How Is the Passover Seder Different from All Other Symposia?

The accumulation of liturgical layers, songs, and discussion that adorn the traditional Seder can obscure its original, primary purpose. By closely analyzing the Seder’s artful oration in light of classical rhetoric, a sharper picture emerges of a Roman symposium-like gathering whose aim is to help its members appreciate and celebrate the freedom God granted through the Exodus.

The seder scene in a Passover Haggadah, with German translation p. 42. (copied by Eliezer Sussman Mezeritsch, decorated by Charlotte von Rothschild · 1842 ) Zürich, Braginsky Collection, B314,

For over half a century,[1] scholars have argued that the Seder might be understood as a modified Roman symposium.[2]  Both the Roman symposium and the Rabbis’ Passover meal, Barukh Bokser observes, include “the use of waiters to bring in the food, reclining at the meal, dipping the food, hors d’oeuvres, the use of wine before, during, and after the meal, being festive, the pedagogic use of questions and intellectual discussion, singing and praise to God, and games to keep children awake.”[3] The participants at the symposium would offer speeches after the meal in response to introductory questions and the theme of the conversation sometimes revolved around the food that was served.

To be clear, the rabbis differentiated the Passover meal from some of the more frivolous and indulgent aspects of the symposium by forbidding after-dinner drunken revelry at neighbors’ homes—this is the original meaning of the prohibition against having afikomen (dessert/after-party) after the Passover sacrifice.[4] Nevertheless, there is no doubt as to the strong affinity between the two ceremonies. It is thus fitting to analyze the speech, i.e. Haggadah, that dominates the Seder against the background of classical rhetoric, which played such an important role at symposia.

Rhetorical Discourse in Mishnah Pesachim

Saul Lieberman has shown that various aspects of Greco-Roman culture were pervasive not only among more Hellenized Jews of the first centuries CE, but that even “the Rabbis of Palestine were familiar with the fashionable style of the civilized world of that time. Many of them were highly educated in Greek literature…They spoke to the people in their language and in their style.”[5] It therefore comes as no surprise that the Talmudic sages developed literary genres and modes of persuasion that bear affinity to those of Greco-Roman declamation.

The structure of the Seder is best understood keeping in mind the categories of the Roman politician and lawyer, Cicero (106 BCE -43 BCE), who identifies several typical parts of a rhetorical discourse:[6]

  1. Exordium, an introduction, secures the goodwill of the audience,
  2. Narration details the facts of the case in judicial deliberation,
  3. Partition introduces the primary headings of the proofs to follow, which almost always numbered three.
  4. Confirmation presents the arguments for one’s point of view based on evidence or probabilities
  5. Refutation presents arguments against the opposing point of view.
  6. Conclusion recapitulates the main points of the speech.

While these six divisions represent the textbook structure for a speech, certain types of oratory and different circumstances require changing the order or omitting certain parts.

Mishnah Pesaḥim 10:4-7, outlining the oration that accompanies the second cup of wine, exemplifies a classical rhetorical structure:[7]

1. Exordium (m. Pesachim 10:4)

מזגו לו כוס שיני: וכן הבן שואל. אם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות
They pour for him the second cup and here the child asks. If the child has no understanding, then his father teaches him: “What is different about this night from all other nights”

According to the Mishnah, the Haggadah opens with questions meant to involve and raise the curiosity of the children. The Talmud, however, teaches (b. Pesaḥim 116a.):

ת”ר חכם בנו שואלו ואם אינו חכם אשתו שואלתו ואם לאו הוא שואל לעצמו ואפילו שני תלמידי חכמים שיודעין בהלכות הפסח שואלין זה לזה:
The rabbis have taught: If his son is a sage, he [the son] asks him [the father]. If he is not a sage, then his wife asks him. If not, he asks himself. Even two sages who know the laws of Passover must ask each other.

In other words, opening questions constitute a formal requirement of the Haggadah that must be recited even if all present are sages—they serve a mandatory rhetorical purpose. In both Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, these questions would sometimes be planted in advance. Here too, the child would ideally present questions on his own, and only if he did not ask does the father teach him what to ask.[8]

Opening with a question from the audience also serves to involve the listeners and motivate them to pay attention to the answer since an audience will be more interested and inclined to hear the speaker out if they had asked the question in the first place. In the Haggadah, these questions, whether asked by the child or prompted by the father, serve the purpose of the exordium.

While traditional Haggadot and printed editions of the Mishnah include four questions, the Haggadah found in Mishnah manuscripts, the Yerushalmi, and the Cairo Geniza, list only three.[9] As m. Pesachim 10:4 continues:

[א] שבכל הלילות אין אנו מטבלים אפילו פעם אחת. הלילה הזה שתי פעמים.
[a] “that on all other nights we dip only once[10] but on this night twice;
[ב] שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים חמץ ומצה. הלילה הזה כולו מצה.
[b] “that on all other nights we eat leavened bred and unleavened bread but on this night it is all unleavened bread;
[ג] שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל. הלילה הזה כולו צלי.
[c] “that on all other nights we eat broiled, boiled, or cooked [meat] but on this night it is all broiled?”[11]

2. Narration (m. Pesachim 10:4 cont.)

In Talmudic times, after the children had asked the question, the patriarch, sage, or father of the household would deliver the rest of the Haggadah to all present.[12] The patriarch’s presentation accords with the structure of Greco-Roman oratory by opening with a narration of past events. As m. Pesaḥim 10:4 continues:

לפי דעתו שלבן אביו מלמדו. מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח ודורש מ”ארמי אבד אבי” עד שהוא גומר כל הפרשה.
According to the understanding of the son does the father teach him. He begins with disgrace and concludes with praise and he expounds from “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5) until he finishes the entire pericope.

