Passover

Passover

In Brief

In an allusion that can easily be missed in Hades, Bloom imagines that the old woman peering out of her window onto Newbridge Avenue is "Thanking her stars she was passed over." He must be thinking in a wry way of the Passover, because in Aeolus he reflects at length on this Jewish holiday. In a section  introduced by the headline "AND IT WAS THE FEAST OF THE PASSOVER" (echoing similar phrases in John 2:13, 6:4, 11:55, and 19:14), Bloom recalls the rituals in which his devout father instructed him. His thoughts harmonize with Stephen's fancy of a hangman God, since Passover celebrates the bloody justice of a divine protector who rules over a world of death.

Read More

Passover, or Pesach, is a major Jewish holiday lasting about a week. It commemorates the last of God's ten plagues, the killing of Egypt's firstborn sons, which gave the hard-hearted Pharaoh the final kick he needed to release the children of Israel from their bondage. The Hebrews were told to slaughter a spring lamb and use the blood to mark the entrances to their homes: "For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you" (Exodus 12:23, emphasis added). Bloom comically fancies that Paddy Dignam's neighbor has survived such a night of terror, "Thanking her stars" that the angel of death went to no. 9 instead of her house.

The delivery from Egyptian bondage is celebrated in Jewish homes each spring in seder dinners that Bloom thinks of in Aeolus. Watching a typesetter reading text backwards, he remembers his father reading Hebrew right to left in the "ancient hagadah book" that Ithaca shows he still owns. Aeolus recalls many details from this book: "Poor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pessach. Next year in Jerusalem. Dear, O dear! All that long business about that brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage Alleluia. Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu. No, that's the other. Then the twelve brothers, Jacob's sons. And then the lamb and the cat and the dog and the stick and the water and the butcher. And then the angel of death kills the butcher and he kills the ox and the dog kills the cat. Sounds a bit silly till you come to look into it well. Justice it means but it's everybody eating everyone else. That's what life is after all."

The Hebrew word haggadah comes from vehigaadato ("you shall tell") in Exodus 13:8: "And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt." On the first two evenings of "Pessach," ceremonial Seder meals are held which involve re-telling the old story. "Next year in Jerusalem" recalls the closing phrase of the first seder, which comes after a prayer asking God to rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem. As Thornton notes, the participants in the seder exclaim these words "in expression of their joyous hope of return to the Holy Land."

At three different points in the service, the Haggadah specifies narrating "that long business about that brought us out of the land of Egypt"—familiar language from various books of the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps Bloom's memory is failing him when he thinks "into the house of bondage" (instead of "from"), or perhaps, as Johnson speculates, he may be offering an ironic commentary. He repeats the altered line in Nausicaa. The telling of the exodus story is punctuated several times by the exclamation "Alleluia" (from halelu yah in Hebrew, "Praise Yah," i.e. YHWH).

At "Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu" ("Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God"), a slightly shortened version of a Hebrew sentence in Deuteronomy 6:4, Bloom's memory jumps to a different part of his Jewish upbringing. These words open the familiar prayer called the Shema that is recited every morning and evening in the synagogue, and they do not appear in either seder service. Bloom catches himself, thinking, "No that's the other," but there is a reason he thinks of the Shema, because both seders refer to it.

The twelve tribes of Israel descended from "the twelve brothers, Jacob's sons" figure in all the tellings of the Egyptian bondage story, and they are also mentioned in a recitation at the end of the second seder. At this point in his revery Bloom is probably recalling the end of the second service, since he thinks of Jacob's sons in sequence ('Then . . . And then") with an Aramaic song about household animals that concludes the second service.

The Chad Gadya ("One Kid"), like nursery rhymes such as The House that Jack Built, has verses that repeat earlier verses and add to them. The final verse, which recapitulates all the others, recounts how "the Most Holy," i.e. God, "destroyed the angel of death that slew the slaughterer that killed the ox that drank the water that quenched the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid that father bought for two zuzim. One kid, one kid."

Bloom reflects that this chant about a series of animals "Sounds a bit silly till you come to look into it well. Justice it means." He is clearly thinking of some allegorical interpretation, and Thornton quotes from the Jewish Encyclopedia to the effect that the chant "was for a long time regarded as an allegorical version of the principle of 'jus talionis,'" the eye-for-an-eye justice articulated in Exodus 21:24-25.

There are other allegorical readings of the song. Gifford cites a gloss in Abraham Regelson's The Haggadah of Passover, A Faithful English Rendering (1944): "Chad Gadya (One Kid), in outward seeming a childish lilt, has been interpreted as the history of successive empires that devastate and swallow one another (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, etc.). The kid, bottommost and most injured of all, is, of course, the people of Israel. The killing of the Angel of Death marks the day when the kingdom of the Almighty will be established on earth; then, too, Israel will live in perfect redemption in the promised land" (63). This interpretation expresses Jews' millennial endurance in the face of persecution and exile, a value asserted by the entire Haggadah. Bloom clearly shares this value, but as Slote observes, he omits the part of the song about God killing the Angel of Death, leaving that ominous allegorical figure victorious. It seems very unlikely that he is thinking of a Zionist homecoming at this moment.

Bloom states quite clearly what he is thinking about. In his simple and decidedly unorthodox view, scholars may say that the meaning of the ditty is justice, "but it's everybody eating everyone else. That's what life is after all." Bloom often finds adult realities encoded in silly-sounding children's stories. Here in Aeolus his thought bridges the gap between his meditations on death in Hades (ineluctable, meaningless, vast) and his thoughts about eating in Lestrygonians (a daily necessity that involves killing other living things). An endless cycle of killing and eating: that's what life is, after all.

JH 2020
Open Air Minyan, 2020 painting by Zoya Cherkassky for Passover in the year of social distancing. Source: www.nytimes.com.
The Angel of Death and the First Passover, illustration in Charles Foster's Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1897), with Hebrews gathered to hold a seder dinner inside their marked house. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Israeli-made Hebrew-English Passover Haggadah book. Source: www.ebay.com.
A modern edition of the Chad Gadya rendered in both Hebrew and English, date unknown. Source: www.jewish-music.huji.ac.il.