The Format of the Passover Seder from Mishnah Pesachim

As we enter the month of Nissan and start preparing for Pesach, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss the format of the seder, starting with its introduction in the Mishnah (written redaction of the oral law by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi at the beginning of the third century CE) from Meseches Pesachim.

The mishnah does not include the rabbinic discussions contained in the gemara, but nevertheless, as a prelude to future blog discussions (I have discussed the four sons and their discussion in the Torah and gemara in a previous blog, but the four sons are not mentioned explicitly in the mishnah), let’s look at the the seder’s format at that time, and begin to compare it to what we generally do today at the Pesach seder (Mishnah Pesachim chapter 10 text from; the Sefaria edition of the Mishnah with community translation):

That’s it! If you look at any traditional haggadah, you can make a quick comparison with the fourteen parts (kadesh, urechatz, etc) in the modern haggadah and the version from the mishnah. Notice, the debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel regarding the ordering of the kiddush (we follow the ruling of the school of Hillel). There is also a  question (from the mah nishtamah) regarding the roasted meat (symbolizing the korban pesach) which we do not recite in our times, and is replaced by a question concerning the act of reclining during the meal (a symbol of freedom).

The Rabban Gamaliel section is familiar, but you must look carefully to see the remaining portions of the modern haggadah. We do see a reference to matzah, butter herbs, and to “My father was a wandering Aramean”, but the midrashic commentary regarding the ten plagues that is woven into the modern haggadah, nor the popular songs (like Dayeinu) nor the opening of the door for Eliyahu HaNavi are explicitly mentionedWe do see the mitzvah of the four cups, but nothing is stated about reciting Ha Lachmah Anya before the four questions. We see a discussion about the foods set before the person, but not the popular seder plate arrangement. A lot of these customs developed in different countries during the middle ages and especially after the advent of printing.

The gemara adds more detail to the discussion (the mishnah is very terse in its layout), and we will look at portions of the gemara related to these mishnayot in upcoming blogs to see how they shed light on other portions included in the modern haggadah.







About the Author
Jonathan Wolf is a retired high school physics teacher. He retired to NJ with his wife. He is an adjunct professor of physics at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has published professional papers and has been the author of AP Physics review books as well as general HS and college physics review books. He is a past President and ritual chairman at a conservative synagogue on Long Island, NY before he retired to NJ.
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