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Passover & the Repudiation of Idolatry

Prague Haggadah, 1526.

Asking questions is a trademark of the Passover seder. Prior to it, we can ask another question—this one having to do with a passage in the Haggadah about the second of the four sons:

What does the wicked [son] say? "What is this service to you?" To you—but not to him. Since he has excluded himself from the rule, he has committed heresy. Set his teeth on edge and tell him: "It is on account of what God did for me when I left Egypt." For me—but not for him; if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Our question: why does the Haggadah inflate this son's sin to the point of calling it heresy, and why exaggerate its consequences by suggesting that if he had been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed? Surely all the Israelite slaves who were liberated with Moses weren't paragons of righteousness?

To understand what is involved here, we need to go back to the original paschal sacrifice on the eve of the liberation. In Exodus 12, the Israelites are instructed to take a sheep or goat for each household on the tenth day of the month of Nissan but to wait to sacrifice it until late in the afternoon of the fourteenth. The blood is to be smeared on the doorposts and lintels of the home, and the animal is to be roasted whole over an open fire and eaten during the night of the fifteenth without a single bone being broken.

What is the significance of these details? To the Egyptians, sheep were taboo, and their abuse would ordinarily entail punishment by death. Indeed, when Pharaoh offers the Israelites a deal—take a three-day furlough from enslavement, and celebrate your festival in Egypt itself instead of away from the city as Moses requested—Moses replies: "Could we slaughter a taboo [animal] of the Egyptians in their very sight without being stoned?" (8:22).

Once we appreciate this circumstance, the surfeit of detail becomes transparent. To hold a lamb for four days prior to its sacrifice was to advertise its fate and dare the Egyptians to intervene. The astrological sign of Nissan is Aries, a ram; slaughtering it on the fifteenth day, the acme of the lunar month, would make a mockery of its symbolism; publicly smearing the animal's blood, its life force, would only add insult to injury. Moreover, mandating that the lamb be roasted whole over an open flame—with its aroma permeating the atmosphere—insured that it could not be disguised, while requiring that the skeleton remain intact meant that it could not be disavowed.

Participation in the Passover sacrifice, then, was tantamount to an open repudiation of idolatry. An Israelite who jeopardized his life by undertaking this sacrifice was irreversibly committing himself to the will of God and flaunting his faith in the face of his Egyptian taskmasters. By contrast, an Israelite who declined to conduct the sacrifice, or who tried to fake his participation, would be signaling that his fear of the Egyptians outweighed his belief in God. Such an Israelite did not deserve to be redeemed.

Indeed, according to a midrashic tradition, fully four-fifths of the Israelites failed this test and did not merit the exodus. And here lies at least one plausible reason for the severity with which the Haggadah views the sentiment of the wicked son that the Passover service is "to you and not to him"; why "excluding himself from the rule" should be equated with heresy; and why performance of the service is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for redemption.

As studies have consistently shown, Passover is the foremost occasion for Jewish celebration during the entire year, surpassing even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One can only hope that in our time, even if in some vestigial fashion, attendance at a seder signals a willingness to identify oneself with the Jewish faith and the Jewish fate.

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).

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SW on April 15, 2011 at 2:31 am (Reply)
"By contrast, an Israelite who declined to conduct the sacrifice, or who tried to fake his participation, would be signaling that his fear of the Egyptians outweighed his belief in God."

This theme is as modern as today. We see feminists refusing to criticize female genital mutilation based on allegiance to multiculturalism, politicians failing to call out the brutality of some Muslims on the basis of tolerance, and the making of abberancy into normalcy via political correctness. All of these outweigh, as the article suggests, "a belief in God" and evidence the faking of participation with Western Judeo-Christian values while working against them.

Millenia have passed, and the Pesach story remains the same, if not as pertinent to today as then.
Nathan Laufer on April 15, 2011 at 8:44 am (Reply)
Excellent piece, except that it refers to the question and answer of the 2nd, not the 3rd, son in the Traditional Haggadah.
The Editors, Jewish Ideas Daily on April 15, 2011 at 9:26 am (Reply)
We regret the error and extend our thanks to Mr. Laufer for pointing it out.

The text has been corrected.
mischa on April 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm (Reply)
"By contrast, an Israelite who declined to conduct the sacrifice, or who tried to fake his participation, would be signaling that his fear of the Egyptians outweighed his belief in God."

SW: What about those Orthodox crooks- the Deal NJ Rabbis, the Spinke Rebbe, Rubashkin- not to mention the pedophiles which Dov Hikind has tried to prosecute?
Why the silence about them?

