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The Seder and the Symposium

 

The striking similarities between the Passover seder and the Greco-Roman symposium have led some to believe that the seder is really just a Jewish version of this ancient secular event. I think that this is the wrong approach and have recently seen that Dr. Joshua Kulp says the same in his academic commentary published in the recent Schechter Haggadah.

I think most will agree that much of the seder has its origin in the times of the Mishnah, after the destruction of the Temple. Before then, Jews ate the Passover sacrifice with matzah and maror, and told the story of the Exodus. But much of the ritual we know as the seder did not exist. The four cups, reclining and text are all of rabbinic origin.

When the rabbis put together the ritual of the seder, did they intentionally copy the symposium to make a Jewish version of it? I think the answer to that is, “No.” They simply made the seder into a fancy meal, using the normal customs of their time. The goal was to act like free people, and that is how free people of their time engaged in festive meals. Here is what Dr. Kulp says about the subject (p. 196):

When the rabbis of the Mishnah wished to create a banquet meal to replace the sacrificial ritual lost when the Temple was destroyed, they did so in a form which was recognizable to them as the proper way to conducting a meal, all the while ensuring that they achieved their ultimate goals of studying Torah and recalling the Exodus. Indeed, we witness here a classic example of typical Greco-Roman practices (questions at a banquet) being combined syncretically with midrashic readings of the Torah (the child should ask the question). In contrast, children would not have participated in a typical Greco-Roman banquet. For the rabbis, a question to open the meal would affix their innovative practice of an ordered meal to their constitutive text — the Torah — all the while being recognized by people living at their time as the proper way of stimulating discussion at a meal.

Earlier, he wrote (p. 12):

With regard to rabbinic “assimilation” of Greco-Roman practice, the rabbis clearly were a group living in the Greco-Roman world, which they could no more avoid than we can avoid living in a world dominated by Western culture. Rather than using the loaded term “assimilation” in describing rabbinic practices parallel to the Greco-Roman symposium, I would say that the rabbis participated in this culture, rejected practices anathematic to their beliefs and implemented those which they did not find disturbing.

The question, of course, arises when the normal practices of a banquet change: Should we continue observing the seder in the Talmudic way? This was addressed in the Middle Ages regarding leaning. In Talmudic times, leaning while eating was a sign of freedom; it is how wealthy people ate in a symposium. When that no longer was the case, such as in Medieval Europe, the rabbis discussed whether to continue leaning during the seder. While there were dissenters, the consensus was to continue leaning, and that is what we do to this day. In other words, once the rabbis of the Talmud established the seder as a fancy feast of Talmudic times, we continue to observe our seder that way.

(Reposted from here: link)

 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

35 Responses

  1. Jerry says:

    Old news. Baruch Bokser already rejected the Symposium argument in 1986 in his “The Origins of the Seder.”

  2. IH says:

    For those interested in the history of the idea, the seminal 1957 article is available online at: http://www.livelyseders.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/influenceofsymposialit.pdf

    Long before Bokser and Kulp, btw, Goldschmidt rejected Stein’s primary thesis. See the פתיחה in his 1960 הגדה של פסח ותולדותיה.

  3. Jerry says:

    And for those interested, Goldschmidt’s arguments followed on the heels of the most comprehensive of the early discussions of the issue by Siegfried Stein, in 1957, in which he argued in favor of the connection.

  4. IH says:

    Jerry — the link in my first paragraph is the Siegfried Stein article.

  5. Jerry says:

    Ah. Should have checked.

  6. “When the rabbis put together the ritual of the seder, did they intentionally copy the symposium to make a Jewish version of it? I think the answer to that is, “No.” They simply made the seder into a fancy meal, using the normal customs of their time”

    what’s the difference?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Abba – Bokser may help. From p.62 and then the conclusion of the section on p. 66:

    It is therefore not surprising that rabbinic circle may have drawn upon banquet practices to enrich what they were doing. It is unlikely, however, that they were prompted to expand the biblical rite by their observation of Hellinistic symposia or on account of their knowledge of the symposia literature.

    If Philo felt the need to differentiate between the symposia and the original paschal lamb-oriented version of the Passover gathering, would not there have been an even greater need to differentiate between the two when the Passover sacrifice was no longer present? Clearly this was the case. The Mishnah responds to this need by changing common features and by disassociating itself from elements in the symposia and earlier Jewish models for the rite.

