Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Jewish Adoption & Adaptation: The Seder as a Symposium

For a religion and its adherents to survive and flourish for well over three millennia, it has to have a strong survival system. Judaism, probably the world’s oldest existing religion, has several: diaspora (for 2500 years not all Jews have lived in the same place); pluralism of religious practice (few eras had only one approach to Jewish living), and adaptation (modifying and adjusting to changing circumstances and religious challenges). It is this latter approach that I’ll discuss here, using the upcoming Passover evening seder(s) as an exemplar of Jewish adaptability.

There was no Seder in the biblical period; indeed, it doesn’t appear anywhere until around the Second Temple’s destruction in 68 CE (Tractate Pesahim: 10). Its origin? The Hellenistic Symposium (“banquet”). The parallels are too numerous for any other explanation.
First of all, Jews should recline on a couch – exactly what the Greeks did, even to the extent that Jews are required to recline on the left arm while eating, precisely the Greek custom at their Symposium dinner get-togethers.

Second, an integral part of the Seder are Khazeret (i.e., lettuce) and Kharoset (a mix of nuts, dates, and wine); here too something the Greeks especially included in their Symposium – not a food for usual, general consumption. Third, a “sandwich” is made at the Seder out of the sacrificial lamb, matzah and marror – again, just as the Greeks (Romans too) made a bread sandwich that was stuffed with lettuce.

Fourth, the four questions. Around the time when the Seder was being established, the Greek philosopher Plutarch suggested that at the Symposium, the questions should not be difficult so as not to confuse those unschooled; the Rabbis adopted this as the perfect recipe for drawing Jewish children into the Seder. Fifth and finally, when the children went to sleep, the Seder continued until dawn (the Haggadah’s “Five Rabbis in Bnei Brak”) – similar to Plato’s Symposium where the crowing rooster reminded those attending that it was long past the time to return home.

Given space limitations, I have mentioned here only a few parallels with the Hellenistic Symposium (for a more comprehensive list and explanations, especially the strange afikoman custom, see:

Nevertheless, there’s an important caveat to all this: although the Seder copied the Greek Symposium’s general form, the Rabbis radically changed the content message. Whereas the Greeks and Romans discussed beauty and food, the adapted Seder focused on the Exodus from Egypt, God’s miracles, and ultimate Redemption. Moreover, the Seder democratized the Symposium concept that was an elite event; the Seder transformed the gathering into an educational experience for all Jews.

Religious adaptation, of course, is a two-headed hydra. On the positive side, it enables a change of customary practice when circumstances render the former “religion” untenable. The classic and central example in Judaism is what happened after the destruction of the Second Temple when it became clear (several decades later) that the Temple cult had become defunct. The rabbis in their wisdom (and desperation) completely changed Judaism into one that centered on Jewish scholarship and law. Indeed, the term used to describe this adaptive revolution – halakha – incorporates the very notion of change as it means “the walking” i.e., forward movement.

On the other hand, the very idea that religious practice is not “eternal,” undercuts the notion of a God-given creed. And when the origin of specific changes in practice can be clearly traced to non-Jewish sources, such adaptation becomes dangerous for true belief. The Passover seder, of course, is not the only such adaptation (or borrowing). Hanukkah, the “holiday of lights” is clearly connected to the pagan holiday of the winter solstice (celebrating the “revival” of the sun that can be detected by December 25 – wherefrom Christianity also adapted its own holiday). Purim is clearly derived from the pagan “Carnival” – with its drinking, masking, and other forms of lightheadedness. And so on…
This explains a seeming conundrum among the ultra-Orthodox: after the 3rd or 4th grades, all male pupils are taught the Talmud exclusively. Certainly, in the higher yeshivas only Talmud is studied. Why? Because studying the Torah (the Bible) together with the Talmud would lead to far too much cognitive dissonance, given how different (and occasionally even contradictory) these two Jewish sources are regarding numerous laws (e.g., the Torah prescribes capital punishment for dozens of transgressions; but the Talmud states that a court executing once in 7 or 70 years is a “hanging court” [Mishnah, chap. 1, Tractate Makot, Law 10]).

To be sure, such “discrepancies” can always be “explained away.” The Rabbis’ clever explanation: Moses received from God the Written Law and the Oral Law simultaneously, with the latter interpreting the former. But outright contradictions are harder to explain in this fashion. In any case, admitting that the Law has been adapted to a radically changed situation is more honest – and that’s what the Talmud’s rabbis actually do on occasion, as when they tell God to stay out of their decision-making process (Tractate Bava Metzia, 59:a-b); they’re in charge now!

What all this means is that the main denominational fracture in contemporary Judaism between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism, is not over whether the religion should continue adapting itself to changed circumstances, but how fast and to what extent. Only the ultra-Orthodox don’t agree that any adaptation is in order (which is ironic, given that their most emblematic garb, the black fur “Shtreimel,” was adopted directly from the gentile, Polish aristocracy a few hundred years ago).

So as Jews around the world this coming week sit down at the Passover Seder, we should all celebrate not only the historic exile from Egypt, but even more the fantastic adaptability of Judaism to overcome other tragedies and societal challenges. That’s a worthy topic to discuss during this classic Jewish symposium.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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