Changing Passover Customs

A look at some Pesach customs throughout history.

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All things considered, we commend the view of Rabbi Y. M. Epstein that everyone should be provided with a pillow precisely because it is an outmoded and outlandish custom. For the point of the seder is to introduce changes into the meal, so the children will be roused to ask "Why is this night different from all other nights?" By the same token it would be ideal for everyone to have his or her own seder plate.

How Many Matzot?

Though most contemporary rabbis sanction the use of three matzot at the seder, the Gaon of Vilna (18th century) insisted that only two matzot be used.

For the two-matzah tradition, matzah is primarily a recollection of poverty. While on all other holidays we eat from two whole loaves, here we eat from one broken matzah and one whole one. [At Yahatz, one matzah is broken in two, with one part set aside or hidden.] The seder re-enacts our common suffering, out of which we generate our solidarity and our moral commitment to the stranger and the deprived. The concern for the outsider breaks into our family banquet symbolically in the form of a broken matzah marring our sense of wholeness.

While even the three-matzah tradition includes one broken matzah, it chiefly emphasizes the seder as a Thanksgiving Dinner. The three matzot recall the minimal thanksgiving offering describedin the Torah (Leviticus 7:12). That offering wasshared within a community of friends and relatives; the hosts praised God who had redeemed them from illness, imprisonment, or danger (Psalm 107:22). On Pesach, families retell how their children were threatened by Pharaoh and how they suffered degradation and injustice in Egypt. While sharing the thanksgiving offering of matzah, they sing Hallel to thank God.

The two-matzah tradition makes this evening resemble a communal "Solidarity-with-the-Poor Box Lunch," while the three-matzah tradition is reminiscent of a family "Thanksgiving NightBanquet."

The Afikoman

The Mishnah explicitly forbids "completing the Pesach seder with an afikoman" (Pesachim 10:8).But in today's parlance we always consummate the seder meal with the eating of what we call "the afikoman"--a piece of matzah. How on earth can we explain this? What does the Greek term "afikoman" mean?

To the Talmudist Rav it was clear: "Afikoman" is the Greek custom of going around from house to house on the night of a celebration. This procession ("komon") held after ("epi") the formal symposium, involved dropping in at friends' homes and probably joining them for dessert. However, on seder night in the days of the Temple, one was allowed to eat only with one's pre-arranged dinner partners (havurah) who had subscribed to the sacrifice of that Pesach lamb in advance. The lamb was offered in their name and no one could join their dinner gathering as an afterthought.

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

Noam Zion

Noam Zion is the Director of Shalom Hartman Institute's Resource Center for Jewish Continuity. He specializes in teaching Jewish Holidays, Bible and Art, and has edited several educational books for the Shalom Hartman Institute.