Podcast: Mark Gerson on How the Seder Teaches Freedom Through Food

On Passover, Jews are commanded to retell the story of the Exodus, but the book they use to do it seems just as focused on food and drink as it is on the story itself. Why?

The Passover seder table of a government official in Azerbaijan on March 25, 2013. Photo by Reza/Getty Images. 

The Passover seder table of a government official in Azerbaijan on March 25, 2013. Photo by Reza/Getty Images. 

Observation
March 19 2021
About the authors

Mark Gerson is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and the co-founder of Gerson Lehrman Group, African Mission Healthcare, and United Hatzalah of Israel. He’s also the author of The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life, and the co-host of The Rabbi’s Husband podcast.

A weekly podcast, produced in partnership with the Tikvah Fund, offering up the best thinking on Jewish thought and culture.

This Week’s Guest: Mark Gerson

 

In almost a week, Jews all over the world will sit down at their seder tables and retell the story of the Exodus, of the Jewish people’s national deliverance from Egypt. Of course, in the seder Jews retell that story in a highly choreographed, highly ritualized ceremonial meal. Particular food items are used for particular purposes, and carefully delineated instructions are given for what to do with each. Why do Jews celebrate national deliverance by eating and drinking at all? How does food, of all things, illuminate freedom?

To help us understand the significance of food and drink on Passover, in this week’s podcast the entrepreneur and philanthropist Mark Gerson joins Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver. Gerson is the author of a new book, The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life, a commentary on the Passover Haggadah. In this episode, he analyzes the many foods prescribed by the Haggadah, and how each of them in its own way gets at the heart of Jewish national freedom. 

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

 

 

Excerpt (28:10-29:21):

 

No one can complete the Haggadah with kavanah [sincere feeling], because there are too many great questions aroused by this awesome text, and one night is too short to enable a sufficient contemplation of all of them. So that being said, given that we can’t even finish the Haggadah with justice in one night―which is fine because, as we talked about, every great Jewish story concludes unfinished―why so much music, why so much food? We can’t even get to all the topics that we need to get to, so why are we spending so much time singing and eating?

Modern science has shown us exactly why. The parts of the brain that touch memory are those parts that are aroused by music and food. If we were to have a night that was meant to sustain Jewish memory forever, it would have to include music and food. Modern science has proven this with specific regard to the brain. That was of course inaccessible to the authors of the Haggadah, but they absolutely knew it; that Jewish memory, which in one sense is what the seder and what Pesaḥ is really about, needs to have two things: music and food. Consequently, here we are in 2021 talking about the seder in the context of music and food.

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More about: Food, Haggadah, Judaism, Matzah, Passover, Seder