A Commentary on the Passover Haggadah

A Commentary on the Passover Haggadah

Rabbi Michael Graetz

A nation celebrates its creation, the moment in time when it becomes free. How is this done? Perhaps with a large parade, or a wild party with fireworks, or a military review. The Jewish people chose to celebrate its moment of creation by a family reunion around a table replete with a festive meal. But, this celebration is not merely a feast, but also a discussion about the meaning of that historical moment for those present at the table. It is not a history lesson, in but rather an attempt to understand the meaning of the historical event for today.

Hametz (Leaven)

The Torah fixes the basic rules of the holiday in the book of Exodus, even before the children of Israel leave Egypt (Exodus 12 – 13). Moses tells the nation that another plague is forthcoming, and as a result of that plague the nation will be free of Egypt.

In order to prepare themselves for freedom each household must take a lamb on the 10th of the month of Nisan and keep that lamb in the house until the 14th of the month towards evening. Then, in every household they are to slaughter the lamb on the threshold of the house, place blood from the lamb on the door of the house, and eat a meal of the lamb roasted on a fire, with Matzah and Maror. They also must remove all Hametz and leaven from the house.

In the Torah we learn that Hametz is always forbidden on the altar when there are meat sacrifices (Ex. 23:18;Lev. 6:10), only matzot are allowed. The grain offering is also forbidden to be hametz (Lev. 2:11). Only the bikkurim offering of wheat is to be hametz, and that is waved over the altar and not sacrificed on it (Lev. 23). All of this points to a general prohibition against hametz on the altar. The same prohibition applies in the ceremony of inducting priests (cf. Lev. 8). Thus, the forbidding of Hametz in Egypt is connected with the idea that the house is turned into an altar when the Paschal lamb is slaughtered, and the sacrifice of the lamb is part of the nation being sanctified as holy. God says to Israel before giving them the Torah (Exodus 19) “You shall be for me a nation of priests and a holy people.” This was already accomplished in Egypt on the night of the exodus.

Jewish tradition interpreted the paschal sacrifice as a test: who will be willing to endanger themselves in order to leave bondage for freedom? There were 9 plagues, and in each one Moses had assured the people that the plague would bring their freedom. But, despite the fact that each plague was worse than the previous one, Pharaoh continued to refuse to release the people. True, Pharaoh showed some weaknesses here and there, but in the end all of the 9 plagues failed to achieve their goal. Until this moment, the children of Israel had waited for God’s salvation, but they were probably disappointed by the results.

Now, Moses asks them to believe that after 9 failures, this time the 10th plague will work. What is more, this time the people have to prepare something. They have to prepare a sacrifice and to mark their homes with blood, as a sign that they are going to be freed. The children of Israel are slaves under a regime of taskmasters and guards. What will the guards say when they see a house whose doorframe is smeared with blood? What can a Jew answer to the guard’s question: “why have you put this blood on your doorframe?” A truthful answer can only be interpreted by the Egyptian as a provocation against Pharaoh, a rebellion against slavery. The demands of this sacrifice are severe. Only someone who truly was committed to pursuing freedom would be capable of placing himself and his family in such danger. Whoever said, to himself ‘I will wait and see if this time the plague really convinces Pharaoh to release us’, would not be saved. And, according to the Midrash, only a small minority of Jews performed the sacrifice and left Egypt. On the verse: “Hamushim (Hebrew not clear: but the root is Hamesh-five) the children of Israel left Egypt” (Ex. 13:18) the midrash says that only one in five left, and some say one in 50 and some say one in 500 (Mechilta 12)!

Removal of all Hametz from the home/altar in order to allow the sanctification of the nation, is a part of the Passover ritual until this very day. Jews are particular about removing all Hametz, both in its symbolism of sanctification prior to achieving freedom, and in its symbolism as the pride and arrogance in man’s heart.

Searching for and burning Hametz

Passover eve, after having cleaned the house of all Hametz, we search the house by candlelight in order to find any hametz which might have escaped our notice. The symbolism of searching by candlelight ties in with the two symbolisms mentioned above. Freedom is frequently symbolized by light, and pride, which hides in the dark corners of our hearts, is exposed and expelled by light.

All Hametz found in the search must be burned. This ritual includes physical burning by fire. Tradition also fixes that we must remove the hametz in our heart, that is to consciously nullify the hametz in our heart at the same time we are burning it.

The Haggadah

From what is written in the Mishna (Pesahim 10) it is clear that the structure of the Passover Seder is composed of two elements: a) table rituals and symbolic foods, and b) a discussion of the relevance of the exodus from Egypt.

Structure of table rituals and symbolic foods

4 cups of wine — This is the central symbol of the Seder.
Wine symbolizes joy, and it is the clear sign of festivity, as the verse states: “wine make’s the heart joyful” (Psalms 104:15). Two cups are drunk before the discussion and two cups after the discussion. The Talmud explains that 4 cups of wine symbolize the 4 terms for redemption which God uses in His promise to the children of Israel in Exodus 6:6-7: “I will take you out…I will save you…I will redeem you…I will take you to me.” In that context a fifth term of redemption appears, “I will bring you to the land…”(6:8). An opinion exists that because of this a fifth cup is to be drunk at the Seder. But, since all agreed on the 4 cups, and the fifth cup was not unanimous, the status of the fifth cup was left for the prophet Elijah to decide at the end of days. Thus, the ritual of “Elijah the prophet’s cup” was born. The actual reference to this cup is toward the end of the Seder.

