The publication of the Venice Haggadah of 1609 was a grand event. One of the first-ever printed books to accompany the Passover seder, it boasted intricate woodcuts framing every page, illustrating the story of the Exodus as well as the domestic scenes of men and women, preparing for Passover (mostly women) and celebrating it (mostly men).
Even more, it was a multi-cultural enterprise, produced with three sets of instructions and translations to satisfy the linguistic needs of the three major Jewish communities of the time: Judeo-German, Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Spanish. So popular, and thus influential, was this haggadah that its illustrations and text were sought for reproduction innumerable times over the next 200 years.
Though it was lovely, affordable (printed, not handwritten) and placed textual authority in the hands of the simple folk, it had this (to my mind) unfortunate introduction to the seder:
“On Passover night, upon returning from the synagogue, yeho shulkhano aruch”–which can be translated as something like: “May his table be found already set”, or as I like to translate it, “Behold, the table is set.”A magical, miraculous holiday indeed!
It was not the assumption of different gender roles per se that I found disturbing. One could argue that such expectations were well-negotiated over centuries. It was the invisibility that irked, the taking-for-grantedness of the contribution of women to the sacred home enterprise. The table is set—but who set it? Men might got honored for their participation in the synagogue, but here, women were overlooked for their roles in preparing the home for this exquisitely home-based holiday.
But I found a way to take a softer, more mythic, look at that opening to this most powerful and popular ritual of Judaism.
Passover is one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage holidays, the other two being Sukkot and Shavuot. Taken together, they trace a series of concentric circles outlining Judaism’s spiritual geography.
Shavuot (the early summer holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah) is the outer circle, played out in the pregnant expanse of Sinai and in the literal and figurative congregations of Israel. In that wide circle, the arena of Judaism is vast and without bounds, flourishing any place Knesset Israel, the gathering of Jews, happens.
Sukkot (the fall holiday that celebrates the refreshing if daunting experience of freedom) is more bounded. It happens in a home, of sorts, with walls that reflect the complexity of freedom. They are ephemeral yet durable, tangible yet fantastic, protective yet porous, requiring support yet offering protection, needing to be rebuilt every year. Within them, families gather in real time around everyday meals and symbolically invite personages who may or may not have ever lived to come and join them.
Passover (the grand spring holiday of physical and spiritual release that celebrates the push into freedom) is played out on an even smaller stage. It unfolds around a table, a sacred meal, prescribed food, a scripted narrative, and a classic cast of characters we invoke by their first names. Even in the time of the Bible, and the time of the Temple, the holiday was celebrated in the embrace of family around a table. It is the only holiday on which the original menu was set by divine fiat, mimicking the fateful night of the original exodus: “Tell the whole community of Israel that … each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household….That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.”
While the first Passover meal was eaten by families bunkered in their homes, in haste and with trepidation, ours are famous for their long, languid, lingering nature. To think of Passover, then, is to think of family, the seder, the table, and often a traditional menu, harkening back thousands of years. At the best of times, it is resonant with songs and chatter and warmth and wine, and the air thick with family both here and gone.
It is a holiday, therefore, in which the table is set.
It is set in our memories, our traditions, our habits, our minds, our hearts. There is something so comfortingly familiar, and eternal, about it that, at its best, it feels as if we are all sitting – every Jew across all time – at one large crowded, boisterous Passover table. And there is always room for all of us. For this table is different than all other tables. It transcends its physical constraints, pushes past its own boundaries and accommodates more than it can actually seat.
And so the miracles of Passover live on.
Nina Beth Cardin is a rabbi, author, environmentalist and founder of the Jewish Women’s Resource Center.