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בלילה שלפני ערב פסח בודקים את החמץ. וחיבים לבדוק מיד בתחילת הלילה. ואסור להתחיל לאכול או לעשות שום מלאכה חצי שעה קודם הלילה:יש נוהגים שקודם הבדיקה מניחים פתיתי לחם במקומות שימצאם הבודק, כי חוששים שמא לא ימצא כלום ותהא ברכה לבטלה, ונוהגים להניח עשרה פתיתים, וברור שמי שאינו בודק כראוי אלא שהוא מקבץ אלו הפתיתים לא קיים מצות בדיקה וברך ברכה לבטלה: קודם בדיקת חמץ אומרים זה:
הֲרֵינִי מוּכָן וּמְזוּמָן לְקַיֵּם מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה וְלֹא תַעֲשֵׂה שֶׁל בְּדִיקַת חָמֵץ לְשֵׁם יִחוּד קוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא וּשְׁכִינְתֵּיהּ עַל יְדֵי הַהוּא טָמִיר וְנֶעֱלָם בְּשֵׁם כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל: ויהי נועם וכו':
ומיד אחר הבדיקה יבטלנו ויאמר: כָּל חֲמִירָא וַחֲמִיעָא דְאִיכָּא בִרְשׁוּתִי, דְלָא חֲמִתֵּיהּ, וּדְלָא בִעַרְתֵּיהּ, וּדְלָא יְדַעְנָא לֵיהּ, לִבָּטֵל וְלֶהֱוֵי הֶפְקֵר כְּעַפְרָא דְאַרְעָא:
Why do you have to check for Chametz at night? Surely it would be easier to see the Chametz during the daytime?
It took a visit to Canada for us to understand the answer.
We spent the morning at Black Creek Village, a recreation of a 1860's settlement in Toronto. Although it was daylight, and bright, without electricity most of the houses were extremely dark inside, even near the windows (which were all small by modern standards). And the residents would not light candles or gas lamps during the day as they were expensive.
It soon became clear that the residents could actually see somewhat better at nighttime - once they lit candles or lamps, shedding some more light inside.
Perhaps that is why it was, in fact, more efficient and useful to search for Chametz after nightfall: they really needed the use of candles.
The following Seder is for a weeknight. (On Shabbat we add the words in parentheses)
(רָיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי. וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ וְכָל צְבָאַָם. וַיְכַל אֱלֹקִים בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה. וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אוֹתוֹ כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר בֶָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת.)
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָפֶן.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ מִכָּל עָם וְרוֹמְמָנוּ מִכָּל לָשׁוֹן וְקִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו. וַתִּתֶּן לָנוּ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ בְּאַהֲבָה (שַׁבָּתוֹת לִמְנוּחָה וּ) מוֹעֲדִים לְשִׂמְחָה, חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן, אֶת יוֹם (הַשַׁבָּת הַזֶה וְאֶת יוֹם) חַג הַמַצוֹת הַזֶה, זְמַן חֵרוּתֵנוּ (בְּאַהֲבָה), מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ, זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. כִּי בָנוּ בָחַרְתָּ וְאוֹתָנוּ קִדַּשְׁתָּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים, (וְשַׁבָּת) וּמוֹעֲדֵי קָדְשֶךָ (בְּאַהֲבָה וּבְרָצוֹן,) בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְשָׂשׂוֹן הִנְחַלְתָּנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, מְקַדֵּשׁ (הַשַׁבָּת וְ) יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַזְּמַנִּים.
On Saturday night include the following section:
(בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא מְאוֹרֵי הָאֵשׁ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמַבְדִיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחֹל, ין אוֹר לְחשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה. בֵּין קְדֻשַּׁת שַׁבָּת לִקְדֻשַּׁת יוֹם טוֹב הִבְדַּלְתָּ, וְאֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִשֵּׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה קִדַּשְׁתָּ. הִבְדַּלְתָּ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ אֶת עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּקְדֻשָּׁתֶךָ. ,בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי הַמַּבְדִיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְקֹדֶשׁ.)
Say this Shehechiyanu blessing the first Seder night only:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶה
נוֹטְלִין אֶת הַיָדַיִם וְאֵין מְבָרְכִין "עַל נְטִילַת יָדַיִם".
טוֹבְלִין כַּרְפַּס פָּחוֹת מִכְּזַיִת בְּמֵי מֶלַח, וּמְבָרְכִין:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה.
The original reason for dipping karpas goes back to Greco-Roman times, when it was customary to eat vegetables with dips as appetizers before the meal (and in the original seders, the meal was eaten at the beginning - not the end - thus enabling the children to ask the four questions about what they had just seen, rather than what was to come). Parsley was a palate cleanser.
Later, various other explanations were offered for karpas (derived from the Greek "Karpos", meaning fruit of the soil), including that it acknowledged the spring harvest season, encouraged children to ask questions (in places where the custom of pre-dinner dipping was no longer, or was never, a norm), and recalls the abusive labour that our ancestors endured as slaves, since Karpas dipped in salt water resembles the people’s tears.
The dipped appetizer, therefore, went from cultural norm to vestige (just as reclining/leaning did -- see section on Mah Nishtanah!). Because of this, the third of the four Mah Nishtanah questions asks why we dip at all. The answer reflects a philosophy that is based in common practice. We are who we are because we do what we do. Performing the ritual is important not because it is intrinsically rich with meaning; rather, the ritual is rich with meaning because it is what we do. As we travel through time, we carry our tradition’s wisdom and historical memory and layer upon it, bestowing it with contemporary wisdom. This is what keeps it relevant and vibrant.
Commitment to a continuity of ritual practice demands that on an ongoing basis, we pursue and bestow new meaning in our own context. Every generation needs to read itself into the narrative that it has inherited. The Haggadah clearly states, “Bchol dor va’dor . . . . In every generation a person is obligated to envision himself as if he left Egypt.” We need to imagine ourselves into the past; but also, to bring the past into the present.
בַּעַל הַבַּיִת יִבְצַע אֶת הַמַּצָּה הָאֶמְצָעִית לִשְׁתַּיִם וּמַצְפִּין אֶת הַחֵצִי הַגָדוֹל לַאֲפִיקוֹמָן.
The section called 'Maggid' forms the bulk of the Haggadah. Literally, it means 'The telling of the story' of the Exodus. But strangely, there is actually no real narrative here, until at least half way through, when we get to 'Arami oved Avi' – 'My father was a fugitive Aramean'. Most of the content of 'Maggid' seems to be a collection of different verses, expositions and ideas concerning the telling of the story. The story itself is just a tiny part of the text, even though it is supposed to be the main event of the evening.
How do we explain this? And does this section of the Haggadah makes sense as a unit in any way, or is it really just a confused jumble, with the story tacked on halfway through?
According to Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, Maggid systematically lays down the ground rules about telling the story, before getting to the tale itself.
We explain why we're telling the story. We explain who is obligated. We explain exactly what the difference is between our obligation to tell the story on Pesach, and the rest of the year. We explain how to tell the story, then when. Lastly, we remind ourselves why G-d brought us out of Egypt in the first place. And then we get to the story (.....which is told in what is, to us, today, a relatively inaccessible format of explaining each verse, but that's a different problem).
Let's go through it section by section:
'Ha Lachma' / This is the bread of affliction – this forms an introduction
'Ma Nishtana' / The “four questions”. In fact, there is only one question here – What is different about this night from all other nights? The rest of the section attempts to answer this question.
'Avadim Hayinu' / We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt – In this section, we explain why we tell the story: Because if G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we would still be enslaved. It's personal!
The same section also tells us who must tell the story: everyone, no matter how intelligent, learned, wise or elderly. The Haggadah then brings an example of five rabbis who fulfilled their obligation to tell the story on Seder night, even though, in theory, they knew the story inside out.
Amar Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah – The Haggadah then brings a little story which differentiates between the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus on Seder night, and the obligation to remember the Exodus throughout the year. In this manner, the Haggadah is making clear exactly what our obligation is on this night.
'Keneged Arba Banim' – the Four sons – this shows us how to tell the story, by personalising it to the audience.
'Yachol Merosh Chodesh' – You can recite it from Rosh Chodesh – this tells us when you can tell the story, concluding that the obligation is on Seder night.
'Mitchilah ovdei avodah zarah' – 'In the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers and now G-d has brought us closer to serving him'. It sounds as if the story's finally starting, but actually the Haggadah is telling us why G-d brought us out of Egypt in the first place: to turn us from idol worshippers into G-d worshippers.
'Baruch shomer havtachato' – Blessed is he who kept his promise – We remind ourselves that the Exodus was always part of the Divine plan, something G-d had promised Abraham during the Covenant of the Pieces (brit ben habtarim).
Vehi Sheamdah – We remind ourselves that the same covenant applies to every generation. The story of the Exodus is relevant to us because a similar cycle of destruction and salvation applies to us today. It's personal.
And now that we understand why, who, what, how, when, and why again, it's time to tell the story – Arami oved Avi.
מְגַלֶּה אֶת הַמַּצּוֹת, מַגְבִּיהַ אֶת הַקְּעָרָה וְאוֹמֵר בְּקוֹל רָם:
הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין.
Ha lachma anya is one of the Haggadah texts we rattle off every year, without really noticing that actually – it doesn't make much sense.
Traditionally we read it as an invitation to our fellow Jews, particularly those who are poor, to join our Seder. It seems like an appropriate opening to what is, by its very nature, a social event, one in which we celebrate our formation as a nation. We end by expressing the wish that God should ultimately complete our national redemption, returning us to the land of Israel and making us into a free people.
But what if Ha lachma actually means something completely different?
In fact, the text is far from straightforward.
First, historically, it is actually three separate statements that seem to have been cobbled together over time. “This is the bread of our affliction...” “Anyone who needs to should come and eat...” “This year we are here, next year in the land of Israel” - in various historical Haggadot, these appear in different orders, with variations in the words, or not at all. The paragraph we recite today clearly went through many iterations. And if you think about it, actually these lines are disjointed. They are talking about three completely different things.
But even if you take each line alone, they are problematic.
(1) First of all, it doesn't make sense to invite the poor to join the seder at this point in the ceremony. We have already made kiddush - therefore anyone joining here will not fulfil their obligation of drinking four cups of wine. They needed to be invited to join in earlier.
(2) Second, if you accept that the text is very ancient - some say it dates back to Temple times - we are clearly not inviting new guests to join any old Seder, but a Seder in which the Paschal lamb is eaten. “Whoever is hungry, let them come and eat. Whoever is needy, let them come and share in our Pesach” - that means, “share in our Paschal sacrifice”.
But the Paschal sacrifice was eaten by a group, usually a household, in which the members had pre-registered their attendance - in effect RSVP'd. So it was impossible to invite strangers off the street to eat it at the last minute. In addition, it was supposed to be eaten "al hasova" - on a full stomach. How, then, can we say, "Kol dichfin yetei veYichol" - anyone who needs to should come and eat? It couldn't be shared by anyone who was hungry.
(3) The last few lines make little sense either. "This year we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel". This is patently untrue if you are, in fact, making your Seder in Israel. And if this was written as early as some researchers claim, before the destruction of the Temple, it made no sense originally either - the people were in the land of Israel already! Perhaps this is proof that it was written later, in the diaspora, but in this case it is hard to understand why people are being invited to join in the Paschal sacrifice, which could only be offered in Israel while the Temple was still standing.
(4) "This year we are slaves, next year we will be free" - this makes no sense whenever you say it. Isn’t the whole point of the Seder that we are now free? Of course you can always read this metaphorically, as freedom from materialism or some such, but the literal sense is plain wrong.
(5) And while we're looking at the textual difficulties, let's go back to the very first line. The reason given for eating matzah here is that it was “lachma anya” – bread of poverty or affliction, a reminder of Jewish life in Egypt. Later on in the Seder, however, we are explicitly told that the reason for matzah is that our ancestors’ dough did not have enough time to rise as they were fleeing from Egypt. Rather than being the bread of affliction, it is the bread of redemption. Why the inconsistency? Is it significant?
To answer these questions, stop thinking of Ha lachma as an invitation to the poor to partake in our seder. Rather, imagine yourself for a moment a Jew in the land of Egypt – right before the Exodus. The very night before the Exodus. These are your words.
Ha lachma anya, this is the bread of affliction/poverty which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt – this is the only meaning that matzah has for you right now. The episode in which you flee from bondage too quickly to bake proper bread is yet to happen. Matzah will not become the bread of redemption until you rush out of Egypt in great haste, tomorrow.
“ Whoever is hungry, let them come and eat. Whoever is needy, let them come and share in our Paschal sacrifice”. Just before the Israelites left Egypt, on the eve of the Exodus, they celebrated the first Pesach – known as Pesach mitzrayim, the Egyptian Pesach. This is a rare case in which the korban Pesach was offered outside Israel (it happened just once again, during the people's wanderings in the desert).
These lines are addressed to the members of the group signed up to share a Paschal offering. Those who are hungry are called upon to eat (from the special chagigah sacrifice, which formed the main part of the festival meal) before they partake in the korban Pesach. Those who are already full, and now need to (“ditzrich”) eat their share of the Pesach sacrifice, are called to come and do that.
