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Whats and Whys in the Seder

“What?” and “Why?” are the questions asked in the Passover seder by three of the four sons.

In the Haggadah we read a halakhic decision of Rabban Gamliel:

רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר: כָּל שֶׁלֹּא אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בַּפֶּסַח, לא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: פֶּסַח, מַצָּה, וּמָרוֹר.

Rabban Gamliel used to say, Anyone who has not said these three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his obligation, and here they are: the Pesach sacrifice, matsah and maror.

I will try to explain Rabban Gamliel’s opinion.

Tosefta Pischa 10:11 states:

וחייב אדם לעסוק בהילכות הפסח אפילו בינו לבין עצמו בינו לבין ביתו בינו לבין תלמידו.
מעשה ברבן גמליאל וזקנים שהיו מסובין בביתו של בייתוס בן זונון בלוד והיו עסוקין בהילכות הפסח כל אותו הלילה עד קרות הגבר הגביהו מלפניהם ונוערו והלכו להם לבית המדרש.

The Tosephta reflects two vastly different interpretations of the word mah, מָה, in two biblical verses that are read as questions asked by three of the four sons in the haggadah, which states:

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם? וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח…

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם? … וֶאֱמֹר לוֹ: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם…

The haggadah interprets the first מָה, mah, as “what?” and the second מָה, mah as “why?”

Talmud Yerushalmi 37d provides a different version of the questions asked by the first three sons.

תני ר’ חייה כנגד ארבעה בנים דיברה תורה בן חכם בן רשע בן טיפש בן שאינו יודע לשאול.
בן חכם מהו אומר מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ אלהינו אותנו אף אתה אמור לו בחזק יד הוציאנו ה’ ממצרים מבית עבדים.

בן רשע מהו אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם…אף אתה אמור לו בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי…
טיפש מה אומר מה זאת אף את למדו הלכות הפסח…

According to the Yerushalmi, the word מָה in the questions asked by both the wise son and the sicked son means “why?” while the meaning of “what?” is only applied to the question asked by the third son, whom the Yerushalmi describes as a טיפש, fool.

In the question asked by the last of the four sons, the שאינו יודע לשאול , the son who is unable to ask, the word מה is not used, implying that he is unable to ask both “what?” and “why?” so that he must be provided answers that satisfy both meanings.

On the other hand the Tosephta Pischa reflects the two different interpretations of מה. The law with which it begins, וחייב אדם לעסוק בהילכות הפסח אפילו בינו לבין עצמו בינו לבין ביתו בינו לבין תלמידו, and a person is obliged to deal with the laws of Passover even with himself alone, his household and his students. It understands מה as “what?” whereas the rabbis who were celebrating their seder with Rabban Gamliel in Bnei Brak perhaps understand מה as “why?”

I have just provided a radically new interpretation to the end of the story of the seder in Lod. The story concludes by telling us that the rabbis ended their discussion of the מה, “why?” of the laws of Passover by going לבית המדרש, to a place where they would be able to learn the reason for the laws of Passover by the technique of דרש, which meant they had to delve into the deep meaning of Torah texts. This interpretation of the Tosephtah’s story of the seder in Lod cannot be applied to the analogous seder in Bnei Brak in our haggadah, because it tells us that the seder ended with rabbis saying shema rather going to a beit midrash, as in case of the seder that takes place in Lod.

Interestingly, the haggadah implies that Rabban Gamliel applies both meanings to the word מה, because he not only requires every Jew to act in accordance with the meaning of מה “what?” by demanding every Jew to mention the three critically important ingredients of the Passover meal, the Passover offering, matzah and maror, but also demanding every Jew to explain the ingredients in accordance with the other meaning of מה, “why?” —the rationale provided by Torah texts.

A text in Lev. Rabbah 7:1 k provides a reason for Rabban Gamliel’s opinion. 1t states that Rav Huna taught that learning about sacrifices is כאילו, as if, you sacrifice them! Rabban Gamliel required the rabbis who attended his seder in Lod to know the “whats” and “whys” of the Passover offering in order to be able to fulfill the commandment even though the temple had been destroyed, כְּאִלּוּ אַתֶּם מַקְרִיבִין קָרְבָּן. “as if you are offering a sacrifice.” Learning about the “whats” and “whys” of the Passover sacrifice, matzah and maror accomplishes the goal of “as if you are offering a sacrifice.”

The haggadah tells us a halakhic decision of Rabban Gamliel:

רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר: כָּל שֶׁלֹּא אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בַּפֶּסַח, לא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: פֶּסַח, מַצָּה, וּמָרוֹר.

Rabban Gamliel used to say, Anyone who has not said these three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his obligation, and here they are: the Pesach sacrifice, matsah and maror.

My analysis of the two means of מה, and the opinion of Rav Huna in Lev. R. 7:1 help to explain Rabban Gamliel’s opinion.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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