Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Seder Questions

Q: Dear Rabbi Maroof,

I attended your recent lecture on the Seder and was impressed by your knowledge and insight. I thank you for all I learned.

If I may, I would like to ask some Passover Seder related questions:

1. Why are there 3 Matzot at the Seder table? One is for the afikomen, but why the 2 others? (My children always ask me that one). And why is the afikomen matzah broken in two?

2. What is the traditional Sephardic way to say the 10 plagues?
In my tradition, a little wine from a glass, and water from another, are poured together into a bowl at the mention of each plague emptying both with the 10th plague.

Ashkenazim however, dip a finger in the wine and sprinkle it away. Over the years I've heard the following explanations:

Sephardic style (2 cups): water represent justice and water represents mercy. Justice should not be meted out without some mercy (from the kabbalah).

Ashkenazi style (finger dipped in wine): diminishing our pleasure (wine) at the suffering of our enemies.

Does the Talmud or hachamim say anything about this?

3. What to do with Elijah's cup? Drink it or throw it away?

Thank you and hag sameakh.

Jeff Malka

A: Dear Dr. Malka,

Thank you for your kind words. I will do my best to answer your questions:

1. Contrary to popular belief, the use of three matsot on Passover night serves a legal rather than a symbolic function. The Talmud in Masechet Pesahim and Masechet Berachot teaches that we must break one of the "loaves" of matsa at the Seder in order to show that it is the "bread of affliction". A poor person does not necessarily have the luxury of enjoying a complete loaf of bread on a regular basis; more often than not, he sustains himself with the crusts of bread he has preserved from previous meals or with the leftover food that his wealthier neighbors have discarded. We incorporate this concept into our meal through "yahatz", i.e., breaking one of the pieces of our matsa at the Seder.

From a halachic (Jewish legal) standpoint, however, this custom poses a problem. After all, on other holidays and on Shabbat, we are obligated to recite the blessing "hamotsi" over two whole loaves of bread. Why should Passover be any different? For this reason, several Talmudic commentators ruled that three matsot must be used - two to fulfill the general requirement of "lehem mishneh" (blessing over two loaves) , and a third that will be broken to emphasize the concept of "bread of affliction". This prevents the shattering of the matsa from diminishing the honor we render to the holiday through using two whole loaves for the blessing. So, in reality, the three matsot do not form one cohesive group; rather, two of them substitute for the usual "two challot", and the third, broken one exemplifies the concept of affliction. This reasoning forms the basis for the use of three matsot on the night of the Seder.

It is interesting to note that, according to Maimonides and some other authorities, only two matsot should be used at the Seder. In the view of these scholars, the whole point of breaking one of the matsot is that we SHOULDN'T recite the blessing over two complete loaves. In other words, they argue that the notion of affliction or deprivation is expressed through our purposeful downgrading of the "lehem mishneh" to one-and-a-half pieces. It is by way of this disruption of the usual mitsvah of "twin loaves" that the concept of affliction becomes manifest. From this perspective, the introduction of three matsot is not only superfluous, it is inappropriate - because the very existence of "lehem mishneh" stands in direct contradiction to the theme of affliction.

2. The prevalent Sephardic custom regarding the ten plagues is for the leader of the seder to spill ten drops of wine from his cup into a bowl, or, in some cases, into a broken earthenware vessel. The wine in the bowl is subsequently discarded. We do this, rather than dipping our fingers into the cup, in order to avoid the problem of creating a "kos pagum", an unsavory cup. Placing our hands into the wine undoubtedly detracts from its appeal.

The custom of removing some of the wine from our cups upon mention of the Ten Plagues has its roots in a beautiful Midrash of our Sages. The Midrash teaches that, after the Jews crossed the Sea of Reeds to safety and the Egyptians perished, the angels in Heaven wanted to recite God's praises. God rebuked the angels with the now classic phrase "My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you wish to break out in song?"

The Egyptians were a corrupt and oppressive group who subjected the Jewish people to terrible hardships. Many Jews may have experienced a sense of satisfaction as they watched their enemies drown in the sea - a response we would expect from one who, after years of painful struggling, finally triumphs over his opponents. The Rabbis teach us that this attitude is not endorsed by our Creator. Instead of gloating in our victory over the Egyptians, we should temper our joy, mourning the fact that the struggle between Egyptian and Israelite had to end in the destruction of so much human life - life that was filled with unlimited, albeit unactualized, potential for goodness. We should solemnly consider the thought that things could have worked out differently; that, had the Egyptians made wiser, more enlightened choices, acknowledging the Divine will and the demands of morality of their own accord, the tragic consequences that they suffered could have been averted.

What you mentioned about water and wine - the relationship between the Divine Attributes of justice and mercy - is represented through the addition of a few drops of water to the Kiddush wine on Shabbat and Holidays year round. This practice is not limited to Passover in the Sephardic traditions with which I am familiar.

3. Elijah's cup is generally not a Sephardic custom. It was adopted by the Sephardim from their Ashkenazic neighbors. There is nothing objectionable about it, but it was not originally a part of our traditions.

Whether you drink or discard it is purely a matter of preference. Each family has probably adopted its own policy in this regard.

I hope you find these explanations helpful.

Hag Kasher V'Sameah,

Rabbi Maroof


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