Parshas Vaera.


The laws of Pesach Seder and some explanations of the Haggadah. 


1. The Passover is the first holiday our nation accepted with love, it is the holiday of our redemption and therefore we should try especially hard to fulfill the commandments of Pesach according to their laws. We will first discuss the Passover Seder and then talk about the laws of chametz and the rest of Pesach laws.


2. In general, we drink four cups of wine or grape juice during the Seder and this way the whole Seder can be divided into four parts. The first cup is used for Kiddush, just as on any Shabbos or Yom Tov. On the second cup we make a blessing, thanking the Creator for redeeming us. The third cup is used during Birkas Hamazon – the grace after the meal. We say Hallel – psalms of thanksgiving – over the fourth cup.  The Vilna Gaon explains that the four cups correspond to four periods of time: Kiddush – sanctification – corresponds to this world, where we have to sanctify ourselves. The second cup corresponds to the redemption which will happen in the end of days when Moshiach comes. The third cup corresponds to the resurrection of the dead, when a special feast of Leviyatan will be made. At last, the fourth cup corresponds to great Hallel in the world to come. Let us now discuss each of the four parts of the Seder.


3. First, the Kiddush is made as is printed in the texts of Haggadah. According to some customs the words of Kiddush are said by all the members of the family together. In such a case, nobody answers “Amen” on the brochos of others. After the blessings, one should drink the entire cup or at least the majority, while reclining on the left side. However, the Ashkenazi women have a custom not to recline. Afterwards, everybody washes the hands, takes a small piece of celery or a different vegetable, dips it in salty water, makes a brocha and eats it. Note that we have to check all the green vegetables before the holiday, to make sure they have no bugs. According to the prevalent custom, the leader of the Haggadah has three matzos in from of him. He breaks the middle matzo into two, and hides the larger piece. This piece is called Afikoman and it will be eaten in the end of the Seder.  The leader points at the matzos and says that this is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt. It was a custom of Egyptians to feed their slaves with matzo since it fills a person quickly. Afterwards the second cup is filled, the plate with matzo and other foods is removed and the discourse begins.


4. To understand the general reasons behind all these rituals we need to realize that one of the most important commandments of the Torah is to teach our children. Even regarding Avraham, the Torah specifically underlines that he will be able to teach his offspring to keep the commandments. Throughout most of our history we are in exile, dispersed among people who have a very different world view than ours. It is in these conditions, that we have to educate our young to continue on with the traditions. The Torah constantly stresses the importance of education and especially with regards to Passover Seder – it commands us four times to explain the meaning of Haggadah to our children. The Haggadah will later point out that the four different answers given by the Torah are intended for different types of children. The first son is wise and he wants explanations about the entire Seder. One of his questions is why some families bring only one Passover offering while others bring also Chagiga – an additional korban. He is answered that we are not supposed to eat anything after the afikoman – which was in their time a piece of Passover offering, not a piece of matzo. Therefore, larger families bring Chagiga as well – after eating the meat of Chagiga and the meat of Pesach offering they won’t feel hungry. The second son is deemed wicked. When the Torah describes him, it does not say: “You children will ask”, but rather: “You children will say”. The wicked never ask anything – they just make rhetorical comments – what do you need all this for? He does not even mention the name God in his question – for him all this is just useless waste of time. The third simple child asks: what is this? In the description of the fourth child, the Torah does not even mention that our children will ask. It simply tells us what to answer them. Our sages therefore learned that the fourth child does not know what to ask. It is known that children learn by example much more than by mere words. This is one of the reasons for the symbolism of the Seder. Our children have to be surprised – we have not even eaten yet and we already removed the plate! It is really quite unusual that after Kiddush, we only eat a small vegetable and then remove the serving dish.


5. Now, the children ask four questions. Note that there are many fours during this Seder: four types of children, four questions, four cups etc. In general, the spiritual root of these fours is the four letters in the Divine name that corresponds to the four general ways in which the Creator rules over the universe. If the child is not able to ask the questions himself or there are no children present, then the questions are asked by somebody else. Why is this night different from all other nights? The Pesach plate is returned and the narration begins. We are told about the beginnings of our nation when we were oppressed by an evil tyrannical dictator of the most powerful nation in the world. The scientists still can’t figure out how the Egyptian pyramids were built, at any rate that society was certainly technologically quite advanced. With all that, the Creator saved us from the Egyptian bondage, He took us out with great miracles while the Egypt was totally destroyed and disappeared from the world history for many centuries. Interestingly, the pattern keeps persisting – whenever the Jews leave some country, it loses its importance. The most recent example is the Soviet Union. We also retell that our ancestors were idol worshippers until Avraham discovered the One True God. The Creator than chose him and his descendants and promised to give us the Holy Land. This promise gave us strength even during the hardest years of Egyptian bondage. Note that since then the Jew became a symbol of hope. Even during the worst times of history: throughout the Crusades, the massacres and pogroms, during the Spanish Inquisition, during Communist persecutions and during the World War II, the Jew always knew that this will pass and he will remain. And so, after the long Egyptian bondage, which was three times longer than Communist control of the Soviet Russia, the Creator again showed His Face, and demonstrated to the entire Egyptian people that only He has full control over nature. Ten punishments were brought upon the Egyptians. As we mention each of the plaques we pour out a drop of wine from the cup. Rabbi Yehudah used to group the plaques into three. The reason is that the first three plaques, the next three and the last four share certain commonalities. As we mention each group we pour out three more drops. The cup is refilled and we continue.


