The Obligation to tell the story: a Pre-Pesach reflection

To many of those who attend Sedarim each year, the Haggadah text is at once familiar and mysterious.  It is familiar because those who use the traditional text have been reading the same words (perhaps with an updated English translation) for as long as they can remember.  It is mysterious because even to those who have more than a passing acquaintance with Jewish liturgy, the Haggadah can seem unstructured and haphazard.  If any of us was writing a single text to be used to celebrate our people’s liberation from Egyptian bondage, it is safe to say that the text would look nothing like the book that we will hold in our hands at the Seder.

In fact, however, the Haggadah text that we recite at the Seder each year is by no means haphazard.  Those who study – or have at some point studied – Talmud probably find the Haggadah’s structure somewhat less confusing than those who have little or no experience with the Talmudic stream of consciousness style.  Yet many knowledgeable Jews, even those who have some experience with Talmud study, sometimes find the meaning of the Haggadah’s Maggid section – the section through which we fulfill our obligation to recount the story of the exodus — difficult to penetrate.  The portion of the Haggadah that seems most disjointed is the early part of the Maggid section, which follows the Four Questions.  For a better understanding of those paragraphs, it might be helpful to think about how the Seder has evolved over the course of centuries.

When the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) stood in Jerusalem, the central feature of the Seder night was the bringing of the korban Pesach (Passover offering).  Jews also had to fulfill the other mitzvot of the Seder night, of course – eating matzah and bitter herbs and telling the story of the exodus from Egypt – but the korban Pesach was clearly the primary focus.

With the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash in 70 C.E., Jews lost the ability to bring the korban Pesach.  Without what had previously been the central feature of the Seder celebration, how could we continue to celebrate the holiday?  If Pesach was to remain one of the preeminent festivals of the Jewish year, the mitzvah of telling the story of our liberation from Egypt would have to move from the periphery and become the central focus. After all, how much time can you spend eating matzah?

Jews had performed the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus before the Temple’s destruction, of course; it was, after all, a Torah commandment:

And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” (Ex. 13:8, JPS translation)

But while Jews had observed this mitzvah before the Temple was destroyed, during those years it had been a minor part of the celebration, incidental to the mitzvah of the korban Pesach, which occupied center stage.  A hint of the peripheral role that this mitzvah played during this period can be found in a brief and often ignored paragraph (Yakhol mei-Rosh Chodesh) that our Haggadah places immediately after the discussion of the four sons.  Talmudic idioms are often difficult to translate accurately, and some English translations of this paragraph make it entirely incomprehensible, so I offer a somewhat looser (but hopefully comprehensible ) translation:

 You might think that [the mitzvah of recounting the story of the exodus] could be fulfilled at any time beginning with Rosh Chodesh [Nisan] (the first day of that month) [To preclude such a position] the Torah [uses the phrase] on that day [i.e., on the day you will bring the korban Pesach.] Since the verse also contains the phrase “on that day”, you might think that you could fulfill [the mitzvah of recounting the story] during the day time [on what we today call erev Pesach.  But since the verse also contains the phrase “This is because of” [the word “this” often being used to connote something tangible that you can point to] we learn that the mitzvah [of recounting the story] can only be fulfilled when the matzah and bitter herbs are set before you [i.e., when the correct time for fulfilling those mitzvot has arrived].

The Haggadah’s explanation, in the paragraph above, as to when we should fulfill the mitzvah of recounting the exodus, is easy to understand.  What puzzles us is the questions.  Without reading this passage, it would never have occurred to us that we could fulfill this mitzvah during the day of erev Pesach, much less in the two weeks leading up to the holiday.  We’ve grown up in a world in which we cannot bring the korban Pesach, so recounting the story of the exodus has become the centerpiece of our Seder celebration.  It would be unthinkable to fulfill the mitzvah at any other time.

But that mindset did not arise on its own; it resulted from a conscious decision by the sages of the Mishna, particularly those who lived during the period between the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. and the crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion circa 135 C.E.  The Jews of that era were faced with the need to adjust to the new reality not only practically but emotionally as well.  We can hardly imagine the overwhelming despair that must have been felt by those Jews. If God had permitted the Beit HaMikdash to be destroyed, thus barring them from the central ritual of the holiday, perhaps God had abandoned them and no longer wanted them to celebrate Pesach at all.

