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

PESACH: Telling the Story (Part 2/2)

Sippur — joining multiple details to form a singular, holistic “story”

We have explored several different aspects of the word haggadah/maggid, and showed how that word stresses certain elements of storytelling. With those ideas in mind, we painted a more vivid picture of the Torah’s commandment for one to “tell over” the story of the Exodus on Passover Night. As we mentioned in that section, another term used for the requirement of relating the Exodus story is sippur yetziat Mitzrayim (literally, “the telling of the Exodus [from] Egypt”). In this section we will sharpen our understanding of the word sippur/misaper and how it differs from haggadah/maggid. In doing so, we will also shed light on some more arcane aspects of the commandment to “tell” the Exodus story.

We have seen that haggadah/maggid referred to specific modes of storytelling. In contrast, the term sippur is a more general term for telling over a story. For example, while Radak in his Sefer HaShorashim writes that haggadah specifically denotes “telling” something new, he explains that sippur and its cognates refer to “telling” information about something that had already happened, or had already been told over. Others explain that sippur can refer both to something which was already known and to something which is being revealed for the first time. Either way, the point is that sippur does not refer specifically to relaying new information.

Similarly, Rabbi Ari Bergmann explained that while haggadah denotes showing how a past event is still relevant nowadays, sippur simply denotes relating an event that happened in the past. In that spirit, the Malbim explains that haggadah connotes telling over something that is relevant to the listener, while misaper refers to saying over a story which is not necessarily directly related to the listener.

Alternatively, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) explains that the difference between haggadah and sippur lies in how the speaker knows whatever he is saying over. The word haggadah implies relaying information which the speaker directly experienced (something he heard or saw himself). On the other hand, the word sippur is a general term for relating any story, or even a dream, which he did not physically perceive.

In short, haggadah implies that the content is personally known to the speaker, directly relevant to the listener (as we explained previously, GIMMEL-DALET denotes a form of “connection”), or new. Sippur/misaper is a more general term which does not carry any of these connotations. Nonetheless, there are still some important lessons which we can derive from the use of sippur/misaper.

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains that all words derived from the SAMECH-PEH-REISH root are interrelated. He explains that sippur denotes joining together multiple details to form a singular, holistic unit—the “story”. This resembles a sefer (book), which includes all the details and contents recorded therein, and binds them together into one entity. Similarly, a sfar (border) confines everything within its boundary and makes them into one unit — whether it is the border of a country or the city limits. Finally, mispar (number) and sofer (counting) refer to the system of counting numbers that are all bound together in an organized and logical way.

Interestingly, Hebrew is not the only language in which the words for “telling” and “counting” are related. The same phenomenon is found in German/Yiddish. In fact, the English words “tell” and “tale” are derived from the German word zahlen, which also means to “count”. Another English word, recount (“to narrate a story”), is obviously related to count. Some etymologists even claim that the English phrase “to tell time” uses the word tell in the sense of “counting” — not “storytelling”.

This idea can help us better understand the requirement to “tell over” the story of the Exodus on Passover night. Rabbi Aryeh Pomeranchik (1908-1942) writes that he heard from the Brisker Rav (1886-1959) in the name of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) that this special commandment on Passover night differs in two ways from the daily requirement to mention the Exodus. Firstly, the fulfillment of this commandment must assume a question and answer format, while the daily commandment of mentioning the Exodus simply entails “mentioning” the story. Secondly, the commandment on Passover night requires telling over the entire story of the Exodus — beginning with the Jews’ enslavement, the ensuing miracles leading up to and following the Exodus, the miraculous exit, and the praise of G-d for performing these miracles — while the commandment of “mentioning” the Exodus does not require all these details.

These two components of the commandment of Passover night are evident in the term sippur and the requirement to be misaperSippur/misaper denotes a structured storytelling, made up of several components joined together in a logical and coherent way. The different parts of the story must flow from each other in one smooth progression, like numbers that flow from each other when counted. This refers both to the question-and-answer format of the Passover night storytelling, and to the fact that the story follows one chronological/logical narrative.

Peirush HaRokeach explains that while haggadah refers to telling something new, sippur refers to “the first time and more.” Perhaps he means to explain that sippur refers to a story which is intended to be told over multiple times. When one is misaper, this is but one instance within a series of instances, like a number which is but one point on the infinite number line. This fits neatly withsippur yetziat Mitzrayim, which is told and retold every year.

Haggadah and Sippur — the ultimate purpose of telling the story

That said, we can now begin to understand why the Torah refers to the commandment of telling the story of the Exodus with a haggadah-related verb, while the Rabbis tend to use a sippur-related word. From the Torah’s perspective the commandment of telling over the story of the Exodus requires one to say over something “new,” because when that directive was first issued, the story had never been told yet — it was still unfolding. For this reason the Torah uses the word vehigadata. But from the Rabbis’ perspective, the story had already been repeated for generations, so the commandment calls for one to continue transmitting that story from generation to generation. Accordingly, they use the word misaper.

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Feinstein (1906-2003), a son-in-law of the Brisker Rav, finds Biblical precedent for referring to the commandment of vehigadata as sippur yetziat Mitzrayim. He notes that although the term sippur does not appear in the Bible concerning the commandment in question, it does appear in a related context. The Torah says that the reason for G-d’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart and performing all sorts of miracles leading up to the Exodus was so that the Jewish People will “tell” their descendants about this and they will know G-d. (Ex. 10:2) In that context, the Torah uses the word tisaper (a cognate of sippur). Because that is the ultimate purpose of the miracles, the Rabbis focused on that word, referring to the commandment as sippur yetziat Mitzrayim. Rabbi Feinstein asserts that the Torah uses the word vehigadata only to teach how the story should be presented, but not concerning what the ultimate purpose in relating the story is — that we will know G-d and recognize His power.

A similar explanation is offered by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865). He writes that another hallmark of sippur/misaper is “explaining something in a clear way”. He argues that these words are related to the word sapir — a type of blue gemstone. Moreover, Rabbi Mecklenburg likens G-d’s administration of the world to the clear blue sky. The sky’s clarity is sometimes blocked by clouds, just as the wicked sometimes obfuscate His role in the universe. By clearly spelling out how G-d runs all of creation and puts the wicked in their place, one essentially “clears up” any misconceptions about His role in the universe. He clears away the clouds, with only the blue sky remaining. According to this, the term sippur applies to our narrating the story of the Exodus, because by presenting the entire story as a whole, we show how G-d oversees the entirety of creation.

Two Separate Commandments?

After a lengthy discussion of the two terms used for the commandment in question, Rabbi Nosson Gestetner (1932-2010) concludes that there are actually two separate commandments that one performs at the Passover Seder. One commandment is sippur yetziat Mitzrayim, which obligates one to verbalize the story and sequence of events that happened at the Exodus. This commandment even applies to somebody celebrating the Passover Seder alone, and even if he already knows the story he is still supposed to say it over to himself. In addition to this there is another commandment, which is the commandment of vehigadata. This second commandment requires revealing/teaching one’s children ideas or details about the Exodus that they did not previously know.

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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