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Jewish Journal

Hidden meanings in the Passover seder

by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

April 10, 2014 | 9:45 pm

In a few days the Jewish people will celebrate the holiday of Passover.    The central observance of Passover is the seder meal with matza (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs), a festive meal, four cups of wine, readings related to the Biblical exodus from Egypt 3500 years ago, and above all, dialogue including questions, answers and discussion.  

The Bible itself frames the seder this way: “When your child shall ask you, “What is this service to you?”  You shall answer, “With a strong hand did G-d take us out of Egypt.””  It is a meal of interaction, of questions, of hearing each other out, of family, and of connection. 

According to Jewish tradition the function of this meal is to reenact the exodus from Egypt every year.  But why is this so important?  There seem to be other moments in Jewish history that could have been equally, if not more, significant.

The Rabbis tell us that the lamb which the Jewish people were told in the book of Exodus to slaughter that night before leaving Egypt, and to put its blood on their doorposts, was actually an Egyptian God.  In fact the lamb is the zodiac sign for the month during which Passover always falls, Aries.  This nation of Jewish slaves is told in the Bible  that they should take this lamb and tie it up for 4 days, then roast it in fire and eat it in groups. 

This was a meal like none other that the Jewish slaves had ever eaten.  Slow roasted meat, eaten in pre-invited groups, consuming the deity of their captors.  This is a meal of rebellion and unity.   A meal of connected, free people, no longer acting like slaves.  The Jewish people through this passover meal, are born together in rebellion. 

Many claim that something more though is going on here.  The Jewish people went down to Egypt because at the end of the book of Genesis Joseph’s brothers violently threw him in a pit.  They took his coat of many colors from him, which Jacob their father had given him as a sign of his love, dipped the coat in blood and sold Joseph to a caravan bound for Egypt.  They brought the coat to their father claiming that Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal. 

Joseph ends up becoming the viceroy to Egypt and is there to provide food for his brothers when they come to Egypt during a drought, since due to the Nile Egypt always had crops.  Ultimately it is the the hatred of Joseph's brothers for him that lands the Jewish people in Egyptian slavery for 210 years and from which they are now being redeemed. 

The vegetable that we dip in salt water at the beginning of the seder meal is called in Hebrew “carpas,” which is also  the word for a fancy colored garment, a coat of many colors!  This is a meal of dialogue, of sons all talking together, a meal with blood only on the doorpost outside.

A large group must come together to exactly finish the lamb, no bone of the lamb may be broken, it is a meal of freedom that unifies.  That brings together the slave children of Abraham in Egypt as a united nation that can be redeemed.  This meal of redemption and discussion, of unity and  hearing each other out, of dipping but not in blood, recalls for us, and perhaps in the process attempts to repair, the rift among Jacob’s 12 sons that produced the exile to begin with.

In Christianity, a particular 1st century Passover seder that was had by 12 men and their leader is a central motif.  A meal  in which blood was, or became, a profoundly important spiritual theme.  Could this perhaps also have emerged from the hidden meaning of the Passover seder, the unifying of and atonement for, Jacob’s 12 sons’ sin of “spilling” Joseph’s blood, ultimately the seminal event from which emerged the entire Biblical exile and redemption?

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