3. Questions and Answers
4. Begin with Disgrace; End with Praise
5. "An Aramean attempted to destroy my father…"
6. "Pesach, Matzah, Umaror"
7. Hallel and Song
8. Details of the Haggadah’s Structure
On the holiday of Passover it is possible to discern how, in a very unique way, the preparations for the festival are more than just practical means; to a large extent, they stand independently. We hence find that there is a law stating that one who leaves his home thirty days before the festival is obligated to do away with his Chametz before setting out. In addition there is "Shabbat HaGadol" on which the Rabbi, in preparation for Passover, delivers a sermon dealing either with Jewish law or Agaddah. There is need for great spiritual preparation if one wishes to rise to the elevated spiritual level called for on Passover. In what follows we will attempt to achieve this goal through contemplating the structure of the Haggadah. Much can be said for each and every detail in it, yet we will try to focus on its structure as a whole.
The heart of the Haggadah of Passover is structured according to the Mishnayoth which are brought in the "Arvei Pesachim" chapter the talmudic tractate of Pesachim (cf. Pesachim 116). It appears as part of the laws of the Seder that are brought in the Mishnayoth there. One of our more detailed versions of the Haggadah appears already in the writings of the Rambam, and it was probably compiled as early as the end of the talmudic era.
The Mishnah has the order of the Haggadah opening with the Four Questions in accordance with the version that was recited during the period of the Temple. Here, then, we find the first of those unique principles utilized in the compilation of the Haggadah - the recounting of the Exodus via questions and answers.
Later on in the Mishnah we come upon an additional principle regarding our manner of recalling the Exodus - "Begin with disgrace and end with praise." (The Sages of the Talmud were at odds concerning exactly which "disgrace" to begin with.) Yet another important point which appears a bit later is that we must "expound from the verse, ‘An Aramean attempted to destroy my father…’ until the end of the entire chapter." That is, the recounting must begin with Deuteronomy 26:5 and not with the actual story of the Exodus as it is related in the beginning of the Book of Exodus. Yet why?
Here the Mishnah lays down the next central principle: "Rabban Gamliel used to say: ‘Whoever does not say the following three things on Passover has not fulfilled his duty, namely: Pesach, Matzah, and Maror,’" and explains why our forefathers ate the Passover offering during the period when the Temple still stood; why we eat unleavened bread; and why we eat the bitter herb. From here it becomes evident that the mentioning of these things is not part of the obligation to eat, but part of the duty to recall the Exodus from Egypt. Yet what is the relation between these commandments and the actual story of the Exodus?
The Mishnah continues: "In every generation it is one’s duty to regard himself as though he personally had gone out of Egypt, as it is written: You shall tell your son on that day: ‘It was because of this that God did for me when I went out of Egypt.’" The emphasis that the Redemption involved each one of us calls for an explanation. How is it possible to say that each one of us personally left Egypt?
Next the Mishnah presents the version of the blessing that comes before the first chapter of the Hallel thanksgiving prayer, and - without pausing and without any forewarning - the list of laws is cut off and the Mishnah takes the form of a poetic song of praise: "Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, pay tribute, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol and acclaim Him who performed all these miracles... Let us therefore recite a new song before Him, Halleluyah!" This, as we have said, is part of the blessing before the Hallel prayer, and this too demands clarification: Why the sharp transition from the story of the Exodus - which, it would appear, is meant only to recall the facts - into a song of praise?
All of these are matters which call for explanation. Let us address them now in greater detail.
Questions and Answers
The Sages attributed great importance to the method of questions and answers in the Passover Seder and advised the Jewish father to "teach in a manner that is in keeping with the ability of the son." A variety of methods were employed in order to keep the children awake during the Seder. For example, the distribution of nuts, the "theft" of the Afikoman, and more (see Talmud, Pesachim 109a). Why questions? Generally, when a fact is presented as an answer to a question, it is to a large degree self-evident and could have been arrived at even without the question. Yet, in the story of the Exodus, involvement, interest, and a desire to understand how our flight from Egypt speaks to us today, are a must. One cannot simply observe from the sidelines; one must participate, investigate, ask. This is a decisive matter. Despite the fact that the questions arranged by the Sages appear to evolve out of the symbolic observances which precede them (the dipping of the Karpas into salt-water, the reclining, etc.), and that these acts are in themselves puzzling, a set version of the Seder was arranged in order that even one who lacks intelligence be allowed to participate in the events of the evening. The important thing, as we have said, is involvement in the clarification of the issues at hand - first, through what appear to be external symbolic observances, and next, in a more penetrating manner, via the Four Questions.
