Monday, March 25, 2013

Pesah (Ramban)

Thoughts on Maggid

“The Haggadah is not only the most popular text in Jewish literature, but an exciting and fascinating text which, read with understanding, yields a series of fascinating questions and provides insights into our own situation, as human beings and as Jews.” Thus, to paraphrase somewhat, our rabbi began his Shabbat Hagadol sermon.

There is just one problem: I find something problematical in the definition of the Haggadah as text. Of course, it is: the majority of Jews I know, Orthodox or otherwise, look on the Haggadah as a text and collection of instructions which we are meant to read and perform on the Seder night—which of course, it is, in on one level. Many members of my generation remember Sedarim as children at which a bunch of old uncles sat at one end of the table mumbling through the text unintelligibly, to do what one is supposed to do, while everyone else sat around bored, waiting for the food to be served. But on another level, the Seder night is the night when we are instructed, nay, commanded, to tell the story of the Exodus to one’s children (and grandchildren), to make the story come alive, so that in the end we, and they, will feel as if we ourselves have just gone out of Egypt. Thus, the mitzvah of the Seder night is meant to be free-form, free-flowing, and the Haggadah is no more than an outline, a suggestion, a framework within which to fit the real discourse.

Question: Why is the Seder constructed as it is, around a Rabbinic midrash? Why not simply read the story of the Exodus as it is given in the Bible—from, say, the beginning of the Book of Exodus to the end of Chapter 12: “On this very day the Lord brought the children of Israel out of Egypt with their hosts.” Indeed, when I was 17 years old and just beginning to observe mitzvot, I was in Israel as a participant on the Young Judaea Year Course. For Pesah I was at Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz at which there was a traditional communal Seder led by a learned guest. After the Seder I returned to my room and, having felt that I had not really engaged in telling the story as I understood it, I sat down and began reading the Book of Exodus from the beginning—from the account of the enslavement, through the birth and maturing of Moshe and his call to prophecy, his going to the Israelites and to Pharaoh, and through the ten plagues and the above phrase about the great night of the Exodus. (Somewhere along the line, before completing this self-assigned regimen, I think I fell asleep).

I had originally planned to write a full-length Shabbat Hagadol study, as I have done in years past, on the subject of Maggid—the very heart of the Seder and of the Haggadah—but due to considerations of time, I will confine myself to a few practical comments and suggestions and a concise analysis of one mishnah.

1. There should be free-form questioning encouraged during the Seder. It is a mistake to think that Mah Nishtaneh is The Statutory Question; indeed, as I read it, Mah Nistanah is more a declaration than a question—and certainly not four separate questions!—and quite possibly meant to be recited by the father rather than by the children. The passage of the Four Sons suggests a multiplicity of other questions.

2. Equally important, the narration or exposition of the Exodus story may be rather free-form, and one shouldn’t feel that the main thing is reading the printed text, including the Sifrei’s midrash on “A wandering Aramean was my father,” specifically. But see below.

3. Nibbles during Maggid. I don’t see any clearcut law stating that, after drinking the Kiddush wine and eating the karpas, be it parsley, turnips or potatoes, one is required to refrain from all food. My sense is that in ancient times the eating of the Matzah and bitter herbs may well have preceded the narration of the Exodus story = what we call reading the Haggadah. In any event, I see no reason not to have dried or fresh fruit, nuts, etc., on the table, so that people do not feel that they are a captive audience to those reading or discussing the Haggadah while their stomachs are growling for the sumptuous dinner to follow. Indeed, a beraita quoted in the Bavli states that children should be given toasted grains (!) or nuts at this point to stimulate questions (Pesahim 108b-109a; see O.H. 472.16).

Turning now to Mishnah Pesahim 10.4, which contains the essentials of the mitzvah of Maggid, the procedure for the second cup of wine, recited before the meal. (I have marked with ellipses those sections quoted only in summary form, as they are familiar from the text of the Haggadah itself):

§4. They pour [lit mix] him the second cup. Here the son asks his father; and if the son has not knowledge [intelligence / awareness], his father teaches him. “How different this night is from all other nights!” [Or: How is this night different…?] According to the intelligence of the son, the father teaches him. One begins with degradation/ shame, and concludes with praise, and one expounds from “A lost [or wandering] Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5), until one concludes the entire passage.

This mishnah mentions three essential elements of Maggid: First, questions and answers. The telling of the story begins in response to the questions asked by the son; moreover, it is not at all clear that the so-called “Four Questions,” which are often the high point of the Seder for the children (alongside the stealing of the Afikoman and its return as ransom for presents), are in fact meant as questions. The Talmud mentions a number of possible questions that might be asked. Moreover, in Albeck’s edition, the phrase, “the father teaches the son” is marked with a colon, followed immediately by Mah Nishtanah: that is, the father’s answer begins with the declaration (not a question!) “How different this night is!” followed by an enumeration of the salient differences between this night and all other nights (the fourfold “On all [other] nights…. On this night….). Incidentally, the text of the “questions” in the Mishnah, presumably formulated when the Temple was still standing, is somewhat different from the wording in our Haggadah text—but a discussion thereof would take us too far afield.

