Nirtzah may be the most puzzling of all the steps of the seder. In what other Jewish ritual is there an explicit statement that you have finished the ritual? One does not give tzedakah and then state: “I have completed the mitzvah of giving tzedakah.” The seder, however, has as its final step this reflexive act of declaring ourselves finished.
That reflexivity is itself puzzling. Consider Kadesh, the first of the seder’s signposts (simanei ha-seder). Kadesh describes a specific action: You hold a cup of wine, recite certain words over the wine, and then drink it. So too, for example, Hallel, which immediately precedes Nirtzah: The word hallel refers to the act of reciting songs of praise. But merely saying the word kadesh or hallel does not fulfill the step. Nirtzah, on the other hand, seems to be entirely self-referential; there is no action that makes your seder complete. Nirtzah is simply mental power; we assert that we’re done and it means that we’re done.
Even the choice of calling this section Nirtzah is enigmatic. It’s not a normal word for saying you’re done with something; it doesn’t even appear in the poem that now appears at the end of the seder, introduced to the haggadah in the fourteenth century to give this so called step more heft. In that poem, the word for finished is the more literal ḥasal. So why label the section Nirtzah?
The word appears only twice in this form in the Bible. The first instance, Leviticus 1:4, is a description of a particular kind of sacrifice; someone places their hand on the head of a sacrificial animal “so that it will be nirtzah,” that is, accepted. In the other biblical appearance, no slaughtered animals are in sight. Rather, the prophet Isaiah consoles the Jewish people in exile, telling us that Jerusalem’s sinfulness and consequent punishment have been accepted (avonah nirtzah; Isaiah 40:2), and that the suffering at the hands of an oppressing colonial force will come to an end. The suffering of Jerusalem, rather than an animal on an altar, is accepted in order to bring about God’s pardon.
To state that our seder is nirtzah, then, is to frame it as something that must be acceptable and accepted, whether as an animal slaughtered in a temple, or as the suffering and atonement for our sins that Isaiah implies.
The idea of the seder-qua-sacrifice is relatively easy to see. Sacrificial language suffuses the entire seder. Rabban Gamliel includes the paschal offering as one of its three essential symbols; so too we split up hallel, only on this night, so that it bookends the meal, thus paralleling the Jews’ constant singing of hallel, for the entirety of their slaughtering of the Passover offering in the Temple. The highly regulated, almost compulsively “ordered” nature of the seder (that is, the “order”) likewise mimics the sacrificial service, with its emphasis on process and ritualization. In the absence of the Jerusalem Temple, our seder both points to the absence of animal sacrifice and takes its place. And just as Leviticus makes clear that a sacrifice must be accepted, so too we pray that our performance of the seder-qua-sacrifice will find acceptance before God.
That our suffering should find acceptance before God is more difficult to understand, both theologically and literarily. Hackneyed and misguided jokes to the contrary, the seder is not meant to be a time of suffering or punishment. The seder is primarily a joyous night, less focused on remembering our sufferings than on celebrating our redemptions. Classical Jewish law even states that one should reserve one’s finest china and cutlery for the seder, since this is the most glorious night of the year! Still, the seder alludes to the historic suffering of the Jewish people: “In every generation, they stood against us to destroy us.” And in medieval Europe, the world in which both simanei ha-seder and the concluding poem of the seder were composed, springtime, with the joint arrival of Easter and Pesaḥ, was often a time of increased anti-Jewish violence. We can imagine, and perhaps we even feel in some way—however conflicted or ambivalent—the desire to make meaning of our suffering, to ask God to see it and to accept it, as God did for the Jews in Egypt, as it says: “the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression” (Deuteronomy 26:7).
We ask God, then, to accept both our offering, like those of Leviticus, and our suffering, like the punishment of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time.
There is, however, a third meaning to nirtzah. At least as early as the thirteenth century, some contended that the word nirtzah modifies that which immediately precedes it, that is, hallel. The interpretation solves the earlier problem of nirtzah having no clear referent. Rather than an unusual signpost in the seder with no action to which it refers, it describes hallel, which on this seder night is unusual, both in its bifurcated performance before and after the meal, but also in the several additional paragraphs that do not normally appear as part of the hallel recited on holidays and new-month celebrations. Reading nirtzah this way opens a third path for understanding what it is we want accepted on this night: our songs and praise. This is not to negate the biblical resonances of bringing ritualized gifts before God, or of pointing to our sufferings, all in the hopes that God will see them and accept us. But on this seder night, when we break out our finest place settings and sit as free people together with friends and family, we also offer, and hope that God will accept, our songs, our praise, and our joy