Does a Spoonful of Bitter Make the Liberty Go Down? Questioning the Seder of the Seder

In the pantheon of great ideas, coining the term “seder” for the seder was probably right in the middle. On the one hand, there is clearly an intrinsic importance to the order (seder) itself, as shown by our naming the entire evening after that very order, our naming the parts themselves, our reciting the order in ecstatic song, and our ending the evening with a ditty noting our hope that Hashem accept our “order” and that we merit to “order” it again in the future. Yet at the same time, there is a randomness to the way in which some of the pieces fall out, with one particular problem arising in relation to marror.

My local Orthodox rabbi spoke over the first days of Pesach this year about the fact that the order in which we mention the principal elements of the seder at the end of Maggid – Pesach, Matzah, and Marror – begs the question that marror should have been listed at the beginning of that trifecta, representing as it does the earlier part of the process, the slavery. (Pesach might come second, as it represents Hashem’s involvement just prior to the exodus; matzah, representing the exodus itself, would be last.) I would add to the question that the point in the evening at which we eat the marror is likewise backwards – shouldn’t we begin the seder by eating marror, then discuss the exodus (Maggid), then eat matzah, and only then drink the first cup of wine?

We have discussed previously (link) that the seder is less about slavery or freedom per se as it is about the ability to feel free even while as yet enslaved. There certainly might be an extension of this idea hiding in our leading off the seder with wine and waiting until later to eat the marror, as these really are two halves of the same coin. But to build off that idea, we could also say that we experience the bitterness differently after we understand how it has contributed to our eventual freedom. Rashi, in explaining why the Torah needs to list every single stopping point in the Jews’ journey through the Midbar (במדבר לג:א – ורבי תנחומא דרש בו), presents an analogy in which a king (of course) and his son are returning from a journey they had undertaken to find the son a cure for his illness. On their journey back, all of the places previously associated with the anxiety of the first journey are now revisited with a fresh coat of paint, reinterpreted newly with the knowledge that the son has since been cured. If we ate marror at the beginning of the seder – and who knows, maybe it is hinted at through karpas (hence the Halacha that we have marror in mind during karpas) – the marror would represent an unadulterated view of the slavery, one unaware of the way in which the slavery was later turned to freedom. By eating marror after we are already free, the marror itself becomes a symbol of freedom, aware as it now is of the freedom which it foretold back when times were tough. As Rashi pointed out, commensurate with the extent of the slavery is the jubilation one feels in reliving it after he has already become free.

This may likewise explain the particular choice of marror. Mishna Berura (473:42) explains that romaine lettuce is the preferred choice for marror because it transitions in its growth cycle from soft to hard and or from sweet to bitter. By the time we eat it, of course, it is no longer bitter at all, as it has transitioned again from bitter to neutral. The life-cycle of romaine lettuce mirrors that of the slavery which it comes to represent. As much as we appreciate freedom by reliving its antecedent, our experience of slavery is likewise heightened by our understanding whence it led.

Extra credit questions:

1) The Haggadah emphasizes the fact that we ate (and continue to eat) matzah because we left Egypt in such a hurry that we did not have time for the matzah to rise and become bread. This most assuredly may be so, but is it meant to extol a virtue on the part of our ancestors, or to describe a shortcoming? After all, the Jews were given repeated warnings that that evening was to be the exodus. See, for example, Shemot 11:1 and 12:8, each of which [see 12:1] is being told to the Jews weeks beforehand! Could it be that these Jews, the 1/5th who actually believed that there would be an exodus (see Rashi to Shemot 13:18), still harbored enough doubt that they did not even bother to cook the very matzot they were specifically told on Rosh Chodesh they would need two weeks later? צריך עיון.

2) If as far as anyone can ascertain, the earliest printing of Chad Gadya was in 1590 (link), why is it written in Aramaic? Why would 16th-century German Jews write (or translate) a song using Aramaic? And a children’s song no less – is that what the kids were speaking in 16th-century Germany? I don’t think so. Maybe to add an air of authenticity to a latter-day addition? צריך עיון קצת.

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