Montefiore and the Splitting of the Sea

Montefiore

In 1827 Sir Moses Montefiore wrote, I “threw into the sea a piece of my Passover cake, at the same time praying to G-d to preserve us, as He had in old times preserved our forefathers from the turbulence of the sea, and in his great mercy, to grant us a fair wind, sufficient for our purpose.” That year Moses and Judith Montefiore (not yet Sir and Lady) visited Israel for the first time. Their journey would forever colour their lives, and in particular their celebration of Passover.

Their route to Israel took them via Egypt where political conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean required them to stay in Alexandria for two months. It was hot, crowded, and Sir Moses became ill. The illness would later return to him in England and almost kill him. Needless to say, he was quite pleased when a window of opportunity opened for them to be able to continue they journey and to leave Egypt. In his diary he wrote: “No one will ever say the Agada with more true devotion than I shall do when it pleases Providence to restore me to my Country, and redeem me and my dear Judith from this horrid land of misery & plagues, the hand of G-d begin still upon it.”

Moses and Judith

Moreover, later in their journey they experienced strong winds and stormy seas, recalling to Sir Moses the sea that Biblical Moses and the ancient Israelites crossed when they too left Egypt. He wrote, “To describe such a storm is out of my power, the sea was truly running mountains high, and every instant breaking over the ship in a manner almost to swamp her, and sticking against her sides with a violence it appeared a miracle for her to withstand. Indeed, my poor Judith almost gave herself up for lost.”

Sir Moses therefore initiated an old Sephardic custom of tossing into the sea a piece of ‘Passover cake,’ otherwise called matza. This matza was a piece of the Afikoman, the matza which is split in half at the ‘agada’ (seder) with the better half saved for the afikoman. The Afikoman therefore came to recall the splitting of the sea. Amongst Italian Jews a remaining piece of it was therefore sometimes used as part of a supplication for safety when traveling on stormy waters. In this instance it seemed to work and Mentefiore happily wrote, that night there was a “fine moonlight evening, with a smooth sea.” Judith wrote, “Thanks for the Almighty we are again in security.”

Indeed not only for the Montefiores was their safe passage a source of faith, but so too for the Jews of old. The Torah states that upon safely passing through the waters, ‘vaya’aminu ba’amonai, ub’moshe abdo,’ ‘They had faith in God, and Moses His servant.’ It is a beautiful expression of faith at the culmination of the Exodus. However, it also raises a question.  Just a few verses later the Torah states that the people questioned G-d’s providence when they went several days without food, asking were it not better to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the dessert. It is surprising that following such an expression of faith that they would so quickly stop believing!

The Talmud in tractate Sota invokes the miracle of the splitting of the sea as an analogy for marriage. It says ‘kashim zivugim k’kriyat yam suf,’ ‘that is as difficult to make matches as it was to split the sea.’ It is a lovely image that juxtaposes the challenge of putting together next to the challenge of pulling apart. And of course, one seems so extraordinary, whilst the other so commonplace. And yet perhaps that is the message. If one can see day to day events as miraculous as the splitting of the sea, then one truly has faith. The Jews of Exodus came to experience miracles a commonplace, and perhaps therefore could not see the commonplace as miraculous. It is a challenge to have faith even in failure, even when things go wrong. The true test of faith is to still believe even once the miraculous waters have returned, and all is normal once again.

The Montefiore family continued to recall his salvation at sea for years to come. Each Passover they concluded their ‘agada’ with reading his diary’s description of his salvation at sea. In so doing, he was able to remind himself and his extended family of his miraculous salvation. But more importantly, by regularly invoking it, as all Jews do with their daily recital of the Az Yashir, he ensured that his miracle of old would continue to inspire even once he had returned to the serene and secure shores of his beloved England. The lasting message being that whilst we may not have daily miracles, we can still have faith.

For Further Study

Green, Abigail. “Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero.” Boston, Harvard Press: 2012.

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3 responses to “Montefiore and the Splitting of the Sea

  1. Dear Reb Shalom!

    I read your blog avidly and admire your writing style enormously. I do however sympathise with the Israelites in asking “Were it not better to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the dessert?”

    With Shavuot pending, beware of the cheese cake!!!!

    Rabino Samuel

  2. Pingback: The Montefiore Synagogue – Ramsgate, England | Shalom Says Hello·

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