Seder Table Topics

Kaddesh and the Four Cups

The custom to drink four cups of wine is well known, but both the reason for the obligation and the connection to the four sections where they are drunk: Kaddesh, Maggid, Birkat HaMazon, and Hallel, is not at all clear. Are the four cups the focal point of the custom, or do the liturgical sections stand at the fore, while the drinking is merely secondary? See Four Cups for discussion.

  • The Ba'alei HaTosafotSukkah 38aAbout Ba'alei HaTosafot consider the cups to be merely a secondary accompaniment to the four sections of the Haggadah in which Hashem's praises are sung. The drinking of wine is merely a way to add importance to the liturgy, much like one makes a toast over wine.
  • R. David Bonafed and MaharalGevurot Hashem 48About R. Judah Loew of Prague, in contrast, view the drinking rather than liturgy as the focus, viewing the abundance of wine as an expression of freedom and a way of reenacting our ancestors' redemption.

The differing opinions have ramifications for a number of issues: How would each approach explain why specifically the number four was chosen? Can one fulfill the obligation by drinking four cups at once? Can the head of the household discharge the obligation for all other participants (as normally happens with Kiddush)?

Karpas and Yachatz

The heart of the Seder is devoted to retelling the story of the enslavement and redemption, accomplished both through a verbal retelling (Maggid) and a gustatory retelling (as we eat Matzah and Maror to re-enact the Paschal rite of the eve of the Exodus). These, together with Hallel, account for most of the components of the Seder. What function, though, is served by the preparatory steps of Karpas and Yachatz? Are they, too, meant to re-enact the Exodus or do they serve a different purpose?

  • To learn about the custom of Karpas and how it evolved from being simply an appetizer with no ritualistic significance to being a symbol of slavery or redemption, see: Karpas.
  • Yachatz, too, has been understood in differing ways, with some viewing the breaking and hiding of the Matzah a means to recall both the enslavement and the Exodus and others suggesting that it is merely a utilitarian practice, meant to ensure that there is enough Matzah left for the Afikoman. See Yachatz for more. 
  • For discussion and an overview of the structure of the Seder and it various components, see Structure of the Seder.

"עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ"

When trying to imagine what the enslavement in Egypt was actually like, readers naturally look to examples of oppression and slavery in modern times and read those back into the narratives of Sefer Shemot. Some envision barracks, emaciated figures, and gulag or concentration camp conditions. Others picture plantation workers mercilessly being bought and sold, as occurred to slaves in the American South. To what extent do these images match the depiction in Sefer Shemot?

"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.
  • How is Chag HaMatzot different from Chag HaPesach?  Do they have the same goals or distinct purposes?  Why was the Pesach ritual instituted?  Was it merely a means for providing protection to the nation during the Plague of Firstborns or was it meant to strengthen the nation's spiritual relationship with Hashem?  See Pesach and Chag HaMatzot – A Two for One? and Purpose of the Pesach.


For more, see: Haggadah Topics.