This article originally appeared at finkorswim.com.
When it comes to inspiration, most Orthodox Jews turn to glorious books of Mussar, or historical legends about our Torah sages, or fiery speeches by modern day orators, or the latest Aish.com inspirational story, or other Torah content that is heavy on encouragement or equally overloaded with deprecation. When it comes to Jewish law, we study Halachic texts. We don’t expect to find inspiration in legal works.
But Halachic text can be inspirational too. For example, Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chaim §484.
The original text of OC §484in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch dryly discusses the codification of the Rif regarding the procedure for one who is, for some unknown reason, making blessings of the Seder in more than one home. It’s fairly straightforward and uninteresting. This is standard Talmudic and post-Talmudic legalism. Conjure up an obscure situation and use it as a test case to demonstrate the limits of the law. In this case, the laws that dictate how and where one must eat their Seder meal and perform the Seder rituals. The practical law is not relevant to the point of this article.
Interestingly, in his halachic work, R’ Epstein pretty much invents (unless he gets it from another source that I have not been able to find) the circumstances of this quirky law. The Aruch Hashulchan, OC §484 begins this section with this introduction: “One who has neighbors who don’t know how to make the blessings and perform the Seder rituals, and he has no choice but to make a Seder for his neighbors, should perform the Seder on their behalf in the following manner.” Later he says, that if the neighbors can’t read Hebrew he should recite the blessings with his neighbors word by word. He references this idea of teaching his neighbors how to do the Seder several times throughout the section. And not just at one home. The law is speaking about an individual who is going from home to home to home in order to help all his neighbors make a proper Seder. Thus, the dry law found in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch is not merely an abstract construction designed to test the limits of the law. In fact, the law is relevant to a very practical and possibly common situation. The chapter is about a Good Samaritan who abandons his own Seder for the sake of his neighbors who don’t know how to do a Seder on their own.
I can’t help but feel a surge of love and pride for R’ Epstein and his imaginary, but surely very real, hero of this section of halacha. This man is incredible. Of course he does his own Seder. And of course he does it well. When he proclaims at his Seder that “All who want to partake may come and join us,” no one comes. But he knows that his neighbors are clueless as to how to make a Seder. He knows that they are not enjoying their own Seders. So he finishes his Seder in a timely manner, leaves the comfort of his home, and gets to work on assisting as many people as he can in the great Mitzvah of reliving the Exodus via the Seder. He is a giant of Jewish spirit.
Late 19th century Belarus had many pious, practicing Jews. But apparently, many were apathetic or simply ignorant of the Seder traditions. (Yes, even in the shtetl, there was “Social Orthodoxy” and religious greenhorns.) Would these people be able to make a Seder on their own? Certainly not. So would they just miss the entire Seder process? R’ Epstein would not stand for that. It was either assumed that more educated neighbors would obviously be out all Seder night helping their neighbors who needed a Seder, or perhaps R’ Epstein was making an oblique suggestion that people should get out and help their neighbors. It’s a grand view of the role of the practicing Jew and R’ Epstein almost demands that this be our approach to the non-practicing Jew. Reaching out to others is expected.
I was inspired by this chapter of Aruch Hashulchan. I was inspired by the clever reframing of an obscure legalistic exercise into a spectacular practical lesson in caring for our fellow Jew. Fortunately, it seems we have embodied this monumental lesson into our modern Pesach Seders. So many people host Seders with incredibly diverse groups of their Jewish brothers and sisters. The level of education and familiarity with the rituals ranges from expert to novice. But all are included. An emphasis on Jewish education and modern technology gives us all easy access to attaining familiarity with the Seder and its traditions. We can all assist others and help them participate in a Seder. Let’s do our best to make sure that there is no one who needs to look up the laws of §484 this year. Make sure that everyone has a Seder to attend. There’s also enough time to learn about the Seder in time for Monday night’s big event. All the Jewish people experienced the exodus and tasted freedom together. The Seder belongs to all of us. Take ownership and share the joy of the Seder freely and generously.