Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Hallel at the Seder

When we think about Pesach, our minds often turn to the special foods and traditions associated with it, such as Matzah, Maror and four cups of wine. We are well-prepared for these additions to our regular Yom Tov meal as we go through the Haggadah. However we are often surprised that in the middle of our Seder we find Hallel as a section. This is very strange, and we will see that there is a fundamental difference between the Hallel at our Seder and any other Hallel. Normally, the following rules apply to Hallel:
  1. It is said in Shul.
  2. It is part of Shacharit, following the Amidah repetition.
  3. It starts and ends with a bracha, and one is not allowed to interrupt its recitation 
The Hallel in our Seder seems to break all three rules:

  1. It is said at home around the table.
  2. It is said in the evening and is not part of tefilla.
  3. It is split into two sections, with the opening two paragraphs at the end of Maggid and the rest said after Birkat Hamazon.

Understanding the reason for this will help us to better appreciate what we go through on Seder night. There are two types of Hallel – the first is said in commemoration of a miracle, which we are familiar with saying, such as on the morning of festivals or Rosh Chodesh. The second is a spontaneous Hallel, which is said in immediate thanks for what Hashem is currently doing to the Jewish people. This Hallel does not happen often but when it does, is not bound in the same strict rules as the commemorative form of Hallel, simply because what you are doing is ‘live’!

The Hallel we say at our Seder is a spontaneous expression of thanks to Hashem for redeeming us on this night from Egypt. We ourselves have gone out of Egypt, so the natural instinct is to sing Hallel and thank Hashem for saving us. However this still does not explain why we split Hallel into two parts, one before the meal and one after.

The answer to this is that uniquely for Pesach, our praise to Hashem is not solely expressed through the words of tefilla. On Seder night, our eating of a meal is also part of the way we express our thanks to Hashem, since we are eating to commemorate the Korban Pesach meal, which was one of the most fundamental mitzvot. Therefore on Seder night our meal is part of Hallel since on this night we elevate our physical bodies to be able to express our feelings towards Hashem in a way normally reserved for our spiritual souls and the words we say. Although we no longer have a Korban Pesach, the Hallel at our Seder helps us relive the notion of what korbanot tried to achieve, namely that the ultimate way in which we thank Hashem is through a combination of mind, body and soul – a complete service, which can be done from the comfort of our own homes.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Seder Night Guide 2 (The Mitzvot of Seder Night)

There are 4 main mitzvot that the Torah directly obligates us to do on Seder Night:

1.      Korban Pesach: eating the Passover sacrifice
2.      Eating Matza
3.      Eating Maror
4.      Telling the story of the Exodus to children

The only one of these that we are unable to fulfil is the Korban Pesach since there is no Beit Hamikdash and instead we place a shank bone on the Seder plate as a reminder (although Maror is now considered a rabbinic mitzvah). In addition to this, the Rabbis enacted further obligations including four cups of wine, charoset, karpas, leaning to the left and reciting Hallel.

The Mitzvah of telling the story (Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim)

The mitzvah of telling the story to the Exodus is unique to Seder night. We do have a mitzvah to remember the Exodus every day, which we fulfil by saying Shema. However on Seder night there is a specific mitzvah to tell children what happened. The story of the five Rabbis in the Haggadah shows us that this mitzvah is not quantifiable, since the more one tells, the more praiseworthy one is. The Maggid section facilitates our performance of this Mitzvah. After starting with an invitation to the poor (Ha lachma anya) and getting children’s attention (Ma Nishtana), we discuss our obligation of telling the story, where the story starts and finally, the story itself. The Mishna in Pesachim 10:4 says that one should “start [the Seder] in disgrace and end with praise” and the Maggid section allows us to go through this process of becoming free through reliving the story. Once we have done this, we ‘end with praise’ and move on to the more celebratory parts of the Seder.

The Mitzvot of Matza and Maror

There is an argument in the Gemara in Pesachim 115a between the Sages and Hillel as to how to eat the Pesach, Matza and Maror. The Sages held that they should be eaten separately and Hillel would eat them together, schwarma style. This explains the next stage of the Seder:

Rachtza and Motzi are different names for what we do at every Shabbat and Yom Tov meal – wash with a bracha and eat two loaves of bread/matza. At this point we add in an extra bracha to denote the Seder-specific mitzvah of eating matza. Maror requires a bracha to denote the special obligation to eat it on Seder night, however the regular ‘ha’adama’ bracha for eating a vegetable is covered by the earlier bracha on the karpas.

Immediately after this, we aim to fulfil Hillel’s opinion through korech, eating matza and maror together. Following this, we eat our Yom Tov meal and bentsch, as well as completing the cycle of slavery-freedom by finding and eating the Afikoman.


