By Adam Kirsch
How is this night different from all other nights? That question, which Jews ask every year as part of the Passover celebration, will get a new answer in 2020. When the holiday begins on Wednesday night, for many Jews it will be the first time in their lives that they cannot attend a Seder—the ritual meal that commemorates the Israelites’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their Promised Land.
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, the Seder is the most widely practiced Jewish tradition in the U.S.: Only 23% of American Jews regularly attend a synagogue, but 70% go to a Seder. In the age of Covid-19, however, bringing together old and young people in a small space to share food is simply too dangerous. In Israel, where all gatherings of more than 10 people have been banned, the Health Ministry has urged Jews to limit their Seders to their nuclear family. Chabad, the international Jewish outreach organization, has posted a list of frequently asked questions on its website, including “Can I at least invite my neighbors?” The answer is “no, no and no!”
This advice is in keeping with the traditional Jewish principle that the preservation of life overrides almost any other duty. And a Seder is a religious duty, not just a chance to see extended family and enjoy holiday dishes.
Seder means “order” in Hebrew, and it involves an ordered series of ritual actions, prayers, songs and stories—15 steps in all, which are recorded in the Haggada, the Passover prayer book. The core of the Seder is a long script, usually recited by the guests in turn, which narrates the Exodus and draws out its meaning. One reason why Passover is the quintessential Jewish holiday is that you celebrate it by talking about it. As the Haggada says, “everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.”
In fact, the Bible implies that while the purpose of Passover is to remember the exodus, the exodus took place in part so that Jews could celebrate Passover. “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever,” God tells Moses and Aaron in Exodus 12, on the eve of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt. That Biblical passage is the origin of Passover practices that Jews still follow today—such as eating matzo, unleavened bread, in memory of the Israelites who had to flee before their dough had a chance to rise.
Over the last 2,000 years, Jews have managed to celebrate Passover in the face of far worse challenges than Covid-19.
Over the last 2,000 years, Jews have managed to celebrate Passover in the face of far worse challenges than Covid-19. In the year 70, the ancient historian Josephus reports, the Roman general Titus besieged Jerusalem three days before Passover, at a time when the city’s population was swelled by the vast numbers of pilgrims who came to offer a Passover sacrifice in the Temple. The result was pestilence—or as we would now say, an epidemic—and famine, which according to Josephus’s estimate killed 1.1 million people. Yet the holiday went on—as it did even in Auschwitz during World War II, where some survivors recalled clandestine Seders conducted without a Haggada.
By comparison, the Passover obstacles of 2020 seem minor. The internet is already full of guides for conducting a virtual Seder, in which guests can read and pray together while eating separately. Orthodox Jews ordinarily don’t use electronic devices on holidays, but this year may be different. Last week, 14 rabbinic authorities in Israel issued a statement permitting the use of Zoom or Skype to connect people during the Seder, provided that the app is turned on before the holiday begins and not turned off until it ends. Other rabbis disagreed, however, and practice will probably vary from household to household.
However people connect on Passover this year, they will likely find new resonances in the Seder. Everyone is thinking about the importance of handwashing these days, as a way to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, but washing your hands has been one of the first steps in the Seder for many centuries, as a preliminary to handling food. One Passover meme making the rounds lately rewrites the order of the Seder so that instead of handwashing occurring once, it’s repeated between every stage of the meal.
Covid-19 also gives new concreteness to the section of the Seder dealing with the ten plagues. The Book of Exodus relates that, in order to convince the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” God sent Egypt a series of afflictions: water turned to blood, the land was inundated by frogs and locusts, cattle were killed by disease, day turned to night. Yet each time Pharaoh refused to relent, until the worst plague of all, when every firstborn child in Egypt died on the same night. In this way God requited the genocidal decree of Pharaoh, who had ordered all Israelite boys to be killed at birth.
But the Israelites were spared, since God had sent them into a kind of quarantine: “None of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning,” he instructed Moses and Aaron. The name of the holiday commemorates this event, as the Haggada explains: “It is a Passover offering to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians with a plague, and He saved our houses.”
Originally Posted on Wall Street Journal