Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

PESACH: Telling the Story (Part 1/2)

The cornerstone of the Passover Seder is the fulfillment of the Torah’s commandment, “And you shall tell your sons… ‘G-d performed for me, when I came out of Egypt.’” (Ex. 13:8) The verb used for “tell” is vehigadeta. The Passover Haggadah is thus aptly named, as is Maggid, the section of the Haggadah which deals with the story of the Exodus, for both words share a root with vehigadeta. One would expect Rabbinic literature to call this commandment vehigadeta, or haggadah; yet, the rabbis tend to refer to this commandment as sippur yetziat Mitzrayim (literally, “the telling of the Exodus [from] Egypt”).

What is the difference between the verbs lesaper (from which sippur is derived), and maggid/lehagid (from which haggadah is derived)? Nachmanides (to Deut. 26:3) seems to equate these two verbs, thus assuming that they are perfect synonyms. However, as we shall see, most commentators understand differently. In this first part we will focus on the term haggadah and its implications. In the next part we turn our focus to sippur.

When G-d told Moshe to prepare the Jewish People to receive the Torah, He told him, “So shall you say to the House of Yaakov, and tell (tageid) to the Sons of Israel.” (Ex. 19:3) Rashi explains that Moshe was supposed to present the topic forcefully and “tell” (tageid) the Jewish men about the Torah’s detailed expectations, and the punishments for those who fail to meet them. Rashi explains that the word tageid (a cognate of haggadah) is related to the word gid (“sinew”) and denotes something strong and durable, not soft and fluffy. From this we see that haggadah refers to presenting an idea in a strong, assertive way.

There is another aspect of haggadah/maggid that we can derive from its usage in the Bible. We find throughout the Bible that cognates of haggadah are used specifically when discussing information which was not known before it was revealed. For example, when Adam expressed his embarrassment at being naked, G-d asked him, “Who told (higid) you that you are naked?” (Gen. 3:11) Similarly, when Esther refused to divulge her origins and family, the word used is magedet.(Esther 2:20) The act of giving testimony is also described as haggadah (Lev. 5:1), because the witnesses present the court with new information. In accordance with these sources, Ibn Ezra (to Ex. 19:9) writes that haggadah refers specifically to saying something new which has not yet been told.

Interestingly, Radak in Sefer HaShorashim also writes that haggadah/maggid refers specifically to telling something new, and explains that the root of the word is NUN-GIMMEL-DALET (neged), meaning “opposite.” Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), and Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) all explain that when one tells his friend something new he presents it “opposite” (i.e. in front of) him. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) similarly explains that one brings new information to light to “oppose” what the listener already knows.

Alternatively, Menachem ibn Saruk (920-970) argues that the root of the word haggadah is GIMMEL-DALET, which Rabbi Pappenheim understands is an expression of “connection.” He explains that telling somebody new information allows him to “connect” to it. Although Menachem explains that haggadah has a different root (implying “connection” rather than “opposition”), this approach also links haggadah with new information.

From what we know so far, the term haggadah carries two implications. It can emphasize the forcefulness and authority with which an idea is told, and it can also stress the novelty of the information being relayed.

Both of these ideas are alluded to in the Haggadah Shel Pesach. As mentioned above, Ex. 13:8 commands us to tell (vehigadata) our children about the Exodus. The Haggadah discusses the Four Sons, each one of whom must be taught using a different approach; yet the Haggadah applies Ex. 13:8 to both the wicked son and the son who does not know how to ask. In light of the above, this makes sense: One speaks strongly and harshly to the wicked son, so vehigadata is appropriate. And anything one tells the son who does not know how to ask is a new idea, so again the term vehigadata is fitting.

There is also another aspect to the word haggadah. Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) in Sefer HaTishbi writes that the word aggadah, “story” (related to haggadah), is an expression of “pulling” or “drawing,” because recounting Aggadic explanations draws in the heart of the audience. He adduces this view from Targum to Gen. 37:28, which uses the word negidu to denote Yosef being “drawn” from the pit. (By the way, Modern Hebrew unfairly redefined aggadah to mean a “fairytale” or “fictional legend”.)

