It’s Passover time again. Which means it’s time, if you’re Jewish and observe the traditions, for that archaic, baffling, weirdly compelling ceremony called the Seder.
For those who don’t know the terminology: the Seder is the ritual meal for Passover eve, performed the first evening of Passover in Israel, the first and second evenings everywhere else. The Haggadah is the manual for the ceremony, written mostly in Hebrew, a little bit in Aramaic. Only it wasn’t exactly written, but rather accumulated, as ritual texts tend to be, over the centuries, the stages of its growth silent, obscure, mysterious. Like so much else about this book and the ritual it accompanies.
Nominally, the Seder is a re-enactment of the Passover meal prescribed in the twelfth chapter of Exodus, for the evening before the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. But you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to see how radically the centuries have transformed it. The drinking of four cups of wine, unmentioned in the Bible, is pivotal to the Seder as we know it. We’re often told that Jesus’s Last Supper was a Seder. But this is based only on the claim that it was a Passover meal; in fact none of the distinctive features of the Seder turn up in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. The first clear evidence of a ritual that more or less resembles the Seder is in the rabbinic text called the Mishnah, from early in the third century CE.
From time to time efforts are made to modernize the Seder, to make it more “relevant” and less cryptic. For a few years, when I was a little boy, we recited an addition to the Seder that commemorated the dead of the Holocaust. In the 1960s, progressive-minded Jews devised something called “the Freedom Seder,” which turned the Seder into a vehicle of instruction for social justice. The innovations faded; the Seder remained. Its power lies precisely in its being archaic, dreamlike, only half intelligible, a muffled voice from far back in the communal soul. “Deep calleth unto deep” (Psalm 42:8), that is, from the communal unconscious to the unconscious of the participants, and the unconscious tends not to speak in complete and clear sentences. (Just ask the Delphic oracle.)
“How different is this night from all other nights!” exclaims the preamble to the “four questions” recited near the beginning of the ritual, which aren’t really questions and in any case are never answered. The phantasmagoric jingle of the “only kid” (Had Gadya), sung at the very end, sticks in the mind like the gingerbread house in “Hansel and Gretel,” which like “Had Gadya” makes very little real-world sense and yet speaks to something beyond ordinary reality.
When I was in college, I came under the influence of one professor who was deeply influenced by the theories of David Daube, who saw the Seder as the matrix out of which the Gospels emerged. Later I became fascinated by the idea of the Seder as a survival of the Greco-Roman custom called the “symposium,” the intellectual drinking-party where the amount of wine to be drunk is prescribed at the outset, and a topic for serious discussion proposed and pursued. (Love, in Plato’s Symposium; the exodus from Egypt, in the Seder.) This was a symposium, a la Plato and Socrates, preserved as if in amber down to the twentieth century. And the Passover meal, which in my childhood had taught the lesson that we Jews are different and set apart, became paradoxically a marker of our deeper connection with the cultures around us.
So will history teach us what the Seder is really about? Or do we need to dive deeper, into the murky realms of Freud and Jung, if we’re to get some handle on it—to make the unconscious conscious, the latent manifest? The Seder feeds nicely into the Jungian notion of the “quaternity” archetype. Fours are everywhere: the four prescribed cups of wine, the four “questions,” the four “sons” who are envisioned as asking their questions. Can this be coincidence? I ask portentously. Hmmm …
And the “four sons” are a story unto themselves.
I’ll post about them next week.