One of the most puzzling passages in the Haggadah is the statement of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, which is taken from the Mishna in Berakhot (1:5). Nestled between the story of the Seder attended long ago in Bnai Brak by five sages (one of whom was R. Elazar ben Azariah) and the Haggadah’s account of the Four Sons (or if you prefer a more inclusive translation, the Four Children), this passage reads:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: I am like 70 years old, but I had not been able to show that the Exodus must be recited at night until Ben Zoma explained it. It is said, “That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life.” (Deuteronomy 16:3) “The days of your life” [alone] would indicate the days; “all the days of your life” [also] indicates the nights. The [other] sages said that “the days of your life” [alone] indicates our present world. “All the days of your life” [also] includes the age of the Messiah.
(Translation from the Haggadah edited by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks)
At least on the surface, this passage appears to be a triple non sequitur. The passages that immediately precede and follow this one in the Haggadah focus on the mitzvah of sippur yetziat mitzraim (recounting the story of the Exodus) on the Seder night (Ex. 13:8). R. Elazar ben Azariah’s statement, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the Seder, but instead deals with the obligation to “remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life.” (Deut.6:3). His dispute with the sages involves the separate obligation to recite the evening Shma. Finally the dispute between Ben Zoma and the sages, which R. Elazar ben Azariah refers to but the Haggadah does not quote, deals with the role that the memory of the exodus from Egypt will play in the Messianic era. That question, in turn, hinges on the proper understanding of Jeremiah 23:7-8.
What’s going on here? Not only does this passage seem to be out of place in the Haggadah, but it also seems to be at war with itself. Some commentators on the Haggadah have suggested that the passage simply illustrates the stream-of-consciousness style that is familiar to any student of Talmud. The previous passage mentioned five tanaim (sages of the mishnaic period), one of whom was R. Elazar ben Azariah. It also discussed the obligation to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt and ended with a reference to the recitation of the morning Shma. That brings to mind another passage from the same period that involves R. Elazar ben Azariah, the exodus from Egypt and the Shma, so we might as well quote that one as well.
Those commentators may be right, of course, but maybe we can extract from this passage some deeper meanings. The best place to start is with the disagreement between Ben Zoma and the sages as to the meaning of the verses from Jeremiah:
Assuredly, a time is coming — declares the Lord — when it shall no more be said, “As the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites out of the Land of Egypt,” but rather, “As the Lord lives, who brought out and led the offspring of the House of Israel from the northland and from all the lands to which I have banished them.” And they shall dwell on their own soil.
(Jer. 23:7-8, JPS translation)
Jeremiah lived at the time of destruction of the First Temple, but at the time of this prophecy that destruction had not yet occurred. Rather, the prophet is predicting the destruction to come, but at the same time is reassuring the people that their estrangement would not be permanent. Not only would Judah return to the land, but the ten tribes that had previously been exiled to Assyria would also return. The full-scale return of all twelve tribes had not occurred at the end of the Babylonian exile, so its fulfillment would presumably wait until the time of the Messianic redemption.
According to Ben Zoma, the Prophet Jeremiah here was forecasting the return of the entire people during the Messianic era. Once that occurred, the memory of the Messianic redemption would completely supersede the memory of the exodus from Egypt. The sages, however, thought otherwise. According to their understanding of these verses, both redemptions would still be remembered, but the earlier one — i.e., the exodus from Egypt — would be reduced in importance by reason of the later one.
The disagreement between Ben Zoma and the sages was initially unrelated to the dispute between the sages and R. Elazar ben Azariah. The issue that troubled Ben Zoma was an eschatological one involving what would occur upon the advent of the Messiah. The issue troubling R. Elazar ben Azariah, by contrast, was a matter of practical Halakha. We know that we must recite the first two paragraphs of the Shma both in the morning and in the evening because in both places the Torah specifically commands us to recite those words “when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut. 6:7, 11:19 ). There is no such commandment, however, with regard to the third paragraph (Num.15:32-41). That paragraph, moreover, focuses on the mitzvah to wear tzitzit, so it would be logical to infer that we only need to recite it in the day time, when that mitzvah can performed.
In all likelihood, R. Elazar ben Azariah had a received tradition of reciting all three paragraphs of the Shma both morning and evening. The sages may well have had the same tradition, for no sources that I’m aware of suggest an actual divergence of practice on this point. But R. Elazar ben Azariah wanted to persuade the sages not only of the correct practice, but also of its Scriptural source, and in this he was unsuccessful, at least until Ben Zoma came along.
Ben Zoma’s understanding of the source of that practice was rooted in the principle that no word of the Torah is superfluous. Thus, when the Torah commands us to remember our redemption from Egyptian bondage “all [Heb. kol] the days of your life”, the word kol must be there for a reason. According to the sages, that reason is to teach us that even in Messianic times, the memory of the Exodus will not be entirely eclipsed. According to Ben Zoma, however, the memory of yetziat mitzraim will be entirely eclipsed in Messianic times, so there must be some other reason for including the word kol.
That reason, according to R.Elazar ben Azariah, is to teach us that all three paragraphs of the Shma must be recited in the evening as well as the morning. It appears, however, that the sages remained steadfast in holding that the word kol was needed to prove that the Messianic redemption would not completely supersede the exodus from Egypt, so the word kol was not available to prove the necessity of reciting the entire Shma at night.
Why did it matter to the sages what place the Exodus would have during the Messianic era? To understand their position, we need to remember the period in which they lived. The Babylonian exile that followed the destruction of the first Temple had only lasted seventy years. Even if the exiles had lost faith in their ultimate redemption, they had prophets to reassure therm.
The destruction of the Second Temple occurred after prophecy had ceased. The objective reality the people faced was daunting. The Babylonians had looked formidable in their day, but they were not comparable to the Roman Empire of 70 CE, by far the mightiest empire the world had ever seen. With no prophets to reassure them, it was easy for the people to lose faith. Restoring that faith was a necessity.
The destruction of the Temple created an existential crisis of the highest urgency, made worse by the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion 60 years later. Looking at it from the perspective of our time, we know that Judaism has managed to survive not only those tragedies, but the many centuries of hardship and persecution that have followed. We know we have managed to survive in part by refocusing those elements of pre-exilic Judaism no longer answered our needs. The Seder, which before the destruction of the Temple had been focused primarily on the bringing of the korban Pesach twas refocused on the mitzvah of sipur yetziat mitzrayim, — and also by bring meticulous about incorporating the memory of our redemption from Egyptian bondage into our liturgically preserved memory, not only on Pesach but on every day of the year.
The rabbis who argued with Ben Zoma and R. Elazar ben Azariah, could not know that. They knew only that the prophecy of Jeremiah — which appeared to include the return of the northern tribes that had been exiled by Assyria — had not been completely fulfilled and that with the second Temple in ruins seemed further from fulfillment than ever. Despite the tragedies they had suffered and the uncertainty that was unavoidable in the post-prophetic world they remained determined to bring the hope for ultimate redemption into the decidedly unredeemed world in which they lived.
We too live in a world infused with cosmic mixed messages. Within the lifetimes of many Jews still living, the Jewish people has experienced both the greatest tragedy in a history replete with them, and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for the first time since before these sages assembled in Bnai Berak. Our Sedarim, like theirs, are unavoidably incomplete, for we cannot bring the korban Pesach that was once the centerpiece of the holiday celebration. We can but try to make the remembrance of past redemptions the focal point of our celebrations while doing our best to protect the gift of restored sovereignty for which previous generations long yearned.
Chag kasher vesameach — a happy and kosher Passover to all.