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Through The Eyes of a Woman

Pesach: The Importance of Little Things

There are several differences between the Nusach Ari Haggadah used by Chabad, which is based on the writings of the AriZal, and the traditional Haggadah used by other frum Jews. One of the striking differences is the order of the Four Questions the smallest child asks his father -- Mah Nishtanah. The classic order of the Mah Nishtanah, for those using the conventional Haggadah, is as follows: The first question is in regard to chametz and matzah; the second question is in regard to maror and other vegetables, the third question is why we dip, and the fourth question is regarding why we lean. The order that the conventional Haggadah uses is that the first question, chametz and matzah, is a question regarding a mitzvah specified in the Torah; the second question, is about a rabbinical injunction (in our times maror is only a rabbinical commandment); dipping is merely a custom. In other words, let's say somebody had to make a Seder and they couldn't have everything, what would they choose, what would be the most important? Obviously, the most important part of the Seder is the matzah, followed by the maror, and so on.

However, in the Chabad Haggadah, the first of the Four Questions is about dipping --we ask everyone else's third question first. The second question in our custom is chametz and matzah, the third one is about maror and other vegetables, and the fourth question is about leaning.

When the Alter Rebbe composed the Chabad Siddur and Chabad Haggadah, he examined tens of different versions prior to determining the exact Chabad nusach. Every word, every letter, even the vowels, were carefully selected. (Vowelization is sometimes different, sometimes a kametz instead of a patach, and so on. In the Haggadah, for example, we say hei, not ha lachma anya, as in the majority of other versions.) Every single change was precisely selected for kabbalistic, halachic and grammatical reasons, for the Alter Rebbe was a big baal dikduk (an expert on grammar). Accordingly, there must have been a reason for his placing the subject of dipping as the first question.

The Rebbe explains that this is to emphasize the role of minhagim (customs) in Jewish life. It is to correct the thinking of some people who feel that Jewish customs are of secondary, optional status, an optional extra. I'm sure that you have heard this before: "You like it -- do it. You don't like it -- don't do it. It's not a law. It doesn't say so in the Torah; it's not in the Gemara; so -- take it or leave it." This is incorrect. Our Sages state, Minhag Yisrael Torah hu -- "The customs of Yidden are Torah!"

The Rebbe explains that what a child notices most, what arouses his curiosity -- is minhagim. The Rebbe points out that it is possible for a person to be a totally observant, orthodox Jew, and still look very similar to a goy or to a non-observant Jew. Why? Because a Jew could put on his tefillin in the morning, eat kosher, keep Shabbos and everything else. But if he doesn't have a beard and if he wears a baseball cap instead of a hat, how would you know by looking at him that he is a religious Jew? What is the thing that makes a person look frum? It's the beard, it's the way you dress, and so on. There's nothing in the Torah that says a Jew may not wear the latest fashions. But Jewish people, frum men and frum women, have always dressed in a way that is not as trendy as the latest fashion. It's not really our goal to blend in with society at large. So the things that make a person look different are the minhagim, not the dinim (laws) in the Torah. The dinim don't show.

At the Seder table the minhagim like dipping, which are so unusual -- we never do it normally -- those are the things that a child finds unusual. Kids have seen you eat matzah on occasions other than Pesach also. They don't know that this is kosher lePesach matzah and not chometzdikke matzah. Matzah is matzah. They don't know the difference between this vegetable and that vegetable. They've seen you eat vegetables before. They know you eat onion sometimes when it's not Pesach, and they see you putting chrein on your gefilte fish almost every Shabbos.

That is all as regards the children. Now, as for their parents -- we must realize that minhagim cannot simply be dispensed with. You should not say, "If we want our kids to be frum, we should narrow down our demands to the necessities, at least let them keep the dinim. If we demand so much of them, maybe they won't keep anything. So let's at least make it mandatory for them to do the mitzvos written in the Torah."

The Rebbe explains that a minhag that has become part of Yiddishkeit has the force of a Torah law. If we lose the minhagim, if we stop caring about the minhagim and stop observing them, we are reducing the holiness of Yiddishkeit. Then the real danger appears -- slowly and subtly the mitzvos will also be abandoned.

The Rebbe says that this also applies to those minhagim that you can't even find in the books, but you know that this is the way that people behave. Even those minhagim are important. All the minhagim that were added over the years came about for the same reason -- to preserve Yiddishkeit and to make it more holy, to show that a person wants to be more Jewish.

