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Understanding Various Customs of the Seder

Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.
For a print version of the article click here
Not Eating Out
It is customary in many communities not to eat out on Pesach. Instead everyone eats only in their own home (or that of close family members). The reason for this is that each family often has its own particular customs and stringencies that are not necessarily kept by other families. Rabbi Aharon of Belz explained that this is alluded to in the Torah portion of Re’eh (Deut. 16) where the various holidays are discussed:
Concerning Shavuot it says, “And you shall rejoice… your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite who is within your cities, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are among you,” indicating the importance of eating with many other people (guests). Similarly, concerning Sukkot it says, “And you shall rejoice in your Festival – you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your cities.” Concerning Pesach, on the other hand, there is no similar verse. This alludes to the custom of eating with one’s immediate family only on Yom Tov (quoted in Haggadah Kehalacha by Rabbi Y.Y. Katz, page 673).
Eating Borscht
One of the traditional foods of European Jews on Pesach is borscht. Rabbi Yissachar Dov of Belz quoted the sages of Lithuania (quoted in ibid pg. 671) who gave the following explanation for this custom. The Karaites, who rejected the Rabbinic traditions, interpreted the verse (Exodus 12:20), “You shall not eat any leavening” to mean that one should not eat anything fermented. In order to emphasize that we reject this interpretation and hold by the Rabbinic understanding that only leavened grain products are forbidden, we specifically eat fermented borscht.
Swallowing the Matzah
The halacha states (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 475:25 based on Pesachim 115b) that one who swallows matzah, even without chewing and tasting it, has fulfilled his obligation. Whereas one who does the same with the marror (bitter herbs) has not fulfilled his obligation. Regarding the marror, this law can be understood as one needs to taste the bitterness in order to remember the difficult times in slavery. But what is the reason as to why one need not chew or taste the matzah?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains (Torat Menachem, vol 14 page 30) that matzah represents humility. In order to make matzah, one must constantly work on the dough to prevent it from rising as dough naturally rises on its own. This is similar to a human being’s arrogance. It is natural for us to feel pride in our accomplishments. It takes great effort to  remain humble. The way to do so is by realizing that all our accomplishments are with the assistance of G-d. He is the one who bestows His blessings on us, and without these blessings we would be nowhere. One should consider that there are plenty of people who are more talented and industrious, yet they are less successful. The only explanation for this is that for some reason, G-d granted him more success than others.
The only area in which there is room for pride is in matters of serving G-d. As the Talmud says (Brachot 33b), everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven. One’s accomplishments in Torah and Mitzvot are therefore worthy of some pride (yet still tempered with the fact that one needs G-d’s assistance and blessings to make the right choices). (Sukkah 52b.)
In fact, it is sometimes appropriate to have these feelings as one who feels that his accomplishments are worthless may become depressed and “give in” to his evil inclination which goads him to sin and enjoy life. This is why the Talmud says (Sotah 5a)  that a Torah scholar should have a small amount of arrogance.
Despite this, one should generally strive to remain completely humble and reserve any feelings of pride for emergency situations (e.g., to combat depression as mentioned above). This is true even in cases where one might logically conclude he can be proud of his (spiritual) accomplishments. He should, nevertheless, swallow his pride and internalize a sense of humility. This is symbolized by one who swallows the matzah without tasting it (i.e., he forces himself to remain humble even if he may have a right to be proud).
In addition, if one is unsure as to whether pride or humility is in order, he should err on the side of humility. This is symbolized by one who doesn’t have teeth, i.e., he lacks the insight to be able to chew the matter over and consider carefully whether or not to have any pride. He, too, should simply swallow the matzah without chewing it, i.e., strive to remain humble.
How Much Afikoman?
It is best to eat two kezeitim (olive-size pieces) of the Afikoman (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 477:3). The reason for this is that there are two opinions as to whether the Afikoman is to remember the Korban Pesach (paschal lamb) or the Matzah that was eaten together with the Korban Pesach. By eating the two kezeitim we fulfill both opinions. One who finds it difficult to eat two kezeitim may eat only one but should bear in mind that this kezayit either represents the Korban Pesach or the matzah that was eaten with it, depending on which opinion is correct (the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Haggadah).
What To Do If It’s Almost Midnight?
In the first place one should eat the Afikoman before chatzot (midnight) (at least on the first night) since, according to the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, the Korban Pesach (which is represented by the Afikoman) was eaten before midnight (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 477:6 based on Pesachim 120b). According to the opinion of Rabbi Akiva (ibid), however, one may eat the Korban Pesach until the morning. This is why one may eat the Afikoman until the morning if chatzot has already passed. In addition, in light of Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, on the second night, Chabad custom is not to be particular to eat the Afikoman before chatzot.
It is said (Tosefet Ma’aseh Rav) that the Vilna Gaon once realized that it was nearly chatzot and he had not yet eaten the meal. He instructed his family to skip the entire meal and go straight to the Afikoman which is what they did.
