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The Origins of the Seder

By

Rabbi Professor David Golinkin

Rabbi Professor David Golinkin

I) Introduction

There is no question that the Seder, which is celebrated on the first night of Pesah or on the first two nights in the Diaspora – is the central ritual of the holiday of Passover. But what is the origin of the Seder and the Haggadah?

The Torah instructs us to slaughter the Korban Pesah, the paschal lamb, to eat it with matzot and marror, and to sprinkle some blood on the lintel and the two doorposts (Exodus 12:22 ff.) It also instructs the father to teach his son about the Exodus on Pesah (Exodus 12:26; 13:6, 14; Deut. 6:12 and cf. Exodus 10:2). (1) These mitzvot, however, are a far cry from the many rituals which we do at the Seder and from the literary forms which we recite in the Haggadah.

Furthermore, the Seder and the Haggadah are also missing from the Second Temple period descriptions of Pesah, including a papyrus from Elephantine (419 B.C.E.), the book of Jubilees (late second century B.C.E.), Philo (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), and Josephus. (2)

They are first mentioned in the Mishnah and Tosefta (Pesahim Chapter 10) which scholars date to either shortly before or shortly after the Destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. (3) What is the source of the elaborate rituals and literary forms of the Seder and Haggadah?

In the first half of the twentieth century, Lewy, Baneth, Krauss, and Goldschmidt drew attention to the fact that the forms of the Seder are based on Graeco-Roman table manners and dietary habits. But the most detailed evidence of this borrowing was provided in 1957 when Siegfried Stein published “The Influence of Symposia Literature on the Literary Form of the Pesah Haggadah” in The Journal of Jewish Studies.(4) Since then, Stein’s basic thesis has been adopted with variations by various scholars who have written about the origins of the Seder. (5) Stein proved in a very convincing fashion that many of the Seder rituals and literary forms found in Mishnah and Tosefta Pesahim and in the Haggadah were borrowed from the Hellenistic banquet or symposium. Let us first compare the rituals.
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