In this vein, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) writes that the term haggadah applies specifically to one who reveals something by explaining it at great length. Thus, we find that the word haggadah does not refer to simply stating an idea or occurrence briefly, but rather to a purposely “drawn out” narrative.

Haggadah — giving contemporary relevance to a historical narrative

Alternatively, Rabbi Dovid Abudraham (a 14th century commentator to the Siddur) writes that the word haggadah is an expression of “admission” or “thanks.” Rabbi Mecklenburg expresses a similar sentiment. He notes that haggadah‘s two-letter root, GIMMEL-DALET (gad), refers to “success” and “fortune.” Accordingly, he explains that lehagid refers to praising G-d in the context of recognizing His role in one’s success and fortune.

What does any of this have to do with the literal meaning of haggadah — “the telling”?

Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann (a student of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro) teaches that haggadah relates an event that happened in the past, and “draws” it into the present by demonstrating its relevance. In other words, haggadah gives a historical narrative contemporary relevance (see also Alshich to Gen. 24:23). Rabbi Bergmann compares this to the concept of hagadat eidut, whereby witnesses who take the stand share testimony about a past event, and show its relevance for the court’s deliberations in the present. In his estimation, the commandment of vehigadata does not simply require us to recount the story of the Exodus, but to show how that story remains relevant to us.

The idea of drawing the historical narrative into the realm of the practical also comes up in a halachic context. Rabbi Aryeh Pomeranchik (1908-1942) writes that he heard from the Brisker Rav (1886-1959) in Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik’s name (1853-1918) an explanation as to how the commandment of vehigadata on Passover night differs from the daily requirement to mention the Exodus. The former entails explaining the connection between the Exodus narrative and the Passover commandments of matzah and marror, while the latter simply calls on “mentioning” the Exodus without regard to the commandments that stem from that narrative. This idea may be derived from the word vehigadata itself, which, as we explained above, denotes “drawing out” the story and showing how it applies to us (in this case, the practical commandments to be performed on Passover night).

To summarize, the word haggadah implies the transmission of new, novel information. Its roots convey both challenge/opposition and connection. The haggadah confronts the participant with new, challenging information. It speaks forcefully and rubs the participants’ noses in questions. The participant is forced to engage with the material presented, and to ultimately connect to it. The term haggadah also implies a drawn out narrative, rather than a brief statement of facts, because the Haggadah Shel Pesach is supposed to spark dialog rather than monologue. At its core, haggadah is the act of giving contemporary relevance to a historical narrative. This can be accomplished by thanking G-d for the benefit that one receives from those events and the “success” that they bring us, or tying the narrative to commandments currently in effect.

Now that we understand the Haggadah better, we see that this ancient text is quite sophisticated in its multi-sensory, dynamic approach, designed to create active participants, and lead them on an extended process of discovering the Exodus’ personal relevance. In the next section we will explain the implications of the term sippur and how that affects our understanding of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim.

To Be Continued…

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is the author of God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018). Mosaica Press published his first book, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew, in 2014, and it became an instant classic. Rabbi Klein has also published papers in several prestigious journals, including Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (New York), Jewish Bible Quarterly (Jerusalem), Kovetz Hamaor (Monsey), and Kovetz Kol HaTorah (London). His weekly articles also appear in the Ohrnet, Jewish Press, Oneg Shabbos, and other publications. Many of his writings and lectures are available for free on the internet. Rabbi Klein is a native of Valley Village, CA and graduated Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, before going to study at the famed Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, NJ. He received rabbinic ordination from leading authorities Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, and Dayan Chanoch Sanhedrai. He is also a member of the RCA, an alumnus of Ohr LaGolah, and was awarded a summer fellowship at the Tikvah Institute for Yeshiva Men in 2015. He is a long-time member of the Kollel of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem and lives with his wife and children in Beitar Illit, Israel. Questions and comments can be directed to The author is available for research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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