Women and Gender in the Israeli Reform Haggadah

April 20, 2016Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D.

When two colleagues and I created the Israeli Reform haggadah in 2009, we were well aware of the tension between the significant role of women in the Passover story and the relatively little written about them in the haggadah. Because invisible lines of connection bind seder participants to the history of the Jewish people and to the traditions of individual families, ethnic groups, and their own personal heritage, we felt compelled to make the haggadah gender inclusive and to incorporate the stories of women from throughout Jewish history and today.

We added three new symbols, representing new traditions:

  1. Miriam’s Cup: This glass of clear water parallels Elijah’s Cup and is the symbol of Miriam’s influence on the Passover story, especially the miraculous well that, according to tradition, accompanied the Israelites on their sojourn in the wilderness to slake their thirst.
  1. Orange on the Seder Plate: Almost as a Hasidic tale, there are multiple explanations for this custom, but all of them protest the lack of egalitarianism and inclusiveness for women or others whose voices have been historically diminished. Although the custom originated in the United States, many families in Israel have adopted it as well. (In fact, it is so well known that the orange “stars” on the seder plate have been featured in the popular Israeli television comedy Avodah Aravit (Arab Work)).
  1. Alternative Texts: To the haggadah passage of the “Four Sons,” we have added a midrash of “Four Daughters.” However, in ours there is no “wicked” daughter, but rather an “angry” one: a woman who is angry that women are excluded from the tradition. The answer given to this woman is: “You, too, are part of this night’s Exodus from Egypt; as it is written, Due to the righteous women…Israel was redeemed from Egypt” (Talmud, Sotah 11b).

We also revitalized several old symbols that had been forgotten.

  1. Fish on the Seder Table: The tradition of a fish on the seder table significantly predates the orange as a feminist symbol. Rabbi Elazar of Worms (13th century, Germany) explained that the egg and the shank bone on the seder plate represent the two leaders Moses and Aaron, adding: “And there is another dish [fish] as a remembrance of Miriam” (Ma’aseh Rokeach 59, 17). In addition to recalling the well that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness, fish is a symbol of Leviathan, the mythic animal that the righteous will eat in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) in the messianic future, and also can be a symbol of fertility that evokes water, the method through which Miriam saves the infant Moses. Together, the three foods symbolize the unique gifts of the three siblings: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
  1. The Four Cups of Wine as the Four Matriarchs: Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the SheLaH, explained in Shnei Luchot HaBrit, Pesachim 44 that the three central mitzvot of the seder – pesach (the Passover sacrifice), matzah, and maror (bitter herbs) – symbolize the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the four cups of wine represent the matriarchs.
  • Sarah is recalled in the first cup with a midrash that teaches that as Abraham converted men (to monotheism), so, too, did Sarah convert women.
  • Rebekah is evoked with the “storytelling” second cup, since we “’begin with degradation and culminate with exaltation’” just as Rebekah’s story began with Esau and culminated with Jacob.” Although we're delighted to see the inclusion of the matriarchs in our seder, we are disappointed that the commentator (the the SheLaH) chose to associate Esau with disparagement. Today, we prefer to see the exultation of Isaac without the necessity to disparage his brother.
  • Rachel is recalled with the third cup in the blessings after the meal, since Joseph, her son, provided food for the entire House of Israel. Furthermore, she was the primary homemaker in the household, and it is taught (in Bava Metzia 59a), “The only true blessing in a man’s home stems from his wife.”
  • Leah is the fourth cup, the “Cup of Song.” Hillel taught: How many praises of God came forth from Leah, who declared (at the birth of her son Levi, the ancestor of Moses), “This time I will praise God!” (Genesis 29:35). 

Lastly, we added a new interpretation for the maror (the bitter herb), which, in some old Ashkenazi haggadot is symbolized when the husband, leading the seder, points to his wife and declares: “This is the maror!” Our haggadah and many others instead emphasize the merirut (bitterness) that has so often been the lot of women throughout history.

We are fortunate that today’s women can raise their voices and embrace the rights that are truly theirs. But we cannot forget that the fight for human equality, and specifically the equality of women, is a work-in-progress. This holiday reminds us not only to sanctify the image of God – male and female – wherever it is to be found, but also to mark the role of women in Passover – because they were part of the miracle and, most especially, because they were the reason it transpired.

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