illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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Chapter 3 Summary

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The Seder dinner seems endless as Grandpa Will drones on and on through “endless explanations from the Haggadah.” Hannah begins to daydream, looking out the window at the full moon and thinking that tomorrow they will go to Grandpa Dan’s for the next Seder, where there will at least be other children her age in attendance. At Grandpa Dan’s house, the children will be allowed to sit at a separate table away from the grown-ups, and “sweet, gentle, silly Grandpa Dan” will tell stories in between the traditional readings that will be interesting and funny.

Next to Hannah, Aaron sits restlessly, waiting to ask the Second Question. His hands shake and a page of the Haggadah flips over; Hannah reaches over and fixes it for him, and Aaron smiles at her thankfully. At the appointed time, he chants the Second Question perfectly because he knows it by heart, but when he reads the English translation, he stumbles on a word, and Hannah gently corrects him. When Aaron reads, “Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs especially?” Hannah wonders, with a bit of anger, why indeed she must eat “disgusting” horseradish while her friend Rosemary gets to eat jelly beans instead. To her embarrassment, she finds herself crying out, “It isn’t fair!” Aunt Eva saves her by whispering, “Of course it isn’t fair . . . what has fair to do with it?” Aunt Eva then begins singing the song “Dayenu,” which Hannah knows means “it would have been enough.”

When it is time to share the wine, Grandpa Will insists that this year, since Hannah is almost thirteen, she should be allowed to have real wine along with the grown-ups. When Mama protests, Grandpa Will argues:

When my sister Eva was thirteen, what she would have given for a little glass of watered wine.

No one can withstand “the promise of guilt.” Hannah discovers that she likes the sweet taste of the wine, although she admits that it makes her head buzz a little.

After the toasts, it is time for Aaron, as the youngest child, to steal the afikoman, a matzoh wrapped in an embroidered cloth. He crawls around the table and finds the bread under Grandpa Will’s chair, then runs from the room to hide it from the others. With a sigh, Mama begins to explain the symbolism of the game, which is to uncover “the hidden order of the universe,” but Aunt Eva tactfully stops her, telling her that she is too serious and that she should just let the children play and remember their history through the activity. After a short time, the women get up and pretend to be searching everywhere for Aaron and his hidden treasure. When Grandpa Will stops the proceedings with a piercing whistle, everyone returns to the table, and Aaron triumphantly emerges from the bathroom, where he has hidden the matzoh in the laundry basket. As a reward for playing the game so well, Aaron can ask for a gift in return for the afikoman; he decides that he will demand a baseball glove from Grandpa Will in payment.

Hannah’s head begins to throb as the Passover meal continues. When one of her uncles passes around a large goblet representing Elijah’s cup, everyone pours a little wine into it, but Hannah contributes her entire glass. As a reward for her generosity, Grandpa Will declares that she should have the ceremonial honor of opening the door for Elijah. Hannah feels “incredibly dumb” and like a fraud because she had given her wine not as a sacrifice but because she had not wanted it, but she goes to the front door. Flinging it open, Hannah expects to see the long hallway of the Bronx building and the doors to other apartments but is astonished to find instead “a greening field and a lowering sky.” The moon shines brightly, and from across the fields a figure approaches, carrying a hoe over his shoulder and singing:

Who asked you to be buried alive?
. . . no one forced you
. . . you took this madness on yourself.

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