3 Matzot — There are different traditions as to the symbolism of the number of matzot: either the 3 patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the basic three part division of Israel, Priest, Levite and Israelite. But, the fact is that the basic requirement of Jewish law (halacha) is for three Matzot. It is required to break one Matzah into two for the Afikoman at the end of the Seder, and we are obligated for the blessing of breaking bread for a festive or Shabbat meal to use two whole loaves, and thus the halacha requires at least three matzot.

Matzah itself symbolizes the slavery of Egypt, the bread of poverty which the children of Israel subsisted on as slaves, and the Matzah itself is also called “the bread of poverty.”

There are other symbols which are organized on a large plate which is called “the Seder plate”:

Haroset — a mixture of nuts, apples, wine and other sweet foods. Haroset symbolizes the mortar which the slaves labored at in Egypt.

Maror — horseradish or lettuce, a vegetable or root whose taste is harsh, symbolizing the harshness of slavery.

Shankbone (Zeroa) — a bone which has been burnt on fire, symbolizing the Passover sacrifice in Egypt.

Egg — a hardboiled egg baked or burnt on fire, symbolizing the holiday sacrifice which was part of the festival celebration in the Temple.

Karpas (greens) — a vegetable, generally a green vegetable such as parsley, lettuce or celery. Karpas symbolizes the renewal of nature in springtime.

Salt water/vinegar — symbolizing the tears of bondage.

In addition to these tangible symbols, there are a series of keywords to aid us in remembering the order of the Seder. These keywords appear in a kind of rhyme, in Hebrew, which is sung or recited just before beginning the Seder text.

Sanctify Wash Greens Break Matzah
Discuss Ritual Wash Bless Matzah Eat Matzah
Maror Sandwich Eat the festive meal
Afikoman Grace Hallel Summation

Kaddesh (Sanctify)

Every festival meal begins with the Kiddush (sanctification) blessing. There are two parts to the Kiddush blessing, sanctifying wine and sanctifying the festival day. Wine imparts the aura and taste of joy and festivity. The blessing of the festival day reminds us that it is a sacred day in the calendar, but each household has to actively sanctify the day themselves. God gave mankind the capability to sanctify time, and we do that by reciting the Kiddush blessing. In this blessing we always specify the central theme of the festival, and in the case of Passover the theme is: “the season of our freedom.”

The Kiddush blessing also mentions that this festival is a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, for this is the event at which Israel’s liberation was achieved for the first time in history. However, this phrase appears in every Kiddush blessing on every festival and Shabbat. This fact points to the centrality of the exodus, freedom, in every aspect of Jewish life, religion and national culture.

If the Seder comes out on Saturday night, following Shabbat, a paragraph of separation (“havdalah”) is added to the Kiddush blessing. The Havdalah ceremony is intended to separate between sacred time and profane time, but since the day after Shabbat is a festival, the separation in this case is between “levels of sanctity.”

The third blessing of the Kiddush is the blessing for special occasions — “Who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this joyous moment.” This blessing praises God for enabling us to reach the occasion of celebrating the festival. This blessing is recited on the first day of every festival in the calendar year, or when putting on a new apparel of clothing, etc.

Washing the hands

According to Halachah and Jewish custom, every person must wash their hands before eating any food. However, since the blessing for washing hands only needs to be recited before eating bread, which was considered the basic food of man’s diet, no blessing is recited at this point. Hand washing was part of the general Jewish conception of maintaining “purity” in all acts of life.

Eating the Green Vegetable

This is the first “dipping” of food of the Seder. We dip the green vegetable into salt water (or vinegar), and eat it. The blessing recited is the usual one for eating vegetables. There is clear evidence that the ceremonial structure of the Seder is based on the banquets of Roman aristocracy. Ancient Roman banquet practice included rules about how and when food was served, and the main part of the occasion was a symposium on a philosophical or political topic. Many scholars point out that the dipping rituals of the Seder follow the Roman practice.

However, beyond this historical basis, there is meaningful symbolism in the act itself. The green vegetable symbolizes the renewal of nature in the spring. There is no doubt that the renewal of national spirit from the lethargy of slavery was seen as an echo of the renewal of the trees and grasses from the slumber of the winter. The regeneration of spring is a constant symbol of hope.

We dip the vegetable in salt water, which symbolizes the tears of slavery. This act signifies that even in the deepest distress of slavery, even despite the tearful weeping of oppressed slaves there is hope for regeneration. God’s power can renew mankind in any situation, even one of weeping and disaster.