The Avnei Nezer of Sochatchov (responsa 381) gave the following idea for one who finds himself near chatzot but not yet ready to eat the Afikoman. He writes that the law of not eating after the Afikoman in order that its taste remain in one’s mouth is only necessary during the time of the mitzvah of the Afikoman. As such, if chatzot is approaching and one has not yet finished their meal, one can do the following:
Before chatzot, eat a kezayit of matzah while bearing in mind that if the halacha follows Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, this is for the mitzvah of Afikoman, but that if the halacha follows Rabbi Akiva this is only a regular piece of matzah. After this, one should not continue one’s meal until after chatzot. After chatzot one may continue the meal since, according to Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, it is after the time of the mitzvah while according to Rabbi Akiva they have not yet eaten the Afikoman. When finished, they should have a second Afikoman (before daybreak).
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (known as the Brisker Rov) praised this idea but added that it is not necessary to make this condition explicitly (quoted in Mikra’ei Kodesh, Pesach vol. 2:56).
Why Is the Afikoman Hidden?
After breaking the middle Matzah, we hide away the larger piece to use as the Afikoman. Rabbi Yaakov Emden says (in the Siddur Yavetz) that the reason for this is to make sure we don’t mistakenly eat it during the Seder. In addition there are many mystical reasons as to why we hide the Afikoman.
  • To Assist in Conquering the Hidden Evil Inclination
The Rebbe Maharash (the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe) explains that the Afikoman is called Tzafun (hidden) as it alludes to the Yetzer HaRa (evil inclination) which is called tzfoni (Yo’el 2:20) – the hidden one. This means that through eating the Afikoman we can conquer even the negative traits that are buried deep in our subconscious.
  • Alludes to the Hidden Future Reward
The Shela (Tractate Pesachim, Bi’ur HaHaggadah, 220) writes that the hidden Afikoman alludes to Olam Haba (the World to Come) and the feast that the righteous will have at that time. These are hidden away and will be revealed to us in the coming Messianic era. This is why we eat it when we are satiated, to allude to the fact that the World to Come is for people who are “full” of Torah and Mitzvot.
The Sefat Emet adds (quoted in the Artscroll Haggadah) that the afikoman is part of the same matzah which we use for the poor man’s bread at our Seder. This alludes to the fact that the Exodus was only the beginning of the redemption which will be completed with Moshiach. We therefore eat the Afikoman at the beginning of the second half of the Seder when we focus on the coming redemption. (The first paragraph after the Grace after Meals – Shfoch Chamot’cha – speaks explicitly about the future era.)
  • Reminding us of How the Jews Carried the Matzah
Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, Responsa 86) cites a custom to take the matzah for the Afikoman as it is wrapped in a cloth and put it over one’s back and walk (at least) four steps (amot) while carrying it. This reminds us of how the Jewish people carried the matzah when leaving Egypt rather than placing it on their animals as it was very precious to them.
  • From the Trenches to the Redemption
In 1904 the Rebbe Rashab (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) arranged for matzah to be sent to the Jewish soldiers fighting in the Russo-Japanese war. They sent him a telegram thanking him and signed “from the soldiers in the trenches on the border of Shanghai.” The Rebbe Rashab remarked that the Ba’al Shem Tov would sign his name as Yisroel from Okup – Yisrael from the trench. Although the Ba’al Shem Tov was born in Tolst, his parents were so poor that they lived in a trench (a ditch left by the fallen walls of the city).  The Rebbe Rashab remarked that the strength of the trenches of the Ba’al Shem Tov can counter other trenches but that we must fight the battle (to accomplish this).
What is the deeper meaning of this anecdote? The Ba’al Shem Tov was born at a time when the Jewish people were in a state of deep spiritual slumber having experienced pogroms and the disappointment of a false Messiah. And he was born to parents who were in an abysmal state of poverty. Yet, from this very state of travail, there emerged the light of Chassidut as revealed by the Ba’al Shem Tov. And it is this very light whose revelation brings us closer to Moshiach every day.
This is similar to the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus. On the one hand, they were on the 49th level of impurity and were nearly assimilated into Egyptian society, yet, on the other hand, they experienced deep spiritual revelations beyond even those seen by great prophets. These are two sides of the same coin. As “they called out to G-d from the straits and were answered with a vast expanse (Psalms 118:5).”
A similar situation is true today. When we tell a Jew that Moshiach can come any minute, he begins to think about the deep darkness that the world is experiencing. In addition, he feels that he too is in spiritual darkness. He asks, how can there be an immediate transformation from such a low depth to such an exalted level?
The answer is that this is exactly what happened at the time of the Exodus. The Jews went from the deepest pit to the most exalted height in an instant. Since the miracles of the future redemption will mirror the exodus, we, too, will experience an instant transformation. May it take place speedily in our days!
This idea is expressed in the fact that we break the middle matzah and use half of it for the matzah of the Seder, which represents the poor man’s bread and the time of the exile, and half for the Afikoman, which represents the future redemption as mentioned above. How can one matzah symbolize these two seemingly opposite times?
As explained, it is the very pain of the exile that will lead us to the revelations of Moshiach.
At this moment, these revelations are hidden, which is why we hide the Afikoman, but in the future they will be revealed (Sicha of the Second Night of Pesach 1950).
May this take place immediately, with no delay whatsoever. And may we all experience Pesach in Jerusalem with Moshiach this year, healthy and well, Amen!
Wishing you all, wherever you may be, a Kosher and Happy Pesach and a Shabbat Shalom!

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