Symbolism Over Substance
Vol. 3 Issue 30
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
The entire Seder ceremony is replete with symbolic gestures. We drink four
cups of wine to represent four Biblical expressions of redemption. We dip
and lean like kings to represent freedom, and eat bitter herbs to remind us
about the bitter slavery. We also eat other symbolic foods that portray our
Egyptian bondage: salt water to remember tears, and charoses, a mixture of
apples, nuts and wine that looks like mortar, to remind us of the laborious
years in Egypt.
The service is truly filled with symbolism - some direct, and some seemingly
far-fetched - and all the symbols are meant to remind us of the slavery we
endured centuries ago. But, why not take a direct approach? There are
overt ways to declare our gratitude, and there are more immediate ways to
mark the celebration. Why don't we just recite the four expressions of
redemption as part of the liturgy instead of drinking four cups of wine to
symbolize them? Why don't we actually place mortar on the table (problem of
muktzeh not withstanding) instead of making a concoction to represent it?
And instead of reminding ourselves of backbreaking work by eating
horseradish, why not lift heavy boxes?
A Jewish intellectual in post-war England approached Rabbi Yechezkel
Abramsky, who headed the London Beth Din, with a cynical question: "In
reviewing our Hagadah service," he sniped, "I was shocked at the insertion
of , 'Who Knows One', a childish nursery rhyme, at the end. Why would the
sages put a silly rhyme - 'One is Hashem, two are the Tablets, three are the
fathers,' and so on, at the end of the solemn, intellectual Seder night
service? It is very unbecoming!"
Rabbi Abramsky was not shaken. "If you really want to understand the depth
of that song, then you must travel north to the town of Gateshead. There
you will find a saintly Jew, Reb Elya Lopian. I want you to discuss the
meaning of every aspect of life with him. Ask him what are the meaning of
the sea and fish, ask him what is the meaning of the sun and the moon. Then
ask him what is the meaning of one, of six, of eleven and so on."
The philosopher was very intrigued. He traveled to Gateshead and located
the Yeshiva at which Reb Elya served as the Mashgiach (spiritual advisor).
He was led into the room where a saintly looking man greeted him warmly.
"Rabbi, I have many questions," the skeptical philosopher began. "What is
the meaning of life?" "What is the essence of the stars?"
Rabbi Lopian dealt with each question with patience, depth, and a remarkable
clarity. Then the man threw out the baited question. "What is the meaning
of the number one?"
Rabbi Lopian's face brightened, his eyes widened, and a broad smile spread
across his face. "The meaning of one?" he repeated. "You would like to know the meaning of
one? One is Hashem in the heaven and the earth!"
The man was shocked. "What about the depth of the numeral five?"
"Five?" repeated the sage. Why five has tremendous symbolism! It
represents the foundation of Judaism - the Five Books of Moses!" The rabbi
then went on to explain the mystical connotations that are represented by
the number five, and exactly how each Book of the Torah symbolizes a
component of the sum.
The man left with a new approach and attitude toward the most simple of our
At the Seder, we train ourselves to find new meaning in the simple things in
life. We teach ourselves to view the seemingly mundane with historical and
even spiritual significance. We should remember that when Moshe saw a
burning yet non-consumed bush, he realized that his nation is similar -
constantly persecuted and harassed, yet never consumed. At our Seder, we
view horseradish not as a condiment for gefilte fish, but as representative
of our suffering. The Matzoh is no longer a low-fat cracker, but symbolizes
the hardships of exile and the speed of our redemption. In addition, we
finish the Seder with a simple song that reminds everyone at the Seder, next
time you ask, "who's number one?" don't accept the answer: the New York
Yankees or the Chicago Bulls - think on a higher plane! One is Hashem in
the heaven and the earth!
A Zissen [Sweet] Pesach
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.