Tomorrow is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach. Traditionally (and ideally), we are supposed to spend some time this Shabbat studying the text of the haggadah. Our s’darim, after all, are meant to be meaningful, not just enjoyable. We achieve this meaningfulness through the seder’s 15 steps, which are designed to spark two types of discussions: about the Exodus, and its significance for us then and now, and about some of the laws of Pesach and how these relate to the Exodus.
For most of us, such discussions will not come easily without some advance study of the haggadah, the text of which is meant to lead us into these discussions. The haggadah, however, is based on an outline provided in Mishnah Pesachim 10:4, a text written 1,800 years ago that required knowledge even then that most people lacked and still do.
These haggadot are not user-friendly for anyone not steeped in rabbinic teachings. You would be hard-pressed, for example, to find any serious discussion of the Exodus in its pages. It is there, but it is couched in rabbinic statements that on the surface do not seem very relevant.
Sometimes, for example, no explanation is given for a ritual item. Step No. 8 is the eating of a piece of bitter herb (maror) that is dipped into a sweet apple-based concoction (charoset). The blessing we make is “who commanded us on the eating of maror,” but if charoset is also required, why is there is no mention of it? What does the charoset represent? Why must it contain an apple as its main ingredient? Why are spices included, and why must the charoset be a thick concoction?
There is much about the enslavement that could be discussed in this step, but the haggadah is silent. One would need to have studied how our Sages of Blessed Memory sought to explain it (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 116a).
Even so simple a requirement as reciting the kiddush, the seder’s first step, provides an opening for a discussion because the order of the blessings is the subject of a debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai (see Mishnah Pesachim 10:4). An interesting discussion could emerge in trying to understand why each school ruled as it did — but that discussion would require studying BT Pesachim 114a.
That is why studying the haggadah on Shabbat Hagadol (or at any other time before the first seder) is so critical. When we read the text cold at the seder, we have no way of explaining why this paragraph or that one is included, what connection a paragraph has to the Exodus and its meaning, or what other purpose that paragraph serves at the seder. We cannot discuss what we do not understand.
Early on in the critical Magid section (step 5) the traditional haggadah makes clear what the seder is all about. It declares: “Even if all of us are wise, all of us people of understanding, all of us elders, all of us knowledgeable in the Torah, we are nevertheless obligated to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt (y’tziat mitzrayim). And those who dwell for a long time on telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt are considered praiseworthy.”
The haggadah then illustrates its point by relating what appears to be an all-night seder held in B’nei B’rak at which the sole participants were the Sages Rabbis Eliezer, Joshua, Eliezer ben Azariah, Akiva, and Tarfon.
This seder, however, likely never happened. Aside from the fact that it suggests that these Sages left their families to fend for themselves that night, it appears nowhere else in rabbinic literature. It also apparently recasts a similar event that involved a different cast of Sages:
“On one occasion, Rabban Gamliel and other Sages were gathered together in the home of Boethus ben Zonin in Lod, and they were occupied with studying the laws of Passover all night until the rooster crowed.” (See Tosefta Pesachim 10:12.)
For the paragraph in the traditional haggadah to serve its purpose requires its readers to know the apparent origin of the story, so they can unpack its text, and specifically in two areas:
• To explain why different Sages were substituted for the seder’s original participants.
• To explain why the activity was changed from studying the laws of Pesach to retelling the Exodus story.
Recasting the participants allowed for two lessons from one text. Rabbi Akiva descended from converts; his ancestors never were slaves in Egypt. Rabbis Elazar Ben Azariah, Eliezer, and Tarfon all were priests (kohanim), and Rabbi Yehoshua was a Levite. In other words, all four were from the one tribe (Levi) that tradition says never was enslaved by Egypt. By substituting these Sages, not only is the “even if we all of us were wise” statement illustrated, for the attendees surely were, but we also are shown five people who would seem not to need to retell the Exodus saga. Since they must do so, how much more so must the rest of us.
As for why the change of activity from studying laws to retelling the story that led to those laws, it apparently was meant to come down on one side of a debate over the focus of the seder, which is a Torah-derived event based on Deuteronomy 6:20. Some Sages contended the mitzvah is to study the laws, while others argued it was to dwell on the actual telling of the story. This paragraph chooses telling the story.
That does not mean the issue is decided. There is yet another unpacking necessary. Just two paragraphs later we reach the part about the Four Sons. The traditional haggadah has this to say about how to respond to the Wise Son:
“And you should say to him regarding the laws of Passover, ‘After eating the Pesach sacrifice, we may not eat an afikomen.’” In other words, we should teach him the laws of Pesach. (We do eat the afikomen, of course, so a discussion as to why this law, found in Mishnah Pesachim 10:8, has been turned on its head.)
True, the Wise Son represents the one referenced in Deuteronomy 6:20, but the answer the Torah prescribes to his question in its very next verse is, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” That answer involves telling the story. The answer in the haggadah involves teaching the laws.
This likely is a compromise. In the Sages story, the telling wins out. From the Four Sons on to the end of the haggadah’s critical Maggid portion, the teaching wins out.
Here is another example of a text that requires explaining why it appears in the haggadah:
“Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, ‘Behold I am like a man of 70 years, but I failed to understand why the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night until Ben Zoma illuminated it.’”
This Sage is quoted in the Talmud as having said, “Behold I am like a man of 70 years” (see BT B’rachot 27b-28a), but it had nothing to do with the Exodus or the laws of Pesach. Rather, it reportedly was what he said when he suddenly had the leadership of the Sanhedrin (Judaism’s official governing body) thrust upon him. Because he supposedly was only 18 years old at the time, it prompted him to declare that he had been given the responsibilities of one who was much wiser and more learned.
At the seder, there should be some discussion of why this “70 years old” statement is quoted out of context. One possibility is that it is there to tell us that regardless of how learned you are — teenagers still have much to learn and septuagenarians have learned a great deal, after all — it is still incumbent on us to keep digging into the Exodus and the Pesach laws because there is always more to learn.
Is it any wonder that too many of us find it difficult to enter the traditional text and become part of its conversation? We sit at the seder and read its paragraphs, but we miss the whole point of why we are reading those paragraphs, which defeats the purpose of the seder. That is why we should take time to study the haggadah before we sit down to the seder.
There are modern versions of the haggadah that are more relevant and more understandable. As long as they incorporate all the elements considered important, they are the ones we should be studying in preparing for the seder. They are certainly useful, as well, at the seder itself.
True, these haggadot usually are written mostly in English. The haggadah, however, should be recited in the language with which a person is most comfortable. (This is based primarily on a discussion in BT Sota 32a.) If we do not understand what we are saying, there is no point in saying it.
Enjoy your s’darim, and may they be meaningful ones.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.