Non-Jews at the Seder? – An Halachic Perspective

Among American Jews, the Passover Seder is the most widely observed religious ritual. The annual commemoration of the ancient Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt attracts participants who are otherwise entirely removed from their ancestral heritage

Among American Jews, the Passover Seder is the most widely observed religious ritual. The annual commemoration of the ancient Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt attracts participants who are otherwise entirely removed from their ancestral heritage. Given the extent of American Jewry’s social integration and high rate of exogamy, it is not surprising that many American Seders have mixed attendance, comprising both Jews and non-Jews. The gentile guest might be a neighbor, friend, co-worker, boss, distant relative, immediate family member or significant other of one of these. For some families, the presence of non-Jews at the Seder is neither scandalous nor something over which they fret. For other families, however, contemporary threats to the exclusively Jewish character of the traditional Seder are met with pain, fear, and hostility.

In this essay, I examine the subject of non-Jews at the Seder from halakhic, historical, and philosophical perspectives. I hope thereby to provide insight to those for whom this is, or for years has been, a practical concern.

The Passover sacrifice (Hebrew: קרבן פסח‬ Korban Pesakh), also known as the “sacrifice of Passover”, the Paschal Lamb, or the Passover Lamb, is the sacrifice that the Torah mandates Jews and Samaritans to ritually slaughter on the eve of Passover, and eat on the first night of the holiday with bitter herbs and matzo.

The Seder takes place on Yom Tov, the first night of Passover (15 Nisan). Scripture forbids the performance of nearly all types of constructive work on Yom Tov, with one notable exception. “No task shall be done on them, only what each person is to eat, that alone will be prepared for you (Exodus 12:16).” Permission to cook on Yom Tov is an invaluable relaxation of the law, as it makes possible the inclusion of freshly prepared foodstuffs in the holiday repast and facilitates the Biblically mandated holiday rejoicing. But the leniency has its limitations. “For you” is interpreted to mean only “for Jews only.” Excluded are gentiles and dogs (Mekhilta d’Rashbi 12). Lest one be offended by the seeming comparison between non-Jews and animals, there is a third exclusion – God (Pesahim 47a). There are tight restrictions on bringing of burnt offerings on Yom Tov, because the flesh of the sacrifice is entirely consumed by the altar pyre with no portion left for the Israelite owner (Mishnah Beitzah 2:4). The consistent logic of these exclusions is that one may cook on Yom Tov only for those who are themselves obligated to observe the holiday.

Mar Zutra and Mreimar would say to a non-Jewish visitor who arrived uninvited at their Yom Tov meal, “If you are satisfied with what we have already prepared then all is well. But if not, be advised that we will not exert any further effort to prepare additional food on your behalf (Beitzah 21a).”

The medieval codifiers all accepted Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s ruling as authoritative. There was no consensus, however, about informing an uninvited gentile guest that no cooking may be done on his or her behalf. Rambam ruled that the householder need not say anything and can simply feed the surprise non-Jewish guest from previously prepared food (Hilkhot Yom Tov 1:13). Rosh similarly omitted all reference to Mar Zutra and Mreimar’s practice, noting that the ban on inviting non-Jews only applies to distinguished guests for whom one might be inclined to cook extra food but that it does not apply to household help or unexpected messengers (Rosh Moed Katan 2:12). Rashba and Tur, in contrast, required a Jewish host to inform the unexpected non-Jewish guest that no cooking will be done for him.

Mar Zutra and Mreimar’s comment to their heathen guests would likely be very poorly received by the average non-Jew. Even someone accustomed to speaking diplomatically might inadvertently foment anti-Semitism with such a remark. Fortunately, Yosef Karo ruled leniently in the Shulhan Arukh, asserting that we are not concerned that a Jewish householder will bother to cook more food for non-Jews who crash a Yom Tov meal (Orach Chaim 512:1).

The later halakhists looked for ways to skirt the ban on inviting gentiles, or at least to provide post factum justification for existing social practices. There was a layman’s custom in Eastern Europe of sending portions of the holiday meal to gentile neighbors. The distinction was made between cooking in one pot a large supply of food for both family and neighbors (e.g., stew) and preparing individual portions (e.g., blintzes or pancakes). While in the latter case there was no basis for leniency, as a discrete act of cooking was done specifically for a gentile, in the former case some authorities were willing to rule leniently to prevent anti-Jewish sentiment or to avoid a significant financial loss (Mishnah Berurah 512:6).

Some authorities even permitted a host expressly to invite non-Jews for a Yom Tov meal in a situation where failure to do so would compromise the ability to rejoice on the festival and on condition that none of the cooking on Yom Tov was done specifically for the non-Jewish guests (Biur Halakhah 512:1). Nearly all of the cooking done for a contemporary Seder (especially the first night) is done before the holiday begins. Accordingly, if social obligations force a Jewish householder to invite non-Jews to the Seder, “for you and not for gentiles” is not an insurmountable halakhic obstacle.

