“Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Today’s Daf Yomi continues the discussion on what distinguishes Passover from other nights, and Housewives of New Jersey beware, because there is potential table flipping involved. We already learned that the evening is special because one is protected from all harm, can recline at the dinner table and drink four glasses of wine. At the time of the temple, one ate a portion of Paschal lamb which I imagine must have been dry meat that stuck in the throat and was nothing as moist as my grandmother’s brisket.
One eats matza on Passover and dips bitter herbs into the charoset two times to signify the uniqueness of the night. We are told that Hillel (according to the notes in the Koren Talmud, not the Hillel) would eat a sandwich of bitter herbs and matza and while this might meet the requirements of eating matza, it does not absolve one of tasting the true bitterness of the herbs, which was usually represented by lettuce.
Another custom that sets the night apart from all others is the washing of hands before the ritualistic dipping, although even this has become rather ordinary behavior during the past pandemic year. There is an obligation to wash one’s hands before each dipping, because any ritual impurity the resides on one’s hands will be transferred between hands and vegetable. As I write this and look down at my hands, I notice how raw they have become over the past year from all the washing. Just like we are told in today’s Daf Yomi to wash them between dipping of the bitter herbs, I have washed them every time I returned to my apartment from anywhere at all out of fear they have been contaminated by another kind of impurity.
We are told that the bitter herbs would be submerged into the sweet, sticky paste of charoset in order to kill the poison. I suspect the poison referred to is the bitter taste of certain types of lettuce or other vegetables used to represent the bitter herbs. The charoset, which is customarily made from honey, nuts and fruits, would cut the bitterness. But unless one forgets the purpose of tasting the bitter herbs that are meant to remind us of the life we led before we were liberated from slavery, one must not submerge the herbs too long into the sweet charoset. It is important that one truly tastes their biting bitterness.
We are provided a view of seders long ago where each participant lounged on a couch before his personal table. What comes to mind are scenes from overblown Hollywood movies from the 1960s of ancient Egypt. We are told that a seder plate would be placed on each personal table, with the bitter herbs, matza and charoset.
What makes this night special is that in addition to all the dipping, something unexpected should happen. We are told in today’s Daf Yomi that the table before the person reciting the Haggadah (in my family it was my grandfather) would be removed before the meal (and presumably immediately returned) to make the point that this night was different. The notes in the Koren Talmud inform us that most likely, it was a plate that was removed from before the person reciting the Haggadah, because in later times people sat around a table that would have been difficult to remove.
The Gemara asks the obvious question: why remove the table before one has eaten (or even the Passover plate.) And the Gemara answers that it is to teach the children that this is an unusual night when unexpected things may happen. It is a night different from all others and the removal of the dish or table is orchestrated to prompt questions from the children.
When I look back at the Passovers of my youth, I understand the impact the seder has on children. I remember playing with leaning back in my chair in an attempt to recline, until one year I fell over. The recitation of the plagues and dipping of fingers in cups of wine somehow entered my soul and will be with me forever. The litany of plagues was lyrical and mysterious and frightening. I carry the memory of those special nights with me all these years later.
This Passover will be different from all others. If last year was different because it was conducted on zoom, I will be with my mother this year. We have both been vaccinated and Rav Fauci has said if you have been vaccinated you can be with someone else who has been as well. I have been alone for every holiday during the past year.
If last year was one of pure bitterness as the pandemic was in full swing in New York City and the sound of racing ambulances was continuously piercing the air, this year will be one where the sorrow associated with what we have lived through is tempered with charoset, the sweet paste of apples and honey. It will be a night unlike any other.