Seder Table: A Kabbalistic Perspective.
A deeper look at matzah, karpas, charoset and more.
We call the night's events by the word Seder, which means order. But why is it that everything the Haggadah describes about the Jewish people's deliverance from Egypt – such as the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea – is anything but natural and orderly?
The Kabbalists explain that all you need to do is take a look at Jewish history to know that for the Jewish people "above the natural order" is the "natural order." Miraculous is the norm.
With this understanding, let’s explore each of the items on the Passover table.
- A Seder plate with:
- Karpas (celery, cucumber, parsley or potato)
- Marror (lettuce or horseradish)
- Charoset (apples, nuts, and wine mixture)
- Shank bone (Zero’ah)
Wine is produced from the material within the grape. It comes from a place that is hidden within, and exemplifies that which is hidden and needs to be brought forth. Likewise, spirituality is hidden in our physical world and needs to be brought forth.
For this reason, the numerical value of the Hebrew word for wine, Yayin, is the same as the numerical value of the Hebrew word for secret, Sod. Wine exemplifies the "secret" of the physical – i.e. the spiritual. Therefore, at any spiritual time or event, Judaism attaches wine in order to bring out the spiritual potential inherent in that event. As the Talmud says, "When wine goes in, the secret comes out."
The word Karpas has dual meaning. Karpas has the biblical meaning of a soft colored fabric. However, at the Seder, we have grown familiar with an additional meaning of the word Karpas – a green vegetable.
What is the connection between the fabric Karpas and the vegetable Karpas? And what is the Karpas vegetable doing at the Seder?
Rashi implies the connection by explaining that the special coat of Joseph was made of Karpas, soft colored fabric.
It was the coat of Joseph that began the ultimate descent of the Jewish people into Egypt. When Jacob gave Joseph this special coat, Joseph's brothers were jealous. This led to the brothers selling Joseph to people, who in turn sold him into slavery in Egypt.
Before getting into the main topics of the Seder – i.e. the Jewish people's slavery and redemption – we eat Karpas, which hints to the way we arrived into Egyptian bondage in the first place.
Salt is unique in that it is bitter on its own, yet sweetens and brings out the taste of that which it is added to. For this reason, salt is the staple of suffering.
There are two perspectives of suffering – Purposeless Suffering and Purposeful Suffering.
Purposeless Suffering is suffering without reason, value, or an end-goal, and is therefore completely bitter. It is based on a keyhole view of life: “What is right in front of my eyes is all there is and there is no grander scheme.”
We squint in order to focus on something in the distance.
The Kabbalists explain that for this reason, the reaction of a person in pain is to close his eyes, since physical eyes don't see the spiritual purpose. Just as a person squints, which is a partial closing of one's eyes in order to focus on something in the physical distance, one may close his eyes completely in order to focus on something in the "spiritual distance.”
Purposeful Suffering is sweetened by understanding the greater context – that all is from God and for the best.
At the Seder, we dip the Karpas into saltwater in order to embody the concept of Purposeful Suffering – that we view any suffering in life as a surgery for our ultimate betterment rather than meaningless torture. (Additionally, we dip Karpas into salt water to represent the tears cried by the Jewish people while enslaved under Egyptian rule.)
We see these two sides of salt expressed by the Dead Sea. Due to its high salt concentration, the Dead Sea contains no life within it, yet has an incredible capacity to heal. On its own, the Dead Sea is "bitter," but when a person dips into the Dead Sea, he is "sweetened."
The shank bone is not eaten at the Seder. Rather it is a reminder of the Passover lamb offering brought during the times of the Temple. The underlying message of this offering can be inferred by its laws:
The Pascal Lamb was to be one year old, with no broken bones, eaten whole and in one house. – all representing the theme of unity and oneness. Thus the Kabbalists explain the Pascal Lamb to be an expression of the unity between God and the Jewish people.
Additionally, the offering was specifically a lamb, since according to the Sages, a lamb's entire body feels the pain of each limb – alluding to the shared destiny of each and every Jew.
Matzah is referred to as both the Bread of Freedom and the Bread of Poverty. What does poverty have to do with freedom?
The Kabbalists explain that a poor person is often alone and with nothing. However, in one sense, this snapshot of poverty contains a certain glimpse of freedom: if he has nothing, then he has no attachments holding him down. Similarly, the Sages teach, "To accumulate possessions is to accumulate worries." Or in the vernacular, "More money, more problems."
Taking this to another level, the deepest freedom a person can attain is within oneself – freedom from one's instincts, inclinations, natures, and nurtures – enabling him to be truly capable of making a free choice.
This is the essence of matzah: plain flour and water – without other things added or attached.
Just as it goes into the oven, so too it comes out.
Additionally, the Zohar, the main work of Kabbalah, refers to matzah as "faith food." This is because, unlike chametz which rises on its own, matzah does nothing on its own. All is done by its maker. Just as it goes into the oven, so too it comes out. The message of matzah is that the natural world does not run on its own. Rather, it is all run by its Maker.
This is also the message of the miracles that occurred in the Jewish redemption from Egypt. The Egyptians mistakenly believed that the world ran in accordance with constellations and there was nothing Higher pulling the strings. Interestingly, the Egyptian civilization invented leavened bread – bread that “rises on its own."
Marror – Bitter Herbs
It is well known that the meaning behind Marror is to help us connect to the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. Why, in fact, do the Jews so often find themselves enslaved and constantly kicked around?
In Kabbalah, it is taught that every nation has a ministering angel, an "emissary" from God. Except for the Jewish people, who have God "directly" above them.
When the Jewish people stick with God, there is no way for any other nation to assert its will or rule over them. However, if the Jewish people leave God, they are left with nothing and will inevitably fall under the bitter control of another nation.
The Sages give three reasons for eating Charoset:
- Charoset, as a pasty substance, commemorates the mortar with which the Jews had to work when building in Egypt.
- In Egypt, the Jewish women, believing they would soon be redeemed, would entice their husbands, exhausted and frustrated by the difficult labor, to continue to have children and perpetuate the nation. In Kabbalah, the tapuach fruit (usually translated as apple or citrus) is a reference to femininity. Thus the fruity Charoset brings to mind the righteousness of the women who asserted their femininity in this praiseworthy manner.
- Charoset reminds us of blood – either the Jewish blood spilled in Egypt, or the first of the Ten Plagues in which the Egyptians' water was turned to blood.
From these different meanings behind Charoset, it turns out that Charoset is both "bitter" and "sweet" simultaneously. Perhaps this is why the sweet Charoset is eaten with the bitter Marror – on one hand Charoset is a reminder of bitter events, on the other hand it sweetens the bitter Marror.
During the times of the Holy Temple, the Jewish people would bring a festive offering called the Chagigah. Today, during this ongoing spiritual exile of the Jewish people, we place an egg on the Seder plate instead. The egg is associated with mourning since it is round and, therefore, symbolizes the circle of life. It inspires feelings of both grief and comfort, knowing that we are presently without the Temple and this offering, yet we hope and pray for "Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem!"
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