It is a curious fact that many of the stories in the Passover Haggadah are not from ancient Israel and not from the time of Israel’s exodus and wilderness wandering. Many are from the second century and the emerging Judaism of the time between the Jewish wars with Rome and after the destruction of the temple.
I have a small but growing collection of Passover Haggadahs, including several from the 1930’s and 1940’s. I recently saw a reference in an article and decided to purchase a rare Haggadah from 1942. The Hebrew Publishing Company in New York produced The Haggadah of Passover with an introduction by Louis Finkelstein. Finkelstein is often regarded as the most important figure in Conservative Judaism in the twentieth century because of his work growing Jewish Theological Seminary. In his introduction to the Haggadah, Finkelstein gives some background information about the rabbis of the Haggadah.
One of the five rabbis in the story of the all-night Haggadah discussion in Bnei Barak, Rabbi Eliezer was a disciple of Johanan ben Zakkai. He was the greatest of Johanan’s students (at one time Johanan said if all the Torah scholars of his time were placed on one side of a scale and Eliezer on the other, Eliezer would outweigh them all). Eliezer helped plan Johanan’s escape from Jerusalem during the siege that led to the destruction of the city (the story is that they brought him out in a coffin and convinced Vespasian to let them open a rabbinic college at Yavneh).
Eliezer traveled to Rome with two other rabbis to petition the emperor. On the way they met with Roman philosophers, one of whom asked, “If God abhors idolatry, why does he not destroy them?” Eliezer responded, “If only such things as could be dispensed with were worshipped by idolaters, perhaps the idols would be destroyed. But the pagans worship, among other things, the sun, the moon, the stars, and other natural phenomena. Shall the whole universe be destroyed because of a few misguided creatures?”
Also one of the five rabbis at the Bnei Barak all-night Seder, Joshua was in many ways the opposite of Eliezer and yet also his closest friend. Rabbi Joshua was poor, where Eliezer was wealthy. Joshua was a pacifist who thought the war with Rome a bad idea, while Eliezer supported it. Eliezer was, as Finkelstein says it, “somewhat dour” while Joshua was “good humored and cheerful.” Joshua earned his living making needles.
Yet in learning, Joshua and Eliezer were brothers. Joshua’s genius was evident not only in Torah but in science and especially astronomy. He spoke of a comet that appeared every seventy years, which we now know as Halley’s comet. Although he was ugly in appearance, his pleasant voice and teaching were once compared to “wine in a disfigured pitcher.”
Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah
Of the five rabbis at Bnei Barak, Eleazar is the one who speaks in the story. He is the youngest of the group and his reference to his age is taken to mean that he had aged prematurely. He looked as old as his colleagues, but was by far their junior. He is of the descendants of Ezra the scribe and is emerging as the leader of the next generation of rabbis in Palestine. Rabbi Joshua said of him, “Despite all out difficulties, our generation is not fatherless so long as we have Eleazar ben Azariah as one of our leaders.”
One of the greatest names in the history of Judaism, Akiba was also present at the Bnei Barak Seder. Akiba was a shepherd until he was forty and then became a student of Torah. One of his teachers, Rabbi Tarfon, quickly recognized that Akiba had ceased being the student and had become the master of his age instead. Akiba is pivotal in the development of the Mishnah and a giant among the Tannaim.
Akiba is famous for dying with remarkable kedushat Hashem (sanctification of the name). As the Romans peeled away his flesh slowly and terribly, Akiba said he rejoiced to see if he loved God not only with his mind and all his might, but also with his life. He recited Shema until the torture killed him.
The last mentioned of the five rabbis at Bnei Barak, Tarfon was the teacher of Akiba. He was a wealthier man than Akiba, and once he decided to help his pupil, investing in him to give him a future source of income. Tarfon gave Akiba a sum of money. He came to his pupil later and found that Akiba had given it away to students poorer than he. Tarfon asked him to show his return on the investment and Akiba read to him from a Psalm, “He has given to the needy and his lovingkindness endures forever.”
Rabbi Tarfon loved his pupil and said of Akiba, “He who departs from Rabbi Akiba departs from life itself.”
Rabbi ben Zoma
This disciple of Akiba, though not present at the Bnei Barak Seder is mentioned in the story because of something he taught Rabbi Eleazar. Ben Zoma was very poor but enjoyed the simple pleasures of life immensely. Eating his poor crust of bread he remarked that primitive man had to do so much work plowing, planting, reaping, threshing, kneading, and baking bread while he, Ben Zoma, was as a rich man, able to buy his bread without hard labor. He taught that everyone should live every moment as a guest of God’s good providence. “A good guest always thinks of the preparations made to receive him, and is accordingly grateful.”
In the story of the Bnei Barak Seder, Rabbi Eleazar spoke of Ben Zoma’s teaching. This poor student of Torah was regarded as a master of seeing the deeper meaning of texts. In the case of this famous Seder, one of Ben Zoma’s teachings involved proving from a verse in Exodus that the Passover story would still be told annually in the World to Come.
Rabbi Judah, son of Ilai
This lesser-known rabbi is mentioned briefly in conjunction with the ten plagues. He was so soft of heart, he could not bear to say all the ten plagues and so created a mnemonic (d’tzach, adash, b’achab) which summarized them. He was also a poor scholar and it is said for a while he and his wife had only one outer garment between them and took turns going out in it. He was said to radiate such joy he looked like an angel. A Roman lady once asked him why he was so cheerful. Was he a breeder of hogs or a money-lender? He replied, “No, I am a student of Torah.”
Rabbi Jose of Galilee
A man of temper and a zealot for the revolt against Rome, Rabbi Jose was not satisfied with the ten plagues and sought to prove they were worse and more numerous that appeared on the surface in the Torah. His teaching is an example of the sort of playful games, not to be taken too seriously, the rabbis played with the text to show what kinds of things could be “proven” with the rules of exegesis.
Arguably the most famous rabbi of all time, Hillel lived a generation before Yeshua. He was famous for his piety and poverty. Once someone wagered four hundred zuz that they could cause Hillel to lose his temper. They made slurs about his Babylonian ancestry and even tried to disturb him as he prepared for Shabbat. Finally Hillel said, “Better you should lose your money rather than I should lose my temper.”
In the Haggadah, Hillel is mentioned as the founder of the custom of eating Matzah with bitter herbs and charoset. In Hillel’s time a slice of lamb was also eaten together with these. Hillel’s practice reflects a literal interpretation of Numbers 9:11. This practice is retained alongside the other interpretation: that these should all be eaten separately and not together. Thus, the Haggadah does it both ways so as to retain the honor of Hillel and to fulfill both interpretations.
The grandson of Hillel and the teacher of Paul (mentioned in Acts 5:34 and 22:3) is a formative figure in passing the legacy of Hillel down to his pupil Johanan ben Zakkai and so into modern Judaism. The title Rabban (our teacher) was invented for Gamaliel, so significant was his role in developing Judaism. Many of his teachings are in the Mishnah anonymously, as part of the accepted tradition of the Tannaim.
In the Haggadah, one of Gamaliel’s teachings is part of the recitation. He ruled that no Seder is complete unless it teaches about the Pesach (the Passover lamb), the Matzah (unleavened bread), and the Maror (bitter herbs). Gamaliel’s teaching and the answers now part of the Haggadah are a refreshing dose of literal interpretation in a scattering of fanciful stories and traditions.