The Lonely Seder, Take Two

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Will Friedman


As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, people are beginning to experience their annual life events – birthdays, anniversaries, and more – disrupted for a second time. The yearly cycle of Jewish celebrations and commemorations provide all too many opportunities to re-experience those disruptions. The first lockdowns and quarantines hit in the United States and other countries right around Purim (my daughter’s school closed Purim morning, and our Purim seudah was the last time anyone has been in our home outside of our eventual pod-mates), and reached their nadir at Passover, forcing a radical reimagining of what seder would look like for many families and especially single people. As Jews prepare for a second set of sedarim under thankfully less dire but still socially-distanced conditions, the time has come, once again, to try to invest the shrunken or solitary seder with meaning.[1]

The Passover offering, of which the seder is a continuation and outgrowth, was itself a family, or possibly clan, affair. In Exodus 12:3, God directs Moses to instruct the people to “take for themselves a lamb per family (beit avot), a lamb per household (bayit),” although the next verse permits smaller households to join with their neighbors to split a single lamb.[2] The description of the actual consumption of the lamb, however, strikes an eerily-familiar chord. When Moses communicates God’s instruction to dab blood on the doorposts and lintel of the Israelites’ homes (v. 7), he adds a detail: “none of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning” (v. 22).[3] In other words, during the first Passover, the Israelites were quarantined at home with their families and/or immediate neighbors (podmates?), hoping to avoid the pandemic of first-born deaths raging outside.[4]

Nevertheless, future Passover celebrations were clearly intended to be larger affairs, particularly according to the image painted by Deut. 16 of pilgrims gathering to bring and consume their Passover offerings.[5] At the same time, the ritual was clearly designed to have a familial educational function; Exodus 12:25-27 already anticipates children wondering about the reason underlying the Passover offering, and scripts a response expressing gratitude to God for saving them from the Egyptians’ deadly fate. This second model builds on the family-quarantine of the original Passover, imagining smaller and more intimate gatherings.

Both models appear in the earliest rabbinic texts. On the one hand, the Mishnah imagines groups (havurot) gathering to offer and consume the roasted Paschal lamb, which may but did not necessarily consist entirely of single families; Rabbi Yehudah even forbids slaughtering a lamb for an individual, forcing people to join with others.[6] Simultaneously, the Mishnah imagines an orderly family-centered meal where fathers and sons have an interactive educational experience, each according to their abilities.[7] The two notions – large gatherings, likely involving neighbors, and smaller, family meals – continue to exist side-by-side.

Even the second model, however, posits the existence of a group rather than an individual. Some rabbinic texts, however, do consider the possibility of an individual seder. The first is Tosefta Pesahim 10:11:

One does not conclude the Passover-offering [with] afikoman, e.g., nuts, dates, or toasted grain.
A person is obligated to study the laws of the Passover the entire night, even between himself and his son, even by himself (afilu beino le-vein atzmo), even between himself and his student.

The obligation to study the laws of Passover comes after the rule regarding the formal conclusion of the Passover meal. Since this text likely accepts the model of father-son discussion of the basics of the narrative presented by the Mishnah during the seder, this is an additional, post-seder obligation.[8] Relevant for us is that this discussion is directed to take place “even” (afilu) between only two people (father-son/teacher-student), and “even” by one’s self! The word “even” reveals an assumption that ordinarily one would be engaged in such discussions in a larger group,[9] but must “even” do so paired or alone.