Now we are here, next year we will be in the Land of Israel – That is, now we are in Egypt, next year we will be in the land of Israel – or so the Jews must have believed when they fled Mitzrayim.
Now we are slaves, next year we will be free men – Again, literally true for the generation that took part in the Exodus.
One of the main themes of Seder night is that in every generation, we are supposed to see ourselves as if we personally left the land of Egypt. This little paragraph, right at the opening of the seder, puts us in the right frame of mind, landing us in the minds of the Jews who were actually there, on the night before they left. We are in Egypt 3,300 years ago, preparing our Paschal sacrifice with the other members of our household, nervously and hopefully looking forward to our entire lives changing the next day. We start off by simulating their experience.
This helps explain why, in some very old Haggadot - such as that of Maimonides - the entire paragraph was preceded by the sentence, "Bivhilu yatzanu miMitzrayim" - "in a panicked rush we left Egypt". In theory this has nothing to do with Ha Lachma . But if you read Ha Lachma as getting into the heads of the Israelites on the eve of the Exodus, it makes perfect sense.
And now to the Seder….
The Rabbis punned that anya means not only poverty but giving answers ( la'anot - to answer). This is the bread over which many “answers” will be said. The parent answers the child while pointing at the matza and says: “For the sake of this, God did so much for me when I left Egypt” (Ex. 13:8).
מֵסִיר הַקְּעָרָה מֵעַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן, מוֹזְגִין כוֹס שֵׁנִי וְכַאן הַבֵּן אוֹ אֶחָד מִן הַמְסֻבִּים שׁוֹאֵל:
מַה נִּשְּׁתַּנָה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת?
- שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה - כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה!
- שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת, - הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר!
- שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת, - הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים!
- שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין, - הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין!
Why is Mah Nishtanah recited by the children?
No, not in order to arouse their curiosity. The origin of the practice is probably.... a mistake.
In many early versions of the Haggadah, it is clear that the father asked Mah Nishtanah, including in the writings of Maimonides and in Mahzor Vitry, written by a student of Rashi's in 11th century France.
There is also some evidence from the Talmud itself. In Psachim 10:4, the mishnah explains that after the second cup, the son should start asking his own questions about the laws of Passover and the father should answer them directly. If the son doesn't do so, however, the father must "teach him" - and the example brought of what he might say is "Mah Nishtanah". Hence, on the previous page, Rabba tells a young pupil who asks a sophisticated question, "Now you have removed my obligation to say 'Mah Nishtanah'.
So how did a parallel tradition of the son asking Mah Nishtanah develop, and become universal?
Drawing on the mishnah above, Psachim 116a discusses who asks the man of the house questions about the laws of Passover. If his son is smart, it says, this is his role. If he is not smart, his wife can ask. And if not, he asks himself. Even two wise scholars who know all about the laws of Passover, it adds, "must ask each other".
Immediately after this, the Gemarah quotes the Mah Nishtanah and then starts commenting on it. Daniel Goldschmidt surmises that at some point in history, someone mistakenly connected the line of Mah Nishtanah to the previous few lines, and understood that it was preferable for the son to ask about Mah Nishtanah.
Later on in the Hagaddah we are told that anyone who has not mentioned “Pesach” (the Paschal sacrifice), “matzah” and “marror” has not carried out the full mitzvah of the Seder.
Perhaps this helps explain why we say Mah Nishtanah.
Its first two clauses concern our obligation to eat matzah and marror.
In the original versions of Mah Nishtanah, related in the Talmud, another clause concerned our obligation to eat the Paschal sacrifice. The difference between Seder night and other nights, we used to say, was that "On all other nights we eat meat which has been roasted, stewed, or boiled, but on this night we eat only roasted meat [ ie the korban Pesach ]".
On the most basic level, these verses are simply pointing out the obvious: that the specific commandments of Seder night make it different to all other nights.
But are they – or rather, were they originally – also a roundabout way of getting the children to refer to Pesach, matzah and marror, perhaps acknowledging that they were unlikely to make it to the end of the maggid text, when they are explicitly mentioned again?
Still on Pesach theme
n Focus on Mah Nishtanah – 4 questions – or rather, the one question and 4 answers.
n Earliest recorded versions: Talmud Yerushalmi- three questions: why 2 foods are dipped, why matza, and why meat is eaten exclusively roasted rather than roasted, stewed or boiled (a ref to the korban pesach).
n Talmud Bavli – matza, marror, why 2 foods are dipped and again, why roasted meat.
n Roasted meat q’ was dropped after the Temple was destroyed as no longer ate the Paschal sacrifice
n At some point replaced by ‘kulanu mesubim’ – certainly by time of Saadia Gaon in 10th century, who mentions it, and the Rambam in the 12th century.
n What does it mean? All other nights eat whether sitting or leaning (reclining); tonight we lean / recline.
n No doubt that that was the original intention, way it has always been understood. By the 10th century reclining was unusual and merited a question. In Temple times everyone reclined so wouldn’t have seemed unusual.
n Unfortunately can’t suggest we have got it completely wrong…
n But can suggest another way of reading the question that makes linguistic sense, and may open another way for us to make sense of it now that reclining has become anachronistic – an act, something we act out, rather than something that still automatically has meaning for us.
n à what is different about this night from all other nights? On all other nights we eat alone or gathered round; on this night we eat gathered round, as a group.
n Mesubin = eating together, gathered round
n Those of you who speak modern Hebrew may spark immediate associations: mesibah – party; mesibat itonaim – press conference
n Root – savav
n Several sources we can go to to back up this theory and allow us to read it this way – from the bible, Mishnah and gemarah, midrash (won’t get to) and finally the hagaddah itself.
- BIBLICAL ROOTS
n Leaning was the Roman custom, Greek custom and probably even the Persian custom. But words using the root of ‘mesubin’ appear in Tanach well beforehand. What do they mean?
n Usually – savav – to turn around or encircle
n One that might be related to dining: Shir HaShirim 1:12 – Ad shehamelech bimsibo
n While most translations have "while the king was at his table", Kaddari says it means "at his circle.
n Shmuel 1, ch. 16 – shmuel visiting family of Yishai and insisting on meeting David, though the family is reluctant.
n In verse 11, he says to bring David - כִּי לֹא-נָסֹב עַד-בֹּאוֹ פֹה. There are commentaries that explain this verse as "we will not continue (i.e. turn away) until he comes." But most translations offer "we will not sit down to eat until he comes". On the assumption that they were not going to be reclining on beds (as we will see shortly), the literal meaning would have been "sit around the table to eat". The association with reclining developed later.
n So clear that the original meaning had something to do with eating, and most probably, something to do with eating together.
- IN THE MISHNAH
n Next we have a discussion involving both sitting and reclining in the Mishnah, completely outside any Pesach connection.
n Tractate brachot. Discussion of when you need to say certain brachot over food and when you are already yotzeh – when you are already ‘covered’ by a previous brachah or something else.
היו יושבין ־ כל אחד מברך לעצמו, הסבו ־ אחד מברך לכולן .
n If group of people were sitting, everyone makes the blessing for themselves. If they recline, one makes the blessing for everyone.
n What’s going on here? What distinction is being made between sitting and reclining? (Imp because these are the exact words used in mah nishtanah)
n Gemara explains how people used to eat back then:
The Tosefta (Brachot 4:8) explains more about what happened before entering the triclinium:
כיצד סדר הסעודה אורחין נכנסין ויושבין על גבי ספסלים וע"ג קתדראות עד שיכנסו כולן נכנסו כולן ונתנו להם לידים כל אחד ואחד נוטל ידו אחת מזגו להם את הכוס אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו הביאו להם פרפריות כל אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו עלו והסיבו נתנו להם לידים אע"פ שנוטל ידו אחת נותן לשתי ידיו מזגו להם את הכוס אע"פ שבירך על הראשונה מברך על השניה הביאו לפניהם פרפריות אע"פ שבירך על הראשונה מברך על השניה ואחד מברך לכולן [הביאו לאחד] שלש פרפריות אין [לו] רשות ליכנס
What is the order of the meal? The guests enter [the house] and sit on benches, and on chairs until all have entered. They all enter and they [servants] give them water for their hands. Each one washes one hand. They [servants] pour for them the cup; each one says the blessing for himself. They [servants] bring them the appetizers; each one says the blessing for himself. They [guests] go up [to the dining room] and they recline, for they [servants] give them [water] for their hands; although they have washed one hand, they now wash both hands. They [servants] pour for them the cup; although they have said the blessing over the first cup, they say a blessing also over the second. They [servants] bring them the dessert; although they said a blessing over the first one, they now say the blessing over the second, and one says the blessing for all of them. He who comes after the third course has no right to enter.
n Essentially two stages to the meal in Roman nobility’s houses. Guests come into the house through a long corridor – prosdor in Hebrew, vestibulum – leading to the atrium, or an open-air courtyard where guests sat on chairs and were handed drinks and appetizers – hors d’oevres. Here, the gemara tells us, everyone made their own brachah.
n Afterwards the guests go to the dining room, the traklin, a room with three couches, where they recline – literally lie on a bed with a small table with the food in front of them. Here one person can make the blessing for everyone else (officially the first blessing but understood to include birkat hamazon as well).
n Makes sense now to look back at mah nishtanah.
n In the traditional reading, bein yoshvin uvein mesubin – now makes more sense. It’s the difference between two modes of dining. We eat appetizers informally or sit down to a proper meal; or perhaps, it has been suggested, this verse of mah nishtanah refers to different stages of the same meal: usually we have both appetizers and the main meal, tonight we do the whole thing formally.
n But it also makes sense for the alternate reading I’ve suggested.
n What is the difference between these two scenarios – the sitting and the reclining – that means everyone has to make the blessing for themselves in one, but together in the other?
n Sitting = the informal part of the meal, everyone doing their own thing.
n Reclining = a formal meal, an established meal, everyone together.
n In essence, yoshvin is a solitary act. Mesubin is a communal, joint one. Bein yoshvin ubein mesubin – we usually eat alone or together
n In fact, the gemara goes further to strengthen this reading.
n Later on it says that one person can make the blessing for everyone else even if they were sitting ---- if the group dined together in a premeditated manner, deliberately.
כיון דאמרי ניזיל וניכול לחמא בדוך פלן ־ כהסבו דמי.
n In this scenario, if they ate deliberately as a group – it is as if they were reclining. The essence of the reclining is that it is a group situation.
n So again, it makes even more sense now to read bein yoshvin uvein mesubin – we eat either alone, or in a group situation.
- HAGADDAH ITSELF
n Most convincing
n Is actually another mention of the word ‘mesubin’ in the hagaddah – anyone know?
n Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azarya, Akiva and Tarfon “hayu mesubin b’Vnei Brak,
n Were they reclining in bnei brak? Seems unlikely – they were talking. Never seen it translated that way
n Seems obvious they were GATHERED in bnei braq
n When the same word used w/in a few paragraphs, in the same context – seder night – seems obv they could or should be read the same way.
n They were mesubin in bb because that’s what you do – get together – rather than sit alone.
Why is this reading imp? Why can’t just stick w/ leaning?
n First of all, some rabbis regard reclining as anachronistic and no longer necessary – although interpreted more broadly, we should still lean. As early as 12th century, the German Raavan (R. Eliezer ben Nathan) and his grandson the Raavia (R. Eliezer ben Yoel Ha-Levi) both argued that because we no longer recline as a matter of course, but only eat sitting on chairs, reclining is no longer necessary.
n The Maharil – Jacob b. Moses Moelin, Germany, late 14/early 15th century - said we must not recline because nowadays it makes you look like you’re ill.
n A different reading of this mah nishtanah answer gives us an opportunity to insert a more relevant understanding. Can recognise that customs and meanings to change – as the text of the mah nishtanah itself has over the centuries, responding to events.
n Regardless, however, I think that the reading of mesubin as ‘together’ has instrinsic value.
n It ties in strongly to our tradition of seder night as a communal event.
n Korban Pesach was eaten only as a group – each extended family actually had to register who was going to attend their feast.
n A seder depends on the presence of other people. Vehigadata lebincha – it is a story you should be telling to your son.
n The give-and-take of the seder involves other people.
n We invite strangers to join us – kol dichfin yetei veyochal….
n Ksav sofer – son of the chatam sofer - quotes the Baal Sechel Tov as explaining that the reason for leaning is because of ‘pirsumei nisa’. Rav Kasher says that eating whilst leaning is a public demonstration of the uniqueness of the Seder; it is a physical sign that enshrines the story in the hearts of oneself and children.
n Leaning is something, in this interpretation, that you do for others as much as for yourself. This night is different because we need to be together to publicise G-d’s miracle.
n In today’s modern world, when we are too much Bowling Alone – detached from other people, from community – I like the idea that we emphasise the communal nature of our ritual, its family orientation. While too many us eat most of our dinners in front of the tv, how appropriate that we actually sit back and note that tonight we are all together. Literally remarkable.
מֵנִיחַ אֶת הַקְּעָרָה עַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן. הַמַצוֹת תִּהְיֶינָה מְגֻלּוֹת בִּשְׁעַת אֲמִירַת הַהַגָּדָה.
עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה. וְאִלּוּ לֹא הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם, הֲרֵי אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם. וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים, כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים, כֻּלָנוּ זְקֵנִים, כֻּלָנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.