The above discussion is not specific to Passover. It applies to all Yom Tov meals that do not coincide with Shabbat. There are, however, additional considerations that are specific the Seder and which, arguably, make the presence of non-Jews inappropriate, undesirable, or uncomfortable.

Scripture sharply restricts who may consume a portion of the Paschal Lamb. “No foreigner shall eat of it… A settler or hired worker shall not eat of it… And should a sojourner sojourn with you and make the Passover offering to the Lord, he must circumcise every male of his, then may he draw near to do it and he shall be like a native of the land, but no uncircumcised man shall eat of it (Exodus 12:43-48).” When the Israelites entered Canaan and were about to offer the Paschal sacrifice for the first time in nearly 40 years, they first needed to sharpen flint stones and circumcise themselves at what became known as the Hill of Foreskins (Joshua 5:3).

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as The Rambam was a chief codifier of Jewish law

The Bible clearly excludes pagans from the Paschal rite. The sages understood the text as excluding even the religiously neutral resident alien and the Israelite who had forsaken his ancestral faith (Yebamoth 70b; see Rambam Hilkhot Korban Pesach 9:7). Regardless of genealogy or theological convictions, an uncircumcised male is necessarily excluded. The Sefer Ha-Chinuch explains that the Paschal rite is a commemoration of both liberation and entry into a divine covenant. Accordingly, anyone who has not completely entered into the covenant or who no longer embraces it ought not to participate in the ceremony (Mitzvah 14).

Should the exclusionary policy pertaining to the Paschal Lamb and the Temple-era Seder be applied to the post-Temple Seder? On the one hand, the modern Seder recalls the glory of the ancient Paschal ritual and includes multiple petitions for its eventual restoration. On the other, careful measures, including a ban on faux versions of the Paschal Lamb, clearly distinguish the contemporary Seder from its ancient predecessor. The Talmud interprets “eat of it” to mean that the uncircumcised may not eat specifically from the Paschal Lamb but that they may eat from the unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Yebamoth 71a). If that logic were extended to foreigners, then the post-Temple Seder devoid of the Paschal sacrifice might not be off-limits to non-Jews.

The Talmud tells a story about a certain Aramean gentile who gloated over his ability to conceal his true identity, pass himself off as a Jew, and partake of the meat of the Paschal Lamb. Upon hearing the gentile’s boasts, Rabbi Judah ben Bethyra asked the Aramean whether he had been given a piece of the tail. (The tail is not eaten, but rather is consumed by the altar pyre. The rabbi took for granted that the gentile did not know that legal point.) The Aramean said that he had not. The rabbi encouraged him to ask for the tail the following Passover. When the Aramean did so, his fellow celebrants grew suspicious. They investigated the man’s genealogy, found him to be a heathen, and killed him (Pesahim 3b).

Scholars have long suspected this story to be mostly, if not entirely, fictional. If events really did take place as described, the episode is evidence that the Paschal sacrifice was still brought – at least by some Jews – in the post-Destruction era. Regardless of its historicity, though, the story shows the strength of the Jewish conviction that the Paschal rite remain an exclusively Jewish affair.

Antoninus asked Rabbi Judah the Patriarch whether he, as a gentile, would partake of the Leviathan in the World to Come. Rabbi answered in the affirmative, trying to assure his interlocutor that rabbinic Judaism believed that people outside the Covenant could secure a portion in the hereafter. Antoninus challenged Rabbi’s answer, noting that if he could not even partake of the earthly Paschal Lamb, how could he possibly partake of the celestial Leviathan? Rabbi sheepishly responded by citing “no uncircumcised man shall eat of it” and admitting that nothing can be done to undermine the force of an explicit Biblical verse (Yerushalmi Megillah 72b).

The Rabbi-Antoninus stories are almost certainly pure fiction. If one wanted to read this passage as history and claim that Rabbi excluded even a friendly gentile from an early 3rd century (post-Destruction) Passover Seder, then one could marshal the text in favor of an exclusionary contemporary policy. Yet even accepting the fictional character of the story, an important lesson may nonetheless be gleaned. As much as we might want to be welcoming to outsiders, when the Bible sets forth an absolute rule regarding participation in a given religious service, we are not at liberty to follow a softer disposition, to tear down the Biblical barriers, and to invite whomever we wish. The Divine Lawgiver commanded an exclusively Israelitish Passover eve rite. Even under changed historical conditions, it may not be our prerogative to amend the criteria by which one is welcome to participate.

Another reason for an exclusionary Seder policy is the halakhic ban on teaching Torah to non-Jews (Hagigah 13a and Sanhedrin 59a). The Seder is primarily an exercise in teaching Torah to the next generation of Israelites. We are bidden to offer homiletical expositions of Deuteronomy 26:5-9, the passage beginning “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Mishnah Pesahim 10:4). Admittedly, this particular objection to the presence of gentiles at the Seder has many work-arounds. 1) The ban on teaching may no longer be in force in an era of easily accessible vernacular translations of Judaic texts. Other than the Bible itself, no Hebrew book has been translated more often and explicated more thoroughly than the Passover Haggadah. 2) The ban on teaching might not apply to an audience that is predominantly Jewish. 3) It is permissible to teach Torah to non-Jews who are interested in converting (Iggeroth Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:90).

