Oz Torah: Pesach features


Pesach is exciting, colourful and demanding.  No other festival imposes such obligations on the Jewish home.  No other festival pries so much into every nook and cranny of the house.

No wonder so many Jewish housewives – and their husbands – tend to fall asleep at the Seder table, after all the hectic effort that reaches fever pitch on Erev Pesach.

This year it will be easier – but harder too, because Erev Pesach is Shabbat.  Easier, since the first Seder follows a day of Shabbat rest; harder, because preparing for the Shabbat meals is unusually complicated.

There is no obvious logic behind the coincidence of Shabbat and Erev Pesach. It last occurred in 2008; the next time will be 2025.

Erev Pesach fell on Shabbat nine times in the 19th century (in 1825, 1832, 1849, 1852, 1856, 1876, 1883, 1896 and 1899). In the 20th century it happened eleven times (in 1903, 1910, 1923, 1927, 1930, 1950, 1954, 1974, 1977, 1981 and 1994). In the 21st century it occurs twelve times – in 2001, 2005, 2008, 2021, 2025, 2045, 2048, 2052, 2072, 2075, 2079 and 2099.

The gaps between its occurrence can be as long as 20 years and as short as three years, and there does not seem to be any fixed periodicity.

Today we grin and bear Erev Pesach on Shabbat; the Talmudic sages vigorously debated it.

Once when 14 Nisan was due to be Shabbat, the religious leaders, the B’nei Betera, were not certain whether the Pesach sacrifice could override Shabbat and they asked the scholar Hillel what he knew what the halachah had to say.

Hillel used midrashic reasoning to prove that the sacrifice could even be offered on Shabbat. The sages were not convinced until he said that he had a tradition to this effect from Shemaiah and Avtalion. Thereupon it was agreed that the sacrifice was permissible, and Hillel found himself appointed nasi (Patriarch).

A romantic story, but not without its problems. Surely there must have been a precedent followed within living memory.

In any case rabbinic ingenuity should have been able to arrange the calendar in such a way as to avoid the Erev Pesach and Shabbat coming together. After all, the calendrical experts were able to ensure that Pesach itself would not begin on Monday or Wednesday, in order to prevent Yom Kippur falling on Friday or Sunday, or on Thursday, to avoid Hoshana Rabbah falling on Shabbat.

It may have something to do with the difficult period of the Romans, when Jewish life suffered so much upheaval. Maybe the sages were too preoccupied to be able to plan far enough ahead to obviate problems with the calendar.

Whatever the reason for the B’nei Betera’s perplexity, the episode did at least bring Hillel to the fore and enable him to make a seminal contribution to the rabbinic tradition.


Page from the illuminated Darmstadt Haggadah, Germany, c. 1420. Credit: Wikipedia

They say that Jewish art is largely non-existent because the Second Commandment bans the depiction of anything in God’s Creation.

If this theory is true the Haggadah would be a quite different book, but the fact is that Haggadot are embellished with all sorts of illustrations.

Not that the artists always agreed with each other. In the Middle Ages, when manuscript illumination was at its peak, there were two main schools of illustration.

Rabbi Harry Rabinowicz points out in one of his articles, the German school depicted the Seder service – the family at Seder, the four sons, the ten plagues, the rabbis at Bnei Brak, the hiding of the Afikoman.

The Spanish School concentrated on the Creation, depicting what took place on each of the first seven days of history. Apart from the flora and fauna, we see Adam and Eve establishing human history. We see the animals coming to Adam to receive their names. We see Eve emerging from the rib of Adam.

Amongst the works of artists who believed that the Second Commandment prohibited depictions of the human shape, we see the so-called Bird’s Head Haggadah, where human heads are replaced by birds.

Most illustrators, whatever their provenance, depict Biblical themes, though sometimes they give a contemporary appearance to figures from the Bible. Moses, for example, looks like an Amsterdam burgher of the time of Rembrandt!


Amongst the most loved sections of the Seder is the story of the four sons, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who knows not how to ask.

The word “son” is not to be taken too literally. It really indicates a human type. All varieties of human beings are needed in society, even the “wicked sons” who are known for their negativity.

It’s not nice to be called a “wicked son”, an outsider such as Pharaoh, Haman or Titus, or one of the more modern rebels, or one of the people we know. We are all like Miss Marple who always knew someone in St. Mary Mead who resembles a character in one of Agatha Christie’s cases.

The most famous rasha of Jewish history is the second son in the Haggadah. He takes many forms, proving that there are people perceived as wicked in every generation.

The rasha pictures in illustrated Haggadahs depict villains that range through Roman soldiers; Russian Cossacks, often with a dog; a materialist with a monocle; a Maskil (a proponent of the often irreligious Enlightenment); an old atheist; or a teenage dropout (as in more recent Haggadot). All share the characteristic that it wasn’t outside factors that made them “wicked” but their own misguided choice.

In the Haggadah’s list of sons, the rasha is an “odd man out”. The wise son is a role model; the third (“simple”) son can’t help himself; the fourth son (“he who knows not how to ask”) will eventually mature. But the rasha will always be with us.

What are we meant to do with him? The Haggadah says, “blunt his teeth” and insists that if he had been alive in the age of slavery, “he would not have been redeemed”. If he had been a Hebrew slave in ancient Egypt, he would have stayed there.

In its commentary on the four sons, the Baruch SheAmar has a different view; it says that God would have struck dead all the wicked sons, who would thereby lose their chance of redemption.

What is the rasha’s wickedness?
• Religious – he denies fundamental tenets.
• Intellectual – he does not ask but tells.
• Social – he mocks family tradition.
• Psychological – he is eaten up by his negativity.
• Ethical – he undermines the community.
• Behavioural – he is a rebel and non-conformist.
• Theological – he leaves God out of history.

The rasha’s punishment is “blunt his teeth”. Not that this means to hit him: it is a metaphor for “rebut his argument”. If he sticks to his guns, intellectual honesty would keep him from the Seder; but blunting his teeth means that he finds his match.

In the past he would have been left behind, but in real time he can’t stay away. Something in him still wants to be there. As the old phrase has it, he can’t overcome his gut feeling of identity. Eventually he will be won over.

I somehow like the rasha. He has spirit and a mind of his own. The wicked son has to be himself. He accepts nothing on trust, nor automatically obey instructions.

“What does this service mean to you?” he demands (Ex. 12:26-27), implying, “To you – not to us”. I know that according to the Biblical commentators, he gets punished for saying “to you”. But – strangely – the wise son also says “to you” (Deut. 6:20-21), and no-one thinks of rebuking him! Why give the wicked son such a rough ride for saying “to you”?

Compare his words with those of the wise son and you have the answer.

Says the rasha: “What is this service to you?” Says the wise son, “What are the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” The wise son mentions God whilst the wicked son leaves Him out. To the wise son, all is from God, even the difficult things. The rasha doesn’t bring God into the reckoning.

How did Pesach come to be, according to his reasoning? Presumably it just happened: its source is sociology or anthropology, not religion. That’s the “denial of a fundamental principle” of which the wicked son is guilty.

Imagining the world can manage without God, that’s his offence. He is a secularist for whom God is irrelevant, though as our age has shown, his view is a god that has failed.

Do I still like the rasha? Certainly… but I would be the first to try and persuade him that he is wrong.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

Check Also

Whenever I feel afraid – Rosh HaShanah

Julie Andrews made it into a famous song – the notion that whenever I feel …