6. We now recite the famous praise “Dayeynu” – “it would suffice”. If the Creator would have taken us out of Egypt but did not punish the Egyptians, it would suffice. If He would have split the sea, but did not let us pass through the waters on dry land, it would suffice. The Vilna Gaon explains that if the sea was simply split, we would have to go down into the sea bed and then climb back up. The Creator however did an additional miracle – He froze the water under us, so we passed on a straight path through the sea. If the Creator had brought us to the Mount Sinai but did not give us the Torah it would suffice. Once we came to Mount Sinai, our status changed and we rose to the spiritual height of Adam before his sin.


7. The most important part of the narration are the words of Rabban Gamliel, who explains the meaning of the three foods on the Seder plate. The first, in the time of the Temple was the Pesach offering – a sheep or a goat that was eaten after roasting. Today, when we don’t have our Temple, we just place a piece of roasted chicken on the plate but we don’t eat it. The Passover offering was brought as a remembrance that the Creator passed over the Jewish houses during the last plaque when the firstborn of the Egyptians died. Why do we eat matzo? Because the Creator took us out of Egypt so quickly that our dough did not have time to rise.  Our people had thought that the prohibition of eating chametz extended only to the night and were ready to prepare bread for the morning meal. However, they were taken out so quickly that the dough did not rise and they ate matzo in the morning as well. Why do we eat “maror” – the bitter herbs? Because the Egyptians made our lives bitter.


8. Throughout the Pesach Seder we read the six thanksgiving psalms of Hallel. The first two psalms are recited before the meal, over the second cup of wine. The last four – are recited in the end, over the fourth cup. After reciting the two psalms we say a blessing, thanking the Creator for redeeming us from slavery and we drink the second cup while reclining. Ashkenazi Jews make a blessing on the wine before drinking, while Sephardim rely on the blessing that was made on the first cup. After drinking, everybody washes hands and makes a brocha on the washing. Two blessings are made over the matzo and everybody eats quietly, while reclining. One should try to eat at least as much matzo as the size of an egg within two to four minutes.  After this, the blessing over the bitter herbs is made. Most people use romaine lettuce or grinded horseradish. We eat maror without reclining, since reclining symbolizes our freedom, while maror symbolizes the bitter exile. One should eat as much maror as the size of half an egg.


9. After the meal, we eat the Afikoman and recite the grace. One should not forget to add “yaale veyavo” – a special prayer inserted in the third blessing on holidays. We then make a brocha on the third cut of wine and drink it while reclining.


10. We now finish the Hallel and also recite some additional psalms and a special prayer “Nishmas Kol Chai” – “every living soul will thank You…” on the fourth cup. Afterwards, Ashkenazim make a blessing on the cup while Sephardim rely on the brocha made on the third cup. We drink the last cup while reclining and make a blessing afterwards. In the end of the Seder we express our hope that we will conduct the next year’s Seder in Jerusalem. We are hoping Moshiach will soon come, the Temple will be rebuilt and we will be able to conduct the Seder with all its laws in the Holy City. It is now a mitzvah to spend as much time talking about the exodus from Egypt and discussing the Haggadah until one begins to fall asleep.


11. Starting with the second night of Pesach, we count the Omer. Each evening we make a blessing and state how many days passed since the Omer: “today is one day of Omer …” Staring with the seventh day, we need to count days and weeks: “today is seven days which is one week of Omer …” It is very important not miss even one day. The reason for this commandment is the special relationship which exists between Pesach and Shavuot holidays. Shavuot, which literally means “weeks”, always falls seven weeks after Pesach. We are commanded to count these weeks, as the one who waiting for a special occasion to arrive. When our nation came out of Egypt, we needed to purify ourselves before receiving the Torah. The purification process took 49 days. Similarly every year, we count these days to get ready for Shavuot. During the time between Pesach and Sahvuos, thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva diesn and therefore it is customary not to get haircuts and not to marry throughout the days of Omer. However, most Ashkenazim allow marriages after the 33th day of Omer – “Lag Baomer”.  Most Sephardim permit to marry starting with the 34th day.