In the introduction to this section, I showed that there is a proper structure to 'Maggid', with the Haggadah explaining why we tell the story of the Exodus, who has to tell it, what exactly we have to say, how we tell it and when, before getting to the story itself.
But it is important to remember that the text of the Haggadah was not, until relatively recently, static. The text as we know it was not finalized until around the 15th Century. We have many earlier Haggadot – and evidence from the Talmud – that show us that at different times in history, and even in different places in the same time frame, the Haggadah looked different – sometimes radically so. We're not talking about a different line here or there, but entire sections missed out; entire paragraphs, unfamiliar to us today, added in; or the same texts, in a different order. Before the destruction of the Temple - when the main part of the Seder night was eating the Paschal lamb - and in the years following, as the rabbis first began to put the text together, there was probably not much we would recognise at all.
At different times in history, then, even the texts we are familiar with today might have had a different resonance, simply because they came at a different point in the Haggadah, set in a different context.
'Avadim Hayinu' – 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt' – is a case in point.
As I explained in the introduction, today this section comes to explain why we tell the story of the Exodus: because had G-d not taken the Israelites out of Egypt, we would still have been there. It is not part of the story itself.
Perhaps, though, originally it was.
Today, a classic query is why so little of the Haggadah is spent actually discussing the story of the Exodus, instead meandering through tales of four sons, four questions etc. But in antiquity, it seems, families did talk about the Exodus at length, at this very point in the Seder (which was following the meal, which back then was at the beginning).
Their discussion was 'free form': in Talmudic times and earlier there were apparently no set texts (with one exception - see below), but every family or group discussed the Exodus using their own format. (Perhaps this is what Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues were doing in Bnei Braq when they were “talking about the Exodus throughout the night”?)
The Talmud gives only a basic guideline to telling the story: “He begins with disgrace (or lowly status), and concludes with glory; and he expounds the biblical passage, 'My father was a fugitive Aramean' until the end of the section'.
In terms of texts to be recited, then, the only thing Jews back then absolutely had to say was “Arami Oved Avi”, the declaration required from one who brings the first fruits to the Temple. It describes the lowly origins of the Jewish people, beginning with Jacob's dubious history with Lavan, continuing with his descent into Egypt and the people's slavery and ending with G-d taking us out of Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm”, and bringing us into the land of Israel – although that last verse is not included in modern Haggadot. This is a set, central, very early part of the ritual and much of our haggadah is spent expounding on these verses, which appear in Deuteronomy 25:5-9.
In the Gemarah, however, we come across an argument between two rabbis, Rav and Shmuel, who feel that there are two passages that fulfil the other prescription of the Talmud - to start off with words of criticism of the Jewish people and end with praise.
Rav championed the passage, “Mitchilah ovdei avodah zarah” - “From the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers”, which quotes Joshua's potted history of the Jewish people (Joshua 24, 2-5). It begins with Abraham's idol-worshipping father's in Mesopotamia, continues with God bringing Abraham to the land of Israel, and finally describes his children's descent to Israel. In Temple times, they presumably used to continue reading another few verses, which described God bringing the people into the land of Israel, as this would fulfil the obligation to end in “glory”.
Shmuel, by contrast, thought it was best to use the passage, “Avadim hayinu”, a loose adaptation of a verse from Deuteronomy explaining that we were slaves in Egypt, but that God redeemed us. The last few lines, which explain that we must tell the story of the Exodus no matter our level of education or wisdom, are of unknown origin.
Both of these biblical passages were included in our version of the Haggadah, possibly because they were specifically mentioned in the Talmud as part of Rav and Shmuel's traditions (and presumably the traditions of the communities around them). And they do make sense in the current structure. But presumably, just as Rav and Shmuel had their favourite passages to help tell the story of the Exodus, other learned men all those years ago drew on other sources, and other resources, to tell the story in their own way. Some of these traditions were forgotten, others came together to make our now standard text.
מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻעַ וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה וְרַבְּי עֲקִיבָא וְרַבִּי טַרְפוֹן שֶהָיוּ מְסֻבִּין בִּבְנֵי בְרַק, וְהָיוּ מְסַפְּרִים בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם כָּל אוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה עַד שֶׁבָּאוּ תַלְמִידֵיהֶם וְאָמְרוּ לָהֶם: רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, הִגִּיעַ זְמַן קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית.
אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה: הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא: שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ - הַיָמִים, כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ - הַלֵּילוֹת. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ - הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ - לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָשִׁיחַ.
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.
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”.
Why does Rabbi Elazar say he is "כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה" - "like 70 years" - rather than simply, "I am 70-years-old"?
One legend is that when Rabbi Elazar was appointed the head of the Sanhedrin as a young man, he aged overnight (or went grey overnight) in order to give the appearance of wisdom usually bestowed by old age.
But it would be simpler to translate his words as "I am around 70 years old". Rabbi Elazar is simply unsure exactly how old he is, knowing only that he is approximately 70. This uncertainty would be perfectly normal in an era before births were documented as a matter of routine.
בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא.
כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תּוֹרָה. אֶחָד חָכָם, וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע, וְאֶחָד תָּם, וְאֶחָד שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל.
חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם? וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.
רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם? לָכֶם - וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִנָּיו וֶאֱמֹר לוֹ: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לִי - וְלֹא לוֹ. אִילּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.
תָּם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה זֹּאת? וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו: בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְיָ מִמִּצְרָיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.
וְשֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל - אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.
The Four Sons
The “Wicked Son,” we are told by the Haggadah, is to be scolded for asking, “What does this service mean to you?” (Hebrew lakhem), since by saying “to you” rather than “to us,” he excludes himself from the Jewish community. And yet, right before he makes his appearance we have the “Wise Son” — and what does the Wise Son ask? He asks, “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments which the Lord our God has commanded you?” (Hebrew etkhem), just like the Wicked Son! What’s the difference?
Both the Wicked and the Wise Son’s questions (as well as those of the “Simple Son” and the son “who does not know how to ask”) are biblical quotations. The Wicked Son’s quotation comes from Exodus 12:26, the Wise Son’s from Deuteronomy 6:20 and the Haggadah seems to be making the point that although both say “you,” the questioner in Deuteronomy is genuinely interested in the customs of Passover, whereas the questioner in Exodus is dismissive of them.
However, the earliest compilers of the Haggadah clearly had in front of them an alternate version of the verse from Deuteronomy whose wording was “… which the Lord our God has commanded us” (Hebrew otanu) rather than “has commanded you.”
The evidence for this comes from both rabbinic and nonrabbinic sources. The rabbinic sources are two: the third-and-fourth-century-C.E. Jerusalem Talmud and the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, a late fourth-or-early-fifth-century halachic text. In both of them, we hear about the same Four Sons who appear in the Haggadah — and in both, the Wise Son says “us” rather than “you.”
Were the Jerusalem Talmud and the Mekhilta deliberately emending the biblical verses to strengthen the contrast between the two sons? Apparently not, for our nonrabbinic sources tell us that there were manuscripts of the Bible itself that had “us” and not “you” in the verse from Deuteronomy. There are two of these sources also: the third-and-second-century-BCE Septuagint, a translation of the Bible into Greek, and the fourth-century-C.E. Vulgate, the Church Father Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin. The Septuagint has “…. hosa eneteilato Kyrios ho Theos henom hemin,” and the Vulgate, following in its footsteps, “… quae praecipit Dominus Deus noster nobis.” Clearly, both Jerome and the translators of the Septuagint were working with a Hebrew Bible that was different from the one we have now and had wording identical to that in the Jerusalem Talmud and the Mekhilta.
Although the Haggadah as a book is not a datable document, having grown into its present form by a process of accretion over the course of many centuries, its oldest sections also date to the first centuries of the Common Era. One of these sections is the passage about the Four Sons — and in it, too, the Wise Son must have originally said “us” and not “you,” thus opposing him more forcefully to the Wicked Son.
Why, then, was this version replaced by the less logical one we have now? The answer can only be that the text of the Bible that came to be canonical for Jews, the so-called Masoretic text, codified in Tiberias in the early Middle Ages, had “you” (etkhem) rather than “us” (otanu) in Deuteronomy 6:20, and that copyists (and later, printers) of the Haggadah fell in line with this, not wanting the Haggadah to be at odds with the Bible. And so the Wise Son was made to be less wise-sounding than he should be, and less wise-sounding than he originally was.
(Philologos column in the Forward, 24 March 2010)
The text of the Four Sons is perhaps one of the best-known Jewish writings, and countless generations have puzzled over why the “wise” son must be told the laws of Passover, and whether the father's aggressive reaction to his “wicked” son is appropriate.
But like almost every text in the Haggadah, this one too has gone through extensive editing. In fact, there are two other versions, in the Yerushalmi Talmud and the Mechilta (a 3rd century exegesis of the book of Exodus).
Several differences emerge with the text we are familiar with. In both of those versions, for example, the “simple” son is called the “stupid” son ( tipesh ). In the Mechilta, the order of the sons is different, with the “wise” son followed by the “stupid” son, then the “wicked” one and the one who does not know how to ask questions.
The biggest difference, however, is in the answers given to each type. In the Yerushalmi, the “wise” son is given the answer that we typically associate with the “simple” son – “With a strong hand G-d took us out of Egypt and the house of slavery”. The “simple” son, meanwhile, is given the answer that we give to the “wise” son – we must explain to him the laws of Pesach, such as (or up to) the Afikoman.
So while we have generally regarded the father's approach to each child as an educational model – teaching the wise son details of laws, for example – in Jewish tradition, there is actually no one definitive approach to handling the different sons' questions and personalities.
Perhaps, then, what we actually answer the sons is less important than providing an answer in the first place. What counts is less the parents' wisdom per se, but their very presence, and their involvement, in the lives of their children.
The Haggadah's instruction to "blunt the teeth" of the Wicked child has often been interpreted as recommending some form of violence.
The simple reading, however, suggests nothing of the kind. To blunt someone's teeth is to take away their bite; to neutralize them. The Wicked son must be immediately dealt a (metaphorical) knock-out blow, to take away the power of their argument.
In the Tanach, though, there are two references to "blunting teeth", in Jeremiah 31:28-9 and Ezekiel 18:2. Both cases concern the famous concept of אבות אכלו בוסר ושיני בנים תקהינה - fathers eating raw, young grapes but the teeth of the sons becoming blunted. The idea is that children pay for the sins of the fathers.
It seems inconceivable that the author of this passage in the Haggadah was not aware of, and deliberately echoing, this biblical phrase. Although it is the father who is doing the blunting here, is there an implication here that the father must shoulder some blame for the way his son turned out?
Traditionally, we have always regarded the son who does not know how to ask questions as either very young, or as less developed even than the simple son. But perhaps he is not actually a blank slate. Perhaps he is actually the son who is so sure of his own opinions and so set in his own worldview, that he is unable to disentangle himself from those views and subject them to rational questioning and debate.
As different as they may be, the four sons of the Haggadah have one thing in common: whether involved, challenging, inept or indifferent, they are all present at the seder table. They are all relating, albeit in vastly differing ways, to our annual reliving of the Exodus and our birth as a nation. The line of communication is open; the potential wise son that resides within every Jewish child is approachable.
According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, in our era of spiritual displacement, there also exists a fifth son: the Jew who is absent from the seder table. He asks no questions, poses no challenges, displays no interest. For he knows nothing of the seder , nothing of the significance of the Exodus, nothing of the revelation at Sinai at which we assumed our mission and role as Jews.
To these children of G-d we must devote ourselves long before the first night of Passover. We must not forget a single Jewish child; we must invest all our energies and resources to bringing every last fifth son to the seder -table of Jewish life.
יָכוֹל מֵרֹאשׁ חֹדֶשׁ, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר בַּיוֹם הַהוּא, אִי בַּיוֹם הַהוּא יָכוֹל מִבְּעוֹד יוֹם, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה - בַּעֲבוּר זֶה לֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֶלָא בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיֵשׁ מַצָה וּמָרוֹר מֻנָּחִים לְפָנֶיךָ.
This tells us when we can tell the story of the Exodus
מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, וְעַכְשָׁיו קֵרְבָנוּ הַמָּקוֹם לַעֲבֹדָתוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹאמֶר יְהוֹשֻעַ אֶל כָּל הָעָם, כֹּה אָמַר יי אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל : בְּעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר יָשְׁבוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם מֵעוֹלָם, תֶּרַח אֲבִי אַבְרָהָם וַאֲבִי נָחוֹר, וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים. וָאֶקַח אֶת אֲבִיכֶם אֶת אַבְרָהָם מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר וָאוֹלֵךְ אוֹתוֹ בְּכָל אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן, וָאַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעוֹ וָאֶתֵּן לוֹ אֶת יִצְחָק, וָאֶתֵּן לְיִצְחָק אֶת יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת עֵשָׂיו. וָאֶתֵּן לְעֵשָׂו אֶת הַר שֵּׂעִיר לָרֶשֶׁת אֹתוֹ, וְיַעֲקֹב וּבָנָיו יָרְדוּ מִצְרָיִם.
בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת הַקֵּץ, לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמוֹ שֶּׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאמֶר לְְאַבְרָם, יָדֹע תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שנה. וְגם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.
