Hansen's Law and the last days of Passover

Insights into Judaic topics, this time with an emphasis on the end of Passover.

Tags: Judaica
Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism יריד הספרים
יריד הספרים


Pesach, when the Haggadah talks of parents whose children ask, "What are the testimonies and the statutes of the Torah?", is the tailor-made occasion when observers of Jewish life get a reminder of Hansen’s Law which says, "What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember".

This "principle of third generation interest", formulated by the American historian Marcus Lee Hansen in a 1938 essay, "The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant", has been widely debated and criticised, but in Judaism it seems to have special pertinence.

Once upon a time the Jewish world was full of "froom" grandparents who strictly observed the practices of Judaism (or so it is claimed; the reality was rather more patchwork).

In many cases the families migrated to the New World, gave up the old level of observance and lived on memory: "My father was so 'froom', he davened all day, he was never without a Hebrew book in his hand, he kept every detail of Shabbat.

"My mother worked day and night to keep a kosher home, she lit Shabbat candles with tears in her eyes, she didn’t know much Hebrew but she insisted that we say the b’rachot with her.

"Our parents didn’t have any money but material things weren’t important to them."

The son started off keeping very little but at least remembering, and then even the remembering went and the Jewish future was at risk.

Recently, Baruch Hashem, a miracle has occurred and the risk has receded because the grandchild has begun to rediscover the ways of their "froom" grandparents and even surpass them.

Parents these days are often shaken up and complain about how orthodox their "ba’al t’shuvah" ("returner" or "reversioner") children have become.

But in many ways the intergenerational family dynamic has turned tense. The children are frequently rather intolerant of their parents’ laxity; the parents are frequently intolerant of the new standards their children have adopted.

No-one can insist that others suddenly drop the way of life they think right, but surely both sides can work out a pattern of mutual tolerance, and surely the parents can make a gesture towards their child.

I recollect the day when a parent complained to me, "My daughter is making a fuss. She insists that I should light Shabbat candles! What shall I say?"

My answer was, "Do it, and say 'Thank God' that that’s what your daughter wants – to show her love of the Almighty. Think how much worse it could have been!"


Just over a week ago we changed over from year-round to Pesach food and utensils, and now it’s almost time to change back.

The question is whether things will revert to exactly what they were before Pesach.

On one level the answer is probably no. People sometimes mislay something in all the domestic upheaval. Sometimes you keep out a Pesach utensil for use during the year.

On a deeper level the question is psychological.

Has our thinking, our whole being, reverted to what it was?

Let’s hope the answer is no. Pesach should have changed what we are and how we think of things and people.

The person I will be next week will hopefully be more tolerant, able to live with the wicked as well as the wise one, hoping that the son who once was unable to ask questions is now well on the way to being a fully involved member of the family and the Jewish people.


The climax of the 7th day haftarah is the same as the conclusion of the Grace After Meals – the verse, "Magdil (or: 'migdol') yeshu’ot malko v’oseh chessed lim’shicho l’David ul’zar’o ad olam": "He magnifies (or: 'is a tower of') victory for His king and deals kindly with His anointed, with David and his descendants for ever."

The haftarah version comes from II Samuel 22; the Grace After Meals version from Psalm 18. The psalm says "magdil" and the haftarah says "migdol".

The psalm version seems better linguistically, since "magdil" as a verb is paralleled by the verb "oseh" in the second half of the verse, though it is not unknown for God to be called a tower, e.g. Psalm 61:4, where He is "a tower of strength".

It is easy to blame the variants on scribal carelessness but Samson Raphael Hirsch says, "This psalm began in II Samuel, Chapter 22, as a part of the story of David. David himself made some changes in it when it was finally turned over to the people as a kind of national hymn".

David turned verse 51 from history: "God is (or: 'was') my tower of support", to a prayer or hope that He may in future support the Davidic dynasty, reflecting the natural ambition of a ruler to see his dynasty endure.

Our practice is to assign "magdil" to the Grace After Meals on weekdays and "migdol" to Sabbaths and festivals.

Baruch Halevi Epstein believes that though people tended to use "magdil" (the psalm version), the prayer books had a marginal note, "bet-shin-bet migdol", i.e. "In II Samuel – biSh’mu’el Bet – migdol", which was misread due to the use of abbreviations as "b’Shabbat migdol" – "On Sabbath (and festivals) migdol".

Epstein argues that either version is acceptable and that there is no need to assign the alternatives to different occasions.

Why do we need to conclude Grace After Meals with this verse at all? Because of the practice of ending major prayers with a reference to the messianic redemption.


Q. What is a "Bobbemayseh"?

A. It has nothing to do with grandmothers or old wives’ tales.

In the 16th century, Yiddish translations were made of much of European literature, including an Italian book about the adventures of a prince or knight called "Buovo d’Antona".

The result was the "Buovo-" or "Bovo-buch", a compilation of charming romantic tales about Buovo and his lady Druziana, with an admixture of Jewish elements.

The translator, Elya Bocher, was originally a wandering Yiddish troubador but became well known in the more serious fields of Jewish scholarship as Elijah Levitas.

His fame as a scholar was so widespread that he was invited to teach Hebrew at the University of Paris but he turned down the offer, probably out of Jewish loyalty, since France had expelled its Jews in the 14th century.


Q. Why does Judaism prohibit mixing milk and meat?

A. Many aspects of the Torah are in direct contrast to the customs of the neighbouring cultures.

In the case of milk and meat, there is a blunt contrast with the Ras Shamra rules. The 14th century BCE Ras Shamra texts, recovered in the late 1930s by French researchers from the remains of a Phoenician colony on the Syrian coast, say, “Seethe a kid in milk”.

The Jewish rule is the exact opposite: see Exodus 23:19 and 34:26, and Deut. 14:21.

This is not to say that defying the ways of other ancient peoples – and emphasising the distinctiveness of the Jewish way of life – is the only or the best explanation for our no-meat-and-milk regimen.

Some say that it shows the medical knowledge of the Torah, since eating milk and meat together was a cause of disease.

Most Jewish scholars however attach an ethical and philosophical value to the rule, suggesting that it was ethically repugnant to boil a kid in its mother’s milk and ideologically the self-discipline involved in the rule emphasises the separate identity of each element of the Creation.

Those who want to defy halachah deliberately flout the dietary laws (someone once said to me, “Already a hundred years ago in Germany my family were eating pork!”) – but those who take pride in their Jewishness consciously chose to maintain the observance of kashrut.


Q. Why is it an egg that represents the festival offering on the Seder plate?

A. Though the egg is mentioned in the Talmud (Pes. 114b), a piece of meat could also have recalled the festival offering. Why then an egg? Some link the egg with the Pesach theme of redemption:

• The egg hardens with cooking; the Jewish people never give in to persecution of adversity but end up being stronger.

• The egg has no opening; God closes the mouths of those who deny the redemption.

• The egg is a sign of new life; Pesach began the history of Israel as a people and the messianic redemption will begin the historic fulfilment of our destiny.

• In Aramaic an egg is "be’ah", which is linked with a root meaning "desire"; the Almighty desires to redeem us if only we are worthy.