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Dvar Torah on Pesach

Pesach 2006 / 5766 - Leaning and Drinking: Pessach and the Poor

11.04.2006 by

The text of the Haggadah, which we recite on the night of the Seder, is based directly on the tenth and final chapter of Tractate Pessachim of the Mishna. In this chapter, the Mishna goes through, in a very brief fashion - they got hungry too, I guess - the basics of the Seder, both the physical mitzvot - basically what to eat when - and the various texts that we recite and study. Our Haggadah is somewhat longer, as things have been added on over the centuries, but the basics are all there in the Mishna: the kiddush, the 4 questions, the Seder plate, the four cups of wine, and much of the material which we recite at our Seder.

The very first Mishna in this chapter explains how we should behave on the afternoon before the Seder, as we make our final preparations: "On Pessach eve, from just before the afternoon, one should not eat, until it gets dark [and the Seder begins]." This refraining from food (actually, the halacha allows one to snack, it is only forbidden to eat anything major), is meant to ensure that we come to the Seder, with all its ritual food and drink, with a hearty appetite. The Mishna goes on: "Even a poor Israelite should not eat unless he leans." Here, the Mishna makes the point that once we do begin the Seder, and do start eating, we must do so in a celebratory and comfortable way: while reclining to the left. This is borrowed from the Greco-Roman custom, in which participants of a symposium would recline on couches, while eating, drinking, and engaging in conversation.

The Mishna chooses to teach us this halacha - that the food and drink which we consume during the Seder should be eaten while reclining, as an indication of our free and independent status - specifically in terms of the poorest of our community. The Mishna could have simply stated that we must recline while eating, and left it to us to wonder whether or not this applies to poor Jews, who, perhaps, should be exempt from this ritual for at least two reasons. One is the fact that, while the nation is free, the poor person is economically far from independent, and reclining in this way would ring false for him or her. In addition, the poor person may be unable to afford the couch, pillows, low table, and whatever else might be needed to do the reclining properly, and should therefore be exempt from this practice. But the Mishna makes it clear, by teaching us the law of reclining first and foremost in terms of "even a poor Israelite", that the poor are obligated to lean, along with the rest of the Jewish people.

The next line of the Mishna continues in the same mode: "And they should not give him less than four cups of wine, even if it means taking the money from the soup kitchen's funds." This is where we first learn the law of drinking four cups of wine at the Seder, which is another celebratory expression of freedom and independence. The Mishna does not make the simple statement 'everyone has to drink four cups of wine at the Seder', which, again, would invite questions about whether or not poor people are expected to celebrate in this expensive and, perhaps for them personally, irrelevant way. Rather, as it did with the law of reclining, the Mishna teaches us the Halacha of the four cups of wine through the experience of the poorest members of our community, and demands that "they" - those who are in charge of the zedakah (charity) funds of the community - make sure that this money is used to supply the four cups of wine to the poor. Clearly, the same money could be used more economically to help the poor with more basic needs, and buy them more nourishing food during and even after Passover. Nonetheless, the Mishna insists that communal money be made available for the seemingly wasteful Mitzvah of the four cups of wine.

The Halacha's concern, as expressed in this Mishna, for every member of the Jewish people, even the poorest of the poor, those fed from the communal soup kitchen, is clear, and impressive: if Jews are celebrating, then all Jews must be given the opportunity to celebrate. I would like to point out, however, two other implications of this Mishna. First, there is the interplay between the personal and the public. The Mishna realizes that reclining, and drinking four cups of wine, might seem an irrelevant, superfluous, and even foolish excess for someone who is poor. After all, there is certainly a good deal of dissonance between the poor person's actual socio-economic situation and the pretense he is asked to participate in at the Seder - acting, ritually, as if he were free, and able to celebrate that freedom in high style. One could imagine a Halacha which, recognizing this dissonance, exempts the impoverished from going through with this ritual, which is, for them, a wasteful charade. By insisting so clearly, in its very first presentation of these mitzvot, that this is not the case, and that the poor must participate fully in these seemingly incongruous rituals, the Halacha is, I believe, making a profound statement about the nature of the personal and the communal: There are times, such as on the night of the Seder, when our communal identity, our national identity, trumps our personal one, when our national history overrides our individual experience. This may not be a popular thought, but I think it is a powerful and suggestive one.

Another idea which I think emerges from this Mishna is the essential nature of our concern for the poor and, specifically, our commitment to include them in the community and its rituals, activities, and celebrations. The fact that the poor must be included in these rituals is the way we are first taught these laws, the way we first come to know them. There is no Mishna which says that we must lean and drink wine, which is then graciously extended to the poor. The halacha, therefore, is not, first and foremost, that we must recline, and drink; it is, rather, that we make sure that the poor do. The concern for the poor and their inclusion in the Seder is not external or additional to the basic halachot themselves, it is embedded in them, as an essential and basic part of how we celebrate our freedom.

The implication is clear: if not all Jews can celebrate their freedom, then we, as a people, are not free, and none of us can celebrate. If not all of us are eating, drinking, and reclining as free men and women (and my inclusion of women here is not an example of political correctness; halachically, men and women are equally bound to celebrate the expressions of our freedom) then none of us can really celebrate. 

One of my students once asked me why we are so concerned with making sure the poor are able to recline and drink the four cups of wine at the Seder; why don't we focus on making sure they are not poor? A good question, I thought.

I would like to wish all of us a happy and meaningful Celebration of our Freedom, with the hope that we all do what we can, before, during, and after the holiday, to bring freedom to all.

Chag Sameyach,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Pesach Summary


Pesach commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. We remember the birth of the Jewish nation on Passover with a seven-day holiday (eight in the Diaspora), which begins with the Seder - a festive meal during which we retell the story of the exodus and describe how God freed us from slavery to become His people, receive His Torah, and live in His chosen land, Israel. During the holiday we eat unleavened bread - matza - to remember both the cheap, crummy bread we were fed as slaves, as well as the speed with which we left Egypt - no time for our dough to rise - and we refrain from eating any form of leavened bread.

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