Daniel B. Schwartz

Tannaitic Sedarim and Keeping the Seder Relevant

The Mishna in the tenth chapter of Tractate Pesachim provides the basic framework for our Pesach Seder. Indeed, many elements of the ceremony people think are essential, things like the opening Ha lachma anya or the liturgic poem Ilu Hotzianu are missing from the Tannaitic Seder.  Those, and many others are later additions.  The Seder, like everything in Jewish practice has an evolutionary history all its own.

Interestingly, the Tannaitic Seder prescribed in the Mishna, is not the only, nor necessarily the first Seder created by the Tannaim.  The tenth Chapter of the Tosefta Pesachim describes what might be an earlier Tannaitic Seder.  The two are very different.  Missing from the Tosefta’s Seder, among other elements, are the requirements of eating while reclining and Hillel’s Korech.  And while the two rituals have common elements, the requirement to drink four cups of wine, that even the poorest of the poor be given four cups of wine and the singing of Hallel among them, the focus of each Seder is different.

The Tannaim of the Tosefta emphasize the study of and teaching the laws of Pesach on the Seder night.  In fact, the last Beraita of the chapter states that one is obligated to stay up the entire night studying those laws, and ends with a story about R. Gamliel and the elders who did so in the home of one Boetheus ben Zunim of Lod.  The Tosefta also stresses the recitation of Hallel, concerning itself with what to do if a community doesn’t have a competent cantor to lead them in the Psalms, and the need to keep the children awake and teach them the proper way to participate in singing Hallel.  By contrast the Mishnaic Seder places an emphasis on retelling the story of the Exodus, on the symbolic importance of Matzah and Marror, and on acting like free people.  While the Tosefta envisions a highly intellectual Seder, the Mishna prescribes an experiential one.

None of this is to suggest that the Tosefta is devoid of material enjoyments.  It is there that we are taught that a man has to gladden his family on Pesach by giving his wife and children appropriate gifts at the Seder and by drinking wine.  Later on we are instructed to give  children  snacks throughout the night so they stay awake.  The Tosefta also records an interesting dispute between the Houses of Shamai and Hillel concerning when one should complete the Hallel.  Beit Shamai is not concerned with the issue and allows one to complete it at any time during the night, satisfied that one will assumedly finish Hallel after the time the Israelites left Egypt that first Pesach night.  Beit Hillel retorts with “Even if one waits until the rooster crows in the morning, it is insufficient.  He must wait until the sixth hour of the day, for how can one say the blessing on redemption before he was redeemed?”  For Beit Hillel, one had to feel and act as if he himself were one of the freed Israelites.

Likewise the Mishna’s Seder has legal content, most notably R. Gamliel’s Halacha that we are obligated, lest we not fulfil our Seder night obligations, to recite the core three elements of the Seder, the Paschal sacrifice, the matzah and the Marror.  Curiously, R. Gamliel’s Halacha, one which he deems vital to the entire evening, is absent in the Tosefta.  The question is why is it not there?

It ought not be surprising that the Mishnaic Seder won out and became the favored way to observe Pesach.  Retelling the story is far more captivating as well as religiously and emotionally satisfying than engaging in dry legal discussion.  Children will more readily stay up when hearing a good story than when being schooled in how to pray.  Perhaps then, as people began to adopt the form of Seder found in the Mishna, R. Gamliel, who himself was so concerned with remembering the Paschal sacrifice that he mandated that we eat a roast lamb at the Seder, added his Halacha, one found in the Mishna, and gave it the gravitas of being essential to the Seder.  It’s to be expected that were people to stay up all night after the Seder reviewing the laws of Pesach, the laws of the sacrifice would be included in the discussion.  But with the destruction of the Temple, the sacrifice fell into desuetude.  There remains nothing of it to experience.  It risked becoming irrelevant to a non-Temple based Pesach observance.  R.  Gamliel may have felt it necessary to insure that the Korban Pesach not be forgotten in the retelling of the Exodus.

But R. Gamliel didn’t merely insert the sacrifice into our Seder.  He contextualized it, and gave it symbolic meaning similar to Matzah and Marror.  In his hands, all three unite to become representative of Israelite and later Jewish experience and of G-d’s intervention into our history.  Law becomes narrative.  Narrative becomes law.

Throughout history, we have grappled with the problem of how to keep ritual relevant.  We have tweaked it, pruning it here, expanding it there.  As applied to Pesach, Maimonides posits that we do precisely that, retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt according to the speaker’s homiletic abilities.  The leader has to make the event relevant and compelling to all sitting around the table.  How to balance the intellectual legal elements with the experiential and symbolic elements of the evening is an ever moving target.  In the era of the Tannaim, when the Passover meal was first ritualized, it took significant time to arrive at a ritualized meal that preserved ancient traditions of the Korban Pesach combined with a  narrative that both inspired people and motivated them to repeat it year after year. And it’s a never ending process.

There is a well known law that we are bidden to begin studying the laws of Pesach thirty days prior to its start.  No other festival has a similar injunction.  The generally accepted reason for this Halacha is that the laws of Chametz are complex and severe.  We need to devote sufficient time to understanding them so that we avoid transgressing them.  But eventually, after enough years, we all come to be fluent in those laws.  With each passing year, the need to review those laws diminishes.  We know them.  But maybe this requirement of thirty days of preparation for Pesach doesn’t apply merely to familiarizing ourselves with the minutia of how to deal with breadcrumbs in the cracks of our floors.  No, we start to prepare for Pesach early in order to figure out how to strike a new balance between the two Tannaitic Sedarim, the cerebral one of the Tosefta and the experiential one of the Mishna.  Let’s all hope that  task never ends.

Chag Sameach to all.

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.