    […]

    Thus the effort of the MIshnah to distinguish between banquets and the Passover celebration follows a pattern shared by religious writers. Those with philosophical interests, such as Philo, make the distinction in philosophical terms. The Mishnah does so indirectly, by changing elements of the banquet, providing them with new and distinct meaning, and disassociating the Passover rite from inappropriate symposaic practices. This task became critically important as the Mishnah, reflecting the ideology of early rabbinic Judaism, presented the Passover ritual without the paschal lamb but, nevertheless, as a continuation of the earlier protocol.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Origins-Seder-Baruch-Bokser/dp/0873340876

  8. IH says:

    12:42 am was IH

  9. Jerry says:

    “While there were dissenters, the consensus was to continue leaning, and that is what we do to this day.”

    No we don’t. We only translate “heseibah” as “leaning” – which it is not – because the way we position ourselves at meals doesn’t allow for the actual translation. I guess our leaning is some sort of zecher l’symposium :-)

  10. avi says:

    I wonder, will people look back on us and , talk about the Shabbat Table as being a Victorian Aristocratic Dinner Party?

  11. Anonymous says:

    “Dr. Joshua Kulp says the same in his academic commentary published in the recent Schechter Haggadah.”

    Or for those that have institutional access see his article in
    Currents in Biblical Research October 2005 vol. 4 no. 1 109-134
    or even if you don’t http://www.livelyseders.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/kulp.pdf

  12. Shlomo says:

    Until reading this comment thread, I thought that pretty much all scholars agreed about the seder-symposium connection. But it never bothered me, because I already cared more about the important parts of the seder (matza, sipur, korban) than about the unimportant parts (4 cups, karpas), and only the latter parallel the symposium.

  13. IH says:

    On hasava Profs Safrai make an interesting point:

    In the Mishna, as we have seen, there was no question about reclining. In Eretz Israel during Mishnaic times they would recline at every festive meal, all year round. This custom (“hasava” in Hebrew) was unknown in Babylonia, and therefore the Babylonian sages spent a lot of time discussing which foods require reclining – whether only the matzah, or the wine and the maror as well – and whether it is required for all the cups of wine, and who is required to do so. These discussions indicate that reclining was not common in Babylonia, and that they continued to observe it because of the halacha in the mishna at the beginning of ch. 10 which states: “Even a poor person among the Jews will not eat until he reclines.” In none of the versions of the Eretz Israel Haggadah does the Ma Nishtana include the question: “but on this night we all recline,” but the Babylonian Haggadahs from the Geonic period include the question. It may be that this difference originates in Amoraitic times and in the difference in dining habits between Eretz Israel and Babylonia.

    Haggadah of the Sages. Carta, 2009. p.55

  14. aiwac says:

    IH,

    What do Safrai & Safrai say about the seder-symposium equation?

  15. aiwac says:

    I would point out that what’s fascinating in how Jews adopted from their surroundings is not just what they adopted but what they left out and what they changed. THAT is what makes it distinctly Jewish.

    I think the debate between Turanus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva about wheat and cakes is a good mashal for the question of outside influence on Jews and subsequent authenticity. וד”ל.

  16. IH says:

    I don’t recall reading anything of significance on it, aiwac, but I was focusing on other matters having read through the seder-symposium stuff last year and that is not the focus of the Safrais book.

    There is no index in the English version, but the Stein article does appear in the bibliography.

    For those interested, there are differences (pro and con) between the newer English (2009) and older Hebrew (1998) versions that Safrai fils explains in the introduction. I have not seen the Hebrew version (but suspect I will buy it at some point as well).

  17. IH says:

    I would point out that what’s fascinating in how Jews adopted from their surroundings is not just what they adopted but what they left out and what they changed.

    Nicely said.

  18. Tal Benschar says:

    “Indeed, we witness here a classic example of typical Greco-Roman practices (questions at a banquet) being combined syncretically with midrashic readings of the Torah (the child should ask the question).”

    Except that the Mishna in Pesachim reports that one of the four questions specifically concerns the korban pesach (on all other nights we eat meat that is boiled, cooked or roasted, on this night only roasted.) So it appears that the four questions were already being asked while the Temple still stood.

  19. IH says:

    Tal — Not clear. See Safrai pp. 27 (bottom) to 30 (top). And Goldschmidt p. 12.

  20. Philo says:

    This doesn’t really reject the symposium hypothesis, as much as it just gives a more palatable perspective of it. And I agree. Why does a Yeshiva banquet look so much like any other sort of banquet? Because that’s what banquets, in this day & age, look like.

  21. IH says:

    Tal – further, see: Appendix A in Bokser.

    Given your Hashkafa, Safrai is probably the best of these for you. In brief, his approach is to understand from a textual perspective, whether: a) after the Churban Jews in Eretz Israel continued to eat meat כולו צלי in commemoration of the Korban Pesach – yes; and, b) can we learn something from when the question was removed/replaced in the Ma Nishtana – yes: the question remains in Nusach Eretz Israel Haggadot that we have discovered, but not in any Babylonian Haggadot.

