April 5, 2023 / 14 Nissan 5783
In last year’s column leading into Passover, I highlighted my poor punchline skills, sharing my inclination to frequently tell badly timed “dad jokes,” often to the chagrin of my daughters. Consequently, this year I will stay away from humor, but not necessarily from happiness and joy. This year, I wanted to share a little about the “Zissen Pesach” Passover greeting.
Most Jews will recognize and attribute the etymology of “zissen” to Yiddish and Eastern European Jewry. However, the original roots are not from Hebrew, but rather from the German word for “sweet” or “cute,” süss. Therefore, Zissen Pesach is actually wishing someone a “Sweet Passover.”
But what is “sweet” about Passover and why connect “sweetness” with our master story and the holiday of freedom? Normally, we are reminded of salt water and bitter herbs as the tastes associated with the holiday. In fact, Rabbi Marc Spivak authored a wonderful synopsis of the potential origins of this holiday salutation. However, in reflecting on Rabbi Spivak’s three uniquely distinct explanations, I was unsurprisingly drawn to one more than the others, the intergenerational gatherings, nurturing relationships, and celebrating together; in other words, building community!
Some would say that what makes the seder different than simply celebrating a festive meal together is the unique foods associated with the holiday. Others might say it’s the Haggadah text, guiding us through the order of the annual rituals. Yet, others might say that the seder is simply the time for us to gather to retell our people’s master story of slavery to freedom. And technically, all of these have some truth to the reason we come together. However, none alone would suffice, because without creating the right atmosphere for the evening, of trust and vulnerability, then a seder has not achieved its full intent and guest experience.
Have you ever wondered why the four questions are such a central aspect of the Passover seder? Why do we highlight four questions about what we are eating in the central section about retelling the story? And why has tradition placed the burden of reciting these four questions on the youngest member sitting around the table?
?מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת
.שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה – כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה
.שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה (כֻּלּוֹ) מָרוֹר
.שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים
.שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah.
On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.
On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.
On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.
You see, for sincere questions to be asked, and for a child to feel comfortable showing their lack of knowledge and understanding amongst adults, they need to set aside their vulnerability and trust that the environment is such that their question will be answered in a positive way that will help them understand and internalize the answer.
When compiling the Haggadah, our rabbis knew that there would come a time when the Jewish community would have members who would need a way to come back to the community and to learn about their heritage. These questions, to be asked by our youngest attendee, create a space for any guest to learn about the experience without being embarrassed or threatened by their level of knowledge or practice.
Rabbi Sandy Sasso is quoted as saying, “At the heart of what it means to be a Jew is to ask questions?” I would expand on her wise words that, at the heart of what it means to be a Jewish community is to have safe spaces to ask those Jewish questions.
I recently read that for a religion to succeed and for faith to flourish, it is not enough that the elder generation remain devoted to their beliefs. These elders must ensure that their own children, and their children’s children after them, eventually replace their leadership roles and carry on these ancestral practices. There can be no separation between one’s personal religiosity and the desire to transmit one’s values to one’s descendants. If we believe, as the Torah states in Exodus 13:8, that we should teach them to our children, then we must create the right environments for our children to generate the interest and consequently to ask the questions to then be available to answer them for the next generation and so on.
I cannot think of a sweeter example of the guests around the seder table anticipating the voice of the youngest child reciting the four questions, drawing in all the guests to join them in song. So, this Passover, after we have wished our family, friends, and neighbors a zissen Pesach, may we carry the sweetness of the holiday forward creating trusting spaces for questions to be asked and answers to be shared. Because we are…