Starting with ‘Mitchilah’, the next few paragraphs form a logical sequence.
In 'Mitchilah,' we are told the purpose of the Exodus: to change us from idol-worshippers into G-d worshippers.
The Hagaddah brings a proof-text from the Book of Joshua, in which Joshua reiterates that the people's ancestors worshipped other gods. That we are meant to turn into followers of G-d is clear from the contuation of his speech, which is not quoted in the Haggadah. Joshua challenges the people to foresake their ancestors' idols and worship G-d instead, and the people promise to do so – because he brought them out of Egypt.
In Baruch Shomer Havtachato, we are reminded that the whole sequence of events - the idea of G-d bringing us out of Egypt, away from idols and danger and towards nationhood and worship of G-d - was part of divine plan that G-d announced to Abraham in the Brit Ben Habtarim, the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis. We thank G-d for keeping this covenant.
"Vehi Sheamdah" - the promise (brit bein habtarim) is an eternal promise that stands for every generation, including our own. G-d will always save us from our oppressors.
יַנִּיחַ הַכּוֹס מִיָדוֹ וִיגַלֶּה אֶת הַמַּצּוֹת.
צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּש לָבָן הָאֲרַמִי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ. שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקוֹר אֶת הַכֹּל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט, וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, עָצוּם וָרָב.
וַיֵרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה - אָנוּס עַל פִּי הַדִּבּוּר.
וַיָּגָר שָׁם - מְלַמֵּד שֶׁלֹא יָרַד יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ לְהִשְׁתַּקֵּעַ בְּמִצְרַיִם אֶלָּא לָגוּר שָׁם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה, לָגוּר בָּאָרֶץ בָּאנוּ, כִּי אֵין מִרְעֶה לַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, כִּי כָבֵד הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. וְעַתָּה יֵשְׁבוּ נָא עֲבָדֶיךָ בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶן.
בִּמְתֵי מְעָט - כְּמַה שֶּׁנֶּאֱמַר: בְּשִׁבְעִים נֶפֶשׁ יָרְדוּ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ מִצְרָיְמָה, וְעַתָּה שָׂמְךָ יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב.
וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי - מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְצֻיָּנִים שָׁם.
גָּדוֹל, עָצוּם - כְּמה שֶּׁנֶּאֱמַר: וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד, וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ אֹתָם.
וָרָב - כְּמַה שֶּׁנֶּאֱמַר: רְבָבָה כְּצֶמַח הַשָּׂדֶה נְתַתִּיךְ, וַתִּרְבִּי וַתִּגְדְּלִי וַתָּבֹאִי בַּעֲדִי עֲדָיִים, שָׁדַיִם נָכֹנוּ וּשְׂעָרֵךְ צִמֵּחַ, וְאַתְּ עֵרֹם וְעֶרְיָה. וָאֶעֱבֹר עָלַיִךְ וָאֶרְאֵךְ מִתְבּוֹסֶסֶת בְּדָמָיִךְ, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי.
וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ, וַיִתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים - כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: הָבָה נִתְחַכְמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ.
וַיְעַנּוּנוּ - כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם. וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה. אֶת פִּתֹם וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס.
וַיִתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה - כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיַעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ.
וַנִּצְעַק אֶל יְיָ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע יְיָ אֶת קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת לַחֲצֵנוּ.
וַנִּצְעַק אֶל יְיָ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ - כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבוֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ, וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הָעֲבֹדָה.
וַיִּשְׁמַע יְיָ אֶת קֹלֵנוּ - כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת נַאֲקָתָם, וַיִּזְכּוֹר אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת אַבְרָהָם, אֶת יִצְחָק וְאֶת יַעֲקֹב.
וַיַּרְא אֶת עָנְיֵנוּ - זוֹ פְּרִישׁוּת דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּני יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים.
וְאֶת עֲמָלֵנוּ - אֵלּוּ הַבָּנִים. כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כָּל הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד הַיְאֹרָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ וְכָל הַבַּת תְּחַיּוּן.
וְאֶת לַחֲצֵנוּ - זֶה הַדְּחַק, כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְגַם רָאִיתִי אֶת הַלַּחַץ אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם.
וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְיָ מִמִצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל, וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים.
וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְיָ מִמִצְרַיִם - לֹא עַל יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ, וְלֹא עַל יְדֵי שָׂרָף, וְלֹא עַל יְדֵי שָׁלִיחַ, אֶלָּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בִּכְבוֹדוֹ וּבְעַצְמוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, וְהִכֵּיתִי כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה, וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים. אֲנִי יְיָ.
וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה - אֲנִי וְלֹא מַלְאָךְ
וְהִכֵּיתִי כָּל בְכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם - אֲנִי וְלֹא שָׂרָף
וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים - אֲנִי ולֹא הַשָּׁלִיחַ.
אֲנִי יְיָ - אֲנִי הוּא ולֹא אַחֵר.
בְּיָד חֲזָקָה - זוֹ הַדֶּבֶר, כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: הִנֵּה יַד יְיָ הוֹיָה בְּמִקְנְךָ אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׂדֶה, בַּסּוּסִים, בַּחֲמֹרִים, בַּגְּמַלִּים, בַּבָּקָר וּבַצֹּאן, דֶבֶר כָּבֵד מְאֹד.
וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה - זוֹ הַחֶרֶב, כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלוּפָה בְּיָדוֹ, נְטוּיָה עַל יְרוּשָלַיִם.
וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל - זוֹ גִלּוּי שְׁכִינָה, כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים לָבֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶרֶב גּוֹי בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים, וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְיָ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֶיךָ.
וּבְאֹתוֹת - זֶה הַמַּטֶּה, כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאֶת הַמַּטֶּה הַזֶּה תִּקַּח בְּיָדְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה בּוֹ אֶת הָאֹתֹת.
נוֹהֲגִין לְהַטִּיף טִפָּה מִן הַכּוֹס בַּאֲמִירַת 'דָם', 'וָאֵשׁ', 'ותימרות עשן', עֶשֶׂר הַמַכּוֹת, 'דְצַ"ךְ', 'עַדַ"שׁ', 'בְּאַחַ"ב', בְּיַחַד ט"ו פַּעַם.
וּבְמֹפְתִים - זֶה הַדָּם, כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְנָתַתִּי מוֹפְתִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ, דָּם וָאֵשׁ וְתִימְרוֹת עָשָׁן.
In most modern Haggadot, the phrase “Tze Ulmad” – “Go and learn” - opens a new section of the Haggadah, one in which we finally get to hear the story of the Exodus. In fact, though, the phrase comes to connect this paragraph to the previous one, “Vehi Sheamda”, in which we tell ourselves that in every generation “they” rise against us to destroy us.
“Tze Ulmad” - Go and learn, as an example, what Laban the Aramean tried to do to Jacob our forefather. He, too, tried to destroy the Jewish people (and was even worse than Pharaoh)!
This helps explain why the story of Jacob and Lavan is an appropriate point at which to start the story of the Exodus – and not, for example, the beginning of the Jewish nation, or Joseph's descent to Egypt. The episode makes clear that the story of the Exodus was not a stand-alone in Jewish history: near-destruction-and-salvation is cyclical. In fact, not only was the Exodus not a stand-alone – it wasn't even the first time this had happened. It wasn't even the worst!
The story of Lavan, therefore, illustrates perfectly the point that the Haggadah makes several times (see also “Bchol dor v'dor”): that the Exodus is relevant to us today because it is the same story, perhaps with different names, in every generation.
We now begin the main part of the Seder, which is to tell the story, and fulfil the obligation stated in the Gemara, to recite the passage of “Arami oved avi”, and then expound upon it.
Thus, we read the text, and then go through it line by line, offering explanations, proof-texts, and sometimes both. The explanations – the “midrash” – were probably not written specially for the Haggadah, but were put together from well-known interpretations. (Just like today, even in antiquity the average Jew was not capable of offering their own gloss, and so one was compiled). It is unclear if the version we have was the exact same one recited during Temple times, but scholars say it shows signs of being authored by the Tannaim (the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah), and some say even earlier.
The text of “Arami oved avi” was traditionally recited when the Jews of antiquity brought their first fruits to the priests in the Temple. Why was it considered appropriate here as well? Why was this version chosen rather than some of the descriptions from Exodus?
First, in a pre-literate age, it was familiar to the masses, who said it regularly. In the time of the Temple, when the Hagaddah was non-existent, this brief passage may have been all many people said on Seder night as they ate their Paschal lamb, matzah and marror.
Second, it is highly appropriate. The ultimate purpose of the Exodus is redemption: not just to exit Egypt, but to worship G-d, preferably in the Holy Land. Bringing the first fruit to the Beit Hamikdash is the embodiment of this.
As diaspora Jews – and indeed as Israeli Jews living without a Temple – there is certain amount of irony, as not only is the original context of this earliest of prayers now inappropriate, we have actually forgotten its original meaning. When Arami Oved Avi was first recited, at the Temple, the ultimate aim of the Exodus was considered to have been fulfilled. Reading the same text with none of the original overtones is a silent rebuke of history.
“Arami oved Avi” is one of the hardest phrases in the Torah to translate as the words are obscure and the grammar is opaque. Who is the Aramean? What does “oved” mean and who does it refer to? And who is “avi” – which forefather does this refer to?
One plausible explanation, which fits in with the original text, is that Jacob, our father, was a wandering Aramean, who migrated to Egypt (Seforno). Another is that he was a “poor” Aramean (Ibn Ezra). Or perhaps the Aramean in question was Abraham (Rashbam)?
In the context of the Haggadah, though, it can only mean something entirely different: That Lavan, the Aramean, wanted to destroy Jacob (Rashi and Sifri).
We know this because the passage is brought as a proof of the previous paragraph, which claimed that in every generation, someone tries to destroy the Jewish people. Lavan’s actions, the author states, were worse than Pharaoh’s, because while the Egyptian wanted to kill all the males, Lavan wanted to destroy an entire people (by destroying the head of the family tree, Jacob).
דָבָר אַחֵר: בְּיָד חֲזָקָה - שְׁתַּיִם, וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה - שְׁתַּיִם, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל - שְׁתַּיִם, וּבְאֹתוֹת - שְׁתַּיִם, וּבְמֹפְתִים - שְׁתַּיִם. אֵלּוּ עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת שֶׁהֵבִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל הַמִּצְרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן:
דָּם, צְפַרְדֵּעַ, כִּנִּים, עָרוֹב, דֶּבֶר, שְׁחִין, בָּרָד, אַרְבֶּה, חֹשֶׁךְ, מַכַּת בְּכוֹרוֹת.
רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הָיָה נוֹתֵן בָּהֶם סִמָּנִים: דְּצַ"ךְ עַדַ"שׁ בְּאַחַ"ב.
רַבִּי יוֹסֵי הַגְּלִילִי אוֹמֵר: מִנַּיִן אַתָּה אוֹמֵר שֶׁלָּקוּ הַמִּצְרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת וְעַל הַיָּם לָקוּ חֲמִשִּׁים מַכּוֹת? בְּמִצְרַיִם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַחַרְטֻמִּים אֶל פַּרְעֹה: אֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים הִוא, וְעַל הַיָּם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְיָ בְּמִצְרַיִם, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת יְיָ, וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּיְיָ וּבְמשֶׁה עַבְדוֹ. כַּמָּה לָקוּ בְאֶצְבַּע? עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת. אֱמוֹר מֵעַתָּה: בְּמִצְרַיִם לָקוּ עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת וְעַל הַיָּם לָקוּ חֲמִשִּׁים מַכּוֹת.
רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: מִנַּיִן שֶׁכָּל מַכָּה וּמַכָּה שֶׁהֵבִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל הַמִּצְרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם הָיְתָה שֶׁל אַרְבַּע מַכּוֹת? שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: יְשַׁלַּח בָּם חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ, עֶבְרָה וָזַעַם וְצָרָה, מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים. עֶבְרָה - אַחַת, וָזַעַם - שְׁתַּיִם, וְצָרָה - שָׁלשׁ, מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים - אַרְבַּע. אֱמוֹר מֵעַתָּה: בְּמִצְרַיִם לָקוּ אַרְבָּעִים מַכּוֹת וְעַל הַיָּם לָקוּ מָאתַיִם מַכּוֹת.
רַבִּי עֲקִיבֶא אוֹמֵר: מִנַּיִן שֶׁכָּל מַכָּה וּמַכָּה שֶׁהֵבִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל הַמִּצְרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם הָיְתָה שֶׁל חָמֵשׁ מַכּוֹת? שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: יְשַׁלַּח בָּם חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ, עֶבְרָה וָזַעַם וְצָרָה, מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים. חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ- אַחַת, עֶבְרָה - שְׁתַּיִם, וָזַעַם - שָׁלֹשׁ, וְצָרָה - אַרְבַּע, מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים - חָמֵשׁ. אֱמוֹר מֵעַתָּה: בְּמִצְרַיִם לָקוּ חֲמִשִּׁים מַכּוֹת וְעַל הַיָּם לָקוּ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם מַכּוֹת.
Why did Rabbi Yehudah create an acronym for the Ten Plagues?