Splitting the Matzah

We split the middle Matzah into two pieces in order to save one half, the larger one, as the Afikomen for the end of the Seder. We wrap the Afikomen in a napkin, or an embroidered clothes for that purpose, and we use the other half as a “shewbread” of Matzah, showing it to the participants in the Seder.

The Symposium

This is the main part of the evening, the symposium on the relevance of the Exodus in our day. Even though the text of the Haggadah changed throughout its history {cf. Goldsmith, ֹTֹhֹeֹ ֹPֹaֹsֹsֹoֹvֹeֹrֹ ֹHֹaֹgֹgֹaֹdֹaֹhֹ ֹaֹnֹdֹ ֹiֹtֹsֹ
ֹhֹiֹsֹtֹoֹrֹy, 1960 (Heb.); Kasher, ֹTֹhֹeֹ ֹCֹoֹmֹpֹlֹeֹtֹeֹ ֹHֹaֹgֹgֹaֹdֹaֹh, 1967 (Heb.)} it is clear that the order and structure of the text is the same at all times. The portion of the Haggadah known as “Maggid” (the symposium) has a basic literary structure found in all versions; differences between versions being only in what is not included; but the order remains the same.

In every case where a certain order is fixed in a text we can ask the question: “what is the logic behind this accepted order or structure?.” From a literary point of view this question is always valid, regardless of how the structures came into being. This is also one of the basic literary approaches of the Midrash.

In any case, the order of the Maggid which appears in the Mishnah
(Pesahim 10:4-6) is the basis of all texts of the Haggadah which are known:

(1) The child asks his parents
(2) The parents teach the child according to his understanding
(a) start with disgrace and end with praise
(b) Midrashic exposition of Deut. 26
(3) Explain the symbols Passover sacrifice, Matzah, Maror, (Rabban Gamliel)
(4) Emphasize that in every generation each person has to see himself as a participant in the exodus
(5) Begin the Hallel prayer

Several questions could be asked: what is the logic and intention of the Mishnah’s structure? How does the particular text of the “Maggid” in the Haggadah fulfill the Mishnah’s intention? We will examine each section and draw our conclusions at the end.

The bread of poverty

The “Maggid” begins by showing the matzah to the participants of the Seder and saying that it is the bread of poverty which our ancestors ate in Egypt. This connects our sensory perceptions to the historical tale which we are celebrating. The moral drawn from this memory is not an emotion of anger or revenge because of our past suffering and poverty. Nor is it a will to gain great wealth in order to never be poor again. Rather the lesson presented in the text from this memory is to invite all needy persons to come and share the festive repast with us.

The central theme of the symposium, freedom, which was announced in the Kiddush, is also mentioned in this part. There is a parallelism in this text between ‘today’, ‘in exile’ and ‘enslaved’; and between ‘next year’, ‘the land of Israel’, and ‘free people’. This parallelism is between the categories of time, place and existential situation. This configuration hints that in every exile there is a kind of slavery, and in the end freedom is only possible in the land of Israel. Furthermore, the gaining of freedom is not at some undefined time in the future, but can be as close as ‘next year’.

Four questions

A child questions ‘how different this night is from all other nights’! His curiosity is aroused by the ceremonial rites which are different from normal meals. The parent replies that once our ancestors were in a disgraceful position and God brought them to a praiseworthy state, and the ceremonies are a way in which we celebrate this wonderful change in our status.{cf. D. Halivni, in, ֹSֹtֹuֹdֹiֹeֹsֹ ֹiֹnֹ ֹHֹoֹnֹoֹrֹ ֹoֹfֹ ֹJֹoֹsֹeֹpֹhֹ ֹHֹeֹiֹnֹeֹmֹaֹnֹn, p. 67-74, Jerusalem 1981(Heb.). In this article Halivni shows that there are really not any ‘questions’ asked by the child, rather this text is the way the father explains the Seder to a child who does not understand it at first.}

In the Mishnah the wording of some of the ‘questions’ is different from that of the accepted version in the Haggadah. In the Mishnah there is a ‘question’ about the type of meat which is eaten at the festive meal. This wording points to a time when the Temple sacrifice was prevalent. In place of this ‘question’, the Haggadah tradition substitutes the one asking why we eat leisurely together rather than informally. The Hebrew terms imply being called together to eat with a common purpose, rather than meeting together by accident at a table.{cf. Mishnah Berachot 6:6 }. This change indicates that the text of the Haggadah developed to fit the reality of new situations.

Answers to the ‘questions’

The Mishnah states that the response of the parent to the child’s questioning must start with ‘disgrace’ and end with ‘praise’. The scholars who deliberated the meaning of the Mishnah, who are called Amoraim, interpreted the “disgrace-praise” in two ways.{The Haggadah orders these two interpretations separately according to the opinions of the great Babylonian sages, Rav and Samuel or Abaye and Rava. See Kasher, p. 22-23} The first way: we were enslaved — and God took us out of slavery to freedom. The second way: we were idol worshippers — and God brought us to know that we have to serve Him. Accordingly, the first way understands slavery to mean the enslavement of one man to
another, of one nation to another. That is, national enslavement, the lack of political freedom or independence. In this case, freedom means the achieving of national independence, throwing off the bonds of enslavement, which in our case was achieved by Divine intervention.

