To Revolt or Not? Deciphering Passover's Secret Code

Because Passover commemorates the liberation of our ancestors from slavery in Egypt, one might think the seder would more likely resemble an ancient Egyptian meal. The seder, in fact, replicates the feast of a later oppressor – the Romans – from reclining, washing hands, beginning with an egg, dipping in salt water, wine libations, and discussions of the afikomen (Greek for “revelry”).

Why would the surviving Judeans incorporate the customs of the enemy that only decades earlier destroyed their Temple in Jerusalem?

The answer can be found in the traditional Haggadah, for this telling of the Exodus story provides clues that the seder was more than a ritual meal. For one rabbinic faction, it was a time to imagine freedom from Rome, even by another armed insurrection.

In the Haggadah, we read the story about Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiba, and Rabbi Tarfon who were “reclining” in Bnai Brak and telling the “Exodus from Egypt” story all that night until their students came and said to them, “Our rabbis, the time for reciting the morning Sh’ma has arrived.”

We know from historical accounts that these five rabbis supported Bar Kokh­ba (Simon ben Kosevah) and the three-year revolt (132-135 C.E) he would lead in Judea against the Roman occupation. They may even have been planning the revolt in Bnai Brak, Rabbi Akiba’s home base, using “Exodus from Egypt” as code for “Freedom from Rome.”

This subterfuge shielded the Jewish activists from Roman spies and Roman curiosity, allowing them to claim, “We are simply talking here at our symposium about a time long ago when our people were in Egypt.”

To enhance the underlying purpose of their seder, the activists created a new midrashic interpretation for each food item of this Roman meal. Everything Roman about the feast came to symbolize the Jewish predicament and broadcast the rabbis’ hope that Rome would be defeated, the Temple and independence restored.

Another text (Tosefta Pesachim 10:12) tells of a similar seder, but with a major difference.

Rabban Gamliel and the Elders were reclining at the house of Boethus ben Zunin in Lod, engaged in discussing the laws of Pesach until the rooster crowed. This seder story has all the earmarks of a meeting of those Jews who opposed another revolt against Roman rule.

First, the attendees, Gamliel and the Elders, were members of the aristocracy, what we might today call political conservatives. Second, they are meeting in the city of Lod, which was a major commercial center. Third, they reclined at the home of Boethus, a very wealthy Jewish merchant with a Greek name, a sign of his cross-cultural contacts. Finally, they were not discussing the “Exodus from Egypt,” code for the revolt, but the “laws of Pesach,” an indication that their concern was inwardly focused on the laws of Passover.

Our tradition has invested the Haggadah with meaning and purpose for every age and for all time. In the second century, for the Akiba faction, the Exodus story symbolized the struggle for freedom from Roman oppression; for the Gamliel faction the seder was a gathering of those leaders who defend the status quo.

In our own day, Jews remain politically divided. Some remain focused on the laws and customs of the festival, while others see the seder as a response to the continuing struggle for equal rights for all who are oppressed – as a feast of freedom.

For another perspective on the multi-layered meanings of the story contained in the Haggadah, check out "There's More to the Haggadah Than Meets the Eye."

Rabbi Manuel Gold has been called “the Sherlock Homes of Jewish scholarship” for his fearless probing into sacred literature with the eye of a historian and the enthusiasm of a sleuth who has just solved a mystery. Adapted by permission from Manuel Gold: Renegade Rabbi (Rossel Books, Dallas, TX, June 15, 2019).