Modesty on Seder Night

The Great Night

The expectations leading to seder night are tremendous. This is the night in which the Jewish people became a nation. Since then, on this night, an eternal beam splits through all the barriers and enlightens the world’s darkness. This light gradually strengthens through the story of the exodus from Egypt, and the realization of the enormous task God allotted to the Jewish nation – to bring redemption to the world.

On this night parents pass on the sacred tradition to their children. In accordance with the great importance of the Seder night, countless commentaries were written on the Haggadah of Pesach, and scores of stories were told about how our distinguished Rabbi’s conducted themselves on this night. The entire nation of Israel exert themselves in preparation for Pesach – cleaning the house, burning the chametz, buying matzot and wine, and preparing all the tasty dishes. Many people also debate where it is preferable to spend the Seder night.

There are good Jews who prepare for the holiday by learning various commentaries on the Haggadah, writing down all the Torah thoughts they intend to say at length on Seder night, so they can merit being counted amongst all the righteous who recounted the story of the exodus from Egypt all night long.

The Disappointment

And finally, the great and awesome night arrives, and with it, often great disappointment The scholarly Jews attempt to give over words of Torah, while their family members find it hard to concentrate and focus on the depth of their thoughts, particularly when they are starving. Quickly, it becomes clear that all the in-depth studies and pin-point accuracies aren’t suitable for the children, either. And the righteous women, who made such a great effort preparing the house, the food, and the children, are way too tired. Then, the little children are asked to say divrei Torah, and the adults get bored. And when it’s the turn for the adults to give over Torah, it’s not always easy to understand what their point is, and sometimes their thoughts are forced. In the meantime, the children want to get up from the table, and if they are sitting, they constantly ask when they can eat the matzah, and are distracted by every little thing. Only when they are asked to sing ‘Ma nishtana’ do they suddenly become bashfully quiet.

At this point, all those beautiful photographs and pictures of seder night come to mind, and in all of them, the children are either sitting quietly, without a pips leaving their mouths, or they are standing on a chair, happily and enthusiastically singing ‘Ma nishtana’, and one thinks to himself: “Only in our house is there such confusion and chaos.”

Modesty

One of the reasons for this frustration is egotism. Had the seder been approached with modesty, it would be understood that as long as one merited to make kiddush on the wine, and, along with his children, said “Pesach, matzah, and maror,” spoke a little about the exodus from Egypt, said “Hallel,” ate matzoth while reclining, ate karpas and maror, drank four cups of wine, ate a festive meal, and said Birkat Ha’mazone, they have warranted all the levels of holiness of this night. This is what the children will remember and yearn for all their lives. It really doesn’t matter if there was a lot of noise, or with whom they made the Seder, rather, as long as they merited fulfilling the mitzvoth properly, they have passed-on the holy tradition to the next generation. Instead of being happy in the fulfillment of the special mitzvoth of this sacred night, one’s egotism causes him to want to boast about his family’s good manners. Instead of being satisfied with the complete and wonderful version of the Haggadah, one wants to take pride in the ‘chiddushei’ Torah which he succeeded to compile. In truth, such a person deserves to come away from the seder night frustrated and disappointed, for thus, he can repent and merit to conduct future seders with modesty.

Four Cups of Wine – and not Grape Juice

There is another mistake that many people make – they don’t drink four cups of wine as our Sages ordained. It never crossed the minds of our Sages, of blessed memory, that a generation would arise, where, instead of drinking four cups of wine, people would drink four cups of grape juice, since the main reason of the ordinance was to enable us to fulfill the mitzvoth of the night in joy and freedom, and one who drinks grape juice does not fulfill the mitzvah properly. Usually, the people who drink grape juice are the same ones who instead of being happy with the mitzvah, want to exhaust the Seder participants with all their in-depth studies and pin-point accuracies which they gathered from the various Haggadah’s they bought.

This is comparable to a woman who requested an excellent cake recipe from her neighbor, but her neighbor omitted one of the main ingredients from the list. Later, everyone wonders why the cake didn’t turn out good. Thank God, due to all the other mitzvoth the Seder turns out okay, but not excellent – because the main ingredient is missing.

In the Past, There was No Grape Juice on Pesach

In the times when our Sages ordained to drink four cups on Seder night, it was impossible to drink grape juice on Pesach. For only in the grape harvesting season, during the months of Elul and Tishrei, was it possible to squeeze grapes and obtain juice. However, after three days, the juice would begin to ferment, and after forty days, it would become wine. It was only about 150 years ago that the process of pasteurization was invented, preventing grape juice from fermenting, and enabling us to preserve it until Pesach.

Kiddush on Wine

Indeed, according to halacha, the Sages permitted making kiddush on grape juice (Bava Batra 97b; Shulchan Aruch 272:2). This, however, was in times of need, because wine was very expensive, and sometimes it would run out before the end of the season, and until the wine from the new harvest was ready, the Sages permitted making kiddush on grape juice.

The Talmud (Megillah 27b) tells us of Rabbi Zakkai who merited living a long life, and when his students asked him what he attributed this to, he told them three things: he was always strict in honoring prayer, he was always strict in honoring his friends, and thirdly, in spite of the cost of wine being very expensive, he never made kiddush on anything other than wine. One time, in spite of all of his efforts, he wasn’t able to obtain money to buy wine and his elderly mother sold her head-kerchief and bought him wine. The Sages said that she merited becoming wealthy, and when she passed away, she left her son three hundred barrels of wine.

