During the Seder we say that a wise son should be taught the laws of Pesach, yet when the Haggadah gives us a glimpse of a Seder observed by the sages we see they stayed up all night discussing not the laws, but the Exodus itself. At the Seder in Bnai Brak attended by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon, we're told, "they were telling of the exodus all night, until their student came..."
Why did these five Sages concern themselves with the story and not the laws? The question becomes stronger when we consider another account of another Seder attended by other Sages where the laws, not the story, are the focus of the evening.
It happened that Rabban Gamliel and the elders were reclining in the house of Bitos ben Zunon in Lod and they were engaged in the laws of Passover all night until the cock crowed. (Tosefta, Pesahim 10:12)
Rabbi Benny Lau, in his series The Sages, offers the intriguing suggestion that R. Akiva, who hosted the Bnai Brak seder at his home, enforced his prerogative as host and imposed upon his guests to focus on the story, rather than the laws. He did this, Lau continues, because of his messianic tendencies and his pre-occupation with redemption. Later in life, this same R. Akiva acted on these tendencies by providing spiritual support and justification for a rebellion against Rome. In the Seder anecdote, however, he is still a younger man, a sage in training playing host to his masters Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus and Rabbi Yehoshua, the leaders of the generation. But as Lau argues the attitude that later leads R. Akiva to break from his colleagues over the matter of Bar Kosiba can already be seen lurking beneath the surface of his arguments with the Sages about proper Passover behaviour.*
Just how strange was Rabbi Akiva's seder? The oddness of the event is driven home by a comment attributed to Rabbi Elazer b. Azaryah, and quoted by the Haggadah immediately following its account of the Bnai Brak Seder
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: “Behold I am like seventy years old, and I never merited that the Exodus should be mentioned at night”, until Ben Zoma expounded [on the following verse]: "…in order that you remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life" (Devarim 16:3) – "the days of your life" refers to the days, and "all the days of your life" refers to the nights. But the Sages said: "the days of your life" refers to this world, and "all the days of your life" refers to the Messianic era.
According to Lau, R. Elazaer b. Azaya is expressing polite surprise about the discussion in which he partook at the Seder we've just read about. At every previous Seder R. Elazaer b. Azarya has ever attended the table talk focused on the laws. Not until the Seder in Bnai Brak did he "merit" to discuss the story instead.
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