It is the nature of a living tradition that it is constantly attaching new dimensions of meaning to older symbols. The same ceremony may express different ideas and values (or at least express these values in different language) to different generations. Frequently, these explanations become so persuasive that we lose sight of the original aims of the rituals.
As an example, let us look at the manner of sitting at the seder. The Haggadah tells us that we must sit leaning towards the left, and this is one of the peculiarities that the children are supposed to wonder at in the Mah Nishtanah. As we prop the pillows up against the chair-backs and do our best to keep them from falling onto the floor we explain to ourselves that this is the way in which "free men" are supposed to sit.
Further reflection prompts the question: Which free men are we really talking about? Is there a class of free men that is known for sitting down at a leftward tilt?
The Talmud explains that the reason for leaning leftwards is a medical one: otherwise we would choke on our food. Nonetheless, one wonders why this would be less likely to happen if we were leaning, say, backwards.
The truth of course is that the reclining that is mentioned in the talmudic writings does not refer to leaning on pillows in a straight-backed chair, but to lying on one's side on a couch eating from a private little table, as was the custom at Roman feasts (and as we are often see in historical epic films). Such aristocratic feasts were taken by the Talmudic Rabbis as a model of independence and freedom, and if you are right-handed, lying in such a position, supporting yourself with one arm, it certainly is recommended that you lie on your left side so that the right arm will be free to manipulate the food.
Given that we no longer recline in the manner of the ancients, and that such reclining would not in any case typify free men in our society, is it necessary still to observe such symbolic leaning?
This issue was debated by the medieval Rabbis, who took different views. Some insisted that the symbols of freedom should conform to the standards of the society in which one lives. If the aristocracy is accustomed to sitting normally at a feast, then it would be nonsensical for us to lean. Others argued that Talmudic traditions are not to be lightly tampered with, and the more curious and unusual the practice is, the more it should be encouraged, in order to arouse the interest of the children through the evening.
Among the practices described by the Greek sources were: a ritual wine libation and washing of the hands; the eating of various hors d'oeuvres before the main meal, including lettuce and various fruit and nut salads resembling our haroset, sometimes in the form of sandwiches (reminiscent of Hillel's fammous custom); the singing of hymns to an assortment of gods, whose praises might make up the central topic of discussion; and the posing of a set of questions to set off the conversation.
Jewish tradition has typically given its own interpretations for these social conventions: Green vegetables symbolize the spring season, the haroset represents the mortar used by our enslaved forefathers, etc. This ability to re-interpret foreign customs has always added to the strength and adaptability of Jewish tradition.
There is thus little doubt that the seder was consciously modeled upon the conventional Greco-Roman "formal dinner." In doing so however, the Rabbis were laying themselves open to the danger that the borderline between the Jewish observance and the essentially pagan feast--which frequently had licentious or orgiastic dimensions--would be confused. An example of how they related to such problems can be found in the institution of the afikoman.
In current custom the afikoman is associated with a piece of matzah which the children steal in order to extort gifts from the adults, so that it can be eaten as the last item of the seder. In the Mishnah, though, it appears in a somewhat different context: "After the Passover offering, one should not end with afikoman." The reference is to a custom known as epikomion, a Greek word meaning "after dinner revelry" (related to the English word "comedy"). Normally this would involve going off to someone else's house, whether or not you have been invited, and indulging in another party.
What the Mishnah is saying is that, in spite of some of the apparent similarities between the seder and a pagan banquet, one should not treat it light-headedly as the Romans and Greeks would their own feasts. This meaning was understood by the Rabbis of the Palestinian Talmud, who lived under Roman rule. By contrast, the Babylonian Talmud (whose authors lived farther away from the Greco-Roman world) came to understand the afikoman as a "dessert," translating the Mishnah as "One should not eat anything after the Passover Afikoman."
Like many other Jewish customs the Passover seder consists of a core of authentically Jewish traditions and values, which were reformulated according to the concepts and vocabularies of different generations. As changes in culture and society made some of these observances strange and incomprehensible, Jewish tradition responded by supplying new interpretations.
It is through this approach of continually re-interpreting our past, that the tradition is saved from becoming obsolete.
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First Publication: JS, March 11 1988.