A very practical reason to exclude non-Jews from the Seder table is to avoid the problem of non-kosher wine. If a gentile touches a Jew’s wine, the wine thereby becomes, at minimum, prohibited for consumption if not for all purposes (Yoreh Deah 123:1). The classic work-around is to use “mevushal,” or pasteurized wine. The basis for forbidding a gentile’s wine is the possibility that he used the wine for an idolatrous libation. Because the act of boiling the wine and making it “mevushal” renders it inferior, there is no concern that the non-Jew would use such a wine in his religious ritual. Only superior products are used in the service of a (false) deity. But for that same reason, “mevushal” should ideally not be used at the Seder when we worship our true God (Mishnah Berurah 472:39).

In my view, the most compelling reason not to invite non-Jews to the Seder is the nature of its liturgy. Most famously, we petition God: “Pour out Thy wrath on the nations that know You not… Let Your fury overtake them. Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.” I will concede that with the right apologetics even this vengeful paragraph can be explained away to a religiously mixed audience. The family patriarch could explain to his gentile guests that this is a late textual interpolation and merely reflects the desperation of the medieval Jew, not the true sentiments of the contemporary Jew. But a much better option is for the roster of attendees to be religiously homogenous, thereby avoiding the need to jump through intellectual hoops to avoid offense. More significantly, the language of the Haggadah presupposes that all the readers are Jews. The liturgy speaks not only of the ancient Israelites, but of “us,” “our ancestors,” and “our children” (אנו, אבותינו, בנינו). A religiously mixed audience would necessitate watering down the language, universalizing a purposefully ethnocentric text. The Seder is at its best when, as indicated in the words of the Haggadah, all the participants are bound together by a common past and common destiny.

Chief Rabbi Uziel

Despite the above arguments, a case can be made that even the non-Jewish members of interfaith families should be invited to the Seder. Chief Rabbi Uziel, in a responsum on the topic of conversion, noted that some of the worst Jew-haters were born-Jews who felt scorned by the community for their lifestyle decisions. Citing the merciful Talmudic dictum that we should bring near with the right hand and push away with the left hand, he advocated religious outreach not only for the children of a Jewish mother, but even for the halakhically non-Jewish children of a Jewish father (Piskei Uziel b’She’elot Ha’Zman 65). He cited the Mishnaic dictum attributed to Rabbi Judah the Patriarch: “Against the benefits a transgression may bring, reckon the loss it involves (Avot 2:1).” If he said so concerning the very weighty issue of conversion, all the more so would he take a mild approach with respect to an innocuous Seder invitation.

In cases of interfaith romantic attachment, we would of course much prefer that the gentile partner wholeheartedly adopt Judaism rather than that the Jew become an apostate. But for an outsider to want to join a faith group foreign to his or her experience, the initial exposure to that religion should be enjoyable. The Passover Seder is one of the more enjoyable annual rites. Unlike the self-flagellation of Yom Kippur Eve, Passover Eve is a night to comport oneself like royalty and to feel higher than one’s actual social station (see Rambam Mishnah Commentary Pesahim 10:1). The Bible itself teaches that a religious holiday party is the most enticing way to get someone to traverse the permeable barrier between religions. Scripture warns the Israelites not to make a covenant with the Canaanites, lest “they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods, and he call you, and you eat of his sacrifice (Exodus 34:15).” While Scripture speaks of Jews’ going over to the dark side, the same social phenomenon is in play when a non-Jew encounters Judaism on our holiday and at our sacrificial feast and experiences joy.

Nonetheless, these concessions to the unfortunate reality of assimilation do not sit well with me. A perceptive student suggested that the Jews-only policy be enforced on the first night of Passover and a more relaxed approach utilized on the second night. One could offer a philosophical justification for the distinction. The first Seder is the real Seder, as it memorializes the Paschal ritual of old and its exclusionary rules. The second Seder is observed only in the Diaspora. Traditional belief, as expressed in the Musaf service, is that “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” If our very presence in the Diaspora is the result of our national spiritual failings, then it is sadly appropriate that, with respect to those in attendance, the Diaspora Seder further manifests our spiritual failings.

Some might worry about the moral implications of an exclusionary Seder policy. Were the classical anti-Semites right in accusing us of misanthropic chauvinism? No. As the Haggadah reads: “All who are hungry let them come and eat. All who are needy let them come and celebrate Passover with us.” As long as we are charitable and sincerely care for all our human brethren the other 364 days of the year, on the night of Passover we can restrict our hospitality to fellow members of the covenant who are observing the Hebrew holiday of liberation.

By: Rabbi Evan Hoffman



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