If you heard that Passover was a telling of the Exodus story and then opened a Passover haggadah to read what is inside, you’d be surprised by the strange lack of reference to Moses, by the lack of a sustained telling of the familiar story of plagues and passover and exodus. You’d find something else instead: the Maggid portion of the haggadah, which makes up one-third of its total length.
And the Maggid, you might say, is the Passover story put together by a committee, a committee over many generations with different angles and emphases.
Another way to look at it is that the Maggid is a mature collection of stories for advanced contemplators, who know the familiar story too well to dwell on basics. The Maggid is a series of midrashes, mainly on Deuteronomy 26:5-9. The following is commentary on the Maggid with based primarily on information from My People’s Passover Haggadah (eds. Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow).
Overview of the Maggid
In the Vine of David Haggadah, the Maggid is on pages 16-45. It begins right after Yachatz (breaking the middle matzah) and ends before Rochtzah (handwashing before the meal). Before the Maggid the Seder is about preparation: the first cup, handwashing, the green vegetable, and breaking the middle matzah. After Maggid the Seder includes many of the physical elements and then worship and blessings: handwashing again, blessing bread and matzah, bitter herbs, the Hillel sandwich, the meal, the afikoman, grace after meals, the third cup, the Hallel psalms, the fourth cup, and continued blessings.
The Maggid has eleven sections, all outlined below. The contents of the Maggid developed from the time of the Tannaim (the sages of the Mishnah, mainly those from 70 – 200 CE) until sometime into the Gaonic period (a.k.a. Geonic, 589-1038 CE).
1. 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 bread-making.
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.”
2. 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.
3. 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.”
4. The Five Rabbis
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 the interpretation fit well in the era after Israel’s independence as an inspiring example of Jewish resistance in history.
If the military theory is incorrect, it seems the good rabbis were literally up all night dialoguing about the details of the Exodus story.
5. 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.
6. 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.”
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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).
10. Laban the Aramean
This is one of the most difficult sections of the Haggadah to understand. And the difficulty most readers have interpreting this part of the storytelling for Passover is understandable. The Laban the Aramean section is an example of the creative retelling of the Exodus story to fit the struggle of a later generation. It is a model for the way the Biblical story can be told to fit the struggle of any generation of Israel.
The generation that best fits this creative retelling is from the time between the two Jewish revolts against Rome (between 70 and 135 C.E.). I will explain this theory as developed by Lawrence Hoffman in My People’s Passover Haggadah below.
The underlying message, Hoffman tells us, is that Jews should keep the Land of Israel as the center of Judaism and not allow the Labans, Pharaohs, Romans, Nazis, and so on to pull us off course. Even Jacob in a time of duress only entered Egypt to sojourn and only when God decreed it. The place for Jacob and thus for Judaism is the Land.
The biblical roots of the Laban section are found in Deuteronomy 26:5:
And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. (Deut. 26:5).
The key phrase is, “a wandering Aramean (Syrian) was my father.” The Hebrew is ambiguous (arami oved avi). Oved usually means perish or destroy. It can also mean lost or strayed (as in 1 Samuel 9:3 and 20). Not only is the word ambiguous, but so is the grammar. To make a long story short, the most likely two options are either:
–A wandering (lost/fugitive) Aramean was my father
–An Aramean destroyed my father
Of these two, there are two reasons to prefer the first one: (1) the verb is a participle and fits better as an adjective than as a past tense and (2) the second statement is not historically true. Thus, as we will see in the explanation below, some interpretations rendered it, “An Aramean wished to destroy my father.”
Onkelos is the name of an Aramaic paraphrase (Targum) of the Torah that is very ancient (1st Century C.E.). Onkelos reads this phrase from Deuteronomy with different vowels (arami ibed avi). This could be translated, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” Lawrence Hoffman explains that later rabbis likely had an even more creative reading in mind that uses the same consonants: romi ibed avi, a Roman tried to destroy my father (My People’s Passover Haggadah, Vol. 2, pp.25-26).
The best theory that explain this curious retelling of Deuteronomy 26:5 is that it was devised by the rabbis who lived after the destruction of the Temple when the oppression of Rome was felt strongly. Lawrence Hoffman suggests the key is to note the details that diverge from a simple reading of the Biblical story:
1. The idea that Laban the Aramean was worse than Pharaoh is a stretch Biblically speaking. It is true that if Laban had killed Jacob in Genesis 31 or if he had seduced Jacob into idolatry, Israel would never have formed as a people. But Laban did nothing of the kind (some interpreters say the fact that Laban wanted to do it was enough to create the possibility, so that “an Aramean destroyed my father” is real in a potential kind of way). But the Romans did do something like what Laban is accused of: destroying the Temple and killing many thousands of Jews. The Romans were worse than Pharaoh and killed more than just the males.
