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Who Invited This Guy?

Originally Published April 2009
The joy of a Passover Seder speaks to almost everyone. But when you’ve got a fast-talking maven—one who has, in essence, walked through the Five Books of Moses—seated at the table, the dinner conversation might take an unexpected turn.
passover seder

Passover is the national holiday of my in-laws. Every spring, my mother-in-law, Debbie Rottenberg, hosts 35 people the first night and a different 35 people the second night for a ritualized retelling of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. The food is equally ritualized: chicken soup with matzo balls; gefilte fish with hot-pink horseradish sauce; “Debbie’s tasty brisket” with potatoes; and Auntie Barbara’s Jell-O mold with canned fruit.

But the importance of this occasion to my new family created a quandary. Before attending my first Rottenberg Passover, I warned them that I would make the world’s most insufferable Seder guest. I had just returned from a yearlong journey through the Middle East, during which I crossed the likely Red Sea, tasted manna, and climbed the most plausible Mount Sinai. In the liturgical list of Four Sons, I would surely be the Pedantic One. “No problem!” Debbie said. “Would you say a few words?” And just like that I became a pedant with a microphone.

But why hog all the fun? You, too, can be a Seder know-it-all. Herewith are selected talking points to help you steer your Passover conversation away from the same tired jokes and the endless countdown until “The meal is served.”

1. Did the Israelites really cross the Red Sea?

The heart of the Seder service is reliving the Israelites’ escape from tyranny, the ten plagues that loosened the Pharaoh’s grip on their lives, and the crossing of the Red Sea. But was there really a Red Sea?

The biblical term for the body of water the Israelites cross during the Exodus is yam suf. Yam is the Hebrew word for “sea”; suf is the Hebrew word for “reed.” The proper name is Sea of Reeds. It was the Greek Septuagint, translated by Jews in the third century B.C.E., that introduced the most famous mistranslation in history, “Erythra Thalassa,” Red Sea.

So which body of water was it? There are five major prospects: the Mediterranean (specifically, a bay north of the Nile Delta); the marshy area just south of the Mediterranean; Lake Timsah, halfway between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea; the Bitter Lakes, just to the south of Timsah; and the Red Sea itself. The word suf connotes papyrus, a freshwater plant, so that rules out all but the two lakes. Informed speculation focuses on Timsah; it’s shallow, and it’s easy to imagine the Israelites wading across and Egyptian chariots getting stuck in the mud.

2. Is manna real?

The food that God rains down from heaven during the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert is manna, from the Hebrew expression man hu, “What is it?” Miracle or not, the mystery substance may have a natural inspiration in the tamarisk tree, an evergreen that grows in many oases on the Sinai Peninsula. In the spring, the tamarisk becomes infested by plant lice, which suck the tree’s sap, rich in carbohydrates, and excrete a white, sweet, sticky substance that falls to the ground in globules. The pellets are the size of the pearly offering a child might tuck under a pillow for the tooth fairy. A cash crop as early as the 15th century, the manna was used, like honey, to sweeten confections and was taken medicinally as well.

3. Where is the burning bush?

In years of traveling around the Middle East, the most spiritual place I’ve experienced is St. Catherine’s monastery. It was built 1,500 years ago at the base of a mountain that visiting monks believed was where Moses encountered the burning bush. The mountain, called Jebel Musa, or Mount Moses, is one of 20 or so stretching from Libya to Saudi Arabia that may have been the original Mount Sinai. The small band of Orthodox monks who live there worship in what they claim is the oldest continuing church in the world; they still hold daily services in Byzantine Greek.

The bush itself is about six feet tall. It’s a rare mountain bramble related to the raspberry, and the monks say it’s been in the same place since Moses would have walked here about 3,200 years ago. The first time I visited St. Catherine’s, I sat quietly by the bush late one night and felt a spiritual insight coming on. Here would be a moment worthy of the Seder’s admonition to relive the Exodus every year. But then I noticed something off to one side: a fire extinguisher. At first I thought it was an eyesore, but then I realized the unintended humor. Was this in case the burning bush caught on fire? And if it did catch on fire, should I put it out or look for the face of God? I hurried back to my room and studied my Greek for morning prayers.

4. Did the Israelites build the pyramids?

A number of foods in the Seder recall the hardships the Israelites experienced in Egypt. Matzo is called the “bread of affliction”; the bitter herbs (maror) symbolize the bitterness of slavery; haroseth—chopped apples, cinnamon, walnuts, and wine—represents the mortar the Israelites used to cement mud bricks in the Pharaoh’s cities. But were the pyramids one of these pharaonic constructions? The idea has been around for centuries. Even Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin said, “[Jimmy] Carter worked harder [on the Camp David Accords] than our forefathers did in Egypt building the pyramids.”

The first of the three Giza pyramids was begun around 2600 B.C.E., during the fourth Egyptian dynasty. Scholarly consensus says Abraham would likely have been born somewhere between 2000 and 1900 B.C.E. As the Bible lays out the chronology, three more generations would pass before Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph was sold into slavery, then several additional generations before Joseph and his brothers would produce enough offspring for the Pharaoh to consider them a threat and enslave them. Regardless of whether you think this narrative is true, enhanced, or simply invented, it’s still more than a millennium from when the pharaohs built their spectacular tombs to when the Israelites built the cities described in Exodus 1. Bottom line: It was as long from the pyramids to Moses as it is from Emperor Constantine to us. We didn’t build Constantinople; the Israelites didn’t build the pyramids.

5. Why is this night different?

One highlight of the Seder is the Four Questions, which the youngest child is often asked to recite. The last question is “Why is it that on all other nights we dine either sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we all recline?” The standard answer is that we recline on pillows to remind ourselves that now we are free and can eat in comfort.

But here’s the problem: The Israelites in the desert almost surely ate this way every night. The reason is not surprising: Beginning with Abraham, the Israelites were pastoral nomads, and, as people on the move, they would have slept in tents, eaten on carpets, and reclined on pillows, much as the Bedouin in the Sinai still do today. The Seder, invented about 2,000 years ago—when the Jews were in residence in Jerusalem—reflects a moment in history at which Jews felt secure and rooted enough to accumulate possessions such as chairs and tables.

The chief mandate of the Seder is that each person must relive the story of the Exodus as if he or she were coming out of Egypt. In my experience, this requirement to conduct the same service every year means you can keep reusing the same material. (Once a pedant, always a pedant!) If someone gives you a hard time about any of these points—and trust me, they will—I recommend replying with one last puzzler: If the Exodus is so important, how come Moses isn’t mentioned in the service? This question is perfect for Passover, because no one really knows the answer and people can talk about it for hours on end until someone saves the day with the Seder’s ultimate messianic admonition: “Next year in Jerusalem.”