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The First Ever Seder Was Held In Isolation
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JOFA Blog

The First Ever Seder Was Held In Isolation

“None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning” were the words Moshe said to the Israelites the night before they left Egypt. 

Outside their doors, a plague was coming, a plague which would cause a “great cry in Egypt”, the tenth and most awful plague, the one which would finally push Pharoah to release the Israelites from slavery. Therefore, to protect themselves, the Israelites were to: 

“Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts… For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”(Shemot 12:22-23).

וּלְקַחְתֶּם אֲגֻדַּת אֵזוֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם בַּדָּם אֲשֶׁר־בַּסַּף וְהִגַּעְתֶּם אֶל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְאֶל־שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת מִן־הַדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסָּף … וְעָבַר יְהוָה לִנְגֹּף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת־הַדָּם עַל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח יְהוָה עַל־הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף׃

The people were not to leave their homes so as not to “give an opportunity to the Destroyer,” writes the Ibn Ezra on this verse. Staying inside protects from the dangers outside. 

To see a visualisation of what the last night in Egypt might have been like, the Prince of Egypt movie has a powerful and shocking portrayal. For those feeling fragile in our own plague-ridden times, please consider not following this link. The idea of a force sent by God which kills one from each Egyptian family is deeply unsettling and theologically challenging. (1)

Two weeks earlier, Moshe had said (and see how the Hebrew emphasises the word for “home” more than the English):

Take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let them share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of people.”

וְיִקְחוּ לָהֶם אִישׁ שֶׂה לְבֵית־אָבֹת שֶׂה לַבָּיִת׃ וְאִם־יִמְעַט הַבַּיִת מִהְיֹת מִשֶּׂה וְלָקַח הוּא וּשְׁכֵנוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֶל־בֵּיתוֹ בְּמִכְסַת נְפָשֹׁת אִישׁ לְפִי אָכְלוֹ תָּכֹסּוּ עַל־הַשֶּׂה׃

Then as today, the household unit became everything. And for small or solo households, then as today, we were called upon to share resources. 

There was something about turning inwards, and being just in the home which shelters, and just with the other people who live there, which was deemed appropriate for the first ever Seder. 

When the next verse says “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants,” the Rabbis actually ask whether we are to paint our doorposts with blood as part of the way we practice Pesach forever, Pesach Dorot. I’m thankful that wasn’t the decision (I mean, we have some unusual laws, but lamb’s blood is something I’m thankful to read about rather than handle).

Then as today, the household unit became everything. And for small or solo households, then as today, we were called upon to share resources. There was something about turning inwards, and being just in the home which shelters, and just with the other people who live there, which was deemed appropriate for the first ever Seder. 

But more to the point, in one of so many roads not taken in Jewish thought, Seder was very almost always to be held in “isolation,” with our immediate family, not so much as stepping outside the door. A parallel can be found with Sukkot, where the rabbis considered whether each family unit should in fact not leave their own sukkah for the whole festival, with R Eliezer saying “Anyone who departs from one sukka to another sukka has negated the mitzva of the first.”(2)

And there are remnants of this line of thinking in the Talmud. In Pesachim 119b, the Gemara asks: What is the afikomen? The afikomen, as we now know is that piece of broken matza which gets hidden and found and which is eaten at the end of the meal. But Rav in the Talmud has a different interpretation: 

The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of afikoman? Rav said: It means that a member of a group that ate the Paschal lamb together should not leave that group to join another group. 

(3) מאי אפיקומן אמר רב שלא יעקרו מחבורה לחבורה

The Rashbam explains: One who joined one group for the Paschal lamb may not leave and take food with him. According to this interpretation, afikoman is derived from the phrase afiku mani, take out the vessels. The reason for this prohibition is that people might remove the Paschal lamb to another location after they had begun to eat it elsewhere. This is prohibited, as the Paschal lamb must be eaten in a single location by one group.

This piece is not designed to sugar coat Seder 2020. Nobody wants seder this way…. For those on their own, single parents, people unable to make a seder for themself,  people living with those they wouldn’t necessarily choose as seder buddies and others – it is going to be a particularly tough Pesach. But given that we’re in this situation, perhaps some extra meaning can be found in connecting back with that first ever seder, held in isolation and trepidation at home. 

On seder night, you stay put, your home unit fixed and stoic. No after parties, no joining forces with the neighbours for chad gadya

This piece is not designed to sugar coat Seder 2020. Nobody wants seder this way. There is a reason that the Rabbis didn’t decide to legislate small home-based sedarim. For those on their own, single parents, people unable to make a seder for themself,  people living with those they wouldn’t necessarily choose as seder buddies and others – it is going to be a particularly tough Pesach. But given that we’re in this situation, perhaps some extra meaning can be found in connecting back with that first ever seder, held in isolation and trepidation at home. 

After all, what is our home? One idea I appreciated was shared by R. Samson Rephael Hirsch in his commentary on Shemot. 

The concept of “home” comprises two elements – social insulation vis-a-vis society, on the one hand, and physical insulation against the forces of nature on the other. The first is implied by the two side posts of the door – the walls signifying a social barrier, the second, in the lintel or cross-beam of the door frame which acts as the roof, as a protection against the forces of nature. The slave liberated from Egyptian bondage, the member of a household, was rewarded with a mezuzah and mashkof – Divine protection against both human and natural forces, after he had devoted himself completely to the service of God. 

On this most unusual and unsettling Pesach, my hope is that in the strangeness and discomfort, we can connect in some way to our ancestors 3332 years ago, confined in their homes for the first ever Seder, held in isolation. Today as then, may this period of turbulence lead, as soon as possible and with as many lives protected as possible, to a better world. 

This reminds me of my friend Beverlie who decided to rebrand “social isolation” as “home sanctuary.” And this is as far as my sugar-coating goes: home is currently where we are restricted, but also, now more than ever, it is our source of protection. Isolation, in the first ever seder and today, reminds us that we are fortunate to have doorposts and a lintel protecting us from the destructive forces outside.

On this most unusual and unsettling Pesach, my hope is that in the strangeness and discomfort, we can connect in some way to our ancestors 3332 years ago, confined in their homes for the first ever Seder, held in isolation. Today as then, may this period of turbulence lead, as soon as possible and with as many lives protected as possible, to a better world. 

Miriam is a freelance Jewish educator based in London. She is part of the Yeshivat Maharat Beit Midrash Programme and has also studied at Pardes and Midreshet Harova. She is co-founder and of Kehillat Nashira, the Borehamwood Partnership Minyan. miriamlorie.com

 

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Footnotes

 

  1. The commentators are divided on whether it is God who carries out the last plague (the text suggests so in places) or some other force – the מַּשְׁחִית mentioned in v.23. Rashi writes “once permission is given to the destroying angel to wound he makes no distinction between righteous and wicked” – perhaps some comfort can be found in the idea that the destructive forces in the world do not have the ‘intention’ or ‘intelligence’ to distinguish between victims – such is the levelling effect of a plague. Maybe further comfort can be found that God is also protecting at this time: “The Holy One, blessed is He, protected the houses of his children in Egypt so that they not suffer harm, as it is stated: “And the Lord will pass over the door.” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, petichta to Parashat Beshalach).
  2.  Sukkah 27a. The Rabbis in fact connect their conversation to Pesach. Credit for this idea, and the connection to Robert Frost’s poem goes entirely to my teacher Leah Rosenthal at Pardes.
  3.  I am grateful to my teacher Rabbanit Aliza Sperling for opening up this sugya for me – and indeed Talmud in general.

 

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