Seder Table Topics

"עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ"

  • What was the experience of slavery like in Egypt?  Were all of the Children of Israel enslaved in Egypt or just part of the nation?  Were they slaves to the State or also to individuals?  How harsh were the conditions?  For some approaches to the above, contrast Ramban and Ralbag (be sure to check Ralbag using the Gear button at the top of the Mikraot Gedolot) on Shemot 1:11. 
  • Compare the Israelite experience to that of other slaves, such as those in the American South. How are they the same or different? See Nature of the Bondage for more.
  • Follow up the discussion by bringing a selection of artwork to the Seder.  How do the various artists depict the bondage and answer these questions?

"מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ"

  • This part of the Haggadah presents the story of the Exodus as a journey from idolatry to monotheism.  Did the Israelites keep a distinct lifestyle in Egypt, or had they acculturated into their surroundings?  For sources and analysis, see Religious Identity in Egypt.
  • How does assimilation affect relations with the Gentile world?  Does it cause persecution or does it prevent it?  See how R. Chasdai Crescas answers this question in his analysis of the religious beliefs of the Israelites in Egypt.  Note how his views might be impacted by his personal experiencing of the religious persecutions in Spain. Contrast with the Netziv in his discussion of the Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage, and how he, in turn, is influenced by the events of his era. With whom do you agree?

"בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל"

  • Already at the Covenant of the Pieces, Hashem ordained that the Israelites would be exiled and oppressed for 400 years. He never clarifies, however, what purpose this should serve. Why do you think that the exile and bondage were a necessary part of our formative history?  See Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage for elaboration.
  • Expand the discussion to other experiences of suffering. How do trials and tribulations help a person/ community grow? Think of a personal trial that you have undergone; in what ways would you be different if you never experienced it?  How has it changed the way you relate to others?

"וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל"

Before the Exodus, Hashem commanded the nation to request golden vessels from their neighbors. Many have understood this as a fulfillment of Hashem's promise that they would leave Egypt with great wealth, but commentators disagree if the vessels taken out were borrowed or received as gifts:

  • If you were in Egypt and were told to take gold or silver from the Egyptians, knowing that you were not to return them, would you consider it stealing or fair payment for your labor?  When do two wrongs make a right?
  • If the vessels were gifts, given as reparations for the slavery, would you be willing to accept them?  Compare with the debates which raged in Israel in the early 1950s over the propriety of requesting and accepting West German reparations. See R. Zalman Sorotzkin in Reparations and Despoiling Egypt for more.

"שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ"

What do you think are the main causes of anti-Semitism?

  • Explore examples of Jewish oppression throughout history, and in each case consider: Were the Jews singled out or part of a larger group being oppressed? What led to the oppression? Was it physical or spiritual in nature?
  • Compare to the bondage in Egypt. What factors led Paroh to enslave the people? Was he motivated by religious, military, economic, or social concerns? Did the Israelites do anything to encourage the Egyptian hostility?  For elaboration, see Slavery – Understanding Why.

"אֵלּוּ עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת"

Challenge the participants at your Seder's assumptions about the Plagues with the following questions:

  • Who was harmed by the Plagues?  Although it is natural to assume that only the Egyptians were affected by the Plagues, some commentators suggest that in the plagues which make no explicit mention of distinction between the nations, the Israelites suffered as well.  What might motivate this stance?  How does this approach affect your understanding of the purpose of the Plagues or of the relative roles of the natural and supernatural in the story?  See Whom and Where Did the Plagues Strike?
  • How many plagues were there?  Most people assume that there were ten plagues ("עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת"). However, neither the number ten ("עֶשֶׂר") nor the word ("מַכּוֹת") are ever found in the story of Sefer Shemot, and a case can be made for a series of anywhere from nine to twelve wonders. How do the different possibilities affect your thinking about the Plagues as a whole?  What difference might it make if we refer to the series as "plagues", "wonders", "signs", or "judgments"?  See How Many Plagues Were There and Patterns in the Plagues.

"רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר"

Matzah has been explained as containing contradicting symbolisms, representing both the oppression and the haste of the redemption.

  • If you were creating a holiday to commemorate the events in Egypt, would you choose to focus on the oppression or the redemption?  What rituals / practices would you institute, and what would be the goals of each?
  • According to Sefer Shemot, what is the holiday of Chag HaMatzot supposed to commemorate?  Was it celebrated by the Israelites in Egypt?  If so, what did it mean to them? See Chametz and Matzah in Pesach Mitzrayim.
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