The second way sees enslavement as idolatry. That is, idolatry is an enslaving lifestyle, customs which prevent a person from exercising his potential freedom. Idolatry is also, apparently, an inherent part of national enslavement, and in exile, e.g. Egypt, one cannot entirely abandon idolatry. Thus, the exodus from Egypt was necessary in order to enable Israel to achieve liberty, which is at once, the national capability to serve God in it’s own way, and a means to serving God, which enables every individual to utilize his potential freedom.

Jews mention the exodus twice daily, in the Shema prayer. Many of the commandments are seen as historical memory of the exodus. What, then, is special about the memory of it on the night of the Seder? What is unique is the framework of this memory, namely ‘disgrace-praise’. For, in all the other memories, the Shema prayer etc., the exodus is mentioned only as a symbol of salvation, but at the Seder we have to discuss and inquire into the disgrace of the enslavement. This is because in Egypt there was a double exile, of both the body and the spirit, thus salvation was of both body and spirit. The dispute was over which salvation should we feel more, which one is prior or more important.

“In regard to each person’s spiritual situation, each person should see themselves as in a state of ‘disgrace’ and feel obligated to struggle in order to gain an end state of ‘praise’.”{cf. Kasher, p. 32-33}

Because of this, the way the Haggadah relates to the exodus is different from the other times it is mentioned during the year. On this night we are to concentrate, in a very conscious manner, on the two aspects of the exodus from Egypt, the national-physical salvation and the individual-spiritual salvation. We are to feel the shame of the fact that Israel was
(and could be again) like other nations, enslaved from a national point of view, or idolatrous from a spiritual point of view. We are not embarassed to say shameful things about ourselves. Still and all, we mention the shame only in order to enable us to shun it, in order to enable us to reach praise.

The first opinion (national – political)

This opinion is that the meaning of the exodus that we celebrate at the Seder is the achievement of physical, political, national freedom as a result of a specific event in Israel’s history. Thus we have the obligation to discuss the exodus, emphasizing its transcendental meaning for Israel in every generation. We have to delve deeply into the story of the exodus, that is to discuss the positive meaning of national-political freedom for Israel.

Where is the ‘disgrace-praise’ in this section? The disgrace lies not only in the fact that we were slaves, but also in that God took us out with force, that is, without any real burning desire for freedom on the part of the people. This understanding of the disgrace is developed by the surprising statement that if God had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt by force, we would still be enslaved there! The nation was willing to stay in exile and in slavery. The fact that God took us out of slavery, almost against our will, shows that Israel’s freedom is seen as a Divine imperative. This interpretation has been adopted by other nations.

The praise is that the nation finally learned its lesson, and they learned that they had to pass this meaning of the exodus on to its children. We have the responsibility to expansively teach our children about the necessity to struggle for national freedom in every generation. We even have declared that it is a commandment to delve into the exodus, even for sages who know the Torah. The very fulfilling of this commandment is the praise.

The sages in Benei Berak

The tale of the sages in Benei Berak concretizes ‘praise’. For it tells of the greatest sages of their generation, who certainly knew the story of the exodus and all of its commentaries very well, yet they spent the whole night delving into the story of the exodus, that is, the question of national liberation. Many commentators have interpreted this tale in the context of the history of that period, the great Jewish revolt against Rome. They explained that these sages were planning the revolt. This explanation strengthens the idea that the symposium of the Seder has to be connected to Israel’s national-political freedom. However, it is not certain that this is the background to this meeting, or even if these sages actually met at all. Yet, this does not alter the moral of the story.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah

The statement of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is surprising. He says that he is like a seventy year old, and did not know any prooftext for reciting the passage from the Shema prayer that refers to the exodus in the evening prayers. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was chosen to be the president (Nasi) of the Sanhedrin during the period when Rabban Gamaliel was removed from that position, and according to the Babylonian Talmud he was only 18 years old (Berachot 28a). The Talmud tells that he asked to take counsel with his wife if he should accept the position. That night while he slept all of his hair turned white, so that he looked like a man of seventy, even though he was only 18.

The original context of this tale is not Passover, but the theme of the exodus in the Shema prayer. Since the last paragraph of that prayer, the section about the commandment of putting fringes on one’s garment (tzitzit), mentions the exodus, and since one does not don tzitzit at night; there was a dispute as to whether this passage should be recited in the evening prayer or not. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says that until he heard the explication of Ben Zoma he was not convinced that the passage should be said at night. The verse which is being explicated is: “In order that you should remember the day of your exodus from Egypt all the days of your life” (Deut. 16,3). This verse obligates every Jew to remember the exodus each day of his life, and Ben Zoma’s explication understands that the word ‘all’ implies not only the daytime, but the full 24 hour period of a day, i.e. the nighttime as well.

