Unlike the previous paragraph about the five rabbis who were gathered at Bnei Brak, which appears nowhere other than the Haggadah, the story about Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya comes from the Mishnah (Brachot 1:10). Although both stories concern Rabbi Elazar, they are completely seperate and did not occur on the same night.

Indeed, the discussion recorded in this Mishnah about whether the story of the Exodus can be told at night doesn't even have anything to do with Pesach – as it is completely clear that on the festival, the story is related at night - it's not Seder Day! Rather, it comes to explain the ruling in a previous mishnah, regarding the rest of the year.

What's the controversy here? Originally, it appears, the rabbis did not believe in saying the third paragraph of the Shema at night because it is about the mitzvah of tzitzit – and there is no mitzvah to wear tzitzit at night. In the last line of the third paragraph, G-d reminds the people that he took them out of Egypt, in order to be their G-d.

Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya was one of the rabbis who supported reading the third paragraph of Shema during evening prayers, specifically in order to mention the Exodus. But there seemed to be no textual support for his halachic position and in his 70-odd years – he relates in the mishnah – his opinion was never accepted. Until, that is, Ben Zoma came up with a suitable proof-text, showing that there is a biblical verse that can be interpreted as requiring the Exodus to be remembered even at night.

Why, then, does the Hagaddah include this anecdote when it has no clear relevance to the laws of Passover?

First, the story comes to clarify the difference between the way we talk about the Exodus during the year, and the way we do so on Pesach. During the year, the mitzvah – as becomes clear in Ben Zoma's verse – is to “remember” (“zachor”) the Exodus. We do so by mentioning it verbally, but this can be brief. We keep the Exodus in our consciousness, but do not need to delve into it.

The mitzvah on Seder night is different. As we are reminded a couple of paragraphs earlier (“ve'afilu kulanu chachamim”), we are obligated to “tell” (“lesaper”) the story. We need to go deeper than during the rest of the year. This is something that can only be done at length and in detail – as rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon did when they spent so long debating the story, they were still going at daybreak. And “anyone who lengthens the discussion is praiseworthy”.

Second, the story comes to emphasise the point made just a couple of paragraphs earlier - that telling the story of the Exodus is an obligation even for very learned men, even for men for whom the Exodus is already central to their Jewish consciousness. Ben Zoma and Rabbi Eliezer actually fought for the opportunity to mention the Exodus every night, even though they already mentioned it in the Shema during the day, twice. Yet even they, who fulfilled the obligation to “remember” in the most devoted way, are still obligated in the commandment of “telling”.

haggadah Section: Maggid - Beginning
Source: Original