Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

Pesach is different

I was asked to give a women’s perspective on Pesach and found myself re-hashing the same old ideas.

Susannah Heschel’s recommendation to put an orange on the seder plate to raise eyebrows and, subsequently, raise questions is already decades old. For probably as many years, we have had a cup of water, Miriam’s cup, alongside Eliyahu’s on our table.

At our seder, we don’t speak about four “sons” but about four “children.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say that these symbols have done their job: that women are included equally in the narrative and in the ritual to recall and learn the lessons of Pesach?  I suspect that they are inadequate. We need some new ideas.

There is every opportunity to make the seder night fully inclusive and representative – so that women do not feel excluded, on one night of the year, at least.

When we narrate our history, whether through reading our sacred texts or through conventional historical sources, women are very underrepresented. The Pesach story is a little different. In the Torah itself, women are prominent. It is true that the story we read from the Haggadah does not recall in any detail the bravery of the midwives, the defiance and compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter or the genius of Miriam – undisputed heroes of the Pesach story. At the same time, it does not speak of Moses, either. It is really up to us, to fill in the flesh on the skeleton of the story in front of us. It is our job to bring women into the narrative.

What can we do to ensure that women are included in the seder ritual fully, and in the story we tell? Here are some practical suggestions.

  1. Even before we begin, as we pour the wine, we should recite the verses from the Talmud that says that women, too, are obligated to drink four cups of wine because it was by their virtue that we were redeemed from slavery. (Sota 11)
  2. When the “leader” of the seder washes hands symbolically, think about who should be included.
  3. It is lovely to have a cup of water for Miriam on the table, to represent her unique gift to the Children of Israel. Let’s engage in discussion about it. If we have a cup for Miriam, does that make six cups, instead of five (yes, five, not four!)? Why do we drink four cups but have a fifth on the table? If the fifth cup is for G-d bringing us into the Land, what would it mean to have a sixth cup? Can we tell the story without Miriam? Is the cup of water the best symbol for her?
  4. On our seder plate is the zeroah – representing the Pesach sacrifice. Later in the Seder, we lift it and say that it represents the outstretched arm of G-d. The image of the outstretched arm is usually that of strength, power, control, dominance – all very masculine images of G-d. Perhaps another image is worthy of consideration: an arm outstretched for an embrace – a more feminine side of the Divine.
  5. The burnt egg is also symbolic of sacrifices in the Temple and may be viewed as mourners’ food, representing the dampening of our celebration due to the loss of the Temple. Let us not forget that this is an egg. It is the symbol, too, of female fertility.
  6. When we lift up our matza and recite that this is the bread of affliction and that all who are hungry are welcome to join us to eat, we should stop for a moment and ask who needs our help today. We have refugees and we have the poor in our own community. Often, those most in need are women and children. Poverty persists; so does oppression and violence, directed against the weakest in society. Are women more vulnerable than men? Why?
  7. We read of the great Rabbis gathered in B’nei B’raq and not finishing their seder in time for the morning prayers. Where were their wives? What were they (the men and the women) discussing?
  8. When we dip the karpas into the salt water, we should ask what it represents. In our household, we have at least five possible answers, with the salt water representing tears, the Red Sea or blood and the karpas standing for spring, for opulence, for the hyssop in the story or even for Joseph’s coat. Were the tears of the women in Egypt different from the tears of the men? Perhaps, when we think of Joseph and his brothers, we should spare a moment for their sister, Dina. When we had crossed the Red Sea, let us not forget that Miriam led the women in song.
  9. We eat matza and bitter herbs. Continue to ask whether the experiences for women on that fateful night of the tenth plague were different. The Torah tells us we had to be ready to leave, with our sandals on our feet. Where were the children? Who worried about them? Who baked the matzah? What did the women take from their Egyptian neighbours? Did the men take something different?
  10. Charoset is a little mysterious. There is no special blessing for it but there IS a male and female side to it. The male: this is the mortar from which you made bricks; the female: this represents the apple trees under which you gave birth. Speak of both.
  11. Once we get to the meal, let’s make sure we do not leave it all to the women. This is our holiday, too!
  12. At the end of the seder, we will sing Hallel. It is an expression of gratitude – a theme of the whole seder. Gratitude must be demonstrated. We are instructed thirty-six times in the Torah not to oppress the stranger, and to protect the widow and the orphan, because we were slaves in Egypt. The story we tell is not only to recall our past but to guide our behaviour in the present.

I don’t think that the seder per se is necessarily a problem for women. On the contrary: it can be transformative. There is a halakhic discussion about whether women ought to recline at the seder. The conclusion is that “important” women SHOULD recline – and the conclusion is that nowadays (from the 13th and again in the 16th Centuries), ALL women are important!

This night is different from other nights. It makes each of us into an important person. It provides us with a perfect framework in which to examine our values. It allows us to think about women and elevate them.

The challenge is to take the seder experience and make it our every-night and every-day.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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