the usual more pricey and prestigious calf?
The so-called Passover in Egypt
In my article, I showed that the Exodus 12 activities were very different than subsequent Passovers. It was a joyful family or neighborly meal in which the Israelites demonstrated how happy they were that they would soon be free. In contrast, subsequent Passovers recalled the exodus event. Since the Israelites were descendants of pastoral ancestors who shepherded lambs and were probably accustomed to mark special occasions by eating them, they were told in Exodus 12 to celebrate the upcoming liberation by eating their traditional festive lamb, in a close-nit family or neighborhood celebration, much like the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
Moses told the Israelites to eat this festive lamb with the best kind of bread, matzah, unleavened bread, and season the lamb and make it tasty with sharp herbs. The traditional view is that unleavened bread is poor bread consumed because the Israelites had to rush out of Egypt with insufficient time for the bread to rise, and bitter herbs recall the bitter toils of slavery. This idea is clearly inapplicable to the pre-exodus celebration. Moses instructed them to eat unleavened bread at the festive meal four days before the event, more than sufficient time to bake leavened bread. Accordingly, Arnold Ehrlich suggests, in his Mikra Ki-pheshuto, that the ancients considered leavened bread inferior to unleavened. He points out, among other proofs, that Abraham in 18:6 served his three guests a sumptuous meal that included ugot, and ugot are unleavened bread, as indicated in 12:39, where Scripture states ugot matzot. Abraham had ordered that an animal be taken from the herd, slaughtered, cooked, and prepared for his guests. This takes time; time enough for the leaven to rise. This explains why leavened bread was prohibited with sacrifices that were burnt on the altar for God (23:18 and Deuteronomy 16:3); only matzah were offered to God because it was the better bread.
Thus, the bread used at the pre-exodus celebration was matzah. After the exodus, both the matzah and bitter herbs acquired an additional meaning. The former also symbolized the haste in which the Israelites left Egypt, and the latter the bitter nature of slavery.
Thus the Exodus 12 celebration was radically different than the subsequent Passovers. It was a joyful thanksgiving meal in which the Israelites demonstrated their happiness that they would soon be free. There was no sacrifice. In contrast, the purpose of subsequent Passovers was to offer the lamb as a Pascal sacrifice and recall the exodus event that followed the meal. I suggest that readers read this article for more details. It is on my website.
Had Bokser realized that the Egyptian meal was a celebratory thanksgiving event, he could have expanded on his idea and pointed out that the rabbis resurrected this family meal, that was not related to the Pascal sacrifice to replace the sacrifice, and retained its joyous victorious spirit in the creation of the Seder together with readings that recall the slavery, making the Seder have two opposite but related goals, just as the matzah and bitter herbs have dual symbolism, the slavery and the exodus.
Why was the Pascal sacrifice a lamb and not a calf?
Many rabbis considered the Pascal sacrifice the most important offering. Thus, we would have expected that the sacrifice would be from the preferred larger and more costly calf. Why was it a lamb? The lamb was the chosen animal to commemorate the eating of the lamb at the Exodus 12 family celebration anticipating the exodus. Once this is understood, the rabbis' use of the Exodus 12 family celebration as a substitute for the Pascal sacrifice is seen as even more appropriate. The Pascal sacrifice recalled the Exodus 12 celebratory meal; now the revitalized Exodus 12 meal with additions and changes replaces the sacrifice that had recalled it.
The rabbis were faced with a problem. What could they do since the most-important Temple offering, the Pascal sacrifice, could no longer be offered in the destroyed temple? They revived the Exodus 12 celebratory meal with over a dozen changes and additions.