It was a mnemonic device. In an age when most people could not read or write, and when there were few books circulating, people needed to invent ways to remember facts and texts such as the order of the Ten Plagues.
Every year, when we got to this point in the Haggadah, we would read the following excerpt from the Breslov Haggadah - and laugh about it. I have no idea what it has to do with the story of the Exodus, but tradition is tradition!
Trying to advance in Jewishness too far, too fast, can be disastrous. We take on modes of behaviour far beyond our inner nature. Then, we either delude ourselves and lose contact with our inner selves, or we break down when our souls rebel. Either way, we lose control of our minds. And sometimes, our sanity.
The royal prince had inexplicably lost his sanity. Thinking he was a turkey, he sat crouched and naked under the table, pecking at bones and crumbs. The royal physicians gave up all hope of curing him of this madness, and the king suffered tremendous grief. Then a sage came and offered to cure the prince.
The sage undressed and sat under the table. The prince now had company. "Who are you?" asked the prince. "What are you doing here?"
"And you?" replied the sage. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm a turkey," stated the prince.
"So am I!" the sage declared.
They sat together for quite some time, until they became good friends. Certain that he had won the prince's confidence, the sage signalled the king's servants to throw him two shirts. He said to the prince, "What makes you think that a turkey can't wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey." So they put on shirts, still sitting under the table pecking at bones and crumbs.
After a while, the sage again signalled and two pairs of trousers were thrown under the table. Just as before, he said, "What makes you think that a turkey must go without trousers?"
The sage continued in this manner until they were both completely dressed. Then he signalled one more time, and they were given regular food from the table. Again the sage said, "What makes you think that a turkey is doomed to eat only crumbs and bones? You can eat whatever you want and still be a turkey!" They both ate the food.
Finally, the sage said, "What makes you think a turkey must sit under the table? Even a turkey can sit at the table."
... And we all know that if you can sit at a table, you're not a turkey . The sage continued in this manner until the prince was completely cured. (Rabbi Nachman's Stories no. 25)
We were overanxious. In search of instant Jewishness. Perhaps too proud to work on ourselves gradually, unable to accept our present difficulty. We did not know the rule of Gradual Progression.
We must listen to the sage who advises us to change slowly, but surely. The self image which we create in the process will then have the time to penetrate deeper and become our inner nature.
Perhaps the events in Egypt should have been different. God surely could have brought all the plagues at once. Or, He could have immediately subdued the Egyptians by smiting them with the final plague right at the outset. But the actual scenario was neither of these. And it shouldn't have been.
After each plague there was a respite ( Rashi, Exodus 7:25 ). A chance for Pharaoh to reconsider. A chance for the Jewish People to internalise the lesson. After all, it is the "Egyptian" within that the Jew needs to elevate (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Va'era, 4). Each plague, each lesson, is a preliminary for the next. Each requires knowledge of the preceding. If the Egyptian would have been subdued otherwise, the Jew would not have learned his lesson.
This, then, is Rabbi Yehudah's message. He is nont merely telling us the obvious acronym for the plagues, grouping them according to their actual order of appearance (their order in Psalms 78 and 105 being different). No, Rabbi Yehudah wants to draw our attention to something more. Note the sequence of the lessons - their preciseness and progressiveness (Shiboley HaLeket, Orach Chaim no. 218 ). This is the rule of Gradual Progression - applied.
כַּמָּה מַעֲלוֹת טוֹבוֹת לַמָּקוֹם עָלֵינוּ!
- אִלּוּ הוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם וְלֹא עָשָׂה בָהֶם שְׁפָטִים, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ עָשָׂה בָהֶם שְׁפָטִים, וְלֹא עָשָׂה בֵאלֹהֵיהֶם, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ עָשָׂה בֵאלֹהֵיהֶם, וְלֹא הָרַג אֶת בְּכוֹרֵיהֶם, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ הָרַג אֶת בְּכוֹרֵיהֶם וְלֹא נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת מָמוֹנָם, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת מָמוֹנָם וְלֹא קָרַע לָנוּ אֶת הַיָּם, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ קָרַע לָנוּ אֶת הַיָּם וְלֹא הֶעֱבִירָנוּ בְתוֹכוֹ בֶּחָרָבָה, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ הֶעֱבִירָנוּ בְתוֹכוֹ בֶּחָרָבָה וְלֹא שִׁקַּע צָרֵנוּ בְּתוֹכוֹ, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ שִׁקַּע צָרֵנוּ בְּתוֹכוֹ וְלֹא סִפֵּק צָרְכֵּנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ סִפֵּק צָרְכֵּנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה ולֹא הֶאֱכִילָנוּ אֶת הַמָּן, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ הֶאֱכִילָנוּ אֶת הַמָּן וְלֹא נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת הַשַׁבָּת, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת הַשַׁבָּת, וְלֹא קֵרְבָנוּ לִפְנֵי הַר סִינַי, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ קֵרְבָנוּ לִפְנֵי הַר סִינַי, וְלֹא נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, דַּיֵּינוּ.
- אִלּוּ נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה וְלֹא הִכְנִיסָנוּ לְאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, דַּיֵינוּ.
- אִלּוּ הִכְנִיסָנוּ לְאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא בָנָה לָנוּ אֶת בֵּית הַבְּחִירָה, דַּיֵּינוּ.
עַל אַחַת, כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה, טוֹבָה כְפוּלָה וּמְכֻפֶּלֶת לַמָּקוֹם עָלֵינוּ: שֶׁהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, וְעָשָׂה בָהֶם שְׁפָטִים, וְעָשָׂה בֵאלֹהֵיהֶם, וְהָרַג אֶת בְּכוֹרֵיהֶם, וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת מָמוֹנָם, וְקָרַע לָנוּ אֶת הַיָּם, וְהֶעֱבִירָנוּ בְתוֹכוֹ בֶּחָרָבָה, וְשִׁקַּע צָרֵנוּ בְּתוֹכוֹ, וְסִפֵּק צָרְכֵּנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, וְהֶאֱכִילָנוּ אֶת הַמָּן, וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת הַשַׁבָּת, וְקֵרְבָנוּ לִפְנֵי הַר סִינַי, וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, וְהִכְנִיסָנוּ לְאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּבָנָה לָנוּ אֶת בֵּית הַבְּחִירָה לְכַפֵּר עַל כָּל עֲוֹנוֹתֵינוּ.
Dayenu is a 15-line poem recording the stages of redemption, from the exodus from Egypt through the giving of the Torah, to the building of the Temple. After each stage, we exclaim that had G-d stopped there, and not taken the Israelites any closer to their final destination, dayenu - that would have been enough for us.
The earliest full version of the poem appears in the 9th century, in the very first prayer book, compiled by Rav Amram Gaon in Babylonia. Perhaps it originated there amongst diaspora Jews. However, many people think it originated in Israel far earlier, possibly even 250+ years before the destruction of the second Temple, as its version of history seems to end on a triumphant note, with the Temple's construction. It seems hard to believe - some argue - that had the poem been written when the Temple was no longer in existence, it would make no reference to the tragedy or express the desire to see the Temple rebuilt.
Either way, the problem with the song is that is makes no sense. Would it really have been enough had God split the Red Sea, but not brought us through it? We would all have died! Would it really have been enough had God brought us before Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah? There would be no meaning to Jewish life!
The best way to understand Dayenu is to look at its position in the Haggadah and its context. For Dayenu is not a stand-alone. Immediately following the poem comes a reiteration of its themes, this time in prose form rather than song (" al achat kama ve-chama "). We are obligated to God, this version reads, because he took us out of Egypt, punished the Egyptians, destroyed their Gods - and so on and so forth, through the same 15 stages of redemption, until the building of the Temple. In this version, there is no Dayenu - no implication that any of these deeds, by themselves, would have been "enough". The point is that we survived, physically and spiritually, and can recognise God's benevolence -- because he committed them all.
Traditionally, we read this second iteration as a continuation of Dayenu, an answer of sorts: If we are grateful for one act of God, how much more so for the whole package. But Daniel Goldschmidt, in his Haggadah Shlemah, offers an intriguing historical insight. It seems likely, he argues, that these two parts of Dayenu were originally not meant to be read together, but were rather different versions of the same song, edited differently. In fact, he says, the second shorter paragraph probably came first, as it is more concise and -- crucially -- it lacks the puzzling implication that we could have survived without crossing the Red Sea, entering the land of Israel etc (he stops just short of accusing whoever expanded the paragraph into a whole song of sloppiness). A later editor decided to present the two versions side-by-side, and perhaps even changed the introductory lines so that they continued on from each other.
At a stroke, Goldschmidt wipes out the central puzzle of Dayenu - that none of these things would have actually been "enough". That was never the intention of the original author.
But now that this is the text we have, how can we make sense of Dayenu after all?
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag offers a neat explanation that similarly looks to Dayenu's position in the Haggadah for its meaning.
Dayenu, he points out, comes at the very end of our telling of the story of the Exodus, following a discussion of the plagues, but before we say Hallel, the section of praise and thanksgiving following the meal. The Mishnah tells us that we must start the story with a derogatory comment, but end it with praise. Dayenu both fits the bill, and is transitional:
"The refrain of 'dayenu' has an implicit suffix... 'Dayenu' should not be translated simply as 'it would have been enough'; rather 'dayenu' means 'it would have been enough - to praise God', ie to say Hallel - even if God had only taken us out of Egypt, or only if He had split the sea, etc.
In this manner, the poem poetically summarises each significant stage of redemption... stating that each single act of God's kindness in that process obligates us to praise Him, eg:
-- Had He only taken us out of Egypt and not punished the Egyptians, it would have been reason enough to say Hallel
-- Had He split the sea, but not given us the 'manna', that alone would have been reason enough to say Hallel
... And so on.
With this background, the next paragraph of that poem makes perfect sense:
"`Al achat kama vekhama," - How much more so is it proper to thank God for performing ALL these acts of kindness, as He took us out of Egypt, and punished them, and split the sea, and gave us the manna etc."
This explanation fits in nicely with the line that introduces Dayenu: "How many good qualities God has, compared to us!" We are meant to read the subsequent couplets in light of this sentiment. None of God's deeds during the Exodus would have been enough alone to save us, physically or spiritually, but they would have been enough to recognise God's power and superiority.
רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר: כָּל שֶׁלֹּא אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בַּפֶּסַח, לֹא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: פֶּסַח, מַצָה, וּמָרוֹר.
יִזָּהֵר שֶׁלֹא לְהַגְבִּיהַ אֶת הַזְּרוֹעַ.
פֶּסַח שֶׁהָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אוֹכְלִים בִּזְמַן שֶׁבֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הָיָה קַיָּם, עַל שׁוּם מָה? עַל שׁוּם שֶׁפָּסַח הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל בָּתֵּי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּמִצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַיי, אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל, וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם וַיִּשְּׁתַּחֲווּ.
מַרְאֶה אֶת הַמַּצּוֹת לַמְסֻבִּים וְאוֹמֵר:
מַצָּה זוֹ שֶׁאָנוּ אוֹכְלִים, עַל שׁוּם מָה? עַל שׁוּם שֶׁלֹא הִסְפִּיק בְּצֵקָם שֶׁל אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְהַחֲמִיץ עַד שֶׁנִּגְלָה עֲלֵיהֶם מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים, הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וּגְאָלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאפוּ אֶת הַבָּצֵק אֲשֶׁר הוֹצִיאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם עֻגֹת מַצּוֹת, כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ, כִּי גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לְהִתְמַהְמֵהַּ, וְגַּם צֵדָה לֹא עָשׂו לָהֶם.
מַרְאֶה אֶת הַמָּרוֹר לַמְסֻבִּים וְאוֹמֵר:
מָרוֹר זֶה שֶׁאָנוּ אוֹכְלִים, עַל שׁוּם מָה? עַל שׁוּם שֶׁמֵּרְרוּ הַמִּצְרִים אֶת חַיֵּי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּמִצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיְמָרֲרוּ אֶת חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָה, בְּחֹמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים וּבְכָל עֲבֹדָה בַּשָּׂדֶה אֶת כָּל עֲבֹדָתָם אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ בָהֶם בְּפָרֶךְ.
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לֹא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵנוּ.
נוֹטְלִים אֶת הַיָדַיִם וּמְבָרְכִים
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם.
יִקַּח הַמַּצּוֹת בְּסֵדֶר שֶׁהִנִּיחָן, הַפְּרוּסָה בֵּין שְׁתֵּי הַשְּׁלֵמוֹת, וְיֹאחַז שְׁלָשְׁתָּן בְּיָדוֹ וִיבָרֵךְ "הַמּוֹצִיא", יניח מידיו את התחתונה ויברך "עַל אֲכִילַת מַצָּה" עַל השלמה והַפְּרוּסָה. אַחַר כָּךְ יִבְצַע כְּזַיִת מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנָה הַשְּׁלֵמָה וְכַזַּיִת שֵׁנִי מִן הַפְּרוּסָה וְיִטְבְּלֵם בְּמֶלַח, וְיֹאכַל בְּהַסָבָּה שְׁנֵי הַזֵּיתִים
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל אֲכִילַת מַצָּה.
