On Saturday night, Jews around the world will sit down to celebrate Passover, recounting the exodus from Egypt and the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery. The service, or seder, is framed around an evening meal and features poetry and songs, digression and discussion, four cups of wine, and an array of symbolic foods. All—from the most experienced to those attending for the first time—are actively encouraged to participate. Setting the proceedings in motion is the inquiry traditionally uttered by the youngest at the table: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Last year, that question took on new meanings, as we sought to find ways to celebrate the festival while keeping socially distanced. Twelve months on, following the extraordinary development of vaccines, it is possible to anticipate a time when restrictions will be lifted, and we will once again enjoy the embrace of friends and family. Yet what will we do with that rediscovered freedom? Return to business as normal, or strive for something different? For the Jewish people, escaping slavery in Egypt proved to be just the beginning of their journey. Once again, the Passover story proves ripe for application in our own lives.
For some this year, it may be possible to spend the holiday together. For others, it’ll be a return to the makeshift practicalities of 2020. As I’ve been preparing at home, I’ve been thinking about how Getty’s collection could provide some visual inspiration for the stories that we’ll tell.
The Rothschild Pentateuch is a great place to begin. The lavish Hebrew Bible was produced in the 13th century, probably in France or Germany. A masterpiece of penmanship and artistry, each page of Torah text is accompanied above and below by textual notes, on the inner margin by an Aramaic translation and interpretation, and on the other side by a commentary from Rashi, the 11th-century rabbi whose scholarship continues to shape Jewish learning. This diversity of voices—seemingly chaotic but actually rigid—conveys the spirit of the seder table.
The Torah is divided up into weekly readings, and this particular page marks the beginning of a section titled Beshalach. The text begins, “It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people…” and the following pages recount the crossing of the Red Sea, with the waters parting for the Jews, only to crash over the pursuing Egyptians.
Another Getty Museum artwork, John Martin’s The Destruction of the Pharaoh’s Host, captures something of the awe and wonder that surrounds this episode.
There’s a section midway through the seder service, just after we’ve recounted the ten plagues (removing a drop of wine from our glass for each one), in which three eminent rabbis discuss how many plagues the Egyptians suffered. Each caps the other, to the point that the Egyptians are said to have suffered not ten, but fifty plagues in Egypt, and another 250 at the Red Sea. Martin’s painting, with its vast skyscape, tumbling waves, and glowering sun, visualizes the power of that divine anger.
Moses stands at the lower right, holding his staff aloft, as the Egyptians drown. It’s a dramatic role reversal, emblematic of the Jewish people’s experience. For, decades previously, the Pharaoh had decreed that every Hebrew son should be cast into the waters of the River Nile. On this page from an early 15th-century German manuscript, Moses’s mother, Yocheved, places her newborn child into the flowing river.
He’s rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, and it is she who calls him Moses, “for I drew him from the water.” The name can be understood in a literal fashion—the Hebrew is Moshe, and the verb “to draw from” is m-sh-h. Some scholars, however, have noted that Moses’s name derives from the Egyptian word for child, mses. This can be found in various forms in many pharaonic names, such as Thutmose or Rameses. It’s also apparent in the name Amasis, a Greek rendering of the Egyptian Ahmose. This name can be seen under the handle of an Athenian drinking cup at the Getty Villa.
A potter’s signature on a Greek wine cup of the 6th century B.C. takes us rather far from the seder table, but many aspects of the evening’s service parallel practices typical of the Greek drinking party or symposium. The seder and the symposium both include the interplay of dialogue and drinking, and the practice of leaning to the left when consuming wine. Another link between ancient Greece and the Jewish seder is the afikoman, which marks the end of the festive meal. The afikoman is a piece of matzah (unleavened bread) that has been hidden during the course of the evening. Participants have fun hunting it down, so everyone can consume a final mouthful of the Passover meal. Many scholars propose that the word afikoman derives from the Greek epikōmos (reveling) or epikōmios (of a festive procession). The kōmos was the drunken partying that often concluded a Greek symposium and is frequently shown on drinking cups.
Although the seder service features four cups of wine (or grape juice), there’s no drunken revelry as the night comes to a close. Instead, the evening concludes with the hope, “Next year in Jerusalem,” and a series of songs. Last of all comes Chad Gadya, the story of how “the Holy One came, and slew the angel of death, who slew the slaughterer, who slew the ox, who drank the water, that put out the fire, that burned the stick, that hit the dog, who bit the cat, who ate the goat, that my father bought for two zuzim; one little goat, one little goat.”
As with so much of the Passover experience, the song combines collective engagement, interactive participation, and deep symbolism. This night will be different from all other nights. But in reciting Chad Gadya and participating in the seder service, we sustain our traditions and ourselves.