Daniel B. Schwartz
Daniel B. Schwartz

Politics in the Haggadah and the odd Seder in B’nei Brak

The Pesach Haggadah seems, on the surface, to be a very straightforward book.  It sets out, step by the step, the ritual for the ceremonial meal eaten in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, in fulfillment of the Torah’s command that we retell the story of the Exodus from year to year.  The Haggadah also provides a detailed and interesting script for that retelling.

But if one looks at the work a bit more carefully, it becomes a very mysterious text, indeed. First off, we don’t know who authored it.  The Haggadah emerged during the Geonic Era, in the 8th-9th centuries, the text and ritual instructions essentially complete.  We have no record of how it developed.  And while the Haggadah does, in large part, conform to the description of the Tannaitic Seder set forth in the tenth chapter of the Mishna Pesachim, it doesn’t always accurately quote the Mishna even when it clearly refers to it.  Moreover, the Haggadah in certain places seemingly intentionally misquotes the rabbinic sayings of the Tannaitic era, and sometimes seems to fabricate events entirely.

One such mysterious text is the story of the Seder in B’nei Brak.  According to the story, Rabbis Akiva, Tarfon, Joshua, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and Elazar ben Azariah, convened in B’nei Brak (ostensibly in R. Akiva’s house) and stayed up the entire night discussing the wondrousness of the Exodus, until their students told them it was time to say the morning Shema.  It’s a compelling story, emphasizing the significance of the Seder and the importance in Judaism of retelling the foundation story of our redemption from slavery by G-d.  The problem is that this story has no source in the rabbinic literature prior to the advent of the Haggadah.

Lest one think that the story of the B’nei Brak Seder is baseless fiction, there is a very similar story told in the Toseffta (a pre-Mishnaic Tannaitic work) about R. Gamliel II (also called R. Gamliel of Yavne to distinguish him from his grandfather, R. Gamliel the Elder) in Lod.

Once, Rabban Gamliel and the elders were reclining in the house of Boethus ben Zonin in Lod, and they were occupied in studying the laws of Pesach all that night, until the cock crowed. They lifted the table, made themselves ready and went to the house of study [to pray]. (Toseffta Pesachim 10:12)

Why didn’t the author of the Haggadah use this documented story to make his point that it is praiseworthy to spend a great amount of time in retelling the story of the Exodus?  Why the need to (apparently) edit the Toseffta’ s story into something seemingly cut from whole cloth?

The curiousness of this story is compounded when considering the characters placed in B’nei Brak.  Three of them, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, R. Elazar ben Azariah and R. Joshua, all had dramatic and extremely consequential disputes with R. Gamliel II.

R. Joshua suffered severe public humiliation at R. Gamliel’s hands on two occasions. The Mishne in Rosh Hashana records that when the two had an argument concerning when Yom Kippur fell, R. Gamliel commanded R. Joshua to visit him “with your staff and rucksack” (i.e., in weekday attire) on the day he thought was Yom Kippur. The Talmud in Berachot relates that during a dispute concerning the obligation to pray Maariv, R. Gamliel publicly upbraided R. Joshua and forced him to stand while R. Gamliel delivered his lecture. The Talmud continues with the story that the other sages were so outraged by R. Gamliel’s ham-fisted treatment of R. Joshua that day in the Beit Midrash, that they ousted R.  Gamliel from his position of Nasi, replacing him with R.  Elazar ben Azariah.

The Talmud in Bava Metzia records the well-known dispute between R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and the other sages (R. Joshua among them) regarding whether an Akhenian oven can be purified.  Even though a Heavenly Voice declared that R. Eliezer was objectively correct in G-d’s view (i.e. the silent author of the Talmudic passage acknowledges that R. Eliezer should have prevailed), R. Gamliel excommunicated him.  The humiliation he suffered at his brother-in-law’s hands, led R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus to pray for R.  Gamliel’s death.  The story ends with G-d doing Eliezer’s bidding.

R. Gamliel of Yavne was a descendant of Hillel the Elder. R.  Tarfon and his student-colleague, R. Akiva, were adherents of the rival Shammai school; i.e., not allies of R.  Gamliel in his quest to render Hillel’s Halachic rulings predominant over those of Shammai.  Indeed, the Talmud in Bava Metzia says that when R. Akiva was dispatched to inform R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (himself a Shammaist) of the excommunication, Akiva wept when he met him.