כָּל אֶחָד מֵהַמְסֻבִּים לוֹקֵחַ כְּזַיִת מָרוֹר וּמַטְבִּלוֹ בַּחֲרוֹסֶת, חוֹזֵר וּמְנַעֵר הַחֲרוֹסֶת, מְבָרֵךְ וְאוֹכֵל בְּלִי הַסָבָּה.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל אֲכִילַת מָרוֹר.
כָּל אֶחָד מֵהַמְסֻבִּים לוֹקֵחַ כְּזַיִת מִן הַמַצָּה הַשְּׁלִישִׁית עִם כְּזַיִת מָרוֹר וְכוֹרְכִים יַחַד, אוֹכְלִים בְּהַסָבָּה וּבְּלִי בְּרָכָה. לִפְנֵי אָכְלוֹ אוֹמֵר. זֵכֶר לְמִקְדָּשׁ כְּהִלֵּל. כֵּן עָשָׂה הִלֵּל בִּזְמַן שֶׁבֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הָיָה קַיָּם: הָיָה כּוֹרֵךְ פסח מַצָּה וּמָרוֹר וְאוֹכֵל בְּיַחַד, לְקַיֵּם מַה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: עַל מַצּוֹת וּמְרֹרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ.
Legend has it that the first sandwich was created not by Lord Sandwich, but by Hillel, who ate his Paschal sacrifice together with marror and matzah.
Sadly, this really is just a legend.
How did he combine these three ingredients? It seems clear that he did not place the meat and marror between two sheets of matzah.
“Korech”, the words used to describe his method, means to wrap or to fold. He could only have wrapped or folded his matzah if it was soft – rather like a lafa, tortilla or pitta. This is why, in the Gemara, the fear is expressed that one might get confused between bread and matzah; they must have looked similar.
To this day, Iraqi and Yemenite Jews make soft matzah. However, it was ubiquitous in Europe as well until just 170-odd years ago (1840’s), when machine production of matzah took over. Several commentators discuss their matzahs being up to a finger-width thick.
It seems that soft matzahs finally disappeared from Ashkenaz communities by the beginning of the 20th century and today we have forgotten they ever existed.
The main difference between soft and hard matzahs is the ratio of water to flour. As a result, soft matzahs do not keep for very long, just like pittot (they are also less calorific!). In the past Yemenite Jews baked fresh matzahs every day, but Jews in other Arab lands were afraid of the possibility that their matzahs would start to rise, become chametz during the process of baking, and only ate soft matzahs on Seder night. During the rest of the festival, they ate hard matzahs that were prepared before Pesach.
This is why, when mass production began, producers opted for hard rather than soft matzahs. Without proper refrigeration technology, there was no way to keep soft matzahs fresh for long enough to market.
Nowadays, soft matzahs can be prepared ahead and frozen until needed.
Why do we open the door at this point for the Prophet Elijah?
Elijah is traditionally regarded as the precursor of the Messiah – an impression traced back to the third chapter of Malachi, which is read as the haftarah in shul on the Shabbat before Pesach. There, we are told, G-d “will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord,” the day of judgement.
We open the door at the end of the Seder to check whether Elijah has appeared, ushering in the messianic era. Seder night is considered particularly auspicious for his arrival; redemption from Egypt is the major theme and we allude throughout to the next and final redemption, when the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt.
For Jews throughout history, who have been mistreated and downtrodden, this represented their only hope of a better future.
When we see that Elijah has not arrived, delivering a new age of peace, our immediate response is to urge G-d to pour his wrath upon the nations who have oppressed the Jews (“Shfoch Chamatcha”).
Chasal Siddur Pesach was written in 11th-century Germany by Yosef Tov Elem. We often understand it as meaning, “The Seder is completed appropriately, with all its laws and practices. . . . ”. However, this is mistaken.
The poem was originally intended to be recited on the Shabbat prior to Passover, when it is customary to learn about the holiday and become familiar with its laws and practices. Therefore, it is not the Seder which we have finished - but studying the siddur of Pesach, that is, the order of the proceedings (from the same root as Seder, of course), before the event itself.
Chasal Siddur Pesach really means, “We have completed an appropriate preparation (i.e., knowing everything’s order) of the laws and practices of Passover,” but not the actual execution of the laws and practices themselves. This is why the poem ends with, “Just as we have merited to order it, so too shall we merit to execute it,” bringing together our ordering intent with practice -- when it was originally sung, the Seder was still ahead.
The Seder night when the ceiling collapsed….
We were having seder night at Auntie Kit's (136 Hendon Way) circa 1974…and in the usual Cohen tradition, the men were at one end of the table, the women at the other. (No one will admit it but this was because the women liked to natter, rather than follow the seder service.)
Melissa, then about 3, was sitting next to me. As the seder service progressed and the usual discussions ensued as to when you lift the cup of wine, when you uncover the matzot etc according to the different haggadot, Melissa whispered to me, "Mum, the ceiling's falling down". She said this two or three times. "Yes dear," I probably said, seeing the Cohen/Schneider creativity moving to the next generation.
I think we were up to the egg and salt water when, as if the waters of the Red Sea had parted, the ceiling did indeed collapse – on to the seder table… bringing with it a deluge of water.
The cause – a burst pipe in the central heating system in the bedroom above!
Pesach at Powis Gardens
Every year my Booba made two seder nights for the whole family (22 people). She would not accept any help from anyone and she made two delicious meals with no modern appliances – no electric mixers, food processors, blenders etc etc. I can still visualize her hacking the chopped liver with an antique chopper.
Preparations for pesach began several weeks before when she started to make her famous raisin wine in a wooden barrel in the backyard (Don't ask about the hygiene – but we all lived to tell the tale, even the year it was attacked by worms!). The second barrel was for pickling cucumbers – nothing tasted better than dipping your hand in the slimy pickling liquid and coming out with a big fat cucumber…
Grandpa sat at the top of the table in a white kittel and supported by two enormous cushions, and conducted the seder service. Uncle Ron sat on one side of him and one of the sons-in-law on the other side. The men sat at the top of the table, with the grandchildren (9 until Barry came along to make it 10) scattered along and the women at the far end. Booba always sat on the piano stool with her magnifying glass reading her own book (I don't know if it was even a haggada – she was in her own world). She would jump up when someone would call out, "Mum, time for the meal!" There were the usual discussions on which order we should eat the maror, the charoset (of course she made it herself as well) and the matzot.
We grandchildren were all very close in age so when we were old enough to do the Ma Nishtana, we all took a turn to great applause, standing on our chair. Finally, it was left to Kenny (the youngest) and he was thrilled when Barry was born – and couldn't wait until Barry could take over from him.
There was usually family gossip around the table with the sisters usually criticizing 'sister-in-law' (Paul will translate). Dooks was always a little 'on the side' (mainly because the Fentons lived in Streatham) but my mum, Jean and Kit were a formidable and inseparable trio! I do remember – and I think it was the same night as the ceiling falling in – that Jean and Mum were muttering about Kit serving the chopped liver on what they thought were milchig plates…
Some years we did not attend both nights, as we went to the 'other side of the family' – which meant schlepping down to Stamford Hill – usually to the Grossmans.
Just a word about the songs….some were sung two or three times as the 'sons in law' had different tunes – or we did each verse in another tune. There were various traditions – Cousin Peter always did a strong rendering of Had Gadya and Cousin Barbara punctuated various songs with appropriate animal noises.
One other thing I remember (for now) when we came to the part of the service with all those 'As it was said"….She'ne'emar…my father would always say that in a loud voice, to emphasise – that was tradition!
After Booba died Ron, Jean, Kit and Mum took it in turns to make two the sedarim every year.
BARRY ADDS: My memory of the ceiling story is that Melissa was tired and had gone to lie down on the settee in the lounge. It was there she saw the bulge in the ceiling and when said she cd see drips of water, we thought she was imagining it through over tiredness. It then cascaded in the lounge after uncle Nat thought it would be sensible to prick the bulge!
PAUL ADDS: I cannot remember EVER going to Stamford Hill for Seder... inconceivable that we would not go to the "family" ( = the Cohens!) in Powis Gardens.
Samantha and Samara, and Rachel and Reut, and some of the other girls in the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy high school choir swear to me that the Passover music they will be performing later that night at the Richmond Hill Centre for Performing Arts is “cool,” “awesome,” and “enthralling.”
Mostly, though, it is old. Extremely old, and rare — as in Medieval old and Medieval rare. Johannes Rittangel, an obscure 17th-century Christian scholar with a fascination for Judaism had a particular fascination with the Haggadah — the liturgy of the Passover night Seder meal.
He translated it into Latin, a rare enough feat, but even rarer, in historical terms, was his decision to include the musical notation to the traditional Passover songs — a musical artifact that promptly got lost for 400 years until it popped up on a website devoted to Jewish historical curiosities in January.
It was spotted there by Paul Shaviv, a Jew, a history nut and the head of the Tanenbaum academy. He had a wild idea: why not feature two pieces of music that have not been heard since 1644 at the suburban Toronto school’s 2012 Sounds of Spring Concert?
“As far as the school has been able to find these songs have not been sung for 400 years, and it has been suggested to us that when they were written down they were already old, and may even date from the 13th or 14th century,” Mr. Shaviv says.
“The people that performed this, who actually wrote it down, did so before there was a Canada. And if you look at it from their point of view, could they ever imagine Canadian kids in sweatpants and sneakers singing it?”
Short answer: probably not.
It is rehearsal time. Tuesday night is the big night. Kids are asking questions, moving music stands, checking to see if the piano is tuned, straightening chairs and straightening their yarmulkes.
“We want you to sing so Rittangel can hear you,” Mr. Shaviv says. “Remember: Rittangel has been dead for 400 years.”
Jacklyn Klimitz, a music teacher, is the conductor.
“I want a quick posture check,” she says. “Hands behind your backs. Backs straight. Sing to the back of the wall.”
And … they sing, a pair of tunes in tremulous, teenage voices that gather strength and confidence on a second take. The words to the songs are familiar to the singers, and to any Jew who celebrates the Passover Seder. The actual words have not changed, not in a few thousand years.
But the music has evolved through the centuries. And the music filling the theatre is a definite throwback.
“It is not exactly what I would describe as jaunty,” says Zev Steinfeld, a Jewish Studies teacher. “It is more of a dirge than a toe-tapper, but it is an interesting way to look at our peoples’ history, to engage with it, rather than just read about it in a book.”
The songs, to the ears of a non-practising Catholic, are not destined for the Top 40. They are something else: something old, and pious sounding, and something that would not sound out of place around the Medieval supper table.
Rittangel, the man who wrote them down, was a Lutheran-Protestant. There is speculation among some scholars that he had a Jewish mother. At the time of his writing Europe, beyond some Jewish ghettoes in Italy, and Amsterdam, which was the hub of European religious freedom, was a landscape devoid of Jews.
They were banished from England in the 13th century and persecuted and expelled from every place else.
“Rittangel would have regarded the Old Testament as kind of the New Testament in disguise,” says Philip Beitchman, a retired lecturer at St. John’s University in New York who is familiar with Rittangel’s work. “What he would have been trying to do was convert Jews — the argument being that the early Christians were in fact the true Jews.”
Rittangel’s campaign of conversion was, of course, unsuccessful. What has lasted, however, and resurfaced amid a 21st-century high school choir at a Jewish private school in Toronto is powerful stuff: the sound of Passover’s past.
The Medieval Haggadah is a musical relic and a reminder that, while the music might change, the songs — and the faith — endure.
And so, too, will Johannes Rittangel and the 2012 Sounds of Spring Concert. A videographer from the school is taping the performance.
The plan is to put it on Youtube.
* National Post article: http://bit.ly/GVruMH
* Youtube video of the songs being performed in rehearsal: http://bit.ly/GXh3XA
* Original On the Main Line article: http://bit.ly/HfBQVh and follow-up: http://bit.ly/HXKgb5
The Haggadah has a long and distinguished history. And, in a wide spectrum of times and climes, it has been a book lavishly illustrated. Can one, after all conceive of a ritual moment more central to the Jewish experience as a whole than the Seder experience? Can one conceive of the Seder without the haggadah? And although they tend to be taken for granted can one conceive of the haggadah without the illustrations that accompany it?
Why the illustrations? Well, most discerning and aesthetically minded people tend to implicitly understand that the mandate to "expand upon the recounting of the Exodus" is not limited to text. A beautiful book with engaging, even mysterious illustrations can enhance the experience of putting oneself in the very shoes of those who hastily traversed the borders of the Land of Egypt on the night of the Exodus, fleeing the bondage of Egypt’s Pharaoh for the service of Sinai’s God.
Moreover, on the Seder night, one obligated to view oneself as if he or she had personally come out of Egypt. And Jews did so, graphically, in their illustrated haggadot, putting themselves into the picture, making the persons and places of the haggadah’s narrative their own.
The haggadah is a book for all seasons, for every individual. And in this sense, each haggadah from the most ancient to the most au courant and avant-garde is a “contemporary” haggadah. But lets be honest: There ARE some core values exemplified by contemporary haggadot that we tend to understand as characteristically postmodern and very exciting.
These include reflexivity and self-referentiality, meaning the ability not only to see ourselves in the story, but to see the story as applying to our particular individual circumstances. The story becomes our story, the tears of struggle become the tears of our struggle, the exhilaration of freedom becomes the exhilaration of our freedom, and the story becomes one about race, gender, oppression, homophobia, etc. etc.