    So, based on the textual evidence, he (and other scholars) posit the question in the Mishnah’s Ma Nishtana refers to a post-Churban ritual in Eretz Israel that provided continuity and commemorated Korban Pesach. The ritual did not survive the transition to Babylonia and, in time, was excised from the Haggadah.

  22. Anonymous says:

    “Except that the Mishna in Pesachim reports that one of the four questions specifically concerns the korban pesach (on all other nights we eat meat that is boiled, cooked or roasted, on this night only roasted.) So it appears that the four questions were already being asked while the Temple still stood.”

    According to many the korban pesach was brought for several generations after the churban. But I agree that it is possible that the text dates before and not necessarily after.

    However – so what? I kind of remember something about Greco-Roman influence in Eretz Yisrael for centuries prior to the churban.

  23. Steve Brizel says:

    Tal-look at it this way-the Mishnah that mentions Tzli Aish either could be in accordance with the well known Talmudic view that Makrivin Af Al Pi Shein Bo Bayis or referring to Bazman HaBayis-either view would not be a Chidush for of those familiar with the view that many Minhagei Leil Seder ( Levishas Kitel, Netilas Yadayim on Yerakos, etc) are supposed to remind us and transport us back to Bazman HaBayis.

  24. ruvie says:

    aiwac – good point. jews adopted from their surroundings all the time. the key issue is how did the rabbis deal with tensions between the values of the outside world and the jewish people.
    examples include honor (kavod), deference, and tribute (naming buildings or monuments),

  25. aiwac says:

    ruvie,

    Indeed. The problem is not the influence but the reductive argument that follows it, ie that the Jews are a bunch of parasites with no original culture or heritage. I’ve seen this type of argument bandied about quite a bit on the net, unfortunately, and I think that THIS is what gets people riled up rather than the very fact of influence.

    I would add that it’s not just the Rabbis but also the amcha who conducted these kinds of negotiations – often lehumra (what Prof. Jacob Katz z”l called ‘the Ritual Instinct’). My father’s coming out with a book on how Medieval Ashkenazic Jewry created its own religious experiential world, and I don’t think it was all by Rabbinic dictat. Am Yisra’el has no less a role in forming Judaism as the Rabbinic elite.

  26. MJ says:

    When did reclining turn into leaning? Leaning while seated on a chair is neither here nor there.

  27. Tourlia says:

    Jerry, when you have something interesting to share, and someone points out that the idea precedes you, do you like it when they say to you, “old news”?

  28. Laura says:

    Many of our contemporary Seder customs were in place at least 100 years before the Mishnah. The Gospel According to John, written between 40 and 90 shows handwashing, dipping, 4 questions and more. Mishnah is not an invention but a compilation,

    About reclining: it worked when people ate sitting on day couches with little trays of food. It does not work well when we slump in straight-backed chairs in North America today!

    Chag sameach!

  29. Jon Baker says:

    I just don’t get the distinction between “based on the symposium” and “based on the way free men had formal dinner parties”. Since the one is the same as the other, and the seder does incorporate many of the same forms, how is it NOT derived from the symposium? I mean, look: reclining, bring in & remove the tables, 3 rounds of drinking (we have kiddush that makes a fourth), presence of children (we have them ask questions, they had them for sex), intellectual discussion including competition (the Rabbi Jose the Galilean sequence), mixing the wine (unmixed wine was considered vulgar), et cetera et cetera.

    We remapped some of the elements to make them Jewish, but it’s clearly derived from the same structure. As our foodways have changed, we don’t follow it as closely.

  30. IH says:

    On the New Testament reference Laura suggests, see the JID featured: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/jesus-last-supper.asp

    In short: “According to John, Jesus died just when the Passover sacrifice was being offered and before the festival began at sundown. Any last meal—which John does not record—would have taken place the night before, or even earlier than that. But it certainly could not have been a Passover meal, for Jesus died before the holiday had formally begun.”

    Footnote 1 of this article helpfully lists a summary of NT references (w/o verses). Some can also be found in Goldschmidt 1960 (e.g. Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 references in footnote 6 on p.62).

  31. Epi says:

    Of course it was based on a suymposium-type banquet of the time, but adapted to the educational needs of the time. And that is precisely its brilliance! Our ability to borrow and adapt is what kept us flourishing. Not continuity, but creative growth.
    And of course it was assimilation! Assimilation is what happens when you eat an apple. Our body rejects the waste and transforms the good stuff into what we need for growth and maintenance.
    Epi.

 
 

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