20th April 2024, Shabbat Hagadol – Anna Sapir Abulafia

Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the great Sabbath, the Sabbath preceding the festival of Passover which starts on Monday evening with the home celebration of the Seder, the service retelling the Exodus of the Israelites from their servitude in Egypt. This year it will be a difficult time for celebration on a number of levels. The horrors of the savage attack by Hamas on Israel remain an open wound. The ensuing war in Gaza has resulted in unspeakable suffering for civilians in Gaza as well as tremendous pain for Israelis, many thousands of whom are still displaced from their homes as the attacks from Hezbollah in the north continue without respite and people are too traumatized to return to their dwellings near the Gaza border. And after more than six long months of gruesome captivity there are still more than 100 hostages in the hands of Hamas in Gaza. Their suffering and the suffering of their families is hard to imagine. So what can I say this morning that will have any meaning for members of Beth Shalom and, indeed, our honoured guests? Not easy … I have decided to do three things. First, I want to commemorate an important event which occurred in medieval England on Shabbat Ha Gadol in 1190. Secondly, I shall suggest what might be a couple of meaningful additions to this year’s seder celebration. And I shall close on a lighter note by saying a few words about Haroset, the tasty fruity dish that plays an important part in the retelling of the Exodus during the seder.

When crusader Jerusalem fell into the hands of Saladin in October 1187 renewed plans were made in the West to launch a crusade to recapture the holy city. In England King Richard returned to Normandy directly after his coronation in London in September 1189 to continue his preparations for going on crusade with Philip Augustus of France, leaving for the East in July 1190. He did this before he had dealt with the aftermath of the riots which had broken out against the Jews during his coronation. Many Jews were killed. The violence did not please Richard, but he did not seem able or willing to put a halt to it nor to punish the offenders. Rioting spread to many other towns including York. In York the attacks on the Jews were masterminded by notables who were indebted to the Jews. They carried with them local people, crusaders looking for plunder and the young men of York but not, the elite of the city. The Jews sought safety in Clifford’s Tower but the castle itself came under attack. When on Shabbat Ha Gadol in 1190, which fell on the 17th of March, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, it became clear to the Jews that there was no way out save baptism, they set fire to the castle and underwent self-martyrdom. Some of the Jews inside Clifford’s Tower tried to avoid death by seeking conversion. They were cut down by the crowds as they emerged from the castle. After the killings those responsible for attacking the Jews made their way to York Minster to destroy the bonds recording their debts.1

As a historian I think we have a duty to commemorate events such as these. I also think that analysing events in the past with dispassionate rigour can help us understand some of the things we are experiencing at the present. (Note: I am not saying we ever learn lessons from the past. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.) An important issue to consider in recording the massacre in York, is why does violence erupt at some times against a minority when it does not at other times. This is a huge topic about which I could go on for hours. Let me just say for today’s purposes that my research has led me to believe that the most crucial factor concerning outbreaks of violence against minorities – to be sure, not only Jews, any minority in any kind of majority society – is the role of authority. For all the other factors in play, the crucial points in 1190 were an absent king and a vacuum of authority in the north of England. When the crux came there was no one in authority at hand who wanted to protect the Jews of York and who was able to do so. I believe this is a point which is as relevant now, domestically and internationally, as it was then.

Following on from this insight what might we add this year to our seder celebration on Monday evening as we retell the story of the Israelites regaining their freedom? My first suggestion is an obvious one, we should, I think, include our prayers for the hostages held in Gaza and their families anxiously campaigning for their return. עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים ויוציאנו ה’ אלהינו משם ‘We were slaves of Pharao in Egypt, but the Lord our God brought us out from there.’ The hostages are still trapped, they are not free; we need to voice that and feel their pain and the pain of their families. My second point concerns the reciting of the ten plagues of Egypt which eventually persuaded Pharaoh to led ‘our people go’. Traditionally, we spill a drop of wine when we name each plague. This year I think it is especially important consciously to remember why we do that. We do that to symbolise our acknowledgement that out freedom cost the Egyptians dear; apart from everything else, they lost their firstborn sons. As the rabbis teach us when the angels began to sing praises to God as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army were drowning in the waves, God admonished them saying: ‘How can you rejoice when my creatures are drowning in the sea?’2. Our tradition teaches us that every single life is precious; we are all created in the image of God. I believe that this year it is more important than ever to internalise that teaching.

To finish on a lighter note, as you know the tastiest ritual food of the seder celebration is haroset, the fruity, nutty concoction which is meant to symbolise the clay which the Israelites used to fashion the bricks to construct Pharaoh’s buildings. Its origins are highly mysterious. All we know is that by the 3rd century it seems to have become part of the seder ceremony, probably as some kind of dip, originally for dipping greenery at the start of the seder and bitter herbs, maror – most of us use horseradish – later on. It is thought by some that its origins lie in the Roman custom to dip bread in some kind of sauce. It is very unclear how haroset was made in in those days. A much clearer picture emerges from the Middle Ages. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors Rashi in the late twelfth century associated Haroset with the Song of Songs, the book of the Bible which is an exquisite love poem which is metaphorically interpreted by the Rabbis as a love story between God and his people. The Song of Songs is at the same time a wonderfully evocative poem singing the wonders of the rebirth of nature at springtime. We read it on the intervening sabbath of Passover. Rashi wanted haroset to contain apples ‘because the Jewish women in Egypt used to give birth to their children there without pain, so that the Egyptians would not know about them, as [the Song of Songs] says “I roused thee under the apple tree (8:5)” … Take [the apple] and crush it a great so that it will be thick. You must make it acidic, putting apples in it and wine, whatever makes it acidic. … and … thick in memory of the clay … greens (yerakot) which you put in the haroset in memory of straw, which you crush into it finely in memory of the clay.’ His pupils went a step further and added in all the fruits mentioned in the Song of Songs as well as adding almonds.3 And so at the end of the 13th century, Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Hazan of London went on to advise the Jews of medieval England to use ‘dates, figs, pomegranates, nuts, and apples’ mixed with almonds and vinegar.4

However you make your Haroset, I wish you Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameah.

1.Anna Sapir Abulafia, Christian-Jewish Relations, 1000-1300. Jews in the Service of Medieval Christendom (Harlow, 2011), pp. 158-61.
2. Philip Birnbaum, The Birnbaum Haggadah (New York, 1976), p. 84.
3. Susan Weingarten, Haroset. A Taste of Jewish History (New Milford, CT and London, 2019), pp. 1-60, quotation, pp. 54-5.
4. David Kaufmann, ‘The Ritual of the Seder and the Agada of English Jews before the Expulsion’, Jewish Quarterly Review 4.4 (1892), p. 551.