As postmodern people, we also pride ourselves on the fact that our haggadot give us the critical distance to appraise and critique established religious, social and political norms.
The contemporary haggadah is a highly specialized affair, there are thousands out there, each aimed at a very particular constituency: There are vegetarian haggadot, secular haggadot, queer, feminist, gay and lesbian haggadot, hippy haggadot, historical haggadot, Holocaust Haggadot, hipster haggadot. This highly individuated approach, in which every haggadah is the haggadah of a particular constituency is a highly contemporary, postmodern approach.
This is somewhat ironic for me as a medievalist, of course, since all these contemporary haggadot are mass-produced, whereas each medieval manuscript haggadah was lovingly illuminated by hand for an individual person or family. The problem is that we cant tell very much about the intimate context of medieval haggadot, particularly those for which there is no provenance information (information about the origins of the manuscripts). What they may have meant to the individuals and families who commissioned them—the very information so crucial to us as contemporary viewers—seems to be irretrievably lost.
Even worse—it has long been the opinion of scholars of renown that medieval haggadot reflect the taste of the “Christian masters of the Jews,” and that many were likely illuminated by non-Jews, the whole project of determining what such a manuscript meant to the people who commissioned, viewed and treasured it seems doomed to failure. What, really, is there to say about such a work that will appeal to contemporary viewers, hungry as they are for haggadot that reflect particular, individual, intimate concerns? How much is there to appeal to them in what they might imagine to be highly conservative, stiff and stuffy, enigmatically impenetrable medieval book?
The fact is, there is a great deal to see and to learn. In my new book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination, (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0300156669/) which has recently, I am pleased to report, sold out its first Yale University Press run after a stunning and humbling review as one of the “Best Books of 2011” in the London Times Literary Supplement, http://tinyurl.com/EpsteinTLS) I explore four magnificent and enigmatic illuminated haggadot with an eye, specifically, to the issues that most intrigue contemporary audiences.
I discuss the earliest known illuminated haggadah, the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah, made in the Rhineland Valley around 1300, now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery of the fact that in this book many of the faces on the human figures depicted throughout are replaced with those of birds. I discuss the ways in which Jews saw and projected themselves by means of these images.
Then, there are the Rylands Haggadah (now in Manchester) and its so-called Brother (in the British Library), both illuminated in Barcelona in the mid-14th century, and previously noted for their “nearly identical iconography.” Contrarian that I am, I examine their differences and learn a great deal from them about the nuances. It turns out that one of these “twins” is stridently political, socially critical, and religiously somewhat radical, while the other is much more conservative and quietistic. Clearly, although they were produced in nearly the same place and time, they emerge from entirely different socio-political contexts in spite of their apparent similarities.
But it is the most beautiful example, the Golden Haggadah, the one that appears on the cover of the book, that I enjoyed writing about most. Much of the scholarly attention focused upon this magnificent manuscript (made in Spain, probably Barcelona, around 1320, and now in the British Library’s collection) in fact accrues to it by virtue of its high style. In fact, the Golden Haggadah has often received the high compliment of being described as being devoid of all but the most superficial distinctive elements marking it as intended for a Jewish audience. “Funny —in other words—you don’t look Jewish.” Non-Jewish taste, most likely non-Jewish artists. Is there even a Jewish story here?
Part of my detective work in The Medieval Haggadah has been to demonstrate the inherent Jewishness of this work in spite of its manifestly non- or un-Jewish appearance. It may have been created by Jews or by non-Jews working for Jews. We don’t know. But one thing we do know is that this manuscript, which was very expensive, was created by whoever created it Jew or Gentile under the very direct guidance of Jews, some quite learned. The Golden Haggadah was the equivalent—both in price and in patron-generated input—of a postmodern architect-designed house! And the patrons were definitely Jews, so we are indisputably looking at a collaboration—a close one between—the designers and those who executed the design.
My book demonstrates how deeply the Golden Haggadah’s illustrations are informed by Jewish exegesis and rabbinic midrash, and how the “authorship” (the patrons and their rabbinic advisors) went beyond the mere literal illustration of scripture and midrash to add their own “special something” to the illustrations in the way of indigenous, contemporary political and social and even theological commentary. In this sense, the art becomes commentary, which, in many cases responds to or even subverts traditional literary commentaries.
In fact, I’m even able to show how even the very structure of the manuscript how the details of the illuminations are physically oriented in space is evidence of a concerted, detailed and Jewishly sophisticated plan.
I also discuss the ways in which the authorship of this manuscript adopts and adapts motifs from the wider culture, which certainly makes sense if you think about it, since the style of Jewish art tends to reflect the style of contemporary art in all times and places. But what happens when Jews and Christians use nearly identical images to tell very different stories? When Moses’ flight from Midian to Egypt is garbed in the same clothes—so to speak—as the image of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ so-called “Flight into Egypt”?
As Catalan Jews of the 1320s, the authorship of the Golden Haggadah were indistinguishable in many aspects of their external appearance and material culture from their Christian neighbors. In all their stylistic externals, they appeared not as distinctively Jewish, but as members of the wider society. But what they DO with the art is very different, and, as I argue in the case of this image, sometimes comes as a direct response or a challenge to the way the oh-so-similar image is employed in Christian culture.
Now that’s all very nice. But I’ll tell you a secret: I may study medieval haggadot, but I am a contemporary Jew. So I’m less interested in art or even in the haggadah than I am in people—Jews, specifically—and the individual, particular, and intimate concerns of those Jews. Who were the Jews who commissioned this manuscript? What were their lives like? Why was the manuscript made, and for whom?
The Golden Haggadah is an orphan manuscript. That is to say that we totally lack external information about who commissioned the manuscript and for what purpose, so no scholar has ventured to say more. But when I look at the manuscript, I see things and I cant keep silent.
In the book I go out on a limb beyond the normal bonds of documentary evidence into the realm of speculation (although the speculation is grounded in over three hundred contextualizing footnotes). But my research resembles nothing more than it does a detective story in the truest sense. It has all the proper elements—fortuitous discovery, a trail of clues, a speculation. True, it lacks real resolution, but give me a break— we’re dealing with a case that by any contemporary standard is “cold.” In another decade, the protagonists will have been gone 800 years.
Here’s the case: In looking over the structure of the manuscript, I began to notice something strange about the iconography. The Golden Haggadah is replete with no less than forty-six prominent depictions of women, and the biblical sequence culminates with a depiction of seven women in the illustration of the Song of Miriam and women and girls prominently involved in the scenes of Passover preparation. Scholars have placed no particular emphasis to the number of women or their prominence in these depictions. They have simply assumed that the women depicted in the Golden Haggadah simply represent “unremarkable actors necessarily demanded by the narratives depicted.”
Or were they?
My thesis in The Medieval Haggadah is that the Golden Haggadah was made for Catalan Jewish woman of around 1320, a woman who had experienced a particularly trying personal circumstance. My evidence? The internal iconography of the book, its pictorial preoccupations, a later ownership inscription, themes that appear again and again, even the representation of a particular woman. Can I “prove” this with certainty? Of course not. Does that bother me? Not at all. All I aim to achieve in this book is to come somewhat closer to what you and I—contemporary viewers that we are—crave to know about the intimate (in this case very intimate) context of the creation of this manuscript and the others I lovingly describe in the book.
Our haggadot are feminist, emotionally and spiritually questing, concerned with ethics, with loss, with restoration, with relevance. So when I discover forty-six women—hitherto unrecognized and unacknowledged in both their pain and their joy—calling out to me from the pages of a magnificent medieval book I cannot simply be silent about them in the face of a lack of conclusive external proof. Ought I go to my grave without ever sharing with you what I think they are trying to tell us?
You know, for years, the way the history of Jewish art was written was by scholars keeping their cards very close to their chests, controlling access to the manuscripts in libraries and museums, only showing the public what they wanted them to see. My new book bursts all this open —it provides complete facsimiles of all the manuscripts I discuss, in full color and in full size—so that the reader does not merely receive sound bites. My hope is that the boldness of my speculations and my openness with the material will urge other scholars and, even more importantly, perhaps— readers like you—to add their own voices to the discussion, and to be able to glimpse the lives of the people who made these wonderful and amazing books.
About Marc Michael
Marc Michael Epstein is Professor of Religion at Vassar College, where he has been teaching for over two decades. A graduate of Oberlin College, Epstein received the MA, MPhil, and PhD at Yale University, and did much of his graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews. His most recent book,The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (Yale, 2011) was selected by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2011. During the 80s, Epstein was Director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of Sotheby's Judaica department, and continues to serve as consultant to various libraries, auction houses, museums and private collectors throughout the world, among them the Herbert C. and Eileen Bernard Museum at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, for which he curated the inaugural exhibition
For American Jewry during the Civil War, the Passover story was especially powerful. Northern soldiers saw clear parallels between the Union freeing the South's slaves and Moses leading the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt. However, creating a seder during in a war zone requires flexibility and creativity.
In 1862, the Jewish Messenger published an account by J. A. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment of a seder celebrated by Union soldiers in Fayette, West Virginia. Joel and 20 other Jewish soldiers were granted leave to observe Passover. A soldier home on leave in Cincinnati shipped matzot and hagaddot to his colleagues. Joel wrote:
We . . . sen[t] parties to forage in the country [for Passover food] while a party stayed to build a log hut for the services. . . We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens and some eggs. Horseradish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers 'enjoyed.'
We had the lamb, but did not know what part was to represent it at the table; but Yankee ingenuity prevailed, and it was decided to cook the whole and put it on the table, then we could dine off it, and be sure we got the right part.
The necessaries for the choroutzes we could not obtain, so we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended.
Yankee ingenuity indeed! Historian Bertram Korn observes, "It must have been quite a sight: these twenty men gathered together in a crude and hastily-built log hut, their weapons at their side, prepared as in Egypt-land for all manner of danger, singing the words of praise and faith in the ancient language of Israel." The seder proceeded smoothly until the eating of the bitter herbs. Joel recounted:
We all had a large portion of the herb ready to eat at the moment I said the blessing; each [ate] his portion, when horrors! What a scene ensued . . . The herb was very bitter and very fiery like Cayenne pepper, and excited our thirst to such a degree that we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and . . . we drank up all the cider. Those that drank more freely became excited and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself a Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt, only Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh had to be carried to the camp, and there left in the arms of Morpheus.
More problematic was the situation of Union soldiers who, unable to form their own seders, were forced to "fraternize" with local Jews. Myer Levy of Philadelphia, for example, was in a Virginia town one Passover late in the war when he saw a young boy sitting on his front steps eating a piece of matzo. According to Korn, when Levy "asked the boy for a piece, the child fled indoors, shouting at the top of his lungs, "Mother, there's a damn Yankee Jew outside!" The boy's mother invited Levy to seder that night. One wonders how the Virginian family and the Yankee soldier each interpreted the haggadah portions describing the evils of bondage.
On the eve of the fifth day of Passover (April 14), 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot and died of his wounds in the early morning of April 15th, which had already been scheduled as a national day of prayer to mark the end of the Civil War. Jews across the land were gathering in synagogues to give thanks. When news of Lincoln's death arrived, Korn notes, the synagogue altars were quickly draped in black and, instead of Passover melodies, the congregations chanted Yom Kippur hymns. Rabbis set aside their sermons and wept openly at their pulpits, as did their congregants. Lincoln had been protective of American Jewry, overturning General Grant's infamous General Order #11 expelling Jews from the Department of the Tennessee and supporting legislation allowing Jewish chaplains to serve in the military. The Jewish Record drew the analogy between Lincoln not having lived to see the reconciliation of North and South and Moses dying on Mount Pisgah before he saw the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
When no American armed forces are in combat anywhere in the world, it is easy to forget how difficult it can be for Jewish soldiers to serve their country while maintaining the traditions that beautify Judaism. Nevertheless, for Jewish Union soldiers fighting between 1861 and 1865 to free others from slavery, the Passover parallels must have made each seder particularly sweet and meaningful.
Images of a multi-generational family seated around a Seder table are a dime a dozen. Adorning the exterior of a haggadah or the label of one kosher-for-Passover food item after another, they’re so widespread our eyes glaze over at the sight of them.
But one image of a Seder — a grainy photograph — stops me dead in my tracks every time: that of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris in 1919. Now a part of the holdings of the National Archives, it was recently featured to great effect in an exhibition at the archives called “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?,” which explored the relationship between the government and American food practices.
The photograph captures what appear to be hundreds upon hundreds of Jewish servicemen in full military regalia seated at tables so long they extend beyond the picture plane. Amid the sea of faces, some wear the rimless spectacles then à la mode, others sport mustaches. Everyone has his head covered but here, too, variety prevails — a reflection of military hierarchy. Some soldiers wear a soft cap; others a peaked cap with a shiny, hard brim, and still others a broad-brimmed felt hat that is close kin to a Stetson.
This vast army of men is leavened, and lightened, by the presence of a few women. You have to look hard to find them, but they’re here and there, sprinkled throughout.
The photographer, making use of a large format or “banquet” camera, captures the Seder at midpoint or, as the lofty language of one haggadah from that period would have it, “post-prandial.” Half-empty bottles of wine line the tables; knives rest casually across the surface of white plates, their work done; shards of matzo accumulate. Up above, chandeliers glisten, giving off a warm glow, while heavy draperies shut out the cruel and ugly outside world.
