It’s Shabbat Hagadol again, the “Great Shabbat” that precedes the seder, and time for my annual plea to make this year’s seder something worthy of being called great. No one knows exactly why this anticipatory Shabbat is called “great” – the term appears first in the Gospel of John (of all places) and no Jewish source uses it until the Middle Ages, by which time, no one knew any more what it meant. Among the possibilities, however, is the realization that it precedes the greatest holiday in our calendar: Passover, which gave us our birth as a People and introduced freedom from slavery as a supreme value for all humanity.
Unless we rise from our annual seder convinced of Passover’s “greatness,” we miss the mark. It must echo with this year’s news, not just antiquity’s events. The “Great Shabbat” was established to rehearse the Haggadah in advance, anticipating moments for our seder to make old words sound entirely new.
Just think of all change that our Haggadah has undergone in attempts to retain its freshness. Originally, there was no printed text at all – in an oral age, people made it up as they went along. Originally too, there were three, not four cups of wine, and some rabbis even added a fifth cup, because the ones they had represented God’s acts of deliverance in the past, but they wanted a cup to remain unconsumed on the table unless God appeared to save us once again. By the late Middle Ages, that became an Elijah’s Cup. And nowadays, some people have added a Miriam’s Cup as well.
The meal didn’t come only half way through the night either. People ate first, originally, using the foods to prompt discussion. When people began to “eat and run,” however, the meal was postponed to make hungry diners sit through the discussion before satisfying their appetites.
There were not four questions originally either; and a child did not ask them until the Middle Ages. Since people ate first, children asked genuine questions prompted by the meal. Our “four questions” are just rabbinic examples of what to say to a child who cannot think of anything to ask. Without a meal coming first, and with nothing to prompt a child’s curiosity, these became standardized questions that children delivered by rote, the way we do today.
No one sang Dayyenu in the early years either. It was still optional in the tenth century.
At first, the Seder’s high point was an opaque midrash about some “wandering Aramean” who was worse than Pharaoh. Traditional seders still have that midrash, although those who say it are unlikely to know that it was a veiled reference to Roman domination – change the vowels and the Hebrew aRaMi (Aramean) becomes RoMi (Roman). After the Crusades, a new climax was added: opening the door for Elijah, and hoping for the messiah. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we began saying.
A slew of new Haggadahs appear annually about now. Some are just glitzier rewrites of the old; others provide commentary with contemporary interpretations; some update our story to reflect the realities of slavery still rampant round the world. More than a new Haggadah, however, consider the need to be a genuine leader of the seder, not just its facilitator. Ask people for a new question that we ought to be considering. Take time for them to express what slaveries they feel, what freedom might look like this year.
Feel free to skip readings that make little sense to you. The book we use for a holiday of freedom should not be oppressive! The point of the seder is not its readings but its message: the Jewish People’s mission is to see a world redeemed from degradation.
Do whatever you can to apply that message to our time. Just rereading the same old script of the centuries may get the word out; but only pausing to make the script come alive we get the message through.