A feminist article in time for Passover (Miriam was Moses’ sister)
Where is Miriam on the Seder plate?
By Yael Levine
Edah (the advocacy movement for a modern and relevant Orthodox Judaism)
April 11, 2006
In recent decades, feminists have looked at the Passover seder and said: Wait a minute! Where are all the women?
The result has been several new rituals, which continue to gain acceptance and popularity. It turns out, however, that our contemporaries were not the first generation to look for a way to bring to the Seder table the role of women in Israel’s redemption…
After looking at some of the texts used centuries ago, it is clear that what we call the “traditional” Seder indeed has something fishy about it. What’s fishy is a missing person, a missing ritual, and actually, some missing fish.
For many years, the Seder was a time when Miriam, and the achievements of women, were memorialized. The most basic practice was a piece of fish placed on the Seder plate to commemorate Miriam…
Rabbi Sherira Gaon of 10th-century Babylon noted a custom of putting three foods on the plate… “There are those who put an additional cooked food in memory of Miriam, as it says, “And I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6, 4). According to this, Miriam and the role she fulfilled in the redemption from Egypt is represented by the third cooked food on the seder table… This tradition is worthy of renewal in our time, in recognition of the crucial role Miriam and the righteous women in Egypt played in the Exodus…
Another rabbi cognizant of the importance of women to the Passover story was Rabbi Abraham Grate of Prague. His 1708 Haggadah commentary explained several seder rituals, including the initial hand washing, as referring to Pharaoh’s daughter Bitya and her rescue of Moses from the Nile. Several traditional sources have drawn a connection between the four cups of wine that punctuate the Seder and the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah…
And if these proto-feminist commentaries are from relatively forgotten sources, how to explain the fact that a basic interpretation of haroset revolves around women – and almost nobody knows it?
According to the Talmud, haroset is in memory of the apple tree, and Rashi in his commentary makes reference to a midrash in which, the women would go to their working husbands and would conceive children between the fields. When the women were ready to give birth, they would leave their homes out of fear of the Egyptians. They would lie underneath the apple trees and give birth. Apple haroset, then, is about the fact that the Jewish women did not lose hope in those difficult times.
Rituals, even time-honored rituals like the Seder – can make room for change rooted in traditional sources – in fact, these “changes” are in fact historical corrections bringing the women’s voice back in after it was somehow dropped. As the haggadah itself reminds us, the more one expounds on the Exodus the more one is to be praised. In reviving these authentic and authoritative Seder rituals commemorating the role of our Jewish foremothers, we can more fully tell of the going out from Egypt.