The sages, however, interpret the word ‘all’ to mean to include the days of the messiah. In the Talmud (Berachot 12b) the debate is as to whether the obligation to remember the exodus will apply in the messianic era. For, during that time Israel will not be subjugated to any other nation. It is argued, that since Israel will then have national-political freedom, this latter redemption will obviate the necessity to always remember the former redemption. The sages say that the messianic era will not uproot the importance of remembering the exodus. Perhaps, the messianic redemption will become the central one in Jewish consciousness, and the exodus from Egypt will become secondary(ibid). Thus, this section also strengthens the obligation to delve into the exodus. Even in the future days of complete freedom it will be forbidden for Israel to forget how easy it is to lose freedom and be turned into a subjugated people.

The four ‘sons’

This Midrash is based on four verses from the Torah which relate to how a parent explains the Paschal sacrifice to a child. The midrash characterizes each verse as a particular type of child(Ex. 12,26; Ex. 13,8; Ex. 13,14; Deut. 6,20). The source of this Midrash is the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, a Tannaitic Midrash. In the source the ‘evil son’ is called ‘foolish’. This characterization is more appropriate to his opposite the ‘wise son’. But, the redactors of the Haggadah wished a different moral, namely, that the one who is not willing to take an active role in the struggle for national freedom is ‘evil’, and not merely ‘foolish’. This Midrash strengthens the opinion that the main point of the evening is the struggle for national-political freedom. The ‘evil son’ separates himself from the community, that is, he is not willing to join in the struggle for national freedom. Because he shirks this struggle he is like a total heretic.

The wicked son’s question “What can this service possibly mean to you?” is found in the Torah in the book of Exodus 12:26. There, the question is not attributed to the wicked son, but rather, to sons in general. The answer, “You shall say, ‘it is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt…'” shows that the sons’ question is genuine. If that is the case, then why did our sages interpret this question as having been asked specifically by the wicked son? In the Haggadah, they formulated an answer that would be an appropriate response to a wicked son: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8); “for me and not for him. If he had been there, with his scoffing attitude, he would not have been redeemed.” Although this answer, “It is because of what the Lord did,” does not appear in the Torah as an answer to an actual question, our sages decided that it should serve as a response to “What can this service possibly mean to you?” Even more surprising is the wise son’s question,
“What are the testimonies, laws, and rules which the Lord, our God commanded you?” (Deut. 6:20). The wise son also uses the term “you”! Why does he deserve admiration while the wicked son receives a harsh response for his use of “you”?

Many commentators have attempted to explain the reason for the Haggadah’s approach. There are even versions of the Haggadah which altered the biblical text in Deuteronomy 6 by inserting “us” at the end of the verse instead of “you”! There are those who explained that the relevant distinction is not to be found in the different formulations of the questions but, rather, in the intentions of the speakers. With respect to the wise son, the text is: “When, in time to come, your son asks you…,” and with respect to the wicked son: “And when your children say unto you…,” this shows that the wicked son does not ask for the sake of posing a real question, i.e. in order to learn and to understand the meaning of the acts in question, but rather, he “says” dogmatically, indicating that he denies his faith completely (see Kasher, p. 23, note 247). Others argue that the word “lachem” (to you) includes the connotation of separation, to me and to you (la = to), but the word “etchem” has the connotation of unity, together with you (et = with).

I wish to suggest another explanation that is connected to the very essence of the exodus from Egypt. For what purpose were the people of Israel redeemed form Egypt? The Torah states that the reason was to create the consciousness and acknowledgment of divine power, so that the nations of the world and Israel will know that He alone is God and there is no other god besides Him (Ex. 7, 5, etc.).

Similarly Rashi explains the verse: “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who took them out of the land of Egypt to dwell in their midst…in order to dwell among them.” That is to say, the purpose of the redemption from Egypt was so that Israel would build a sanctuary for God to dwell in their midst. Such a reason is characterized as being for “the sake of the Most High” (tzoreh gavoha). This expression indicates something that is for the sake of God as such; the opposite expression is for “the sake of the common person” (tzoreh hedyot), i.e., the sake of human beings. For example, in the sanctuary, which was a temporary dwelling, it was permissible to desecrate the Sabbath by offering sacrifices since this was done “for the sake of the Most High,” i.e., a sacrficie is something done for the sake of God and hence justifies desecration of the Sabbath in the sanctuary. In contrast to this, the celebrations in the time of Solomon during the joyous sanctification of the Temple were for the sake of the common person – the eating and drinking was not for the sake of God but, rather, the people. (see Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan, 9a).

In the light of this distinction in the tradition between “the sake of the Most High” and “the sake of the common person,” we can draw an analogy with regard to the freedom of the redemption from Egypt. If the purpose of the redemption from Egypt is for “the sake of the Most High,” then what is the meaning of freedom? Is not the freedom of the people for “the sake of the common person?” In what sense may the freedom of the people be considred to be for the “sake of the Most High?”

Nachmanides, in his commentary to the above verse, quotes the remarks of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra: “I did not redeem them from Egypt only in order that I dwell in their midst, and this is the meaning of ‘you will serve the Lord on this mountain’.” Ibn Ezra does not agree that the purpose of the redemption from Egypt was solely for the “sake of the Most High”; rather, he adds that the very nature of the people’s efforts in building the sanctuary and their worship of God at Mount Sinai – acts expressive of the interests of the people and their contribution to the covenant with God – these very acts are part of the redemption from Egypt.