C. Mucius on April 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm (Reply)
Or it's part of a Jewish-Christian polemic, and the wicked son is rejecting the importance of animal sacrifice on the basis of Christian theology. See Israel Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (English edition Cal. UP 2006).
Anna on April 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm (Reply)
"To the Egyptians, sheep were taboo." First time I've heard this. Do you have any sources to back up this statement?
Lawrence Feldman on April 16, 2011 at 1:24 pm (Reply)
Perhaps in line with what C. Mucius has written, there is a view that the Haggadah here is rejecting Jesus.


I first heard this view expressed in Rabbi Etshalom's podcast series on the Haggadah, mentioned in a comment to the above blog post.
Agur bin Yakeh on April 17, 2011 at 12:22 am (Reply)
Anna - check out the Ralbag's (i.e. Levi ben Gershon, a.k.a. "Gersonides") commentary on Shemot 12:3-13. He makes virtually the same points as the author of this blog post.
David Aharon on April 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm (Reply)
My comments are taken partly from Harav Chaim Zimerman's sefer Torah and Reason

Note that the Rasha is still at the seder today.
And our answer to the seder participants who are there is if he would have been in Mitzrayim he would not have been redeemed because he was not included in people that received the Torah 49 days later. Because of an entity created at matan Torah, we have a concept of tzibbur [klal yisrael] in addition to individual so much so that this same person is counted as one of the 10 at a minyan ... and even on Kol Nidre night we publicly declare that we pray together with all these sinners. So we tell the Rasha if you would have been in Mitzrayim you would not have been redeemed as a yachid but since we received and created this entity whereby you are now part of klal yisrael you are included in the seder.
there is something else here the chacham -the wise son is placed next to the rasha in order to use his wisdom to bring the rasha back ....

while we are on the subject of the 4 sons i wish to make one comment - the tam usually translated as the simple son ... is not really simple ...
it says in parshat Noach - Noach ISH Tzaddik TAMIM ... and it says further in parshat Toldot Yaakov ish TAM

so who now sees the tam as a son who appears to be simple really is in different conception Pure Straightforward to be a tam is a extremely high level of emunah in seeing every event as from Hashem.
Hashem caused you to cut your finger !Based on this we could say the Tam is not asking MA WHAT] is this but he may be asking LAMAH [why is this] and to this we answer with an oyutstretched did Hashem take out out of Mitzrayim!
Gary Clarke on April 17, 2011 at 4:57 pm (Reply)
Like Anna, "sheep were taboo" I wonder. Of course the Ram was one of the deities of Egypt, but in the wilderness the Hebrews without Moses wanted a "golden calf", this probably the most popular idol they held. Any comment on the Ram vs. the Golden Calf- or Bull?
greg on April 17, 2011 at 6:00 pm (Reply)
I think the evidence that Egyptians revered sheep and did not eat them is a bit scant; a rabbinic gloss to make a point bli some real history. see, for example In a similar vein, the rabbis said the Egypt was the land of the uncircumcised, yet there are many paintings of circumcisions on tombs, walls etc in Egypt. When the rabbinic texts were created, the Hellenistic dislike of circumcision was all around them and they naturally projected that backwards to Egypt.
Nelson Magedman on April 20, 2011 at 9:03 pm (Reply)
So why don't we eat lambchops on Passover? I love lambchops. Answer: Too expensive.
David Aharon on April 21, 2011 at 10:25 am (Reply)
For the same reason we don't eat roast chicken or beef since the destruction of the temple ... however you can eat boiled lambchops or pickled tongue!

It has nothing to do with expense.
Gary Clarke on April 25, 2011 at 10:01 pm (Reply)
Lamb Chops- while we did have rack of lamb at Easter, I thought the edict to Moses in Exodus was to "Roast it Whole"- i.e. not broken. Is this followed in the strictest Orthodox sense at Passover? (barring the expense).
David Aharon on April 27, 2011 at 2:12 pm (Reply)
The Orthodox [i hate the term] do NOT eat roasted meat on Passover night outside the Temple since its destruction as a sign of mourning because the lamb is brought as a Korban to Hashem Incidently the first day of Pesach always coreesponds to the same day of week as Tisha B'Av the day the temple began to burn down.
The word Korban has as its root Karov to come close to [G-d] Therefore we come close to Hashem through the observance of His Law.

One interesting side note:

The text says if the household is too small, then he and his neighbour's house shall eat the lamb. This by the way is the reason we invite guests on Shabbat and all Yom Tov or the guests would be "too small". It is not "CHESSED" [charity] but "TZEDAKAH" [root TZEDEK -Righteousness] to invite poor people to your table.
Gary Clarke on April 28, 2011 at 12:17 am (Reply)
David- Wow! Thank you. Fascinating!

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