Go and Learn: Concluding the entire passageThe mitzvah on Seder night is not to read the Haggadah for own sake. Rather the Haggadah is a tool for fulfilling the mitzvah of using the text beginning with Deuteronomy 26:5 as a vehicle for telling the tale and discussing the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt, as the Mishna teaches:
According to the child’s intelligence, the parent instructs him, beginning with degradation and concluding with praise, and expounds from “My father was a wandering Aramean” until he completes the whole passage… Mishna Pesachim 10:4The verses in question are:
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-ה' אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע יי אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ. וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יי, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים. * וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. ** וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יי; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יי אֱלֹהֶיךָ. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ יי אֱלֹהֶיךָ-וּלְבֵיתֶךָ: אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.
My father was a wandering (lit. “lost”) Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Everlasting One, the God of our ancestors, and the Everlasting One heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Everlasting One freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.* He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. ** Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Everlasting One, have given me. You shall leave it before the Everlasting One your God and bow low before the Everlasting One your God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Everlasting One your God has bestowed upon you and your household. (Dt. 26:5-11)The commentary in the traditional Haggadah goes up to the first asterisk concluding with the ten plagues. For many years, we continued to the double asterisks, using a modified version of the text prepared by Rabbi David Mescheloff.
Several years ago when I led the “Recreating the Haggadah” session described below, some participants felt we should consider continuing to the actual paragraph break in a Torah scroll, after verse 11, “Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household,” so as to stress inclusion of needy in our celebration.
Over the last several years, I’ve been assembling a midrash on Arami Oved… that not only continues through verse 11 but also reflects my on-going concern that we not let living in the Land of Israel delude us into the thinking that our journey is over. We have a long way ahead of us. My current version is here.
May we truly remember, today and every day, that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. חג שמח
Haggadot Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom, Rachel Anne Rabbinowicz, ed.
A Night to Remember and הלילה הזה, Noam Zion and Mishael Zion, eds.
Online ResourcesRabbi Shai Held, “Turning Memory Into Empathy”
Rabbi Herzl Hefter, “The Choice: Freedom or Victimhood” Audio (expanded).
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: “Part I: The Third Great Cycle of Jewish History.”
BooksRabbi Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy
Prof. Jon Levenson in The Jewish Study Bible (first edition)
דרשוני - מדרשי נשים, נחמה וינגרטן-מינץ, תמר ביאלה (עורכות)
Recreating the HaggadahTake a moment, clear your mind of everything you know about the Passover Haggadah. Now, join me as we travel back in time to the period after the destruction of the Temple but before there was a haggadah. Imagine yourself planning for the Seder night and considering how best to transmit the story of the Exodus and the destiny of the Jewish people to the next generation.
In approximately 200 CE, Rabbi Judah HaNasi included the following guidelines in the Mishnah:
They pour the second cup for him, and the child asks. If the child lacks intelligence, his father instructs him, How is this night different...” According to the child’s intelligence, his father instructs him. He begins with degradation and ends with praise; and expounds from “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut. 26:5) until he finishes the entire portion.” (Mishnah Pesahim 2:10)
Short? Yes. To the point? Maybe. Easy to implement? Not really.
Indeed the Mishnah’s instructions are so cryptic that rabbis in following generations (those quoted in the Talmud) debated how they were to be implemented. On the basis of these debates, and the history of the Talmud text as described by Joshua Kulp in the Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary and the journal Conservative Judaism (vol. 60, issue 3, 2008, pp. 59-75), I developed this trip into our communal past to help understand how the Haggadah was developed and how it transmits its message.
Participants divide into small groups to examine texts from different historical times and places, delving deeper into the Seder experience, and using those perspective to clarify the messages we want to transmit to our children and grandchildren.
For example, the first group was asked to imagine itself in the year 200 CE, in the Galilee with only the above text from the Mishnah as a foundation for their discussion. Their key question was how far to continue when expounding Deuteronomy 26. The traditional Haggadah ends with verse 8 “with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with great fear, signs and wonders” and enumerating the plagues. Some Israelis continue with the following verse, “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Some participants felt we should consider continuing to the actual paragraph break in a Torah scroll, after verse 11, “Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household,” so as to stress inclusion of needy in our celebration.
