Why don’t we hold a seder on the last two nights of Passover like we do on the first two? I know those days are just as holy and important, so what’s the difference?
Great question. The answer has to do with the great importance of the first night of Passover. That is the night that we commemorate as the “night of watching” (Exodus 12:42), the very last night that the Israelites spent in their homes in Egypt and the first night of their freedom. It was at midnight on that very night, according to our tradition, that the 10th plague took place (Ibid., v.29), leading to the Israelites’ release. “On that very day”—the first day of Pesach—“the Israelites left Egypt” (Ibid., v.51; emphasis added).
The practice of doubling holy days and therefore observing two seders at the beginning of Passover is a diaspora phenomenon. It arose at a time when, each month, the Jewish calendar was determined on the basis of the direct observation of the new moon by witnesses in Jerusalem. Jewish communities outside of the Land of Israel, uncertain of the precise days on which holy days should be celebrated, observed them for two days. Even after the fixing of the calendar in the fourth century, this practice continued, because it was considered to be a venerable traditional custom, not to be abandoned.
The first night of Passover has always been special. Before it was associated with the Exodus story, the first night of Passover (which always falls on the first full moon after the spring equinox) was observed as a separate holiday from the seven-day festival that followed. A lamb, known as a “pesach” or “passover” offering, was slaughtered in the afternoon, and then roasted and eaten that evening (the association of the first month of spring with sheep is very old; see Theodor Gastor’s Passover, Its History and Traditions for more). A separate seven-day agricultural holiday known as the “Festival of Matzot” followed. At some point in early Israelite history, these two festivals became one (see Exodus 12 and Leviticus 23: 5-8). But the Passover feast, that is, a communal meal on the night of the full moon centered around a roasted lamb, remained a distinct observance. The lamb was to be roasted whole and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Questions from children were to be expected, to be answered by referring to the Exodus from Egypt.
King Josiah (circa 649-609 BCE) insisted that the Passover offering be made in Jerusalem. Hence, thereafter, Jews would travel in the springtime to Jerusalem to sacrifice and eat the Paschal lamb there. Apparently, this was the practice during the days of the Second Temple as well.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews were faced with a crisis. Should Passover continue to be celebrated? If so, how? The rabbis could have said that, in the absence of the Temple, Jews should no longer observe Passover at all. After all, for almost 700 years, the practice had been to observe the festival in Jerusalem, but that was no longer possible. Instead, the rabbis decided that the observance of Passover should once again become what it had been before King Josiah, namely a domestic celebration. But it was to be different. It would recall the destruction of the Temple and look forward to the future redemption. Since the sacrifice of a lamb had long been associated with Temple worship, the rabbis determined that, even though it had always been the centerpiece of the feast, lamb should no longer be eaten at this meal. Only a shank bone would remain, to remind Jews of what had been lost. Reflecting the meal’s focus on redemption, instead of being eaten “with loins girded” and “in a hurry,” it was to be eaten leisurely, while reclining, and four cups of wine were to be drunk. Instead of waiting for children to ask questions, a liturgy was prepared in which scripted questions were presented, and scripted answers provided. As before, matzot and bitter herbs were to be eaten, and other special food as well. Discussions of the Exodus, rather than the communal consumption of a sacrificed animal, became the centerpiece. And so the seder was born.
The creation of the seder is a remarkable moment in Jewish history, demonstrating the resilience and bold creativity of the Jewish leaders of the time. I encourage you to read The Origins of the Seder by the late Barukh Bokser for a fuller picture of this development.
To conclude, although each concluding day of Passover is holy, and should of course be ushered in with a holiday feast, it is not customary to observe seders on those evenings. Given the long-standing association of the first day of Passover with the 10th plague and the beginning of the Israelite journey into the wilderness, it is not surprising that Jews have traditionally held their seders at the beginning, and not at the conclusion, of the festival.
Rabbi Carl M. Perkins is the rabbi at Temple Aliyah, an egalitarian Conservative congregation in Needham. To read another of Rabbi Perkins’s posts, check out his answer to the question: Every year one of my cousins tries to derail the seder by insisting that the story of the Exodus never happened so we shouldn’t talk about it like history. How can I turn this into a productive discussion at the seder?