So what does the father teach him and how does he do so? There are two, or even three, distinct answers: on the one hand, he teaches his son the story extemporaneously, in accordance with the son’s (or daughter’s, or children’s, in the plural) intellectual capability. On the other hand, he is to expound (doresh, in Hebrew; the same verbal root as that from which the word midrash is derived) the passage in Deuteronomy 26:5-8 known as vidduy bikkurim, the declaration made by those bringing first fruits to the Temple later on, in the spring or early summer, on or after the festival of Shavuot. This passage consists of a concise summary of Jewish history, from the patriarchs, through the descent to Egypt, the enslavement, the crying out to God, and the deliverance with signs and wonders. Between these two, there is the instruction, “One begins with shame / degradation and concludes with praise”—that is, with the negative situation of the Jewish people, and concluding with its glory, the positive state that follows. Jus what this means is itself ambiguous: the Haggadah really has two beginnings. It begins with our enslavement to the Egyptians (“We were slaves…” עבדים היינו), but a few paragraphs later it jumps much further back, to our arch-ancestor’s worship of idols in pre-Abrahamic days. Similarly, the “praise” may go up to the liberation from slavery per se, or it may go up to the Revelation at Sinai, or even (as Ramban would doubtless say) to the construction of the Sanctuary in the wilderness and the indwelling of God’s presence. Interestingly, it does not go up to the entrance into and settlement of the Land of Israel and our attaining menuhah ve-nahalah, peace and tranquility in our territorial inheritance.

Why is the method of midrash chosen? And why this specific passage? But first, yet another aside: the traditional Haggadah includes a series of lengthy paragraphs following the four questions—“Even if we were all wise… it is incumbent upon us to tell the story…”; the comment of R. Eleazar b. Azariah about why we do the Seder at night; the story of the five sages in B’nai Berak; the beraita of the Four Sons—until one actually reaches the exposition of Arami oved avi. In fact, in virtually every Seder I’ve ever attended, the study and discussion and elaboration of this section takes at least an hour, so that one hardly has time or patience left for Arami oved avi!


The midrashic method is expansive. The Haggadah expounds each phrase in these four verses, so that every two or three words—occasionally even single words—elicits a comment which is in turn illustrated by quoting a proof text. Hence the numerous “as is said…” (כמה שנאמר). The end result is that the basic components of the story are all somehow covered. Hence, even though, for example, the ten plagues are not described with the wealth of detail, the back and forth dialogue and haggling between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh as they are in Exodus 7-11, the basic fact of the plagues is mentioned (as well as the suffering they caused the ordinary Egyptians, alluded to by pouring out a few drips of wine).

Why this parashah, specifically? The four verses beginning with Arami oved avi present, in concise form, the essence of the story: the circumstances which led to the descent to Egypt; the enslavement, with its attendant suffering; the crying out to God, and His hearing our plea; and the miraculous delivery, with “signs and wonders.” Moreover, the occasion of bringing bikkurim is based upon the principle of gratitude, an essential one of Judaism, of expressing thanks to God for the bounty of the Land—and in the course of doing so, tells the story of the Exodus.

The next mishnah deals mostly with the transition to the more liturgical section, of psalms, blessings, and the second cup of wine, which we cannot discuss this time, but includes two more important components of the “telling”:

5.. Rabban Gamaliel said: Whoever did not speak of these three things on Pesah has not fulfilled his obligation; namely: Pesah—the paschal lamb; matzah—unleavened bread; and maror—bitter herbs…. In every generation a person must see himself as if he himself has gone out of Egypt.

I will begin with the second sentence: Is this an instruction, or a text to be recited? It has found its way into the Haggadah, but it reads more like a directive as to the attitude with which on must approach the Seder, the inner feeling one must try to achieve: that this is not merely a ritual commemorating events that happened long ago, but something of personal relevance. (But I must add here a demurral from the widespread tendency today, influenced by “New Age” thinking, to read the Exodus in purely personal, psychological terms as redemption from our own private “Egypt” of hang-ups, bad habits and attitudes, addictions, etc. On some level, each person must identify himself with the Jewish people, both present and throughout its historical continuum.) The sense of personally experiencing the paradigmatic events of our sacred history, the complete identification with one’s ancestors, is at least on one level the quintessence of all Jewish religious experience. It is in this light that one must understand the “three things”: the Seder is not only a forum for reading texts, discussion, narration, for intellectual engagement with our history, but it is a meal, and one at which one has a very different diet from one’s fare: flat unleavened bread (following exhaustive cleaning and kashering of the whole house); bitter herbs (some say: so bitter, like raw horseradish, that they bring tears to one’s eyes); and, in ancient times, the roast lamb or goat of the Paschal offering. These foodstuffs in some sense concretize the lessons and ideas that until this point have been no more than that—and their mention at this point in the Seder take us full circle to the “Four Questions,” and at the same time signals the transition from telling the story to the more experiential dimension—singing the Hallel, in praise and gratitude to God, as an expression of one’s inner joy: “And let us say before Him a new song; Hallelujah!”

Our blessings for a very joyous festival to all.


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