A Seder Night

Heinrich Heine

ca. 1824

In the large room of his house sat Rabbi Abraham and commenced the celebration of the Passover Eve, in company with his relatives and pupils and other guests. Everything in the room was brighter than usual. The table was covered with a silk-embroidered cloth, with golden fringe trailing to the ground. The little plates glittered pleasantly with their symbolic food, as did also the high goblets filled up with wine, and graven entirely with sacred subjects. The men sat in black mantles, and flat black hats and white ruffs. The women wore marvellous shimmering stuffs of Lombardy, and on their head and neck ornaments of gold and pearls; and the silver Sabbath lamp shed its festive light upon the devoutly happy faces of young and old. On a raised seat, leaning against a cushion of purple velvet, reclined Rabbi Abraham and read and chanted the Hagadah, and the gay choir joined in or responded at the appointed places. The Rabbi, too, was attired in a gala dress of stately black, his noble, yet somewhat severe features looked milder than usual, the lips smiled out of his brown beard as though they wished to tell many charming things, and his eyes seemed to swim with beatific memories and anticipations. The beauteous Sara, who sat on another raised chair by his side, wore, as hostess, no jewellery; only white linen enfolded her slender form and devout features. Her face was touchingly beautiful, as indeed the beauty of all Jewesses is of a strangely moving sort. The consciousness of the deep misery, bitter insult, and unhappy state in which their relations and friends live, spreads over their graceful faces a certain painful earnestness and watchful affectionate anxiety, that wondrously bewitch our hearts. So sat to-day beauteous Sara, for ever gazing into her husband’s eyes. Now and then she looked at the Hagadah which lay before her, a beautiful book bound in gold and velvet, an old heirloom with aged wine-spots from her grandfather’s days. There were ever so many bold and brightly-painted pictures in it, which, even as a child, she had been happy to look at on the Pesach night, and which represented all sorts of bible stories. Such as Abraham, with his hammer, smashing his father’s stone idols, and the angels coming to visit him, and Moses killing the Egyptian, and Pharaoh sitting on his throne, and the frogs which gave him no rest even at table, and he, thank God, drowning while the children of Israel carefully walked through the Red Sea, and they, standing open-mouthed, at the foot of Mount Sinai with their sheep and kine and oxen, and then pious King David playing the harp, and last, Jerusalem, with the towers and minarets of the Temple illumined by the sun.

The second Cup had been filled, faces and voices were growing more cheerful, and the Rabbi, as he seized one of the unleavened cakes, and with a happy greeting held it up, read out from the Hagadah the following words: “Behold! This is the bread our fathers have eaten in Egypt! Let everyone who is hungry come and eat! Everyone who is sad, let him come and join in our Pesach feast. This year we celebrate it here, but next year in the land of Israel. This year we are still slaves, but next year we shall celebrate it as the sons of freedom.”

Here the door opened, and two tall pale men entered, wrapped in big cloaks. “Peace be with you,” said one of them. “We are co-religionists on our travels, and would like to keep Pesach with you.” And the Rabbi answered quick and friendly. “With you be peace. Seat yourselves near me.” The two strangers sat down to table and the Rabbi proceeded with his reading. Sometimes while the others were repeating the responses after him, he whispered affectionate words to his wife. Playing on the old saw that on that night every Jewish housefather thinks himself a king, he said “Be joyful, oh my Queen!” But she answered with a melancholy smile, “Our prince is missing,” and by that she meant a son of the house who, as a passage in the Hagadah requires, has in fixed phraseology to ask his father the meaning of the feast. The Rabbi made no answer, but with his finger pointed at one of the pictures on the open page of the Hagadah, which portrayed very agreeably how the three angels came to Abraham to announce that he would have a son born to his wife Sara, and Sara standing behind the door of the tent listening with womanly artfulness to the conversation. The hint brought a fiery blush to the cheeks of the lovely woman. She cast down her eyes and then looked up again lovingly at her husband, who was now chanting the wondrous tale of how Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Azaria, Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarphon sat reclining in Bene Brak, and conversed all night about the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, until their pupils came and announced to them that it was day, and the people were already saying the morning prayer in the Synagogue. As the lovely Sara listened reverently with her eyes on her husband, she saw his face suddenly transfixed with horror and the blood leave his cheeks and lips, and his eyes start out like icicles. Yet almost at the same moment his features resumed their former repose and cheerfulness, his lips and cheeks grew red again, his eyes sparkled joyously once more, and he himself seemed mastered by a mad mood, most strange in him. Sara was terrified as she had never been terrified in her life before, and an icy shudder ran though her, less because of those signs of blank horror she had observed in her husband’s face for a single instant than for this present exhilaration of his, which gradually turned to roaring merriment. The Rabbi jocosely shifted his beret from ear to ear, pulled at his beard and curled it waggishly, and sang the text of the Hagadah like a street song. When recounting the Egyptian plagues, where the index finger is dipped into the full glasses and the drops of wine shaken off on to the floor, the Rabbi besprinkled the younger girls with the red wine, and there was much grumbling for spoiled ruffs, and much resounding laughter. To Sara this boisterous but forced merriment seemed more and more uncanny, and seized by unmentionable fear she stared at the crowd of guests rocking themselves to and fro or nibbling the crisp cakes, or gulping down the wine, or chatting with each other, or singing out aloud, all very merry.

Then came time for supper, and everybody stood up to wash the hands, and beauteous Sara brought in a large silver basin, richly chased with golden figures and held it before each of the guests, while the water was poured over their hands. When she came to offer the Rabbi this service, he looked meaningly at her and slung out of the door. Sara followed him, and the Rabbi hastily seized his wife’s hand. Hastily he dragged her through the dark streets of Bacherach, hastily through the city gate to the high road which leads along the Rhine to Bingen.

The Rabbi then stood still a while, he moved his lips several times, but they uttered no sound. At last he exclaimed: “Do you see the Angel of Death? Down there, he hovers over Bacherach. But we have escaped his sword. Praise be to God!” And then, in a voice still quivering with horror, he related how he was cheerfully singing the Hagadah as he sat there, reclining, when suddenly he glanced by chance beneath the table and saw at his feet the blood-stained body of a child. “Then I noticed,” added the Rabbi, “that our two last guests did not belong to the community of Israel, but to the congregation of the ungodly, and they had contrived to introduce the corpse into our house in order to accuse us of the child's murder, so as to rouse the populace, and to plunder and murder us. I dared not let it be noticed that I had seen through the hellish plot. I should have only hastened our destruction; only craft has saved us both. Praise be to God! Do not fear, Sara. Our friends and relations will be safe. It was only my blood for which the villains thirsted. I have escaped them, and they will content themselves with my silver and gold. Come with me, Sara, to another land! The God of our fathers will not forsake us!”

Translated by Elkan N. Adler, from Heine’s novel The Rabbi of Bacherach.

Credits

Heinrich Heine, “A Seder Night,” trans. Elkan N. Adler, from Yisröel: The Jewish Omnibus, ed. Joseph Leftwich (London: James Clarke and Co., 1945), pp. 242–44. Used with permission of the publisher.

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