A similar idea appears in the Talmud in the discussion of the celebrations in the time of Solomon (Moed Katan, ibid.). While the eating and drinking that are an integral part of the joy necessary for sanctifying the Temple are for “the sake of the common person,” nonetheless “joy is not complete without eating and drinking.” And consequently, in the time of Solomon the people were allowed to eat and drink for the sake of the joy of sanctifying the Temple even on Yom Kippur!

These sources emphasize the dialectical relationship between the concepts of the “sake of the Most High” and “the sake of the common person.” It is very difficult to distinguish in an absolute manner between what is for the sake of God and what is for the sake of humankind. There is a tendency in Halachic literature to ascribe anything that contributes to the performance of a mitzvah to “the sake of the Most High” (see Responsa Beit Yehudah, part 14). Any time something that is for the “sake of the common person” aims at something for the “sake of the Most High” – to promote the values of the Halachah or mitzvot – then that thing, also takes on some of the features of the “sake of the Most High.”

In the light of the above, the freedom of the people on the holiday of Passover is not only for “the sake of the common person” but also for “the sake of the Most High” and vice versa. Despite the fact that the people’s freedom can be viewed as “for the sake of the Most High,” i.e., that God’s absolute will is that nations be free, certainly it also can be regarded as being in the interest of the nation itself.

We thus can interpret the wicked son’s question: “What can this service possibly mean to you” by focusing on the term “lachem” (to you, for your sake): What human interest is served by these acts of divine worship? Every act must be worthwhile in terms of your needs and interests, otherwise it doesn’t warrant human effort. According to this argument, there is no point in doing anything that lacks clear human utility. There is no place in this world view for “the holy” or for values other than utilitarian ones; therefore the poser of this question is called “wicked.”

In contrast to this view, the wise son reflects the traditional Jewish approach where the “sake of the Most High” and the “sake of the common person” are combined together in spite of the tensions that sometimes develop between them. If the “sake of the Most High” predominates, then human interests and values become endangered, and the “religious” interest can turn into a vehicle for undermining and negating fundamental human liberties. If the “sake of the common person” predominates, there exists the danger of losing the aspiration for spiritual values and becoming exclusively preoccupied with materialism. Jewish tradition aimed at integrating the “sake of the Most High” with the “sake of the common person” and vice versa; the wise son joins “which the Lord our God commanded us” with “etchem” (for your sake). Only an approach which strikes the proper balance between the interests
of the Most High with the interests of the common person can turn the freedom of the people of Israel into a true blessing.

This section ends the first opinion and emphasizes the need to struggle to gain national-political freedom. The end is essentially a didactic comment that says that the discussion of freedom from Egypt should only begin during the Seder.

The second opinion (spiritual-personal)

This point of view argues with the first. It begins with “at first our ancestors were drawn to idol worship” (the disgrace); “God drew us closer to monotheism” (the praise). This opinion disagrees that the main problem with Egypt was that Israel might have remained enslaved forever, rather the danger was that of assimilation of Israel to an idolatrous environment. That is, the real danger was that Israel would be spiritually destroyed, because they had idolatry in their historical heritage, and this background could have caused total assimilation to Egyptian religion. In order to prevent this, the people had to leave Egypt, not primarily to acquire freedom from physical slavery, but to achieve freedom from spiritual enslavement. The meta-historical meaning of the exodus from Egypt was that as a result of this redemption, Israel became so close to God, that they willingly sanctified themselves to His service and to His Torah. For this opinion, alienation from service of God, from genuine Jewish civilization, is a greater danger than political enslavement to another nation.

This opinion, together with its polemic against the first opinion, is developed in the following passages. The continuation states that God promised Abraham that He will save his descendants from national enslavement. God can be relied upon to keep His word. There is no need to fear total physical destruction of Israel, nor to fear continuous enslavement. Furthermore, this promise is kept in every generation. There are always those who wish to totally destroy Israel and God always saves a remnant of Jews from them. God is concerned with the physical survival of his people.

However, the real danger is that the people will be attracted to other civilizations and to other beliefs. God cannot promise protection from that danger, for “everything is decreed from above, except for fear of God” (Talmud Berachot 33b). Man’s freedom to choose his belief is absolute, and that means that any man may choose not to believe in God. Thus, the main point of the exodus from Egypt is the mutuality of moving further away from idolatry and moving closer to monotheism.

Look at the biblical verses to learn this lesson

In order to prove this point, a Midrash is quoted which compares Laban the Aramean with Pharaoh. When Jacob fled to Aram, he was taken in by his mother’s relative, Laban. Jacob lived with Laban and even married his daughters. Jacob earned his fortune, and helped his father-in-law to prosper as well. True, Laban at first cheated Jacob by giving him Leah as his wife instead of Rachel, but even so, the Midrash’s comparison is surprising. How is it possible to argue that Laban was worse than Pharaoh? On the very night when we celebrate leaving Egypt, it seems very strange to ‘praise’ Pharaoh who merely ordered to kill all male children. Even more surprising is to say that Laban was worse in that he wanted to uproot everything.

