Pesach Haggadah: Story or Halachah

Rav Noam Samet • 2007

The heated debate about the Pesach Haggada between Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Gamliel – whether to associate the Seder within the historical redemption or the world of Torah and mitzvot – still resonates today.

These days, different voices are heard demanding that the Seder be given renewed relevance and meaning. Every year various haggadot are published, at the base of which resides the common desire to give the Seder night a contemporary and trendy dimension. As is well known, a large part of the population that does not observe Torah and mitzvot customarily celebrates the Seder night, whereby the Haggadah also forms the focal point of their evening. A well-known example is the Haggadah of the Kibbutzim (‘הגדת הקיבוצים’), in which members of the secular kibbutz movements tried to give the Seder night a new character – Zionist and natural. Another famous Haggadah is the IDF Haggadah that emerged after the Six-Day War that linked the miracles of the Exodus from ancient Egypt to the miracles of the modern era in the Six-Day War. These examples raise the fundamental question of the Seder’s nature: What is supposed to be tonight?


Story or study?

We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. (עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים) And the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would [all] be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. And even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be a commandment upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds [and spends extra time] in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy. It happened once [on Pesach] that Rabbi Eliezer, (מעשה בר’ אליעזר) Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak and were telling the story of the exodus from Egypt that whole night, until their students came and said to them, “The time of [reciting] the morning Shema has arrived.”

This source is familiar to all of us all from the Haggadah. After the passage “This is the bread of destitution” (הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא), which seems to be an ancient and general passage, the aforementioned passage actually takes the place of the Haggadah’s opening passage. The story presented here has no other source; its only source is in the Haggadah. A parallel story, and less famous, appears in the Tosefta Pesachim (10:8):

A man is obligated to be involved with the laws of Pesach the whole night, even if it [is only a discussion] between him and his son, even if it is between him and himself, even if it is between him and his student. It happened that Rabban Gamliel and the Elders were [once] reclining in the house of Beitos ben Zunin in Lud, and they were involved with the laws of Pesach the whole night until the call of the rooster. [Their students] raised the covering of the window from in front of them, and they [then] convened and went to the house of study.

The similarity between the stories stands out, while at the same time the significant differences between the two stories are emphasized. While in the first story Rabbi Akiva and his acquaintances are engaged in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Rabban Gamliel and the elders do not deal with the historical story, but rather with the very laws of Pesach.

In two other sources we find echoes of the obligation to deal with the laws of Pesach on the Seder night. The first is in the baraita, which is presented in the Gemara in Pesachim (116a):

The Sages taught: If his son is wise and knows how to inquire, his son asks him. And if he is not wise, his wife asks him. And if his wife is not capable of asking or if he has no wife, he asks himself. And even if two Torah scholars who know the halakhot of Passover are sitting together, and there is no one else present to pose the questions, they ask each other: Why is this night different from all other nights? As on all other nights we dip once; however, on this night we dip twice.

This baraita, which emphasizes that obligation is incumbent even on sages, corresponds to the aforementioned source in the Haggadah that also emphasized our duty “even if we were all sages”. Here again, the duty is not to tell about the Exodus from Egypt but to deal with the laws of Pesach. Dealing with the laws of Pesach is asking “Why is this night different from all other nights?” (מה נשתנה), coming to deal with the details of the Seder’s halachot.

The second source are the words of Rabbi Eliezer quoted in the Mekhilta on Parashat Bo:

”What are the testimonies and the statutes, etc.”: R. Eliezer says: Whence is it derived that if there were a company of sages or of disciples they must occupy themselves with the halachot of Pesach until midnight? From “What are the testimonies, etc.” Here, too, the obligation is to deal with the laws of Pesach and not with the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

What is the meaning of this dispute? There seem to be two concepts here regarding the design of the Seder and its significance, which are completely different from one another. The telling of the Exodus from Egypt places the Seder night in the real-historical sphere. The obligation on the Seder night is to deal with the historical account of what happened. The story connects us, those present at the Seder, to our ancestors who left Egypt some three thousand years ago. Redemption from the bondage of Egypt is also seen as real-physical redemption. We shall discuss this further in details.

