Haggadah’s ‘hidden’ lessons

In just about two weeks, most Jews around the world will sit down to at least one seder.

We will open our Haggadot and go through its texts, and ideally find lessons therein that spark discussions.

There are lessons buried within the Haggadah’s text, however, that go unnoticed by too many of us — and they are lessons we sorely need to learn: Jewish law and tradition are not monolithic and may change over time as circumstances change; diverse opinions, if they stem from authoritative sources and are held by enough people, are acceptable; ritual texts are not immutable.

Take, for example, the ritual of the four cups of wine. Each cup is said to symbolize an aspect of the deliverance God mentioned in Exodus 6:6-7—”I will free you … and deliver you from bondage; I will redeem you … and I will take you to be My people….”

Originally, though, there was a fifth cup, because there was yet another aspect, found in Exodus 6:8: “I will bring you into the land….”

The fifth cup disappeared because we lost the land and were dispersed among the nations, so it became a cup of despair, not joy. In many homes today, it has returned, albeit symbolically, thus representing yet another change to the seder ritual.

Each cup, of course, is preceded in our Haggadot by the blessing for wine, “borei pri hagafen.” Having made the blessing in reciting the Kiddush, however, the blessing over the second cup could be regarded as an illegal extraneous blessing. Because the third cup is recited after the meal has ended and grace (birkat hamazon) has been said, that blessing is not extraneous, but the blessing over the fourth cup also could be seen as extraneous.

Sefardim do not recite a blessing over either cup number two or cup number four. Ashkenazim do, because of an opinion that since four cups are required at the seder, each deserves a blessing.

Both are correct within their own traditions.

The Four Questions, the Mah Nishtana, is considered a fixed text — but the text we have is not the original one. Again, changing times bring changing circumstances, requiring changes in the text.

The Jerusalem Talmud (and very early manuscripts of the Mishnah) preserve an earlier text, with just three questions: (1) why we dip vegetables twice at the seder; (2) why we only eat matzah on this night; (3) why we may eat meat that was roasted, stewed, or boiled on other nights, but only roasted meat on this night. (See the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Pesachim, 70a.)

The Babylonian Talmud’s version (BT Pesachim 116a) records four questions, putting matzah first, and adding a fourth question in the second slot: “On all other nights, we eat other vegetables; on this night, bitter herbs (maror).”

Neither version, of course, is the version we use. Early in post-talmudic times, the “roasted meat” question was dropped, apparently because it was too closely related to what happened in Temple times, and a new fourth question was added: “On all nights, we eat sitting or leaning over; tonight, we’re supposed to lean over.”

Different times required changes to the text.

Interestingly, both versions of the Talmud list the questions to be asked, and then provide the “proper” answer. That answer is not “we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 6:21), which we have in our Haggadot. Rather, it was “a fugitive Aramaean was my father,” a text from Deuteronomy 26.

This switching of texts probably is meant to reflect one side of a talmudic argument about what it is we are to do at the seder. One side argued that it was to dwell on the story of the Exodus. The other side argued that it was to study the laws of Passover.

The “we were slaves” answer reflects the side that argues for a study of the laws. In the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:21 is preceded by this verse: “What do the decrees, laws, and rules mean that the Lord our God has commanded you?” It is followed by these verses (24 and 25):

“Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our God, for our lasting good, and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before the Lord our God to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as He has commanded us.”

The text of today’s Haggadot actually continues on this legal theme for the most part, but with a short break to include the “wandering Aramaean” paragraph and some other passing texts.

We see this in the discussion of the Four Sons. In the Haggadah, the Wise Son actually asks the question posed in Deuteronomy 6:20: “What do the decrees, laws, and rules mean,” and so on, which the Torah then says should be answered “we were slaves.” The Haggadah answers, “And you should say to him regarding the laws of Passover, ‘and nothing shall be eaten after the afikoman.’”

That does not mean the “story-telling” side has no representation beyond “a wandering Aramaean.” Almost immediately after the paragraph beginning with “we were slaves,” there is the story of a seder celebrated by five Sages of blessed memory, who “discussed the Exodus through the night….’”

This account appears nowhere else in rabbinic literature. There is a rabbinic text, however, that reports on a seder at which “Rabban Gamaliel and other sages were … occupied with studying the laws of Passover all night until the rooster crowed.” (See Tosefta Pesachim 10:12.)

The story was changed for the Haggadah in order to give the other side of the debate its due.

The seder is a unique event in Jewish life, because most Jews the world over actually attend one. On the first night, at least, nearly all Jews are engaged in pretty much the same activity, most even using the same text, regardless of labels and differences in practice. What a unifying moment that is.

The Haggadah reflects that unity amid diversity. There are many other examples one could cite to support this. The Haggadah celebrates differences of opinion. It chooses compromise over conflict. Minority opinions are not dismissed out of hand.

May these be lessons we learn when we sit down to engage with the Haggadah’s text.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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