By this point in the Haggada, we have been redeemed from slavery. We have eaten a celebratory meal and fulfilled the mitzvot so the obvious next step is to praise Hashem for this through saying Hallel. This is unique because it is the only time we say Hallel in our homes and not as part of a minyan, and it is the only time of year we say it at night. Whereas our regular recitation of Hallel in Shul is a thanksgiving for a miracle that occurred in the past, this is a ‘spontaneous’ singing of Hallel due to the fact that we have just experienced redemption from Egypt. This is a wonderful example of how the guidelines of Seder night allow us to transcend the boundaries of time and place through physical actions and words said around a family table. Following Hallel, we conclude the Seder with a collection of songs and praises, as well as the ultimate hope of ‘next year in Jerusalem’.

Seder Night Guide 1 (Introduction to the Seder)

We are required to eat a meal in the evening and morning of every Shabbat and Yom Tov – so what makes the first day(s) of Pesach so different that we make such a big fuss? Seder night even has its own book – the Haggada! This guide will outline the structure and principles of what we are trying to do on Seder night.

Let’s start by looking at which of these 14 components form part of the regular Yom Tov meal: The most obvious are Kadesh (1), referring to Kiddush, and Barech (12), which is bentsching. Parts 6, 7 and 10 are also familiar as they are the Yom Tov meal. But there’s a lot different about this night.

After Kiddush, why do we wash and eat karpas - when do we ever wash before eating vegetables? And why do we not make a bracha?

When the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) stood, one washed hands before dipping vegetables in water without a bracha for reasons of purity (some still do this today, though it’s not necessary). A major principle of Seder Night is to recreate life as if there was a Beit Hamikdash and prepare for the coming of the third one. Therefore when we eat the karpas we wash beforehand without a bracha. Some Haggadot say that only the leader of the Seder should do this. It doesn’t matter who does, since the act is merely symbolic and not a Mitzvah (like Rachtza – see section 6).

However why have karpas at all? Another principle of the Seder is that every Jew should feel like nobility. Since it was the custom of the rich to have an apperatif before the meal, we all indulge in this pleasure, though in a slight reminder of the bitterness of slavery we dip the karpas into salt water. This idea is also why the Mishna in Pesachim 10:1 says that everyone should ensure that every Jew, however poor, has enough money for 4 cups of wine – because on this night, we are all rich!

In Yachatz, we break the middle of three matzot on the Seder plate, half of which is used later for the Afikoman (see section 11). We have two matzot to fulfil the standard requirement of eating two loaves for every Shabbat or Yom Tov evening meal, but why the third?

One reason is to represent hoarding provisions on the way out of Egypt – but we’re only truly free when we don’t have to ‘ration’ our food because we don’t know where our next meal is coming from. Yachatz symbolises our slave mentality and it’s only after we get redeemed through the course of the Seder that we can re-connect the two halves and feel truly free. The process of re-connecting the halves is Tzafun (section 11), which means ‘hidden’, representing how we bring out the hidden. In fact, Afikoman in Aramaic could derive from the phrase ‘afiku man’, which means ‘bring out the manna’ and refers to the miraculous continuous provision of food by Hashem throughout the Jewish people’s time in the desert.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

New Year's Day

Rosh Chodesh Nisan is not usually referred to as the start of the new Jewish year - that honour goes to 1st Tishrei, which is designated as Rosh Hashanah. However the opening Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah explains that there are actually four Jewish new years, as this table shows:

1st Nisan
Counting years of Jewish kings
The cycle of festivals (e.g. Pesach is 1st festival of year)
1st Elul
Tithing (starting the count of animals to see that the tenth is given to Cohanim)
1st Tishrei
Counting years (e.g. 5772)
Counting Shemitta years (every 7)
Counting Yovel/Jubilee years (every 50)
Tithing (see above – but only according to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon)
15th Shevat*
Trees (*According to Beit Shammai this is on 1st Shevat)

In today's world where we have no Jewish king or Beit Hamikdash, the two most relevant dates here are 1st Nisan and 1st Tishrei. One is the start of the Jewish festival calendar and one is the start of the Jewish year. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, where 1st January is the start of the new year and January is also the first month, in the Jewish calendar, 1st Tishrei may be the start of the new year but it is the seventh month - the first month is Nisan. Therefore in Judaism there are two different cycles - the cycle of months and the cycle of years.

There are lots of interesting comparisons and contrasts between these two new years. The two start dates of these two cycles are exactly six months apart, which means that the Jewish year can be divided neatly into two periods. They also both signal the start of seasons - 1st Nisan heralds the start of spring whereas 1st Tishrei is the beginning of autumn. The months of Nisan and Tishrei contain some of the key festivals in the Jewish calendar (Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot etc) and are both considered happy months, throughout much of which we do not say Tachanun.

It is well-publicised that the theme of the month of Tishrei is teshuva, returning to Hashem. At this time we work on rectifying mistakes, doing more mitzvot and focusing on improving our character in the year ahead. However there is also reason to suggest 1st Nisan is a time for teshuva too. However the focus is less on our own personal religious journey but that of the Jewish people as a nation. Jews are always part of a dichotomy between the individual and the communal and our need to function in both spheres is reflected by these two new years. During Nisan, we should be doing collective teshuva as a nation looking at rectifying past mistakes and seeing how we can improve together. This is something that Binyamin Netanyahu would do well to focus on when putting together a coalition government for Israel.