The timing of the Passover Seder is completely intuitive. Every year, on the night the Jews left Egypt, we commemorate the formation of the Jewish people with an elaborate ceremony telling the story of the Exodus. The scheduling is so obvious that we wonder why the Haggadah, the Seder text, considers holding the event earlier in the month.
“You might have thought that you could do it from Rosh Chodesh. [The Torah] teaches us, saying ‘on that day.’”
If not for that verse requiring the commemoration on the day of the Exodus, we would have been allowed to celebrate the holiday up to two weeks earlier. What logic is there in celebrating the Exodus on the wrong anniversary?
One possible explanation for this surprising suggestion lies in the nature of Jewish peoplehood. Ironically, the first person in recorded history to refer to the Jews as a people is Pharaoh: “He said to his people, ‘Indeed the people of the sons of Israel are more numerous and are more powerful than we’” (Ex. 1:9). In his desire to extinguish us, he united us. However, his intent was certainly purely ethnic. He meant that Israelites are a people like Emorites and Ammonites, but we are more than that.
Recent studies have rekindled the debate over whether European Jewry is largely descended from Khazar converts. The Khazarians, or at least their leadership class, converted to Judaism in the eighth century. Rav Yehudah HaLevi made this famous with his dramatization of the Khazarian king’s decision to convert in his Sefer Kuzari. Some today believe that the majority of European Jews are descended from these converts. With this, they argue that we do not have a legitimate claim on the land of Israel. They are mistaken.
While this is certainly an interesting historical discussion, it contains little theological importance because converts are full-fledged Jews. Jews are a covenantal people, united by the Torah. In R. Sa’adia Gaon’s immortal words: “The Jews are only a nation by virtue of the Torah” (Emunos Ve-Dei’os 3:7, based on Jer. 31:34-35). An ethnic nation is determined by blood ancestry. The Jewish nation includes all who accept the Torah and their descendants.
Jewish laws matter, not only in their impact on our individual spiritual development but also on our interaction as a community. Haman describes us maliciously but aptly: “There is a certain people… their laws are different from those of every people…” (Esther 3:8). Our distinct practices unite us in action and experience, binding us a nation in uniform devotion to God. We are a people with very specific theological claims, but what unites us even more are our distinct practices, minor regional differences notwithstanding.
Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first of the month which the Haggadah considers as a possible starting point for the commemoration, marks the first commandment given to the Jews as a people (see Ramban, Ex. 12:2). On the first of Nissan, God commanded the Jewish people to sanctify new months (Rashi, Ex. 12:3). That day marks the inception of the Jewish nation, the first commandment to bind together the otherwise ethnic tribe. Therefore, it serves as a fitting day to commemorate the process which yielded the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
However, the Haggadah rejects this suggestion because commandments are too broad a theme for a specific holiday. In Judaism, every day is “commandments day.” Pesach has the Exodus. Shavuos has the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Those are discrete events in history. Even Sukkos, which commemorates the entire desert experience, has the hut (sukkah). Commandments were given throughout the early years and cannot be commemorated uniquely. While the Torah as a whole binds the Jewish people, we perform a Seder for something more dramatic and specific. Ten plagues and a rushed evening leaving Egypt makes for a more thrilling Pesach event.