- Shabbat and Holidays
- The Seder Night
We observe the laws of the holy festival, the festival of matzot [Pesach] throughout the generations, and the influence of redemption returns and reappears on this night. The illumination continues through all the days of the festival, the festival of eternal freedom. (Ma’amrei HaRa’ayah, page 160)
Each individual must feel his own part in the completion of his own generation that is a result of the exodus from Egypt. (Olat Ra’ayah, Volume II, page 283)
On the night of the festival [of Pesach] we are filled with redemption, filled with a higher freedom. This freedom releases our spirit, and the spirit of the entire universe, revealing the joy that is hidden within us. (Igrot HaRa’ayah, Volume III, Letter 767)
Pesach is the festival that commemorates our coming out of Egypt. After two hundred and ten years of slavery God took the Jews, the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, out of the land of Egypt. On the first night of Pesach Jews throughout the world hold a special ceremony at home called the Seder. Jews who reside outside the Land of Israel are required to hold a Seder on the second night of Pesach as well. The word "seder" means order and it refers to the specific order of events for the evening’s service. There are a number of elements of the ritual and each must be performed at a particular point in the proceedings.
The evening is lively and family orientated. Families often gather together to celebrate and perform the many mitzvot of the evening together. I fondly remember, as a small boy, sitting next to my scholarly and saintly grandfather and looking out at the huge table laden with all the appropriate items: wine, glasses, matzah, books. As many as possible of the family sat around the table. My immediate family as well as my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and many cousins were all there. My grandfather would relate the story of coming out of Egypt, explaining as he went along and answering questions posed by the oldest down to the youngest members of the family.
The rabbis said that "everyone who elaborates on the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy" (Haggadah). It is customary to live up to this instruction by telling and explaining the story until the small hours of the morning. Questions are asked and answered, discussion is encouraged, multi-generational debates are the order of the day.
There are a number of mitzvot that are performed at the Seder. For example, four cups of wine are drunk, and matzah, the unleavened bread, is eaten to fulfill the Torah commandment to eat matzah on the first night of Pesach: "On the first day [of the festival of Pesach] on the 14th day of the month in the evening eat matzah" (Shemot 12:18). Bitter herbs and vegetables are consumed to remind us of the hardships and bitterness of the slavery.
Telling the Story
A most important mitzvah of the evening is the actual telling of the story of coming out of Egypt. We are commanded by the Torah to relate the account of the Exodus to the next generation. "Tell your son on that day saying, ‘Because of this God acted for me when I came out of Egypt’" (Shemot 13:8). In fact, the entire ceremony is an elaborate way of simply relating the story of coming out of Egypt. Many of the elements of the Seder have no intrinsic value or symbolism; however, they are essential in order to give rise to questions. Thus, we eat a green vegetable in order to get the children to ask "Why?" (Pesachim 114b) This leads to further questions and explanations, and a discussion is initiated around the theme of coming out from Egypt.
Telling the story is everything on this evening of Pesach. The question-and-answer session that opens with the Four Questions which are then immediately followed by the answer leads into telling the story. The answer to the main question, "What differentiates this night from all other nights, and why does this difference exist?" is answered with, "Because our fathers were slaves to Paro in Egypt and God delivered us from there." This explains why we perform this ceremony at home, annually. We want to remember that God took us out of Egypt, and we are charged to pass on this collective memory to the next generation.
In order to pass on the tradition we read the Haggadah. This is the prayer book and study guide for the Seder night. It is a compilation of rabbinic literature on the theme of the exodus from Egypt. It was arranged according to the order set by the Mishnah in the last chapter of Pesachim. It is a collection of Mishnah, Gemara, Midrash, and various prayers, mostly from Tehillim, the Book of Psalms.
The Haggadah weaves together the history of the descent into Egypt by Ya’akov and his sons, the servitude, the plagues brought down on Egypt, exodus, and redemption, with midrashic insights into these events. It is much more than just a story. The Haggadah is also a study session.
The Haggadah has become one of the central books of the Jewish people. Many commentaries and explanations have been written and published and they enrich the Jewish library. The study of the Haggadah has become almost a complete area of Torah study in its own right. Each section of the Haggadah is analyzed and studied in the context of the entire Haggadah. One passage that deals with the mitzvah of telling the story is particularly interesting.
When Do We Tell the Story?