It may well have been those concerns that preoccupied the five sages who assembled in Bnei Brak on that Seder night long ago.  Their story – or at least part of it — is told in the second paragraph of the Maggid section. The Haggadah  introduces its account of this event with the word ma’aseh , which in Talmudic parlance usually refers to a story that is used to illustrate a halakhic premise.  So what is the halakhic premise that the story of the Bnei Brak Seder is intended to illustrate?

As is common in rabbinic texts, the halakhic premise supported by a story is in the immediately preceding text.  After setting forth a one-sentence summary of the exodus story (“We were slaves to Pharaoh …”) and reaffirming that we are the beneficiaries of that redemption (“If God had not taken our fathers out of Egypt …”), the Haggadah continues:

Even if we are all wise and understanding, all elders expert in the Torah, we are still obliged to speak of the Exodus from Egypt. Whoever discusses the Exodus at length should be praised.

The Haggadah proceeds from there to the story of the Bnei Brak Seder, which only ended when their students informed them that dawn had broken.  On the surface, the purpose of the story seems clear.  The Haggadah is trying inculcate the notion that the mitzvah of recounting the Exodus is one of recitation, not merely of transmission to the next generation.  As long as telling the Exodus story was incidental to the bringing of the korban Pesach, there was no need to pay much attention to the details.  Now that the telling of the story was taking center stage, the sages realized, they needed the Jewish people as a whole to treat it accordingly.  Thus, this gathering of some of the greatest sages was a way of demonstrating the new stature of the mitzvah of recounting the Exodus.  From the Haggadah’s statements about the performance of this mitzvah, we can learn at least two related halakhot: (1) the mitzvah is binding even on the wisest and most knowledgeable; and (2) it has no fixed limit, so the more time we spend discussing the story – no matter how well we already know it — the better.

In one of the supplemental essays in his 2003 Haggadah (from which the above translation is taken), the former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, based on two peculiarities about the Bnei Brak Seder story, offers an interesting insight as to precisely when it took place.  The first peculiarity is the absence of Rabban  Gamliel, the Nasi (Patriarch), who as the titular head of the community, would have normally have been expected to attend.  The second was the fact that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who was the youngest of the group, is listed third of the five, which according to the etiquette of the time (see Brakhot 46b), was the seat of honor.  That seating arrangement suggests, according to Lord Sacks, that the incident occurred during the brief period in which the sages deposed Rabban Gamliel (as a result of his mistreatment of Rabbi Joshua) and appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah in his place.  It was during this unsettled time, Rabbi Sacks posits, that these five great sages came together to try and figure out how to reconcile some halakhic differences in the interests of reducing the divisions among the people.

One of these differences may have been over the extent to which the mitzvah of recounting the story of the exodus could substitute for the korban Pesach as the prime focus of the Seder night.  For example, the korban Pesach was supposed to be completely by midnight; did that stricture apply to the mitzvah of recounting the exodus story as well?  On that question, the story informs us, those who believed that the discussion could continue until dawn, created, whether intentionally or otherwise, a fait accompli since their students did not inform them of the time until the time for the morning Shma had arrived, i.e., until dawn.

One reason that the opening paragraphs of the Maggid section are hard to understand is that they are not really about the Exodus.  Rather, they are about the mitzvah of recounting the Exodus.  That mitzvah took on a greater urgency after the destruction of the Beit haMikdash.  The opening paragraphs of Maggid reflect the then emerging consensus on the centrality of that mitzvah to our Pesach celebration.

Looking backward through the prism of Jewish history, we know what the sages of the mishna could only speculate about:  that the galut has lasted for many centuries and that the telling of the Exodus story has successfully substituted for the korban Pesach as the primary focus of the holiday.  As to the despair that nearly overwhelmed the Jewish people in the era of the destruction of the Temple, and later the catastrophic defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion, it has waxed and waned over the centuries.  The cycle of oppression and redemption has been a recurring theme of Jewish history, a theme that is summed up well by the paragraph that ends the introductory section  of the Maggid. Just before it shifts from explaining the mitzvah to actually performing, the concludes:

[I]t was not man alone who stood up against us, but in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and the Holy Blessed One saves us from their hands.

Chag kasher vesameach – a happy Passover to all.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.