As the people of Israel prepared to leave Egypt and make their way out into the desert, they celebrated a strange feast. To the hungry slaves, their flocks and their herds were their lifeline. To kill them and to eat the meat was an unheard of luxury. The fact that they were willing to do so demonstrated their faith in God. In the desert, God would have to feed them.
Because we remember those days of slavery, concern for the poor has always been part of the seder celebration. One of the oldest accounts of the seder, in the Mishnah, begins: 'On the eve of Passover from about mid-afternoon onwards, a person should not eat until it gets dark. Even the poorest Jew should not eat until he reclines for the feast. All are required to drink four cups of wine, even if on the dole.'
The prophet Malachi, in the reading for the Shabbat before Passover, condemns those who are law abiding but oppress the poor. It has always been a particular Jewish duty to care for the poor, and the non-Jewish poor were included: 'In a city where there are both Jews and Gentiles, the collectors of alms collect from both Jews and Gentiles; they feed the poor of both, visit the sick of both; bury both and restore the lost goods of both, for the sake of peace' (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Demai 6.6).
But at Pesach the added expense and the needs of providing for the festival meant that fellow Jews were the first concern. Communities since Talmudic times have set up special funds to provide 'Maot Chitim', literally 'coins for wheat', from which those without could buy what they needed. This is first mentioned, very briefly, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Babba Batra 12d, 1.4).
Since the middle ages it has been a widespread community function to collect and to give, and this is echoed in the many stories about Elijah coming back to help the poor.
This seems to me to be the explanation why in the ninth century, the following declaration was added to the Haggadah, as the matzah is lifted up:
'This is the bread of poverty which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt: all who are hungry, let them come and eat…'
Rabbi Sholmo Riskin writes:
'Lifting up the matzah is not a dignified demonstration for the benefit of the guests at the Seder alone. It is a call to the street, to the ghetto, to the village, to the world, that the poor need not despair.'
So it is interesting to discover that not everyone took it so literally. Shortly after this passage first appeared in the seder service,
Rav Matitya Gaon commented:
'We have the custom of reciting all who are hungry, let them come and eat. It used to be the normal practice to lift up the tables and leave the door open door, and they used to say "This is so the poor of Israel can come in to eat and receive their reward." But now that our non-Jewish neighbours are more numerous than the Jewish ones, they feed the poor earlier.'
This passage seems to express a real concern that it might not be safe to leave the door open, or that the Seder might be swamped by the non-Jewish poor. The passage came to be of educational significance only, not a real invitation, but nonetheless important. In the sixteenth century Shulchan Aruch, it states: 'They say it in a language that women and children understand, or explain the subject matter to them, and so Rabbi Y from London translated the whole haggadah into the vernacular.'
The idea that the matzah represents the bread of the poor is symbolised by breaking one of the three wafers in half. The smaller half is replaced to be eaten later, as 'poor bread', while the larger half is hidden away to be found after the meal. This is known as the 'afikoman'. There are many theories about what this mysterious afikoman represents, but many think it is connected with some kind of Messianic hope. The bread of poverty has become transformed into the bread of redemption: the first half eaten when we are really hungry, and the other half of the same wafer eaten when we are really full. Thus we act out a hope that all who are hungry will become full. 'What transforms the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others.'(J. Sacks)
In our time, the seder has become a lavish occasion for many, when no expense is spared. This can easily mask the whole meaning of the celebration, of the hope expressed within the text for a journey not only from slavery to freedom, but from poverty to prosperity.
Please consider joining us at Kol Chai this year for our communal seder or one of our Pesach services. May this be a happy time for all of us. And please look at our weekly emails for details of this year's food collections at Kol Chai.