Begin with Disgrace; End with Praise
In light of the question-and-answer method which we discussed above, the second principle - the principle of beginning with disgrace and ending with praise - is also made understandable. Rabbi Yehudah Liva, the "Maharal," in his classic work, "Netzach Yisrael," teaches us that "a proper awareness of the greatness of a matter becomes known through its opposite." It is not always possible to appreciate larger issues by viewing them at face value; their true stature becomes apparent only when they are viewed in light of their opposite, when viewed in light of what would have been the case were it not for their predominance. The same principle holds true here as well, with the Haggadah: In order to grasp the true value of the Exodus, we must understand how awful the situation was before the flight from Egypt.
Furthermore, depiction of the disgraceful plight of the Children of Israel teaches us that the Exodus from Egypt was much more than a mere added level of freedom for the Israelites. Without this liberation there would be no meaning whatsoever to our existence as Jews; the Jewish people would not have come to be. "Had not the Almighty taken our fathers out from Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh" - till this very day. As Rabbi Kook explains in his commentary to the Haggadah, we would in fact still be slaves to the very same Pharaoh even after two thousand years, and nothing in the world would have changed. This is because the purpose of all historical advances, all struggles and revolutions which have gripped the world over the course of the generations, has been to push humanity forward in a mature and all-encompassing manner toward its future ideal. It is the Jewish people who lead this process, even when on the face of things the historical changes do not seem to be directly connected to them. Without the Exodus from Egypt there would have been no meaning to all of these events, and history would have simply come to a halt; the entire world would have frozen, and we, the Jewish people, would still be enslaved to the same Pharaoh.
The Sages of the Talmud were at ends regarding precisely what type of "disgrace" to begin with: According to Shemuel one should begin with the declaration, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…" i.e., the actual physical bondage of the Jews; according to Rav one should open with, "Originally our ancestors were idol worshipers," i.e., spiritual bondage. The Jerusalem Talmud adds that there was no disagreement regarding which of the two portions to say, and that all agree that both must be read, but there was a difference of opinion when it came to which ought to be mentioned first. In practice we follow the opinion of Shemuel, opening with the physical aspect of Exile and Redemption, and moving on to the spiritual. Perhaps this order is meant to teach us how the Redemption can be expected to play itself out over the course of history: Initially the physical side of the process makes its appearance, to be followed later on by a deeper, more profound understanding of the events and their significance. First the Jewish people return to their land, they become complete, their physical life takes on significance, sanctity, and radiance; and then the nation of Israel arrives at the more spiritual aspect of Redemption. Initially things spring up in their natural physical state; only later do they take on spiritual meaning. Therefore, "We were slaves" precedes "Originally our ancestors were idol worshipers," despite the fact that historically the order should be reversed - for this was the order through which we were redeemed from slavery.
From amidst the disgrace we arrive at an acknowledgment of God’s great plan: "Blessed is He who keeps His pledge to Israel; blessed is He! For the Almighty calculated the end of the bondage in order to do as He said to our father Abraham at the Covenant between the Parts, as it is stated: ‘...Know with certainty that your offspring will be aliens in a land not their own...; but also upon the nation which they shall serve will I execute judgment, and afterwards they shall leave with great possessions.’" Now, with the Exodus, it becomes apparent that God’s pledge to Abraham has been fulfilled, to produce here an eternal Redemption. Now the nation has been born amidst that atmosphere of enslavement and poverty which pervades the painful Exile. Even as far back as the time of the pledge, God understood how Israel’s fall would serve to pave the road to the Exodus, and how all of this would lead creation to a more perfect state.
"An Aramean attempted to destroy my father…"
It is significant that the verses which the Sages chose to use as their basis for describing the Exodus from Egypt are the very verses read by a Jew upon bringing his first-fruits to the Temple. This tells us that this climactic occasion, with its special sense of joy, has a unique ability to cause us to sense the full goodness of the Exodus. It is a natural and fresh joy which accompanies the renewed harvest of fruit and their being brought in magnificence and splendor, song and praise, up to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem while reciting the words, "I profess this day...that I have come into the Land..." The Exodus is the climax of world freedom which finds full expression only in healthy natural life of the Jewish people in the land of Israel and with the Holy Temple among them. Such a fullness has the capacity to embrace within it the low and depleted point of disgrace together with the height of praise and to see them as one, as the all-embracing and unified act of God.