2. The idea that Jacob only went into Egypt by divine decree is also a stretch. It is true that God caused a famine and this might be interpreted as God orchestrating Jacob’s journey into Egypt, though the text never says this was the purpose of the famine. It is true, however, that in the period of Roman persecution, the Jewish center in Alexandria, Egypt, became the most important Jewish community outside of Israel.
3. The idea that Israel became a distinct people in Egypt is true Biblically, but Hoffman asks why emphasize it? This too fits the Roman theory, in which diaspora Judaism threatened to become the spiritual center of Judaism (it eventually did in Babylon; hence the Babylonian Talmud). Meanwhile, rabbis such as Gamaliel II sought to bring the center back to the Land of Israel.
Therefore, what we have in the Laban the Aramean section is a retelling of Deuteronomy 26:5 that makes its message contemporary for Jews in between the two Jewish revolts (66-70 C.E. and 132-135 C.E.). With some creativity, repointing the vowels, and making use of fanciful exegesis, the rabbis were able to make a wisdom parable for their generation.
One could easily imagine, and it has been done, other generations of Jewish history fitting the story to their generation’s struggle.
11. The Egyptians Did Evil to Us . . . the Lord Brought Us Out
Most of the rabbinic commentary here is straightforward interpretation. Yet there are a few places in this extended explanation of Deuteronomy 26:6-8 that are intriguing puzzles calling for questioning and reflection.
Regarding Deuteronomy 26:6 (And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage), the commentary of the Haggadah is simple. The sages use Exodus 1:10, 11, and 13 to remind us of the roots of Israel’s slavery. The Egyptians enslaved Israel to keep us down, to keep us from coming to power, and to keep us from becoming a threat to their own power. The reason for this comment becomes apparent in the explanation of 26:7.
Regarding Deuteronomy 26:7 (Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our burden, and our oppression), the Haggadah commentary leads in a specific direction: the affliction of Israel was about the killing of the male children and inhibiting the growth of the incipient nation. Through a series of references (Exodus 2:23-25; 1:22; and 3:9), the rabbis focus the issue of suffering on the slaughtering of the children. The affliction is identified as disruption of family life. The burden is the casting of infant sons into the Nile. And the oppression is the groaning of Israel. These comments are surprising, perhaps, in emphasizing the killing of children above the pains of slave labor.
It is in their explanation of Deuteronomy 26:8 that the sages introduce the largest puzzle of all.
Deuteronomy 26:8 is straightforward: and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders. The explanation in the Haggadah is not so straightforward: …not through an angel…but through the Holy One…I and no angel…I and no other.
Reading it the obvious question is, “What are you arguing against?” Clearly the point that it is God who rescued Israel is being made from Deuteronomy 26:8, “the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” But why deny the involvement of angels? There is a long history of texts from the apocalyptic writings, the New Testament, and various rabbinic texts discussing the mediation of angels at Mt. Sinai (see Acts 7:53 and Gal. 3:19, for example).
The thing is, Torah says in one place that God smote the land and in another that it was an angel:
Exodus 12:12, I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast.
Exodus 12:23, …the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you.
Some see this as a contradiction between early and late sources of Torah. Others see this as a both-and (God did it and used an angel as his instrument).
But why does the haggadah deny the involvement of an angel? Lawrence Hoffman gives what is likely the real reason for the strange commentary of the Haggadah on this verse:
This is almost certainly a polemic against Christianity. Origen of Alexandria (185-c. 254) . . . engaged in controversy with Rabbi Yochanan, the most significant rabbi in the Palestinian Talmud, on precisely this point. Origen claimed that the Christian “second” covenant through Jesus surpassed the Jewish “original” one through Moses, because Jesus was the Christ, a part of God, whereas Moses was merely a human agent or messenger.
The haggadah wishes to emphasize God’s personal involvement. The use of angels in carrying out God’s deliverance of Israel is in no way about the “old” covenant being inferior, as Origen claimed. Ultimately, as the haggadah says, it was God who did this and angels were mere instruments.