The conception of Rabban Gamliel and his friends, who deal with the halachot of Passover, refuses to attribute the Seder night to the historical space. The preoccupation always remains one that is dealing with halachah, the abstract world of Torah and mitzvot. The Jewish people’s national consciousness, of which the Seder is undoubtedly one of its most prominent designers, is not built, according to Rabban Gamliel, on the basis of the consciousness of historical redemption. The study of halachah and the Torah are at the core of the common practice at the Seder. Redemption is also a spiritual redemption, and it is possible that it is already present here - through dealing with Torah and mitzvot. Rabban Gamliel and his friends, even after completing dealing with the laws of Pesach - “they [then] convened and went to the house of study”.

This argument undoubtedly has a real, political background. The group of sages who dwells in Bnei Brak, the city of Rabbi Akiva, emerges from the bounds of the beit midrash to actual history. This approach is very fitting for the image of Rabbi Akiva the activist, who was the ardent supporter of Bar Kokhba. Rabban Gamliel, who is sitting with the elders, refuses to leave the beit midrash. This, too, is in accord with the figure of Rabban Gamliel, who worked tirelessly to establish the spiritual-Torah system of the Jewish people.


Wise and simple or wise and stupid?

The different versions of the story of the four sons also contain traces of the two approaches mentioned above. The baraita dealing with the four sons is presented in two places in addition to the Haggadah: in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Chapter 18 (מסכתא דפסחא) and Yerushalmi Pesachim Chapter 10. One of the main differences between the texts is the reversal of the responses of the wise son and the simple son. This is the Mekhilta version:

What does the wise son say? (חכם מה הוא אומר) “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?” — you, likewise, “open” to him in the halachot of Pesach — “ein maftirin achar hapesach afikoman (אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן)”…

What does the simple son say? (תם מה הוא אומר?) (Ibid. 14) “What is this?” And you shall tell him (Ibid.) “With might of hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”

While in the Yerushalmi:

What does the wise son say? “’What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?’ (Deuteronomy 20:6)” And accordingly you will say to him, “’With the strength of [His] hand did the Lord take us out from Egypt, from the house of slaves.’ (Exodus 13:14)” (בן חכם מהו אומר?)

What does the stupid [son] say? “‘What is this?’ (Exodus 13:14)” And accordingly you will teach him the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, that “We may not eat an afikoman [a dessert or other foods eaten after the meal] after [we are finished eating] the Pesach sacrifice, so that a person should not get up from one eating group to another eating group.” (טיפש מהו אומר?)

If so, we can see that the answers given for the wise and the simple sons in Mekhilta are reversed in the Yerushalmi. Both answers represent the two directions we pointed out above: “With the strength of [His] hand did the Lord take us out from Egypt, from the house of slaves” - this is undoubtedly an answer that tells of the Exodus. The second answer presents the second extremity: “you will teach him the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, that we may not eat an afikoman after [we are finished eating] the Pesach sacrifice.”

The Talmud of Israel presents the wise son as the one dealing with his father on the account of the Exodus story. The preoccupation with the laws of Pesach remains (perhaps with a slight irony) in the realm of the father and the simple son. The desired focus of the Seder night in Yerushalmi’s opinion is therefore the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

In the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Akiva’s great adversary, the wise son deals with his father in the laws of Pesach. The Seder is focused on the Passover laws, and the story of the Exodus from Egypt is intended only for the simple son, who is unable to deal with the laws of Passover. Only this son is suitable for dealing with actual national history. The wise man, the intellectual – why should he break into the real world?