"Pesach, Matzah, Umaror"
Matzah is an expression of freedom, the sort of pure independence which needs no external support. In its bitterness the Maror spells bondage and teaches us just how deceptive slavery can be in its initial stages: "Just as Maror is at first pleasant and later painful, so the Egyptians were at first pleasant and later painful" (Pesachim 29a). Pesach (Passover) represents the act itself, by virtue of which we were redeemed from the Maror and arrived at the Matzah - freedom and liberty. In the words of the Mishnah, "Because God passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt." Only the Almighty Himself was capable of such an act, because the creation of the Jews preceded that of the world. This is the principle upon which the entire world rests. Therefore, only God himself could have redeemed the Children of Israel: "I and no angel; I and no seraph; I and no messenger." Hillel understood that the three were connected to one another, that the bitterness of the exile was bound up with the Redemption, therefore he would combine the three in a kind of sandwich containing the Passover offering together with the Matzah and Maror; the bitterness of the Maror was an integral part of Israel’s national formation. These three things manage to express in a very concentrated manner the answer to the riddle of the spiritual formation of Israel – from subjugation through redemption and on to our national freedom. This is what the Rashbam, Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir, means when he interprets the words of the Mishnah, "Whoever does not say the following three things on Passover has not fulfilled his duty…" to mean, whoever does not understand the meaning of these three things. The goal is to understand the significance of the Pesach, Matzah, and Maror. This, then, is what connects these items to the act of recounting the Exodus. Recounting the Exodus does not mean merely recalling the dry historical facts; it means causing us to sufficiently understand the significance of everything that happened to us at that time. Interestingly enough, these three commandments are food-oriented. This is one more stage in the process of internalizing and bringing ourselves to an appreciation of the unique level of the story of the Exodus.
Hallel and Song
The Passover Seder is the only time that we recite the Hallel prayer at night and not in the daytime. This is a very noteworthy point. The uniqueness of the Passover Hallel can also be seen in an additional Halakhic aspect connected to it. Early Halakhic authorities discuss the question of reciting the blessing over the half of Hallel which is read before the partaking in Passover meal. The problem is that we interrupt things in order to eat Pesach, Matzah, Maror, and the rest of the meal. If we were to recite a blessing at the opening of the Hallel there would appear to be no room for allowing such an interruption. Rabbenu Nissim holds that one should in fact say a blessing even over this Hallel because in truth the Hallel is being said over the food, over the very performance of the special commandments of Pesach, Matzah, and Maror, and not over the miracles that occurred during the Exodus. The song is recited because of the eating of the Passover sacrifice, and it therefore follows that the act of eating is not to be viewed as an interruption. To the contrary, it is the climax of the Hallel. It represents our personal connection to the Exodus, and singing the Hallel is an expression of this connection. Therefore, all of the other Hallel prayers which we recite during the course of the year derive from this Hallel, which is said in response to the Exodus from Egypt, when God took us to be His nation. Each year on Seder Night the Jewish people are as if created anew – for this reason we sing.
According to the Meiri the Hallel is part of the story of the Exodus. What we are dealing with here is not just some recollection of facts, but praise; and, because it is praise, the words of the Mishnah: "Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, pay tribute..." are not seen as an interruption to the laws connected to the story of the Exodus, but as a natural continuation of them - an incorporation of its song as an integral part of the story-telling itself. Because the story ends with song, it becomes clear that in truth the entire thing was song.
In this light it is noteworthy that the Ritba, in his commentary on the laws of Passover and the Haggadah, writes that the Haggadah must be read in a pleasant voice and with all one’s might. The principal obligation in reciting the Haggadah is that it be read in a pleasant manner, like a song. (At the same time, there is a different approach which emphasizes the importance of discourse when reading the Haggadah; according to the Rambam, the more one goes on expounding upon the chapter beginning "An Aramean attempted to destroy my father…" the better.)
Details of the Haggadah’s Structure
After a description of Israel’s shameful state in "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt..." and a detailed account of the duty to recall the Exodus, we are introduced to the four types of sons and informed as to the proper manner of teaching them about the Exodus - "The father teaches his son according to his level of understanding." Following this depiction of Israel’s physical bondage, and the flight from it, comes description of Israel’s disgraceful state in "Originally our ancestors were idol worshippers..." This is meant to teach us that the physical liberation of the Children of Israel from Egyptian rule spells the liberation of the Jewish people from all future exiles, until the eventual Messianic Age.
Next comes "Blessed is He who keeps His pledge to Israel." - a calculation and consideration of the "end of bondage." Here we begin to understand that the Exodus carries the sort of spiritual significance which expresses Divine value and calls for understanding the role of the Jewish people, their unique relation to the Almighty, and the implications of genuine Jewish freedom. Then, "For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us." - that special promise that God made to Abraham to redeem the Jewish people from any difficult situation they might one day find themselves in.
