Understanding the Passover Haggadah, Part 3

pesachIn “Understanding the Passover Haggadah, Part 1,” I explained a few confusing elements of the Haggadah, such as the fact that it is more about Deuteronomy 26:5-10 than the Exodus narrative. This insight alone gets us a long way toward understanding the rationale behind the parts of the Haggadah. The Haggadah is not what most people expect it to be before reading and studying it. I also included in part 1 some advice from Lawrence Hoffman from My People’s Passover Haggadah. He encourages Seder leaders not to merely read every word of the Haggadah without comment. The Haggadah is a book that can be interpreted with different emphases each year, selecting some portions for greater commentary and other to be omitted.

In “Understanding the Passover Haggadah, Part 2,” I went section by section through the Hebrew poem that helps people remember the parts of the Seder. There was a time when printing did not exist and owning one or many Haggadahs was beyond the means of most families. The Haggadah follows a poem (kadesh urchatz . . .) that defines the parts of the Seder.

Now, in Part 3, I will begin explaining the part of the Haggadah most people associate most strongly with Passover: the telling of the story. It is called the Maggid, or the telling, and it is roughly 1/3 of the Haggadah (24 out of 72 pages in the Artscroll Family Haggadah, for example).

Before the Maggid section comes, these are the preparations leading into the storytelling: the first cup and its blessing, handwashing, the green vegetable, and breaking the middle matzah.

After the Maggid, which includes many physical elements itself, such as explaining the Seder plate and a second cup, these are the elements finishing out the worship aspect of the Seder: handwashing again, blessing bread and matzah, bitter herbs, the Hillel sandwich, the meal, afikoman, grace after meals, the third cup, Hallel psalms, fourth cup, and concluding blessings.

Understanding the Parts of the Maggid (Storytelling)
The storytelling of the Haggadah does not proceed the way we would expect it to. This is not the Exodus story told simply and in a straightforward fashion. Instead, you might say we have a storytelling section defined over time by committee, and not just any committee, but an unofficial committee of tradition building on itself with variations over hundreds of years. As with any product of committee, it is a bit of a jumble.

So take out your Haggadah (a traditional one, preferably, and use this guide to understand the parts of the Maggid section. You might copy these notes below and print them out to insert for reference in your Haggadah.

Bread of Affliction — The time this part was added is uncertain. It may be a leftover from the days when the lamb was still eaten. The leader of the Seder may have made a statement to the effect that, “This is the sanctified Passover offering.” As matzah came to replace the lamb as central to the Seder after the temple was destroyed, perhaps this bread of affliction statement was the replacement.

The phrase “bread of affliction” comes from Deuteronomy 16:3 (lechem oni). Rabbi Akiva read it slightly differently as the bread of poverty. It may refer to the affliction of the Israelites in their wilderness journey with only hard bread to eat. It is also possible that it was a kind of slaves’ bread, as those in forced labor may not have had time for proper breadmaking.

We say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” a part of the Seder intended to inspire us to invite families to join us at Passover, especially families lacking the money or the knowledge to lead a Seder on their own. Leviticus Rabbah 34:9 says, “The poor man stands at your door and the Holy One, Blessed be he, stands at his right hand.”

Four Questions — These are really one question (“why is this night different from all other nights?”) and four observations. The idea of children asking questions when they observe the Passover Seder goes back to verses in the Torah in which children ask (Exod. 12:26-27; 13:8, 14-15; Deut. 6:20-25).

Originally the children were to have asked questions spontaneously and a list of questions developed in case the children did not know what to ask. Over time the questions became fixed. When the temple was standing the questions were different and included one about the Passover sacrifice.

The questions are not directly answered, but the answers come in the rest of the storytelling for those who listen and pay attention. The modern custom is for a child to chant these questions to a melody.

We Were Slaves — The rabbis of old made a ruling about how the Passover story should be told (Mishnah Pesahim 10:4): the story should begin with disgrace and end with praise. What is the disgrace the story should begin with? The obvious answer would be Israel’s slavery. Some of the rabbis leaned in this direction and Deuteronomy 6:21 is a response in the Torah to the child’s questions that fits this interpretation, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Yet other rabbis felt the disgrace began long before Israel’s slavery in the reality of Joshua 24:2-4, “originally . . . our fathers served other gods.”