Disgrace and Glory

In the Gemara in Pesachim (116a) a well-known dispute is brought between Rav and Shmuel: It was taught in the mishna that the father begins his answer with disgrace and concludes with glory. The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of the term: With disgrace? Rav said that one should begin by saying: At first our forefathers were idol worshippers (מתחלה עובדי עבודת גלולים היו אבותינו), before concluding with words of glory. And Shmuel said: The disgrace with which one should begin his answer is: We were slaves (עבדים היינו).

The mishnah in Pesachim teaches that the Haggadah on Pesach night begins with disgrace and ends with glory. Rav and Shmuel differed in understanding disgrace and glory, and thereby, in determining the bookends of the Haggadah. According to Shmuel, the Haggadah begins with the words “We were slaves.” These words are the opening to the passage cited above, which is the beginning of the story at the Exodus. The disgrace is that Israel was enslaved in Egypt, and the glory is that redemption came. The paragraph emphasizes the historical continuity between us and those who left Egypt: “And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would [all] be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” A historical sequence is created here, beginning with the redemption of Egypt and ending with the freedom of our descendants. The continuation of this passage is the story of the five elders dealing with the story of the Exodus from Egypt all night long. According to Rav, however, the emphasis in the Haggadah is a completely different emphasis. The disgrace is not the slavery but rather the idol worship that our forefathers worked. Glory is also not the physical redemption, but rather - “And now, the Place [of all] has brought us close to His worship”. The emphasis is not on national-historical exodus, but on spiritual redemption and the giving of the Torah. The historical continuum is not based on the transition from physical servitude to redemption, but rather on the transition from idol worship to Torah study.

It seems that the argument between Rav and Shmuel continues the two axes that we saw above in the Tannaim. According to Rav, the center of the Haggadah is the spiritual transition from idolatry to Torah. Redemption is not physical redemption but spiritual redemption from the bonds of idol worship. It seems that this view continues the Tannaic opinion that emphasized Pesach as the preoccupation with the laws of the holiday rather than the story of the redemption from Egypt. According to Shmuel - the main part of the Haggadah is the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the physical redemption from the bondage of Pharaoh. This story takes place in the real-historical space, and within this space a national-historical continuum is created on the Seder night.



For years now, I have been accompanied by a slight distress in the days preceding the Seder night. Despite my love for Seder night as a warm and joyous family experience, there is always the difficulty of the need to deal with the duties involved in the structure of the evening. Beyond the amusing difficulties of waiting a long time for the food, eating two “kezayit” kdei achilat pras and the pushing and shoving between the aunt and the grandmother, stands the basic difficulty of not identifying with certain parts of the Haggadah, such as the fascinating discussion of whether the Egyptians were struck with two hundred or two hundred and fifty blows at the crossing of the sea. What does the Haggadah mean to us? How exactly are statements in Aramaic or the counting of the ten plagues while taking wine from the glass relevant to our daily world?

In the above, two main lines were presented in the attitude of our Sages to the Seder night and its significance. How did the Haggadah decide? Does it center itself around the story or the Halachot? I deliberately left this point open – first of all, because answering this question requires a closer study of every part of the Haggadah, and secondly, because I feel that the Haggadah itself has left this point open, and created a combination of these two motifs. These two motifs still shape our relationship to the Seder. Should we view the Seder night as a religious-halakhic experience that cannot be excluded from the realm of the religious-ritualistic world? Or is it intended specifically to deal with the real-historical sphere and through this does it incorporate itself within the confines of the religious world? It seems that the Haggadah leaves room for both these concepts and perhaps even tries to combine them.

To conclude - in a sense, this type of study on Seder night, which tries to trace the goals of the Haggadah, is itself a kind of combination of the two directions we presented. We sit and study sources, but this study is not detached from our real, everyday world. The historical continuity it creates between us and the Haggadah’s designers is not only the fact that we share a common commitment to the halachic world that shapes the Seder, but also the real continuity of facing those dilemmas and dealing with the same questions.

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