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Jewish Journal

The Pesach Seder – 4th in a Series of 5 Blogs

by Rabbi John Rosove

April 7, 2014 | 5:00 pm

Significance of the Number 4 – In Jewish tradition, the number 4 (or multiples) appears constantly; the rains in the days of Noah fell for 40 days and nights; Moses communed with God on Mount Sinai for 40 days and received the entire Torah; the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the land of Israel; the holiest Name of God is 4 letters (YHVH); the gematria (i.e. number equivalence) for the Hebrew root “K-d-sh” (holy) is 404; and in the Seder there are 4 questions, 4 children and 4 cups of wine.

In western culture there are the 4 elements (fire, wind, earth, and water), 4 directions, and 4 winds, etc.

What therefore is the meaning of 4? The American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, has written that this number signifies completeness and wholeness (Hebrew - sh’leimut) the attainment of which is the primary goal of Pesach. During this season Judaism calls upon parents to turn their hearts towards their children and children to turn their hearts towards their parents, to restore family relationships and make peace in the home (shalom bayit). The Jewish people is called upon to turn away from baseless hatred (sinat chinam) one for another and unite as a people, to welcome the stranger and come close to God. The goal of Pesach is Oneness (Achdut) in every aspect of life. Once attained, Jews will gather from the 4 corners of the earth in the holy city of Jerusalem (the city of shalem - wholeness and messianic peace).

4 Questions – The 4 questions derive from a Greco-Roman tradition of having a feast followed by a philosophical discussion.

4 Children - The wise, evil, simple, and the one who does not know enough to ask. The wise wants to understand the rituals and messianic purpose of the Seder including the meaning of the Afikoman (see 1st blog). The evil one deliberately separates from community, is unaccountable, indifferent, and passive to the fate of the Jewish people. The simple one wants to know what to do to be a part of community. The one who doesn’t know enough to ask is the Jew who has no Jewish knowledge at all. All 4 kinds of people need to be present at our Seder tables and each responded according to who they are.

4 Cups of Wine - Recalls the 4 terms used to describe redemption (Exodus 6:6-8): "I shall take you out..."; "I shall rescue you..."; "I shall redeem you..."; "I shall bring you...".

10 Plagues - (Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, blight, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the first-born). These represent an attack on the ancient Egyptian gods to teach Israel and the Egyptians that YHVH is the only legitimate deity. We take the index finger and drop a bit of wine on our plates as we recite each plague symbolizing the reduction of our joy when our enemies suffer.

Dayeinu and Hallel - Sung just before the meal, Dayeinu expresses gratitude that God redeemed us and will one day facilitate the greatest redemption of all. The Hallel (passages from Psalms) is the most ancient section of the Hagadah.

Elijah - The prophet destined to announce the coming of the Messiah - Elijah’s Cup entered the Seder in the 15th or 16th century during an era of great distress, anxiety and fear in the Jewish community due to widespread anti-Jewish hatred inspired by the crusades, disputations, blood libel, and black plague.

The Open Door - Jewish folklore suggests that at the moment we open the door Elijah enters to bring the promise of hope. Originally, Jews opened the door to show Christian passers-by that nothing cultic or sinister was occurring at Jewish Seders. This tradition began during medieval times when the blood libel, desecration of the host, and fear of Jews inspired anti-Jewish riots during the Easter season. The most dangerous day of the year for the Jewish community was when Pesach and Good Friday coincided.

Jews in Every Age - The Hagadah has elements that were introduced in every period in Jewish history including the Bible, Greek, Roman, Arab, Christian Europe, 19th Century Enlightenment, Zionism, the State of Israel, and the Holocaust. We are instructed that “every Jew must regard him/herself as if each of us personally went free from Egypt.” As we sit together at the Seder table, if we are sensitive to the subtleties and nuances of the Seder rites, rituals, Biblical and rabbinic texts, it is as if we join Jews living in every age at their Seder tables and link our lives with theirs.

The Messiah and Next Year in Jerusalem - The hope of the Jewish people is for a world to one day be redeemed of its brokenness, injustice, hardheartedness, indifference, suffering, and pain. The coming of the Messiah symbolizes our people’s hope and dream for the time of the messianic dominion of God.

To be continued…

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed his duties as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in November 1988. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley...

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