After this the Haggadah begins to elaborate upon the verse, "An Aramean attempted to destroy my father…" and each sentence expounded upon comprises a separate path with much room for discussion. "‘The Egyptians did evil to us and afflicted us; and imposed hard labor upon us...God brought us out of Egypt…’ not through an angel; not through a seraph; not through a messenger." Here we arrive at the essential understanding that the Almighty Himself performed the Exodus. We previously explained why things had to be just so, and the fact that this was due to the important role of Israel who preceded creation. The Haggadah’s elaboration does not contain insignificant facts about the Exodus.
"With a mighty hand" - refers to the pestilence; "With an outstretched arm" - refers to the sword; "With great awe" - alludes to the revelation of the Divine Presence; "With signs" - refers to the miracles performed with the staff; "With wonders" - alludes to the blood. At first glance one might be led to believe that the sword does not appear in the episode of the Ten Plagues. But the purpose of this elaboration is to represent all of the various aspects of the revelation of God’s all-encompassing power which were harnessed for the purpose of taking us out of Egypt. This included all of the forces in creation, including the revelation of the Divine Presence itself - it was an all-inclusive encounter with the Creator.
Next we arrive at the plagues - the Ten Plagues themselves; Rabbi Yehudah’s abbreviations of the Plagues; the discrepancy between the Sages of the Mishnah concerning the correct calculation of the number of times the Egyptians were struck on the sea: fifty, two-hundred, or two-hundred and fifty. Why do the Sages go adding plagues beyond what is written in the Scriptures? Once again we are called upon to view the Exodus as reflecting the ongoing redemptive process in Jewish history: Because the plagues struck at and removed the impure forces in Egypt, room was made for the people of Israel to flourish, grow, and absorb more and more Divine facets for all generations. Israel’s astounding capacity to expand upon and develop all of what they have absorbed during their long history was already latently present in Israel’s rejection of evil while in Egypt. The truly profound meaning of the Exodus from Egypt was that all of the facets that were restrained because of the bondage would be allowed to spring forth and blossom with the blow to and removal of impurity from Egypt and on the sea. The more they were beaten, the greater the amount of positive facets that were freed and allowed to flourish.
"The Almighty has bestowed so many favors upon us!" This is a kind of summary of all that we gained by virtue of our flight from Egypt - fifteen favors, like the fifteen steps in the Holy Temple. Yet it includes everything which resulted from it until the course was completed: the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the entrance into the Land of Israel, and the construction of the Holy Temple. This represents a complete understanding of the true significance of the Exodus from Egypt. Without the Holy Temple, and an appreciation of the importance of the Redemption, it is impossible to even begin to fittingly thank God for taking us out of Egypt. Without it there is simply no gratitude.
"Pesach, Matzah, and Maror" - As we have already said, this is the climax of the story - a true comprehension of the redemption from Egypt includes even the act of eating. Appreciating the Exodus through the act of eating does not constitute an interruption in the act of recounting and is not detached from it - it is, in fact, the heart of the matter. While eating, each participant is personally present and taking part in the actual departure from Egypt. Once this matter has been understood, and each participant has fully appreciated its significance on a personal and internal level, the Haggadah teaches us that "in every generation it is one’s duty to regard himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt...It was not only our fathers whom the Almighty redeemed from slavery; we, too, were redeemed with them." Once again, all of this is part of the wording of the blessing, part of the need to express gratitude, because we too were literally redeemed along with our ancestors. "Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, pay tribute, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol and acclaim Him who performed all these miracles..." According to its plain meaning this blessing is not an expression of thanks for an event that took place in the distant past, in the spirit of "in those days at this time" which we say at Chanukah. Rather, here the gratitude is being expressed over our redemption - the redemption we experience in each and every generation. This idea can be felt even more in the blessing at the end of the first section of the Hallel: "Blessed are You God our Lord…who redeemed us and redeemed our ancestors from Egypt." We express gratitude first over our own redemption, which stems from that of our ancestors. The point is that God continuously redeems. And with the close of the main section of the Haggadah, we thank God regarding the original redemption and pray for the speedy restoration of the Holy Temple, without which our blessing remains incomplete: "So, God our Lord, and the Lord of our fathers, bring us also to future festivals and holidays in peace, gladdened in the rebuilding of Your city, and joyful at Your service. There we shall eat of the offerings and Passover sacrifices whose blood will gain the sides of Your altar for gracious acceptance. We shall then sing a new song of praise to You for our redemption and for the liberation of our souls..." and then will our song be complete.
Some of the translations here were taken from or based upon the ArtScroll Family Haggadah