In the Babylonian Talmud (M'nachot 29b) there is a wonderful midrash1 in which Moses is depicted as watching God sitting and writing crowns (embellishments that look a bit like crowns) on some of the letters in the Torah. Moses asked God why the Holy One was doing this. God responded "There is a man who will appear at the end of several generations and Akiva ben Yosef is his name. And he will need these crowns, because from each and every mark he will derive scores and scores of laws." (In a sense, Akiva will create midrash to explain the presence of these marks, and anything else unusual in the text of Torah.)
Moses retorted, "Ruler of the Universe, show this man to me." The Holy One said, "Turn around!"
Moses found himself sitting in the back of Rabbi Akiva's beit midrash (classroom) and he did not understand a word that was being said. He felt faint and frustrated. When the class reacted a certain point in the discussion, a student asked Rabbi Akiva, "Rabbi, what is the source for this ruling?" He said, "It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai."
In the opening sentence, I called this midrash "wonderful." I did so, because I find it to be a "wonder-filled" example of how Jewish tradition changes, and yet, remains rooted in Torah.
This week's Torah portion is Emor meaning "Speak." In this parashah we find an extended discussion of the regulations regarding the priests who must remain in a state of "holiness" in order to offer sacrifices in the Temple. There are rules relating to the Tabernacle and laws about one who blasphemes the Name of God. This parashah also has an extended section discussing the observance of Shabbat, Rosh HaShanah (not identified by that name, however), Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Sh'mini Atzeret (not actually called this in the Torah), Pesach, and Shavuot (also not referred to specifically by this name).
Each description of the festivals and observances of the Jewish calendar obviously focuses on how the day was marked in biblical times. Some of what we hear is familiar and some is quite foreign to our experience. In our learning this week, I would like to focus on what the text tells us about Pesach:
"In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Eternal, and on the fifteenth day of that month the Eternal's Feast of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened bread for seven days. On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the Eternal. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations" (Leviticus 23:5-8).
This passage, together with passages in Exodus (chapters 12, 13, and 34), Numbers (chapters 9 and 8), and Deuteronomy (chapter 16) tell us what we know about Passover in the Torah. There we learn that Pesach involved a lamb sacrifice, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. We learn that during the festival we cannot eat anything leavened for seven days, we should explain the story of the Exodus to our children, and the festival should begin on the fourteenth day of the first month of the year perpetually. There is no mention of charoset, a seder plate, or, for that matter, a seder! The four cups of wine don't get mentioned specifically and there is no direct reference to the four questions or the four types of children. Elijah and his cup are never discussed in Torah. In fact, most of what we consider essential for a seder is absent! So where do those things come from?
It is our best guess that these traditions – so familiar to us – developed slowly over time, and ultimately they were first written in codified form in the Mishnah around the year 200 C.E., well over a thousand years after the first Pesach observance. In fact, if you look at Chapter 10 of tractate P'sachim in the Mishnah, you will see that the basic outline of our seder as we know it is clearly there. By Mishnaic times, we do have four cups and four questions; salt water (or vinegar) and a fruit-spice sauce (charoset); and Hallel and Birkat HaMazon. It all sounds familiar, and yet . . .
There are no silly (yet theologically serious) songs like "Chad Gadya" (An Only Kid) and "Echad Mi Yodei-a" (Who Knows One?). And there is still no cup for Elijah. Those things came later. And, even later we "invented" Miriam's cup, a fifth question (in the 1960s and 1970s about Refusenicks – Soviet Jews, and oppressed Jews in other times), and the "Ballad of the Four Children" sung to "My Darling Clementine."
At home I have well over a hundred different Haggadot. To mention a few, my shelves contain Askenazic and Sephardic versions, children's Haggadot, an Ethiopian Haggadah, and one focusing on the Holocaust. Some are unabashedly Zionist and others are true Americana. I have one with readings from Elie Wiesel and others that tell the story through the work of famous and less famous artists. They are all different. Some are fairly traditional and others are absolutely avant-garde.
What is certain is that if Moses had been transported to my seder or yours three weeks ago, he would have been just as confused and flustered as the time he visited Akiva's classroom!
But at the end of the midrash in the Talmud, Moses understood that his work hadn't disappeared by the time of Akiva – it had, in fact, been enhanced, beautified, and made relevant for those living in the first century C.E.
I would hope that at my seder (and yours) Moses also would have understood that we have taken what he (and God!) began and made it speak loudly to our children about the story of our great people and the ideas of freedom, justice, and the dignity of all human beings that are so much at the heart of Torah and God's message given through Moses.
May we and our children and their children continue to draw crowns on the tradition so that we can always say "It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai" even if Moses would need some commentary to understand that that is the case.
- According to Jacob Neusner, "The word 'Midrash,' which uses the root DaRaSH and hence means 'search' in Hebrew, speaks of the same thing that the word 'interpretation' or 'exegesis' does in English. 'Midrash' also stands for a compilation of such interpretations . . . And, finally, 'Midrash' may speak of the particular approach to interpretation, or exegesis, taken by Judaic sages, (The Midrash: An Introduction, J. Neusner [Northvale, N. J.: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1990], p. ix)
Robert Tornberg, RJE , is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools, and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.