In the Maggid section, both approaches happen. This section, “we were slaves,” fulfills the first opinion, that the storytelling should start with slavery. In a section to come later, the story will backtrack and start again from the other opinion, “originally . . . our fathers served other gods.”

The Five Rabbis at Bnei Barak — Bnei Barak was a town near modern Tel Aviv, mentioned in Joshua 19:45. There is a traditional story about five rabbis meeting there during the second Jewish revolt to celebrate Passover. Five is considered a well-rounded number for Torah learning (such as the five books of the Torah).

Some Haggadahs have commentary that suggests a military interpretation about this Seder with five rabbis. Why were they up all night “telling the Passover story”? The military interpretation is that they were planning a part of the Jewish revolt. As observed in My People’s Passover Haggadah, however, there is no evidence for this colorful theory, but it fit well in Haggadahs from the era after Israel’s independence as an inspiring example of Jewish resistance in history.

It seems, rather, the good rabbis were up all night dialoguing about the details of the Exodus story in good rabbinic fashion.

Rabbi Elazar’s Passover at Night Midrash
One of the five rabbis was Rabbi Elazar, who was a friend of Rabbi ben Zoma. Zoma was known in the Mishnah as a master of the deeper meaning of texts. Elazar had learned from him a novel interpretation about why the Passover story was to be told at night. It might seem that Deuteronomy 16:3 interpreted literally would call for the story to be told in the day (i.e., the day after the Seder). Deuteronomy 16:3 says to remember the story “all the days of your life.”

Zoma taught Elazar that while days would mean daytime, “all the days” includes the traditional night telling at the Seder. Further, “days of your life” means this lifetime, but “all” means even in the world to come.

The Four Sons — There are four places in the Torah in which a child asks a question relating to Israel’s Exodus story. The rabbis noted midrashically that these four questions seem to come from four kinds of children:

Wise Son — Deuteronomy 6:20-21
Wicked Son — Exodus 12:26-27
Simple Son — Exodus 13:14-15
Unable to Ask — Exodus 13:8

The rabbis saw different motivations behind each question. Yet the principle is that all children should be told the story and not just the most deserving children. Numbers Rabbah 8:4 says, “If you estrange those who are distant you eventually estrange those who are near.”

One Might Think . . . — Since Exodus 13:8 has been brought up in the previous section, this paragraph is used to discuss an ancient question about the timing of Passover. As typical in rabbinic discussion, much is assumed without being stated. The stated reason for asking about the timing of Passover is a phrase in Exodus 13:8, “on that very day.” It is likely, however, that what is really at issue is Deuteronomy 16:1, which could be translated either, “in the month of Aviv the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt” or “on the new moon of Aviv.”

Scholars who view the text of the Torah critically often assume from Deuteronomy 16 that the Passover used to be celebrated on the first of Aviv (Nisan) and was later changed to the fifteenth. This “one might think” paragraph is the rabbis clarifying that their interpretation is that Passover is on the fifteenth (and thus, the word should be translated month in Deuteronomy 16).

Those modern interpreters who insist that Deuteronomy 16 contradicts the Passover traditions found elsewhere in the Torah are guilty of unnecessary dogmatism. The idea that periods from new moon to new moon might be referred to in shorthand with the same word as new moon (chodesh) is not difficult to sustain.

Our Ancestors Were Idol-Worshippers — This section, as noted previously, begins to retell the story following the other opinion about what “disgrace” should form the beginning of the Passover story. Was it the Israelite slavery, as the previous section assumed, or the idolatry of the pre-patriarchal fathers, as this section assumes? The answer for the rabbis is to do both.

This piece of the backstory of Israel comes from Joshua 24:2-4.

God Calculated the End of Our Bondage — This is an extra observation thrown into the Passover story for good reason. It refers to Genesis 15, when God showed Abraham that Israel would go into slavery and come out after a period of time. God showed redemption in advance to the Patriarchs. This is obviously of interest to the Jewish community, particularly in hard times, as a reminder that the Messianic Age of redemption is coming and Jewish sufferings are only for a while. It also shows that the Patriarchs may have started in disgrace (pre-Abrahamic idolatry) but moved on to redemption and praise (thus, the story is told from disgrace to praise, as the old ruling calls for).

***More to come in Part 4***

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Holidays, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Passover, Talmud and Tradition, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

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