What an Effort they Made

It is told of Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Ilai that wine affected him adversely, and every year he was forced to wrap his head in a bandage from Pesach until Shavuot as a result of the headaches he got from drinking the four cups (Nedarim 49b). Nevertheless, he insisted on drinking them, because only when a person becomes ill is he exempt from the mitzvah; however, if he ‘only’ has a headache until Shavuot, he is still obligated.

Indeed, since today we have grape juice, one who really gets a headache from wine can be lenient and drink grape juice. But a person who doesn’t get such a headache from wine – how can he belittle this mitzvah, which gedloei Yisrael made such an effort to fulfill?

Don’t Worry

True, out of one hundred people who are precise to drink four cups properly, perhaps there will be ten with headaches or become very tired. On the other hand, however, there will be ninety who merited fulfilling the Seder as required. Why shouldn’t such people try, at least once, to make the Seder as the Sages intended?!

Some people try to fulfill their obligation by mixing wine with grape juice, and then, on the one hand, they get a headache, and on the other hand, they’re not happy. The reason is that sometimes a small amount of wine causes a headache, but a little more wine will give one a good feeling without causing a headache. Rather, at first they should try to drink a full cup of wine; then they will be able to feel joy and freedom, as the Sages intended. Indeed, for the third and fourth cup, they will be able to judge whether it’s preferable to continue drinking only wine, or to add some grape juice, for following the strict law, in accordance with the ordinance of the Sages, it is possible to fulfill one’s obligation by drinking 60 milliliters of wine alone, and the rest can be grape juice.

But I Don’t Like Wine!

Even someone who doesn’t like wine should drink it anyway, because the main reason for the ordinance was not due to wine’s taste, rather, that after drinking it, one is happy and can feel freedom and experience the exodus from Egypt. Certainly, from the outset, everyone should make an effort to glorify the mitzvah and buy a good-tasting wine. Incidentally, a person who knows for sure that wine causes him headaches should drink a high-quality, dry wine which tends to cause fewer headaches. One can also buy wine with a lower percentage of alcohol, or try mixing wine with grape juice.

The Purpose of Seder Night

We are commanded by the Torah to fulfill two mitzvoth in relation to our children: 1) to teach them Torah, thereby accustoming them to fulfill the mitzvoth; for how can we teach them about Shabbat without them being accustomed to keep Shabbat in practice? 2) To tell them the story of the exodus from Egypt on seder night.

Seemingly, this is problematic, for the story of the exodus from Egypt is already included in the mitzvah of teaching them Torah? Rather, the idea of seder night is to pass on the torch to the next generation. We are not going be around forever; one day we will move-on to the World to Come. However, the children, the next generations, they will continue to carry the torch. And on this holy night, we tell them that God chose us to be His am segula, took us out of Egypt, gave us the Torah, and endowed us the Land of Israel (as we answer the wise son – D’varim 6:23).

True, the young children still don’t understand the entire meaning of the responsibility placed on their shoulders, however, this is why we are commanded to repeat the seder night every year. Thus, from year to year, they gradually internalize the great and awesome mission cast upon the Jewish nation. This is something they will never forget.

What good will in-depth sophistications and pin-point accuracies help get this message across? In order to pass-on the torch, one must fulfill the mitzvoth with tremendous modesty, reading the haggadah with joy and sincerity. Those who are negligent in drinking wine, however, tend to annoy and drain the Seder participants with sermons that stray from essence of the Haggadah.

Depth of the Literal Meaning

However, those who follow the halacha, drink a full cup of wine for Kiddush, and even before the beginning of the Haggadah, pour themselves a second cup in order to recite the Haggadah over it. Thus, they understand that the haggadah must be recited with happiness and fear, with excitement and enthusiasm, without any superfluous extensions. Only short explanations which touch on the depth of the literal meaning should be added. We notice that there are four different sons, all participating together; we must speak to all of them, and each in the language he understands. We insist on opening the haggadic with disgrace, and are not ashamed to declare that in the beginning, our forefathers were idol worshipers, that they were enslaved in Egypt, that the Egyptians threw their children into the Nile, and the tribulations were insufferable (one who drank wine will occasionally shed a tear at this point over the sufferings of our forefathers in Egypt and until the Holocaust). Nevertheless, in spite of all the sufferings, they continued to believe and multiply, until they became a great nation. And God, in His great mercy and kindness, chose us from all the nations and languages, and redeemed us. “V’hee sh’amda” – our faith. It’s not by chance that we then raise-up our cup of wine.

God, blessed be He, governs all, revealing Himself in His world through signs and wonders, and punished the wicked with the Ten Plagues and the Parting of the Sea. How much must we thank and praise Him, and once again we raise the cup and say with tremendous joy: “Therefore, we are obligated to thank, to exalt, to praise, etc.” We say the ‘Hallel’ and drink the second cup.

Keep it Short

Some people are meticulous not to over-extend the reciting of the Haggadah, in order not to divert from its literal meaning to ideas which might be important in another place and time, but are not appropriate for Seder night. There are also those who are meticulous not to go over 72 minutes from the end of Kiddush till the washing of the hands for the meal (see “Pininei Halacha 16:18). Those who wish to prolong must be careful to say important things which will not tire-out the other participants.

Concerning what the Sages said, that anyone who tells about the exodus from Egypt at length on Seder night is praised, their main intention was what is learned after the conclusion of the Seder.

Women

The Sages said (Pesachim 108a): “Women are obligated in these four cups, for they also were part of the miracle.” Rashi adds, for the Sages also said (Sotah 11b): “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, we were redeemed.” Indeed, since alcohol has a greater influence on them, women don’t have to be meticulous and drink a lot; however, they should drink a minimum of 50 milliliters of wine in each cup, and if they want, they can fill the rest of the cup with grape juice.

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