Could it be that the “Ba’al Haggadah,” in leaving out the Braita in the Tossefta about R. Gamliel’s Seder in Lod, and recasting it as being about his antagonists, intended to convey his own antagonism against R. Gamliel?  It’s an enticing idea, to say the least.

Be careful about prematurely jumping to conclusions.

At the end of the Maggid section of the Haggadah, we are presented with the famous Halacha of R. Gamliel, that one who does not mention the Pesach sacrifice, the matzah and the marror at the Seder, has not fulfilled his obligation to retell the story of the Exodus.

That passage is taken from the Mishne in the tenth chapter of Pesachim, which codifies the template for the Tannaitic Seder, the basis for the Seder Jews around the world still celebrate.  The question is, who is the author of that Mishne, Gamliel the Elder or Gamliel of Yavne, the antagonist of the five sages who are said to have convened in B’nei Brak?  The Mishne doesn’t specify.

But the “Ba’al Haggadah” alters the text of the Mishne in a very pointed way.  The Mishne, in relevant part, states:

Rabban Gamliel would say: Anyone who did not say these three matters on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: The Paschal lamb, matza, and bitter herbs. When one mentions these matters, he must elaborate and explain them: The Paschal lamb is brought because the Omnipresent passed over [pasaḥ] the houses of our forefathers in Egypt, as it is stated: “That you shall say: It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Paschal offering for He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses” (Exodus 12:27).

When quoting this law, the Haggadah states:

Rabban Gamliel was accustomed to say, anyone who has not said these three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his obligation, and these are them: the Pesach sacrifice, matsa and marrorThe Pesach [Passover] sacrifice that our ancestors were accustomed to eating when the Temple existed, for the sake of what [was it]? For the sake [to commemorate] that the Holy One, blessed be He, passed over the homes of our ancestors in Egypt, as it is stated (Exodus 12:27); “And you shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for that He passed over the homes of the Children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and our homes he saved.’ And the people bowed the head and bowed.” (emphasis added)

The Second Temple was still functioning during R. Gamliel the Elder’s life.  He would not have used the phrase “that our ancestors were accustomed to eating when the Temple existed” when stating his Halacha, since he himself ate the Korban Pesach. But R. Gamliel of Yavne never participated in a Paschal offering.  He would have used that phrase and asked that question.  And in departing from the language of the Mishna in this way, the Haggadah’s author shows his cards, and tells us that, in his opinion at least, the author of the Mishna in Pesachim is R. Gamliel II.  (I point out that this question is a source of scholarly debate.  The great scholar of liturgy Daniel Goldschmidt, in the introduction to the first edition of his commentary on the Haggadah, opines that the author of this Halacha is R. Gamliel the Elder, but he cites competing authorities, starting with the Tosafists, who say it’s R. Gamliel of Yavne)

So, what are we to make of all this?  On the one hand, it seems clear that R. Gamliel of Yavne was intentionally omitted from the narrative about staying awake all night when retelling of the Exodus, in favor of colleagues who could arguably be called his rivals or even enemies.  Yet, his Halacha of what constitutes the bare minimum that needs to be said to fulfil the obligation of the Seder night enjoys prime placement in the Haggadah.  It’s all very curious.

We don’t know who compiled the Haggadah.  And as such, it’s impossible to know what his opinion was about the disputes between R. Gamliel of Yavne and his contemporaries; or if he even had an opinion about them.  But at the same time, we can’t ignore decisions he made concerning how he wrote the book.  In my opinion, the Ba’al Haggadah clearly wanted to show respect to the five sages who opposed R. Gamliel II in his revolutionary mission to transform Rabbinic Judaism from Shammaist to Hillelist.  But he also had to acknowledge that Gamliel succeeded.  The Judaism of the Ba’al Haggadah was Gamliel based.  So is ours.

So, in the end, the retelling of the Exodus as it’s scripted, hints to far more than the emergence of the Israelite nation. It also retells the difficult transformation of the Israelites into the Jewish people.  And so maybe, the Seder isn’t only about Yetziat Mitzraim.  Rather it’s about our entire story.  All of it, all our history, happening, to paraphrase R. Gamliel of Yavne, for the honor of Heaven.

Chag kasher v’sameach to one and all.

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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