The Mishnah provides two guidelines for how to retell this narrative: the patriarch should speak on a level that the child understands and he should begin by recounting the shame of Israelite bondage and conclude by acclaiming the glory of their redemption. Since the goal of the oration is to bring the audience, including children and the less educated, to heartfelt gratitude and praise, it is essential that he speak at their level.

Furthermore, the audience must first empathize with the suffering of their ancestors in order to better appreciate the grandeur of their redemption. Stein notes that this formula accords with the elements “praise and blame” that comprise epideictic ceremonial orations, wherein one recounts a person’s humble beginnings to highlight their achievement.[13]

The Mishnah then points to Deuteronomy 26:5-10 as the text that fulfills these very requirements.[14] Since every farmer bringing first fruits to the Temple recited this text, it would have been well-known and easily repeated by heart.[15] The text reviews the history of the nation from the time of the forefathers who had no homeland or national identity, through the period of slavery and redemption from Egypt, until the day when the farmer comes to live securely in Israel on his productive land. This text and its midrashic exposition makes up the narration section of the oration.

3. Partition (Mishna 10:5)

Following the narration section comes a pronouncement by Rabban Gamaliel that one must discuss three food items, which he first enumerates and then explains:

רבן גמליא’ או’. כל שלא אמ’ שלושה דברים אלו בפסח לא יצא ידי חובתו. פסח מצה ומרורים.
Rabban Gamaliel says: Whoever did not explain these three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: [a] Passover, [b] unleavened bread, and [c] bitter herbs.

The enumeration, “Passover, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs,” serves as a partition that introduces the three points that are then elaborated upon to form the confirmation for the oration.[16]

4. Confirmation (Mishna 10:5 cont.)

פסח – על שם שפסח המקום על בתי אבותינו  במצרים.
מרורים – על שם שמררו המצריים את חיי אבותינו במצרים.
מצה – על שם שניגאלו.
Passover – because the Omnipresent passed over the houses of our forefathers in Egypt.
Bitter herbs because the Egyptians made the lives of our forefathers bitter.
Unleavened bread – because they were redeemed.

The very brief Mishnaic gloss on each item might have served only as a talking point upon which the live presenter would have elaborated.[17] The three food items remind the participants of three distinct historical events: the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites, God’s protection of the Israelites and punishment of the Egyptians, and God’s redemption of the Israelites. Each of these experiences contributes to the final point of the Haggadah, i.e., that we ought to praise God for His deliverance. These elements confirm the earlier narrative and proves the necessity for gratitude.[18]

Once the family leader effectively convinces his audience of the greatness of God’s redemption of the Israelites, he can then move into the peroration calling upon those assembled to break into an enthusiastic Hallel or song of praise.

5. Conclusion (m. Pesachim 10:5 cont.)

לפיכך אנו חייבים להודות להלל לשבח לפאר לרומם לגדל למי שעשה לנו ולאבותינו את כל הניסים האילו והוציאנו מעבדות לחירות. ונאמר לפניו הללו יה.
Therefore, we are obliged to thank, laud, praise, glorify, exalt, and extol He who has done for us and for our forefathers all of these miracles and has released us from slavery to freedom and we will recite before Him, “Haleluyah.”

The final word “Haleluyah” introduces the recitation of the Hallel at Psalms 113-118. Hallel, which concludes the Mishnaic Haggadah,[19] is actually the earliest component of the Passover liturgy—having been recited to accompany the preparation and consumption of the Passover sacrifice.[20] Everything else in the Haggadah is a preface to it, progressively and artfully building up the feeling of gratitude among the participants in order to prepare them to sing the Hallel with a full heart.

Hallel as the Rhetorical Goal of the Seder

The creators of the Mishnaic Haggadah structured it as a work of Greco-Roman rhetorical oratory, the most common and effective means of persuasion available in their culture, precisely in order to achieve the liturgical goal of a heartfelt Hallel. Through a combination of the three classical modes of persuasion[21]–  logos (the telling of the history of the Exodus and the expounding of verses), pathos (feeling the suffering of slavery and the joy of redemption), and ethos (citations from the Bible and from sages like Rabban Gamaliel) – the audience experiences the magnitude of the Exodus at a personal level and so cannot help but break into a song of gratitude.

And so, although the style of this oration and so much of the ceremony of the night appears just like any other Roman drinking party—its content and goal make this symposium very different from all other symposia. More than a drinking party that happened to include fun intellectual discussion, the Rabbinic Passover meal incorporates food, drink, oratory, and song all in the service of a deep appreciation of the freedom we enjoy through God’s mighty hand.



Dr. Rabbi Richard Hidary is an associate professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University and a rabbi at Sephardic Synagogue. Richard studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion, received his ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and a PhD from NYU. He has recently published Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash with Cambridge University Press. His first book, Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud, has been published by Brown University, and his articles appear in AJS Review, Conversations, Dine Israel, Encyclopedia JudaicaEncyclopedia of the Bible and Its ReceptionThe Jewish Review of Books, and Okimta. Rabbi Hidary also runs the websites,, and