The second group was positioned some 50 years later in Tiberias where the Jerusalem Talmud was being formulated. They had to consider the ruling of Rabbi Abba Bar Aricha (“Rav”) that “begin with degradation” means reciting “At first our ancestors served idols” and Joshua 24:2-4, which describes the patriarchs’ journey from beyond the Euphrates to Canaan and Egypt. This text refers to the sojourn in Egypt without specifically mentioning that the Israelites were enslaved. Does this help us understand the deeper meanings of slavery and freedom? Could Rav be suggesting that denigration means serving other gods? Or might he mean that only by living in their own land can the people be truly free?
By the third century CE, the center of Jewish life was shifting to Babylonia. The Babylonian Talmud records Rav’s opinion and a dissenting opinion that the denigration should begin with Deuteronomy 21:6 “We were slaves to Pharaoh the land of Egypt,” refocusing the emphasis on physical slavery. The third group studied the version recorded in the printed Talmud where the latter view is attributed to Rav’s contemporary Samuel, while the fourth considered an older manuscript version where it is attributed to Raba, who lived about a century later. Might the different periods in which they lived influence how we understand the disagreement with Rav?
The standard Passover Haggadah avoids picking sides, and includes both, “At first our ancestors” and “We were slaves.” It means to tell us that both physical and spiritual freedom are to be valued, and gives all Seder leaders and participants the opportunity to stress the message that seems most relevant to their situation and audience.
I've led this exercise several times with different groups, and it has always been an eye-opening learning experience.
Yes, try this at home. Study and engagement with tradition and text is the essence of vibrant Judaism. Step back from the traditional text and re-evaluate it in light of your understanding of the Jewish past and future.
If you want to try this, e-mail me or leave a comment and I can send you texts and guiding questions (mostly in Hebrew).
Seemingly insignificant, Had Gadya is usually interpreted as a parable for the people of Israel and their travails throughout history, constantly pursued until God comes to their rescue. Many poets and songwriters have used images derived from Had Gadya to express their perspective on the people of Israel and its existential situation. What follows is only a sample.
Let us begin our tour in Djerba, where a folk song asks, "Who doesn't know this goat, living without a home or manger, constantly beaten and harassed, fleeing from one exile to another, everywhere offered up as a sacrifice but never betraying its God and continuing to pray for redemption. The goat the Haggadah is passive, it doesn't provoke the cat, doesn't defend itself and doesn't even run away. The goat from Djerba might have angered its neighbors by refusing to convert but it's active response is limited to flight and prayer: a classic portrayal of exilic Jew.
However the goat did not agree to remain passive forever. In 1897 the First Zionist Congress met in Basel and the goat decided to play an active role in history. In this spirit, while the older generation slumbered, Itzik Manger and his brother released the goat: “Our father bought a goat and put it in Had Gadya with a noose around its neck. But while our parents slept, my brother and I silently released him. At this Seder wine was poured and my father looked at me. ‘Where is the goat?’ he asked. I shrugged. My father was silent, my mother cried tears like maror. Everyone sang Had Gadya but it was not the same. Meanwhile, the goat danced in the sun and enjoyed the world.” Even at the price of familial distress, young people made aliyah to build and be built.
For them Levin Kipnis wrote: "On a high hill, at the top of the Tel, a shepherd plays his flute. A new song for Israel, with only a tent and a single goat.”
This State was founded and grew strong. In 1971, Leah Naor’s goat not only swallowed the cat but also bit a wolf or two, drank the water, swallowed the stick and so on. The goat was “small but quite strong,” daring even to bite the Angel of Death.
Only two years, later the goat is no longer swallowing anyone that confronted it but even in 1986 Naomi Shemer still expresses amazing self-confidence: "No butcher came to slaughter, no angel could kill this very special goat. Even God on high looked down, pleased at its success. May be His will that its merit protect us and all the flocks.”
