Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleCourtesy


Despite the increase in antisemitism, most Jews will sit down peacefully for Seder. Hardly anyone knows that it was once a scary occasion which evoked accusations that Jews killed a Christian at this time of year and used his blood to make wine and matzah for Pesach.

The accusation seems to have begun in Norwich in the middle of the 12th century. A 12-year old tanner’s apprentice, William of Norwich, was found dead and a former Jew, Theobald of Cambridge, alleged that the Jews of Europe had drawn lots to decide where to carry out that year’s killing of a Christian, and the lot fell on Norwich.

After several other so-called ritual murders in England, the accusation spread to the Continent. In 1235 in Fulda the Jews were accused of killing the five sons of a miller and collecting their blood in a bag smeared with wax. An official inquiry exonerated the Jewish community but 34 Jews were slain in alleged retaliation.

A similar story was told by Chaucer and there arose a widespread cult of legend and antisemitic sensation. Christian priests linked the accusation with the New Testament and Jews were accused of renewing their ancestors’ alleged killing of Jesus. Jews accused of ritual murder occasionally "confessed" their guilt under torture though no-one took them seriously.

It was not until the 18th century in Poland that Cardinal Ganganelli, later People Clement XIV, thoroughly investigated the problem and decisively repudiated it. Not that it helped. The accusation became widespread in Nazi Germany under the aegis of Julius Streicher. Mussolini intervened at the request of the rabbi of Rome, but the libel did not die out.

Unfortunately it spread to Russia and Arab countries, despite the efforts of the great historian Cecil Roth who in the 1930s wrote a strong repudiation which was handed to and approved by the Pope.


The Haggadah tells us that the Torah speaks of four sons who each need their questions handled individually: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son who doesn’t know how to ask.

Having worked through the Seder components for many years, I have come to the conclusion that the four sons could well be one composite son who oscillates between the four characteristics we are used to.

Sometimes a person is in a wise mood, sometimes in a nasty mood; sometimes a person is more sophisticated and sometimes less; sometimes a person’s mind is sharp and sometimes it is sluggish. Nobody is clever all the time. Nobody is always nice and in a good mood. Sometimes one is deep-thinking and sometimes the opposite.

It recalls Rav Soloveitchik who said that the beginning of B'reshit speaks of two Adams, who turn out to be one Adam who fluctuates between the poetic and the practical.


Elijah is a major figure in Jewish history and practice, not simply because of the Cup of Elijah that sits on the Seder table. Amongst his tasks is to come before "the great and awesome day of the Lord" (Mal. 3:4-24) and announce that Mashi’ach is on his way.

What will ensure the success of his mission?

The Book of Malachi says he will "turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of their children to their fathers" (Mal. 3:24).

We know of course that on Pesach, children are divided into four. So are the parents. There are wise parents, wicked parents, simple parents, and parents who are basically inarticulate.

The link between the parents and children is suggested by Rashi, who says that if the children are knowledgeable, it is they who will bring the parents with them into the long awaited messianic age.


The final lingering taste on Seder night is the Afikoman which has been secreted from early in the proceedings. Some families attribute special power to this Afikoman. Sephardim in particular often carry with them a little remnant of that year’s Afikoman.

An example is Judith, the wife of Sir Moses Montefiore. It is said that when the ship on which they were en route to Alexandria seemed to be foundering, Lady Judith remembered that she had brought some Afikoman with her.

On the fly-leaf of her prayer book she wrote an account of the moment when she went on deck and threw the little piece of matzah into the water. Within a minute the wind subsided and the sea became calm. The captain came to Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore to thank them for the miracle.

Whether it was the matzah or their prayers or the vagaries of the weather, the voyage could now continue in safety.


Two years ago, when the pandemic might have undermined the tradition of the Seder, there was a lovely idea which undermined the pandemic itself.

On every balcony in Jerusalem (and other cities), children came out at 8.30 pm and sang Mah Nishtanah as loudly as they could.

The sound went straight up to Heaven and God smiled and even laughed as the Book of Psalms says that He does when He sees the funny things that are done on earth.

That year and every year the Seder ended with the sound of singing: Addir Hu, Echad Mi Yode’a, Chad Gadya and all the beloved melodies. Somehow the prophet Elijah weaves all the tunes together and God joins in!

Each of the Pesach songs has a fascinating history. As an example, Addir Hu is a plea to God to rebuild His Temple soon, as a sign that the Jewish people are blessed with peace and the world is redeemed. The song refers to God in an alef-bet acrostic (alef: Addir, bet: Bachur, gimmel: Gadol).

The melody, derived in the early 17th century from a German folk song, has become the musical motif of Pesach.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com