One example is saying Modeh Ani on awakening in the morning. It doesn't say anywhere in the Written Torah that a Jew has to say Modeh Ani when he wakes up. It's not even a rabbinical commandment. It was introduced centuries after the Gemara was written. Chassidus explains that a Jew's Modeh Ani can never be defiled. (That is why we do it even before negel-vasser, before pouring water from a washing-cup on both hands alternatively, immediately on rising.) It symbolizes the pure attachment of a Jew to HaShem. When a Jew says Modeh Ani Lefanecha it's like standing up for roll call: "I'm here, I'm presenting myself. I'm Yours." In Chassidus, Modeh Ani is regarded as a very holy thing. Could you imagine the life of a Jew without Modeh Ani?

Let's take another example -- the idea of putting negel-vasser next to your bed. This is a very chassidishe idea, that before a Jew goes to sleep he makes preparations to purify himself first thing in the morning.

As you know, there are people who say that you can go to the nearest sink, or to the bathroom and do your negel-vasser there. But in chassidishe homes, in Lubavitcher homes, there is a very big emphasis on training even children to take negel-vasser and put it next to the bed. That's a minhag, not a din. Putting negel-vasser next to the bed is like saying, "Even though I'm asleep, I don't sleep without a mitzvah next to me."

If somebody walked by, he would say, "What are all these crazy people doing with jugs of water next to their beds. They think there'll be a fire in the middle of the night?" But you would reply, "As soon as they wake up, these people want to be ready to do a mitzvah."

Another example: The table of a Jew is regarded as an altar. Now that we don't have the altar in the Beis HaMikdash, the table where we eat is regarded (in a sense) as the equivalent. We women are the kohanim of this Beis HaMikdash; the food we eat is the sacrifice. It is here that we offer our food to HaShem, so to speak, by eating in a holy manner, by using the energy we get from eating to serve Him.

Now, there are numerous customs that surround the Jewish table and the act of eating. Among them is the custom of dipping the bread into salt before eating the first bite. You won't find it among the 613 mitzvos, although it is based on the mitzvah that there had to be salt on the altar. One of the explanations of the custom is that the numerical value of the Hebrew word melach (salt) is three times the numerical value of the Four-Letter Divine Name. Three times 26 is 78. That is why it is customary to dip the bread into salt three times, immediately after the blessing Hamotzi, before taking the first bite. Now what is the idea behind this? This Name of HaShem represents the attribute of compassion. When you dip the bread three times into the salt, this cancels out the qualities of severity, of gevurah.

Finally, another interesting idea for balabustas, is that many of the foods traditionally eaten by Jews are connected with holy reasons. I once met a woman with whom I became very close through one of the shiurim that I used to give. She grew up in a reform home. Let me tell you how reform: Before her father died he expressed the wish to be buried in a business suit. When he died she wanted him to be buried in the traditional Jewish shrouds. Although she wasn't frum yet, she knew enough about Yiddishkeit to know that it was wrong that he should be dressed in a suit. But her sister was very, very reform and refused to allow their father to be buried in tachrichim (shrouds). They finally made a compromise and buried him in a suit with a tallis on top of the suit. When she started getting interested in Yiddishkeit and keeping Shabbos, she was very puzzled. She asked me, "Isn't it hard for you, week after week, to think of different menus? How many different ways can one make fish and chicken?" So I said, "What do you mean different menus? I make the same menu every week. We have the traditional challah, gefilte fish, chicken soup and chicken. Nothing out of the ordinary." She didn't know that. She was so new to Yiddishkeit that she was thinking that every week you have to create a different pie and a different sort of fish.

Now there are reasons why we have gefilte fish -- they have no bones, so that there is no problem of borer;[13] cholent, in order to have hot food on Shabbos; and so on. Even though you can't be Jewish by eating bagels and lox and buying Rokeach's gefilte fish, at the same time you have to know that there are specific reasons for eating particular foods. It's the little things in life which make it so interesting and unique. And it is precisely the little things which are important in chinuch. This is what we can learn from the fact that the question regarding the custom to dip is placed first in the Chabad Haggadah.

Notes:

  1. (Back to text) On Shabbos, though the piece of fish to be eaten may be separated from the bones, the bones may not be picked out and separated from the fish.
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