But now that’s not what happened. Life in the Land of Israel continued to become ever more challenging, until Chava Aberstein used Had Gadya to express frustration and confusion: “I have changed this year. Every night I asked only four questions but now I have a fifth: ‘How long will the cycle of violence continue?’ Once I was a sheep and peaceful goat, now I am a leopard and an aggressive wolf. Once I was a dove, once I was a deer but I no longer know who I am. The song is very controversial and was even banned from the radio for time. The return to history presents the people of Israel with ever more complex and difficult challenges. We have changed. We now have power. We have the ability to break the circle of violence. The only problem is we can't agree on how that ought to be done. It's hard to accept the change, it's hard to deal with the doubt and not know who we really are.
Passover 5773 at Hod veHadar
We weren't promised that sovereignty would be easy, quite the opposite. As we read in the Passover morning haftara, the land was not given to those who ate manna. Life here is lived according to the laws of nature and as we face the challenges before us, the Torah commands us not to learn from Pharaoh but rather, “You shall not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
In every generation we are required to consider ourselves as if we personally had left the land of Egypt. This obligation is not met only by singing songs of praise to God but also by continuing to remember, today and every day, that we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
For the full Hebrew version, click here.
This is the BreadA decade ago I read an article by Lifsa Schachter (Prof. Emerita at Siegel College, Conservative Judaism, XLIV:2) about the miracle of matza. As a someone who bakes bread, it was a stunning revelation. I keep hoping that the article will show up online, but until it does, let me summarize one of its main points.
Schachter focuses on the significance of the matza baked by the newly redeemed Israelites in Exodus 12:39. Usually, this verse is understood as meaning that because they were in a hurry and hadn't prepared any provisions (even though God had told them earlier in the month that they would be leaving Egypt on the night between the 14th and 15th, see Exodus 12:17), they had no choice but to bake matza from their under-risen dough.
There are two problems (at least) with this. First, wouldn't the amount of time it took to get from Rameses to Succoth be enough for the dough to rise? Second, the people were already commanded in verse 14 to eat unleavened bread for seven days. Therefore, why were they even trying to make leavened bread?
The text is quite clear that they left with "dough," (v. 34) not just flour and water separately, and the time they were "on the road" was indeed sufficient for dough to rise. That's why they had a problem. How could they bake matza in accordance with God's command if all their dough had risen? That is the miracle, because their dough did not rise as expected they were able to bake matza, observe the commandment and have something to eat. As Schachter writes:
The Hebrew text of Exodus 12:39 actually conveys this meaning. “And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough they had taken out of Egypt inasmuch as it had not become leavened.” Had the dough become leavened, it could not have been used. The verse informs us that, contrary to expectations, the Israelites were able to use the dough which they had taken from Egypt for the purpose of baking the matzah needed during the sacred special occasion of the Exodus. In a story replete with miraculous happenings, this is yet one more miracle.
When I thought about Schachter's idea, it was so simple and obvious that I couldn't understand why it took so long for anyone to notice. Probably because most commentators have been men who sat in study halls and not women (or men) who baked bread.
I did some experimenting with making bread (pita) using a starter that consisted only of flour, water and whatever yeast it picked up from the air. Within 10 hours, I managed to produce something quite edible, although it would have been better if I had remembered to add salt. Note, too, that word often translated as "kneading trough" is מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם. The root ש-א-ר certainly hints at a sourdough (שאר) process, which makes sense because yeast wasn't identified and available as a separate substance until the late 19th century.
Of course, nothing in Judaism ever has just one meaning, so I also collected some other ideas about matzah. Since the uploaded file is a pdf, the links in it aren't clickable but you should be able to copy-and-paste them into the address window of your browser.
Of course, we'll never know for sure, but I've compiled some ideas, here.
Why was Arami Oved Avi chosen as the core text for expounding at the seder?
The Fifth Cup
How many cups of wine are we to drink at the Passover seder? Today, the answer seems simple, as clearly stated in the Shulhan Arukh: "Four cups must be drunk at the seder." However, this simplicity is relatively new. In the Mishna it is written, "No fewer than four cups of wine," which leaves considerable room for variation. Indeed, during the Mishnaic period, the sages were divided about the number of cups to be drunk, four or five.
Intrigued? Read what I have to say about this issue here.
Rabbi Menachem Kasher was one of the first people, if not the first, to suggest that a fifth cup should be (re)instituted after the establishment of the State of Israel. If you are very interested and read Hebrew well, his writings on the matter are here.