There is another unexpected element in this Tosefta, which is the order of the list. Usually, the form “even A, even B, even C” implies a preferential hierarchy: A is better than B, and both are better than C. If so, then father-son learning is the best of these bad options, but solo learning is better than teacher-student learning! The reasoning for this is difficult-to-fathom,[10] but perhaps it has to do with the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship, which centers on intellectual sparring inappropriate for a holiday which is fundamentally experiential (e.g., the eating of symbolic foods) on which transmission of and identification with received laws and narrative is prioritized over contentious debates over minutia.[11]

It must be recognized, however, that this text is about legal discussion after the seder, not the narrative conversation of the seder itself. Is there a model for singular or paired discussion of the Exodus narrative itself? Here, we must turn to a different tannaitic text, the reconstructed Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai, on Exodus 13:3:

“And Moses said to the people: ‘Remember this day’” (Exodus 13:3) – Given that [Scripture] said: “And then, when your son asks you later, saying,” (Exodus 13:14) is it possible that if he asks you you must tell him, but if not, you do not need to tell him? Scripture says: “And you shall tell your son” (Exodus 13:8) – even if he does not ask you.
I only know [that one must talk about the Exodus] when one has a son; what is the source [that one must talk about the Exodus] by one’s self, [or] with others? Scripture says: “And Moses said to the people: ‘Remember this day.’[12]

According to this midrash, the requirement to “remember” the Exodus, directed by Moses to the whole people and independent of any relational component, establishes an individual requirement to talk about the Exodus with one’s self. Interestingly, the “self” precedes “others,” which perhaps suggests that one must be clear on one’s own explanatory framework before one can share it with others.[13]

The final text that bears on our issue is a baraita found only in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 116a. Prompted by the Mishnah’s requirement that after the pouring of the second cup of wine “the son asks his father,” the baraita qualifies this statement: “If his son is wise [or: intelligent; or: a Sage (hakham)], [the son] asks him. If not, his wife asks him. And if not, he asks himself.”[14] The image presented here is startlingly contemporary – someone excited to read every word of the haggadah surrounded by a bewildered, bored, or alienated child (and possibly a spouse and others with similar attitudes) who are only looking forward to dinner. In the end, such a person just reads the haggadah to themselves, questions and all.

On reflection, though, the directive “to ask one’s self” is very odd – what does it mean to ask one’s self questions?! Just skip to the answers and get on with it! The Brisker Rav explains this by distinguishing between “remembering the Exodus” and “telling the story of the Exodus.”[15] The former can be done quickly just by mentioning the Exodus, as in the third paragraph of the Shema; the latter requires lengthy exposition in the form of questions and answers. According to this, the point of “asking oneself” is to prompt active reflection, to force one’s self to be aware of nuances and inconsistencies that a simple mentioning, or even just a retelling without interjecting questions, would miss. On this view, the solo seder has the potential for great meaning by providing an opportunity to challenge one’s self to engage more deeply than perhaps is possible in a large (or even small) group, where the interests and needs of others are constantly being balanced. This view substitutes the dynamics of group conversation and the wisdom of crowds for a sustained internal probing of what (we think) we know.

For all of these texts, the lonely or isolated seder is an after-the-fact concession to realities beyond our control. And that is indeed the case for us. Nevertheless, I take solace in the fact that rabbinic texts took this possibility into account, and provide some guidance for finding meaning in solo and small-group sedarim. With any luck and the help of God, this will be the last year we’ll need to use it.

[1]      This article is adapted from an email sent in response to a single friend who would be doing sedarim alone, seeking Torah to help enhance her experience, and is informed by my personal experience of doing two sedarim with only my spouse, a radical departure from our typical large gatherings of friends.

[2]      There is a certain tension between neighbors splitting a single lamb and the requirement to eat the Passover offering in one house and not to take the meat outside the house (Exodus 12:46). William H.C. Propp, Exodus 1-18, 418, assumes that “if two families share the repast, they must consume it together,” thereby reinforcing communal bonds, at least among smaller families or poor ones. Rabbinic interpretation in Mekhilta de-RI Pisha 15/Mekhilta de-Rashbi 12:7/Tosefta Pesahim 6:11 understands this reference not geographically – that the Passover offering must be eaten in one physical house – but as referring to the havurah, the corporate entity that splits the cost of the Passover offering but which can eat it in different physical homes. The Biblical model (as understood by Propp) envisions a larger, communal environment, while the rabbinic model permits and perhaps even prefers a smaller, family-based celebration.

