It’s Passover, and We Have Questions

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From the Birds’ Head Haggadah (Public Domain)

Passover is about questions. Yes, the children are supposed to ask them. (Why is that? See below.) But even adults who think they know everything about the holiday, which begins at sunset on Friday, probably have some questions if they gave it some thought. We certainly do. So we asked five questions, and here’s what we learned.

What was the point of the plagues?


Why all the drama? If God wanted the Israelites freed from Egypt, why not simply do it? Why, in other words, did the all-powerful spend time on frogs and lice?

It was a good teaching moment, said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Falls Church, Virginia. Schwartzman said one interpretation is that the whole saga is meant to educate the Israelites, who at that point didn’t really know God.

“The Israelites needed to evolve in their understanding of God’s power in the world,” Schwartzman said. “They have no relationship yet with this God. They’ve been enslaved. So what’s going to build an understanding of who God is and what God’s powers and motivations are? If God just said, ‘You’re free now,’ it might not have had as much of an impact.”

Why would anyone invent a matzah sandwich?

The Haggadah talks about the great Rabbi Hillel, who celebrated Passover by combining the Passover offering, matzah and bitter herbs together in a sandwich. Millennia of seder-goers have tried to follow Hillel’s lead, only to have the sandwich fall apart after one bite, the crumbling matzah leading the way.

It turns out, though, that matzah may not have always been so brittle, according to Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter of Yeshiva University in New York. Before it was mass-produced and packaged for Passover, matzah was handmade. The downside was that this matzah spoiled after a short time. The upside was that it was soft. Perfect for a Hillel sandwich.

Some Sephardic communities still make matzah that way.

“The Sephardi matzah is like a pita almost,” said Schacter. “They’re fluffier. That might be the more authentic version of what matzah should be, and the sandwich usage is much more intelligible that way.”

Why do we celebrate Passover the way we do?

“Actually, it goes all the way back to the origins of Jewish history,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “Even as it’s happening in the Bible, the Bible is giving us a way to memorialize it. It’s like a tourist who gets to a beautiful site and takes out their camera first to memorialize before seeing it.”

The Passover rituals — specifically, the seder — set up the “master narrative” of Judaism, Nevins adds. And that has turned Passover into a core part of Jewish identity for many American Jews, according to Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, who said even the least religious Jews are likely to celebrate Passover.

“It is part of the structure of American Jewish life and identity,” he said, adding that the tradition is about cohesion and deepening of the Jewish connection to its community.

The Four Sons from Arthur Szyk’s 1934 Haggadah, which criticized the Nazis. (Wikimedia Commons)

Why does the youngest read the Four Questions?

“The youngest reads the four questions because the youngest is the least likely to know the answers,” Bauer said.

But if we look at the four children in the Haggadah, the good child already knows everything about Passover, he said. The wicked child is the one who doesn’t want to know anything. And then there is the one who is just grasping the tradition and the one who doesn’t even know how to formulate the questions.

“So we’re actually giving someone an opportunity to learn,” he said. “And it’s very sweet that we’re actually saying that it’s OK not to know.”

The Four Questions are suited to children, he added, because they’re not theological or philosophical questions so much as logistical ones about how the ritual is done.

What is the place of Passover in American Jewish life?

Passover is a reality check, said Nevins. Religion in America has become very personalized, and Passover has the ability to emphasize the importance of affiliation, of community and of belonging, he said.

“The impact of Passover is enormous,” said Nevins. “It’s like a master narrative that takes us from despair to celebration. Throughout history there have been many things that caused us despair. But Passover is a beacon of hope.”

Passover is setting the goal of final redemption, he added. It makes you grateful for what you have, but gives you an aspiration of something even greater.

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