I’m posting this on a Friday, and Shabbat is coming. Many weeks on this blog I put up a Sabbath meditation. Well, this post is really about Passover, but it’s good for a Sabbath meditation as well. The Passover Haggadah is part of the Torah and tradition passed down to us. It wouldn’t hurt to spend Sabbath meditation time studying the Haggadah and preparing for a meaningful Passover.
I’ve been passing along insights from a wonderful book call Creating Lively Passover Seders by David Arnow. It’s really an explanation of where the parts of the Passover Haggadah came from and what they mean.
As promised in Part 3, here in Part 4 the topic is the Five Sages. That is one section of the Haggadah, no doubt, that many people have little idea what is going on . . .
The Passover Haggadah is a compendium of tradition from different periods of time as different generations passed on new parts to be recited on Passover. As you go through the Haggadah, you will suddenly come on a part that tells a story about a dialogue between five rabbis:
A tale is told about Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon. They were reclining in B’nei Barak, discussing the Exodus from Egypt all through the night, until their student came to them and said, “Masters, the time has come to recite the morning Shema.”
For starters, it is helpful to know who these rabbis were:
1. Rabbi Eliezer — As a young man he begged his father to let him go to Jerusalem and study with Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai. His father refused and ordered him to remain and work the family farm. Finally, at age 28, Eliezer did run away to Jerusalem and presented himself to Rabbi Yokhanan, who took pity on him and took him in. Rabbi Yokhanan was amazed with Eliezer’s ability to learn and said, “If all the sages of Israel were on one pan of a balancing scale, and Eliezer were on the other, he would outweigh them all.” Eliezer was a great teacher and his most famous saying is:
Let the honor of your fellow man be as precious to you as your own. Do not be quick to anger, and repent one day before your death.
His students famously asked, “But does a person know the day of his death?” Rabbi Eliezer replied, “Let him repent today and perhaps he will die tomorrow.”
2. Rabbi Joshua — He was also a disciple of Rabbi Yokhanan, who said that Rabbi Joshua is the threefold cord that cannot be broken. After the Romans destroyed the Temple, Rabbi Joshua was the one who looked to Rabbi Yokhanan and said, “Woe to us, that this, the place where Israel’s sins were atoned for, is laid waste.”
3. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was one of Rabbi Yokhanan’s later students after the Temple was destroyed and Rabbi Yokhanan reformed the scholars of Israel at Yavne (Jamnia). Rabbi Elazar became the head of the Sanhedrin at the young age of 18! Legend says that when he accepted the job, God turned his hair white overnight to make him look seventy.
4. Rabbi Tarfon also became a teacher at Yavne. One of the legends about him is that he had so much respect for his parents that once, when his mother lost the sole of her shoe, young Tarfon put his hand underneath her bare foot so she would not hurt herself walking home. Tarfon shunned fame and went about disguised. His most famous saying is, “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid starting it.”
5. Rabbi Akiva is one of Judaism’s most famous rabbis. Rabbi Akiva worked a farm until he was forty and did not even start his rabbinical training until after that. He studied under Rabbis Eliezer, Joshua, and Tarfon. Rabbi Akiva added to the principles for interpreting Torah. He said the Torah’s essence was contained in “love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Akiva eventually supported Bar Kokhva in he second Jewish revolt (132 – 135 C.E.). He was captured by the Romans and had his skin removed with iron combs. As they peeled off his skin, Akiva recited the Shema until he died. Akiva is one of the most-quoted sages in the Mishnah, because he wrote down many opinions in a time when most believed they should not be written down.
So why are the five rabbis in the story of the Haggadah?
Arnow finds the reason in a bit of the later story of these rabbis. A time came when Eliezer did not agree with the rest of the scholars on a point of halakhah (practical rulings about how to obey God’s commands).
The story of their disagreement is fascinating and beyond the scope of this article. But suffice it to say that a sad day came into the history of the rabbis. Since Eliezer would not give up his opinion and submit to the majority, they placed him under a ban.
That meant his teachings were not to be passed down. It also meant that all Israelites except Eliezer’s family were to avoid him except for business.
Rabbi Akiva dressed in mourning clothes and came to tell his master the news. They both sat and wept.
Sometime later, Eliezer was on his deathbed. The other four rabbis came to see him, but would not enter his room. Eliezer was angry that they had not studied with or visited him all these years. From the doorway, the four rabbis asked Eliezer’s opinion on a matter of halakhah, whether a certain item was clean or unclean. Rabbi Eliezer’s last word was clean.
This persuaded Rabbi Joshua that Rabbi Eliezer was also clean. So after he died they lifted the ban, which is why Eliezer’s words are in the Mishnah and Talmud today.
The disagreement between these rabbis is a well-known piece of Jewish history. So David Arnow suggests that is why they are in the Haggadah. All five of them are together, including Eliezer, and they are discussing Torah.
The message of the Haggadah in this story is simple and profound: “The message is that peace and fraternity are ultimately more important than ideology or winning an argument” (Arnow, p.49).
The story of the five rabbis discussing Exodus all night until morning is an example of the heavenly overtaking the earthly, and of the value of friendship and Torah.