In the Torah Laban is not portrayed as wanting to destroy Jacob! Laban asks only one thing of Jacob, that he not return to the land of Israel. Laban wanted Jacob to stay with him in Aram, to relinquish the Divine promise of the land of Israel, as well as the spiritual inheritance of his ancestors Abraham and Isaac. The Midrash portrays Laban as the archetype of the assimilationist approach, which demands that Israel relinquish its uniqueness. Thus, this Midrash strengthens the second opinion, that spiritual destruction is a greater danger than national enslavement or even than physical destruction.

The Midrash on “An Aramean tried to destroy my ancestor”

This Midrash explicates each phrase of the verses in Deut. 26, one verse of which ends the previous section. The intent is to show that the Divine plan which was revealed to Abraham in the “covenant of the pieces” (Gen. 15), is the motivating factor in the exodus from Egypt. Jacob did not intend to settle in Egypt, the unfolding of the events comes from the outside. Even Israel’s fecundity was according to the Divine plan.

Particularly interesting is the Midrash on the phrase “The Egyptians made us out to be evil.” The Midrash quotes Pharaoh’s calumny that Israel will join Egypt’s enemies in the event of war. Pharaoah accuses the Jews of being unfaithful to his regime. The Midrash understands that this is part of Pharaoh’s plan to dominate the Jews.

Since the whole thrust of the Midrash is to stress the Divine plan, it ends with emphasizing that God Himself took Israel out of Egypt, not an angel, not a seraf and not an agent. This is very surprising. The Midrash ignores the basic biblical story, in which there appear both an angel (the destroyer of the firstborn – cf. Ex. 12) and an agent – Moses. Furthermore, in the entire Haggadah Moses is not mentioned at all, except for a few mentions of his name in verses that are quoted. This is in order to stress that the human actors in every historical drama are secondary, the main thing is Divine direction.

At the end, we recount the 10 plagues, including the mnemonic method of Rabbi Judah to remember them. This section also includes the statements of Rabbi Yose the Gallilean, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiba about how the blows which God reigned on Egypt multiplied, and were even more numerous at the splitting of the Sea than they were in Egypt. There are many Midrashim in which the imagination of the sages was let loose, and they described God’s wonders beyond the biblical text. Perhaps these Midrashim are a kind of “comic relief” reflecting the great joy which was felt at being saved from the Egyptian threat.

We would have been satisfied: “dayyenu”

As was explained above, this liturgical hymn (piyyut) known as “dayyenu” is a summary of the Midrash on Deut. 26, without actually continuing the Midrash on that biblical passage. This piyyut summarizes the whole passage, including the entry into the land of Israel and the building of the Temple. This is the real goal of the exodus, settling on the land and building the Temple. The goal here is to show that the two kinds of freedom associated with the exodus, the national and the spiritual, can be fulfilled only in the land of Israel where the Jews can live according to
their beliefs.

Rabban Gamaliel

This section explains the main symbols of the Seder: the paschal sacrifice, Matzah and Maror. The explanations are given in the name of Rabban Gamaliel. Each item is explained as symbolic of a specific aspect of the historical event. The paschal lamb is a symbol of God’s saving of Israel. According to the Midrash in the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael the verb “pasah” means to guard or save. The Midrash points to Isaiah 31:5, where the verb “pasah” appears as parallel to protect or save. The fact is that there are other instances in the Bible where the verb “pasah” appears in the meaning of protection. The paschal lamb is, therefore, properly understood as ‘the sacrfice of protection’ – which fits the biblical story very well.

It is interesting that the explanation of the Matzah is that Israel left Egypt in such haste, so that the dough they had prepared to make provisions for the journey did not have time to leaven. This explanation is different from one explanation in the Torah, that the Matzah was the bread of poverty which our ancestors ate in slavery. According to the explanation in the Haggadah the Matzah symbolizes the haste of the departure from
Egypt. True, this explanation also appears in the Torah, which shows that even in the biblical tradition itself there are different approaches.

The Maror also has a different and interesting explanation in the Haggadah. Maror is the symbol of the bitterness of slavery. In the Torah, Maror is the condiment which is eaten with the paschal lamb. Why did the Haggadah not explain the Maror as a remembrance of eating the paschal lamb? Perhaps, since by the time the Haggadah was written down there was no more paschal sacrifice, and such a reference was not in place. For Jews who were in exile themselves, a remembrance of the bitterness of enslavement was more appropriate than a remembrance of Temple worship.

In every generation and generation

At the end of the Maggid every participant is asked to personally identify with those who left Egypt. If we take into account that the Haggadah began with the assertion that if God had not taken us out of Egypt, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh, then, by that interpretation, He did redeem us directly at the same time that he redeemed our ancestors.