[3]      That the Israelites were expected to stay inside their homes to be protected from God’s unleashed destructive force might have been assumed, and perhaps even hinted at by the word “there” (sham) in v. 13, but Moses makes the directive explicit.

[4]      One of Hizkuni’s explanations of the prohibition against taking the meat of the offering out of the house (12:46; see previous note) is to avoid being struck by the destructive forces outside.

[5]      In light of the requirement that only men appear during the three annual festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16), including Passover, it is possible that this text imagines a very different “men’s club” atmosphere for the celebration, which is contiguous with a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls which states that only men above the age of 20 should be permitted into the Temple for the Passover celebration.

[6]      Rules of havurot are found in M. Pesahim chapters 8 and 9; the ruling regarding an individual is in 8:7.

[7]      M. Pesahim 10:4: “They poured for him [= the seder leader] a second cup [of wine], and here the son asks the father. … According to the intellectual capacity [da`at] of the son does the father teach him.”

[8]      On the potentially different conceptions of the Mishnah and Tosefta regarding the purpose and content of the Passover seder, see Chaim Saiman, “The Fifth Question,” Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2015.

[9]      The continuation of the Tosefta describes the all-night learning session of Rabban Gamliel and the elders, similar to that which also appears in the haggadah.

[10]    Hasdei David here suggests that the teacher and student had been learning all the laws already for the previous 30 days (a rule found in Tosefta Megillah 3:5), and therefore their study would be redundant but still praiseworthy given the obligation to recall the Exodus on that specific date. That explanation still leaves unexplained why individual study would be preferable.

[11]    The nature of “engagement” (`isuq) in Torah is unclear in many tannaitic contexts; see Tosefta Berakhot 4:18 for what it might look like in aggadic context.

[12]    The midrash probably understands zakhor, “remember” as a command directed to individuals to recall the Exodus story. While this explains “by one’s self,” it does not really explain “with others”; perhaps the fact that the command is directed at the whole people (ha-am) implies a communal requirement to tell the story. Mekhilta de-Rashbi 13:8, however, learns the requirement to talk about the Exodus by one’s self or with others from a different verse: ve-higadta le-vinkha. That midrash is probably based on separating ve-higadta, “and you shall tell,” from le-vinkha, “to your son,” understanding “you shall tell” as an independent requirement (in the common midrashic form ve-higadta – mi-kol makom, “and you shall teach” – in all circumstances).

[13]    Unlike the Tosefta, “self” and “others” are not presented in a hierarchically preferential way; nevertheless, the order might still be significant.

[14]    A careful reading of this text reveals an oddity in its formulation: the two “if nots” appear to refer to different things. The first “if not” would seem to mean that the household patriarch lacks a wise son, not that he lacks a son entirely. (It is unclear whether wise is the opposite of wicked, or the opposite of simple or not-yet-intellectually-developed, and therefore whether the wife is taking the place of a minor child or one who was alienated from rabbinic Judaism.) The second “if not,” however, would seem to mean that the patriarch lacks a wife entirely, not that she, too, is intellectually bereft or alienated; yet, in light of the apparent meaning of the first “if not,” it is possible that the wife is present at the seder, but, like the son, not intellectually engaged by it.

[15] R. Chaim ha-Levi Soloveitchik, Hiddushei ha-Gra”h, Pesahim 116a.

Rabbi William Friedman is a doctoral candidate in Ancient Judaism at Harvard University, writing his dissertation on legal reasoning in early rabbinic law. He is also a Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Daniel Landes, former director and Rosh Yeshiva of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, and an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has studied and taught at the Conservative Yeshiva, Pardes, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Jewish Theological Seminary, Academy for Jewish Religion, and Hebrew College. William lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City, with his wife, Rabbi Sarah Mulhern, and their two children.