Everyone at this Seder looks directly at the camera. Some of the celebrants, perhaps having imbibed too much wine, flash big, boyish grins. Others bear rather somber expressions, either sensitive to the importance of the occasion or, one imagines, longing for home and the consolations of a real family Seder.
A moment in time, a respite from the horrors of war, this very public Seder was organized by the Jewish Welfare Board, then an organization in the first flush of infancy. Today we take for granted, as a matter of course and as official government policy, that the ritual needs of Jewish servicemen and women will be tended to. But back in 1919, that was not the case. Jewish soldiers and sailors had to fend for themselves, scrambling to find matzo in war-torn Europe, let alone mount a Seder.
The Jewish Welfare Board came to the rescue, distributing the ritual bread, holding religious services on board transport ships and arranging a Seder for the 50,000 American Jewish soldiers estimated to be in France that year. As Chester Jacob Teller, the Jewish Welfare Board’s executive director (explained in a detailed article in the American Jewish Year Book of 1918-1919), its purpose was “to help America win the war” by sustaining the morale of the troops.
Teller’s language, as he introduces American Jewry to the work of his organization, is worth quoting in full:
“With a breadth of view and a degree of foresight perhaps never before equaled by a war administration of any other country, the United States Government set itself to thinking out the war problems not only in terms of ships, guns, munitions, and supplies, but also in health, decency, personal improvement of the men, contentment, esprit. In short, all those elements that go to make up the concept of morale in its broadest implications.”
Religion happened to be among those elements, prompting a wide array of Jewish organizations from the Agudath ha-Rabbonim (the Federation of Orthodox Rabbis) to the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods to join together under the umbrella of the Jewish Welfare Board to help service the religious and cultural needs of soldiers and sailors of the Jewish faith.
The task wasn’t easy, Teller publicly acknowledged. Given the variegated nature of American Jewish life, how could it be? “We have been criticized now for being too Jewish, and again for not being Jewish enough; for advocating what has been called ‘segregation,’ and again for being exponents of what has been called the melting-pot theory…. Fault is found with us for permitting Yiddish books to be circulated in the [army] camps, and again we are blamed for not providing enough of this literature.”
Letting off steam, the Jewish Welfare Board’s chief executive gave voice to the frustrations which, then, as now, attended every attempt to unify the fragmented American Jewish community. But he didn’t end there. Instead, Teller concluded by hailing the Jewish Welfare Board as a “unique opportunity” for American Jews of all stripes to transcend their differences and to celebrate the notion of community.
I suppose that’s what makes this photograph of a wartime Seder in Paris so very meaningful to me. Everything about it, from its scale and composition to its subject and timing, makes the case for community.
More often than not, the history of the Jews is one of upheaval rather than stability. It is the story of migration, change, renewal--and more change. And yet, through it all, one phenomenon has endured and held its own for millennia: a very humble food product fashioned from wheat, water, and salt which we know as matzah.
Think about it. Matzah, the unleavened bread which the Israelites ate as they hurriedly prepared to leave Egypt for the Promised Land, continues, thousands of years after the fact, to be consumed at the Passover seder by their latter-day descendants, contemporary Jews who call the suburbs, rather than Canaan, their home. What's more, come Passover-time, the shelves of supermarkets throughout the length and breadth of North America are crowded with box after box containing identically shaped, neatly perforated sheets of matzah. How many ritual foodstuffs do you know that go back that far and are mass-produced today?
Matzah's longevity is even more remarkable given our fickle palates and nationwide penchant for indulging in and then discarding one gastronomic trend after another. Add to the mix the availability of whole-wheat matzahs, salt-free matzahs, tea matzahs, and self-styled artisanal matzahs that sell for well over $20 a pound, and the staying power of this food is nothing short of breathtaking.
Scholars of the ancient Near East are quick to point out that the matzah we eat in 2005 is probably not quite the same unleavened bread our ancestors consumed way back when. For one thing, the type of grain the Israelites used was undoubtedly a different species than what's produced in the US today; for another, the size and overall appearance of matzah in the ancient world was a far cry from ours: much larger, more disc-shaped (the Bible, for instance, refers to "cakes" of matzah), and far more roughhewn around the edges than our own.
But then, our contemporary notion of what constitutes authentic matzah is itself a relatively recent invention, an artifact of modernity, as the research of Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University makes clear. Well into the 19th century, matzah was made by hand, in dark and unheated basements to prevent the dough from rising; the shape of the matzah was irregular, at best; and packaging came in the form of newspapers rather than sanitary boxes.
More to the point, the very idea of industrializing and standardizing matzah production was anathematized by leading rabbinical authorities of the time. Although by 1838 a device capable of kneading matzah mechanically had been invented, Europe's rabbis expressed grave reservations about it, in some quarters even going so far as to pronounce its use as treif. Some feared that mechanization would destroy the livelihood of those who had traditionally earned their modest keep from the kneading and rolling of the matzah dough; others worried that, with the new technology, stray contaminants might work their way into the matzah, rendering it unfit for ritual consumption. And still others were simply unready to come to grips with the manifold challenges modernity posed to the traditional, time-honored way of doing things.
Attempts at convincing the rabbinate, and with it, traditional elements of both European and American Jewish society, that the mechanization of matzah might well be a boon rather than a drawback took some doing. That responsibility fell to Dov Behr Manischewitz, the creator of America's very first matzah factory, which opened in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1880s.
A rabbi as well as an astute businessman, Manischewitz took great pains to secure the approval of the leading Torah sages of Jerusalem, whose consent he succeeded in winning by trading on his own yichus (pedigree), cultivating close ties with the rabbinical establishment of the Holy Land, and demonstrating his religious rectitude and noble intentions by establishing a yeshiva in Jerusalem that bore his good name. He would subsequently display their endorsement--"There is none more faithful to be found"--in both English and Hebrew on the exterior of his mass-produced matzah boxes.
At the Manischewitz plant in Cincinnati, where, it was said, "no human hand touches these matzahs," or at the factories of its competitors such as Horowitz Bros. & Margareten, whose owners boasted that, when it came to making matzah, they followed "carefully computed formulae," much was made of the felicitous union between modernity and tradition.
Much was also made of hygiene. In an effort to persuade Jewish consumers to relinquish their tried-and-true ways of doing things (e.g., purchasing old-fashioned, irregularly shaped matzah, loosely wrapped in newsprint), modern-day matzah manufacturers appealed to what, earlier in the 20th century, had already become an issue of great concern: the fear of germs. Drawing on what was then called "antiseptic-consciousness," they spoke lyrically of their sun-flooded factories and of the "sanitary and painstaking conditions" under which modern-day matzah was made.
If health concerns were not reason enough to switch, matzah manufacturers drew on an additional source of persuasion: the radio jingle. "Manischewitz Matzo, buy, buy, buy" went one jaunty B. Manischewitz Co. commercial. Another radio ad put it this way: "When you hear the word 'sterling,' what comes to mind? Silver. When you hear the word 'matzah,' what comes to mind? Why, Manischewitz." The handiwork of lyricist and Yiddish lexicographer Nahum Stutchkoff, these pitches, along with dozens of others like them, endowed Manischewitz matzah with attributes worthy of Mother Nature herself: "burnished," "pearl-like," and "bright as the rising sun."
If neither health nor peppy jingles did the trick, there was always the recipe. Sometime during the interwar years and peaking in postwar America, test kitchen cooks and Jewish cookbook authors joined forces in a concerted attempt to broaden matzah use beyond the boundaries of the seder, and to avoid "matzah monotony" by adapting this ancient foodstuff to modern tastes. Appealing to what one food writer of the 1930s called the "unusual recipe-consciousness" of America's Jews, they crafted imaginative uses for it, from making spaghetti out of matzah meal to fashioning farfeloons, an exotic, macaroon-like concoction, from matzah farfel.
So pliant, so versatile was matzah, the organizers of the 1939-1940 World's Fair invited Horowitz Bros. & Margareten to showcase a model matzah factory on the grounds of an international exposition devoted to "Building the World of Tomorrow." For some reason, the exhibit did not materialize (historians aren't quite sure why), but the very idea of displaying a matzah factory at the World's Fair underscored the possibility that tradition could make its peace with the modern era.
Industrialized, standardized, advertised, sung about, and otherwise reimagined, millennial matzah lent itself admirably to adaptation. Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that so many American Jews found it difficult to resist what one of their number, in 1911, described as the "call of the matzah"? Then, as now, there's something in that ancient amalgam of water, wheat, and salt that speaks of hope.
Jenna Weissman Joselit is a cultural historian of American Jewish life and the author of The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture.
"How Matzah Became Square: Manishewitz and the Development of Machine-Made Matzah in the United States," Jonathan D. Sarna. Sixth Annual Lecture of the Victor J. Selmanowitz Chair of Jewish History, 2005. In 1888, after several years as a shohet ubodek and part-time peddler, Behr Manischewitz opened a matzah factory in Cincinnati. This was a common profession for Jewish immigrants, especially those trained in shehitah, for matzah too as a Jewish food strictly regulated by Jewish law and requiring supervision. Moreover, demand for matzah was rising steadily in the United States, keeping pace with the growth of America's Jewish population, and the industry as a whole was in the midst of a great transformation. Through the mid-19th century, most matzah had been baked by synagogues. . .With the collapse of the synagogue community and the subsequent proliferation of synagogues in all major American Jewish communities, the now functionally delimited synagogues spun off many of their old communal functions (including responsibility for communal welfare, the mikvah, and kosher meat), and it was at this time, at mid-century, that independent matzah bakers developed (2).
At the time that Manischewitz entered the matzah business, the industry was in a state of considerable flux. Much of the world's matzah was still made totally by hand (3).
In the 19th century, with the rise of industrialization, processes like this began to be mechanized, and in 1838 an Alsatian Jew named Isaac Singer produced the first known machine for rolling matzah dough (4). Subsequently, the matzah machine became embroiled in a sharp and very significant halakhic controversy (along with social justice issues of preserving work for poor people as well as issues concerning modernity and Judaism) (4-5).
Manischewitz introduced a series of improvements and inventions that revolutionized the process of matzah baking the world over. . By 1903, he was using at least three different machines as part of the matzah making process. Jacob Uriah Manischewitz, who succeeded his father as president of the Manischewitz company upon the former's untimely passing in 1914, is credited with more than fifty patents including an electric eye which automatically counted the number of matzos in a box at a rate of 600 a minute, as well an innovations in packaging, and a special "matsos machine" introduced in 1920, which could produce 1.25 million matzohs every day (6).
The result was nothing less than a revolution in the matzah business characterized by three major transformations: First, where before most matzah had been round, irregular or oval shaped now, largely because of the demands of technology and packing, it became square. Second, where before each matzah was unique and distinctive in terms of shape, texture, and overall appearance--no two were identical as it true of shmurah matzah to this day-- now every matzah in the box came out looking, feeling, and tasting the same. Matzah thus underwent the same process of rationalization, standardization, and mechanization that we associate with the American management revolution wrought by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Finally, where before matzah was a quintessentially local product on an as-needed basis in every Jewish community and not shipped vast distances for fear of breakage, now it became a national and then an international product (7).
During Passover, some vegetarians use a broiled beet instead of a lamb bone on their seder plate. The beet, blood-red in colour, serves as a reminder of the Paschal sacrifice. Others use an avocado pit instead of a lamb bone on their seder plate.
According to tradition, Miriam gave water from her well to sustain the Israelites in the desert. Some people honour Miriam by placing a cup for her at the seder table and pouring water from their glasses into her cup.
In the mid 1930s, Maxwell House in America started giving out Haggadot to clarify that coffee beans are kosher for Passover, and thus prevent a dip in coffee sales. Distributed nearly every year since, there are now more than 50 million copies in print.
During the Civil War, despite the divide, Union and Confederate Jews bonded together during Passover, even inviting their adversaries to family seders.
Jewish Civil War soldiers without ingredients for charoset put a real brick on their seder plate. In 18th-century Salonika, Greece, people added chopped stone to their charoset, and some Moroccans included grated rock.
Many Jews were in synagogue for Passover when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The American Jewish Historical Society notes that synagogue bimahs "were quickly draped in black and, instead of Passover melodies, the congregations chanted Yom Kippur hymns."
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s largest matzah ball was unveiled in Tucson, Arizona, in 2010. Weighing in at 488 pounds, this giant matzah ball was made from more than 1,000 eggs and 125 pounds of matzah meal.
In the British territory of Gibraltar, Jews actually mix the dust of bricks into their charoset, a symbol of the mortar used to hold together the brick walls the Jews built in Egypt.
Coca-Cola makes a special batch of kosher-for-Passover Coke with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, because corn products are forbidden during the holiday. Look for the bottles with yellow caps.
In Vilna, Poland, during World War I, it was very difficult to find kosher wine. Rabbinical authorities made a special announcement to allow sweet tea to be substituted for the traditional four cups of wine during the seder.
Centuries ago during Passover, Jewish people living in the Sahara abandoned their fortified villages and marched into the desert, in memory of the first Passover.
Manischewitz alone sells more than 1.5 million jars of gefilte fish in the US and internationally — that’s almost one jar for every 10 Jews in the world.Persian Jews distribute green onions during the song Dayenu and hit each other with the stalks when the ninth stanza begins.