Israel’s culture includes an ideal of national freedom. In addition, it includes values which demand of us to struggle and work to achieve and keep spiritual and national freedom. All of this is based on the story of the Exodus, and is reinforced by repeating and delving into the significance of the story every year and in every generation. After a person sees, hears, smells and tastes the Seder every year of his life, it is hard to suppress the ability to perceive oneself as if redeemed personally from Egypt. And since we were personally redeemed, we are obligated to give thanks to God and to praise His Name, and we thus begin the Hallel prayer.

Wash the hands

Now that we are about to eat bread (Matzah), we are obligated to wash our hands, but this time we must say a blessing.

Breaking the bread

The blessing on bread is recited. Even though matzah is not leavened, it is still considered to be bread, that is, the main ingredient in man’s diet.


There is a special blessing on eating matzah, since there is a specific commandment to eat matzah on Passover. The commandment is to eat matzah on the first day of the festival, after that day it is forbidden to eat leavened food, but there is no longer an obligation to eat matzah.


We eat the Maror. This also has a special blessing since there is a commandment to eat maror. This is carried out by means of the second “dipping,” we dip the Maror in the Haroset.

Korech, a matzah and herb sandwich

This is the remembrance of the eating of the paschal sacrifice when the Temple stood. We make a sandwich of Matzah, Haroset and Maror and eat it.

The Meal is served

We eat and drink heartily.


We eat the Afikomen which was set aside from the beginning of the Seder. Afikomen is a Greek word which implies a wine party. We are not to have any more celebrations or to continue eating after the main meal of the evening.

Grace after meals

Grace after meals is recited, and it concludes with the third cup of wine. Grace includes sections in which we bless God for food, for the good land which He gave to us, for building Jerusalem and for His abiding goodness to all creatures. We then drink the third cup of wine.

Immediately after drinking the wine we open the front door. This is a symbolic anticipation of the coming of Elijah, who announces the arrival of the Messiah. The legend is that Elijah visits every Jewish house on Passover night, and in every house a cup of wine is set on the table for him. At the time when the Jews anticipated redemption while fearing their surroundings, opening the front door in the hope that Elijah would come was an act of courage and faith. But, at the same time, because Jews suffered from retributions of surrounding peoples they recited verses from Psalms and Lamentations. These verses expressed the hope that the enemies of the Jews, who wished to destroy them, would be punished by God when He will judge the nations. This yearning is understandable in the circumstances of persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages.


We finish the Hallel prayer which was begun before the meal. Hallel is a collection of psalms from the book of Psalms. This prayer is recited on the three pilgrimage festivals, on the New Moon, Hanukkah, Jerusalem Day and Israel Independence Day. Apparently this was part of the psalms recited in the Temple on festivals. They are mainly psalms of glory and praise to God for His help in saving Israel, particularly during the exodus.

We also recite a prayer known as the blessing of song (birkat ha- shir). The central part of this prayer is “The souls of all living things,” which in many Haggadot is interpreted as a prayer recited by all the animals in the world in order to praise God for life. This prayer is also part of the regular morning prayers of the festival. Thus, the Haggadah ends with a section from the morning prayers, perhaps as a memory of what the sages of Benei Berak did, discussing the exodus all evening until their students came and told them it was time for the morning prayers. Even if we do not discuss the Haggadah the whole night, this section makes it as if we had done so. Then we drink the fourth cup of wine.

Summary (“Nirtzah”)

This is the end of the Seder, a rhymed poem which is a petition that we be privileged to conduct a Seder next year, but in rebuilt Jerusalem. The end of the Seder is exactly like the beginning, in the invitation to partake in our meal (Ha Lahma). In both of these sections we announce the ideal of national and spiritual freedom in our own land, the land of Israel. It is also interesting that the Ha Lahma section is in Aramaic, and Nirtzah is in Hebrew, the native Jewish language. The very languages of the opening and closing sections imply the change from exile to political and spiritual freedom.

Liturgical Hymns (piyyutim)

The evening ends with a selection of piyyutim in honor of the Passover holiday. Most of them from the wealth of Hebrew poetry of the Middle Ages. These hymns are not part of the official Haggadah, but they are additions of popular and well-known piyyutim. They emphasize the central importance of Passover in all generations. They also include hints at other miracles and redemptions which occurred or will occur for Israel in the past and the future. These hymns are composed of quotations from bits of biblical verses and other Jewish literature. Because of this, they are very complex and require a great deal of study to properly appreciate the depth of the author’s craft. Yet, this delicacy does not mar the power and beauty of these hymns to the Hebrew reader.

In addition there are folk hymns, in which the language is much simpler. Especially well known of these is “who knows one,” which is a kind of number quiz which constitutes a review of the most basic things in Jewish life. The other well-known folk hymn is “the only kid,” which exhibits the classical structure of folksong, built on levels of power. Every creature knows that there is something more powerful than it in the world, and in the end God has the power of life and death over all. Others have interpreted this song as an allegory of Jewish history. The kid is Israel which the father (God) buys for himself with two zuzim (the two Tablets of the covenant). All the other verses represent the kingdoms which tried to destroy the Jews, but in the end God judges them and redeems his kid, Israel, from its exile.

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