The Kabbalah of Passover
A few years ago, at our annual Bet Alef Community Seder, I shared with those in attendance — members and non-members alike — a tradition that has been in my family for, I suspect, many generations. Growing up, I remember looking forward to this ritual where my grandfather (of blessed memory,) at the beginning of the Seder, would come around the table and gently tap the top of our bowed heads with the still untouched Seder plate, while chanting a short phrase in Hebrew. It felt like I was participating in a millennia-old ritual, being blessed through the hands of my grandfather by all the symbols of the Seder plate touching the crown of my head. It was always a deeply humbling moment that never failed to give me chills.
It is only two years ago, when I embarked on the project of writing a new Haggadah for the Bet Alef Community Seder that my studies led me to discover the deep Kabbalistic connections to this family ritual. Who and when in my North African Sephardic family had integrated this Kabbalistic ritual, and how did it come to be a family tradition? I guess I will never know. But I thought I would share it with you as part of these Passover Reflections as it now appears in the Bet Alef Haggadah:
In the kabbalistic tradition of Rabbi Isaac Luria (16thcentury Safed,) each symbol of the Seder plate corresponds to one of the Sephirot — or one of the qualities — of the mystical Tree Of Life.
The three Matzot represent the three higher Sephirot of Chochmah (Wisdom,) Binah (Understanding) and Daat (Knowledge). The shankbone points to Chesed (Kindness) while the roasted egg is understood as a symbol for Gevurah (Strength). Maror is connected to Tiferet (Heart space,) Charoset to Netzach (Endurance,) and Karpas to Hod (Splendor). Chazeret is assigned to the Sephirah of Yessod (Foundation,) and the Seder plate itself is viewed as Malchut (Kingdom,) the Sephirah that contains all the other higher Sephirot.
Yet, one Sephirah is missing — the highest of them all — that of Keter (Crown).
In this Sephardic ritual, the crown (Keter) of our head makes contact with the Seder plate, symbolically adding each of us as the last ingredient. We are the missing Sephirah which makes the Kabbalistic Seder plate complete. We are the beings through which the Divine energies can flow through our Keter to give life to the entire Tree.
The image of the three matzot, from our Haggadah, holds powerful kabbalistic teachings. The upper matzah is associated with Chochmah, the expression of God’s Wisdom. Chochmah is the first step in the primal process of transition from pure potential to the first point of existence. The image our mystics use is that of the Torah existing prior to the birth of letters and words. The upper matzah symbolizes the initial impulse to create within us, that remains formless and undefined; the awareness within that exists before words. The lower Matzah is Binah, the receptive counterpart to Chochmah. Binah shapes and refines the creative impulse within, that emerges from Chochmah. This matzah represents the shaping of an idea within us from our initial indistinct inspiration. Daat, which I see as the middle matzah, is the hidden Sephirah of the Tree of Life. Some think of it as the Tzelem Elohim, the reflected image of God embedded in all human beings. This is the matzah that is broken in two pieces with one piece being hidden during the Seder, only to be found at the end and eaten as Afikomen/desert. With that, the ritual of the Seder can be conceived as a mystical conduit to help us find anew, help us remember the Tzelem Elohim that we are, the image, the reflection, the embodiment of the Divine that we have always been.
So join us for our Community Passover Seder, whether you are a Bet Alef member or not, on Saturday April 7, at the Mercer Island Community Center. Together we will explore the deeper mystical teachings embedded in the Haggadah, and free ourselves from those places of stuckness that prevent us from deeply knowing the One we are.