"One could claim that the obligation to tell the story begins with the first day of the month [of Nisan]. The Torah, therefore, states ‘on that day’ (Shemot 13:8). If ‘on that day’ then maybe it could be explained to refer to the day [as opposed to the night]. However, the Torah states ‘because of this.’ I only said ‘because of this’ at the time when matzah and maror, bitter herbs, are before you."
This is actually a quote from a halachic midrash, the Mechilta (Mechilta, Bo 17), that comes to explain the verse from Shemot. The editor of the Haggadah inserted it as a prelude to relating the Exodus story. However, this passage needs some explanation.
The Midrash opens with the assumption that we could begin telling the story of Pesach and the coming out of Egypt from the beginning of the month. This refers to the month of Nisan, the festival of Pesach falling on the 15th day of this month. What would lead us to assume that we could tell the story from the 1st of Nisan and not from the 15th of Nisan? After all, if the actual Exodus occurred on the 15th surely this is the only relevant date to tell the story.
Some rabbis explain that the Exodus actually started on the first day of the month. It was on that day that God commanded Moshe, "This month should be your first month, it is the first month of your calendar year. Speak to the congregation of Israel saying, ‘On the tenth day of this month each person should take a lamb’" (Shemot 12:2-3). This lamb was to be offered as the Pesach sacrifice. This was the beginning of the festival of Pesach, and so we may think that the obligation to relate the story started on this day (see Shibolei Leket on the Haggadah).
Another explanation is offered saying that the Torah states, "You shall perform this service in this month" (Shemot 13:5) in reference to the Pesach sacrifice. The Torah seems to imply that this sacrifice should be offered during the month of Nisan, but does not explicitly state when during the month of Nisan. This led the Midrash to conclude that it could be the 1st (see Avudraham on the Haggadah).
The Gemara tells us that Moshe started teaching the people about the laws and obligations of Pesach two weeks before the beginning of the festival (Pesachim 6b). This speaks of the second Pesach ever, which is the first Pesach that the Jewish people celebrated in the desert, exactly one year after leaving Egypt. This could be understood as a precedent to begin telling the story to our children on the 1st of Nisan and, through this, we would fulfill our obligation to relate the story on Pesach (see Rashi on the Haggadah).
These are three possible explanations for the rather unusual question that the Midrash asks. The answer given in the Midrash is that even though we may have thought that there was an obligation to tell the story from the 1st of the month, the verse teaches us otherwise. The verse states, "on that day"; the mitzvah to tell our children the Exodus story starts on the day of Pesach itself and not two weeks before.
The Midrash then poses another possibility. If the verse speaks about "that day," then maybe we have to tell the story during that day, and not during the night. The commentators explain this question due to the word "day," as opposed to "at that time," or even a more specific "on that night." Another possible explanation is that the story is to be told in connection with sacrificing the Pesach lamb. The sacrifice was performed during the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, and the meat was eaten on that night as part of the Seder meal. Therefore we may have thought that the mitzvah to tell the story of Pesach starts at the same time as the beginning of the sacrifice.
The Midrash concludes that even though we may have made all these assumptions, we would be mistaken. The verse continues, "because of this." We are only required to tell the story when we sit at the Seder table together with the matzah and the bitter herbs. Only then are we obligated to tell the story and only then do we fulfill the mitzvah of relating the Exodus story to our children.
On closer inspection, the conclusion that the Midrash proposes does not correlate with the previous assumptions. The Midrash seems to search for a time, as though the question lurking behind the Midrash is "When do we have to tell the story?" Such a question needs to be answered with a specific time. The story cannot be told on the 1st of Nisan, neither can it be told on the day of the 14th of Nisan. Rather it should be told during the night of the 15th of Nisan. Instead of such a clear answer referring to a time, the Midrash offers us a necessary scenario for the mitzvah to be fulfilled. "I only said ‘because of this’ at the time when matzah and maror, bitter herbs, are before you." Unless we happen to know that matzah and maror are part and parcel of the cuisine of the Seder then we are none the wiser. We are left asking, "All right, so when do we have to eat matzah and maror?"
True, the Torah tells us to eat the Pesach sacrificial lamb together with matzah and bitter herbs on a particular night of the year. The Midrash can safely assume that we know when we are to eat matzah and maror, but it would still be more useful to give us a less cryptic answer. Why does the Midrash not simply give us a clear answer?
Not Simply Remembering
The Midrash is teaching us a very important lesson about the Seder and the entire obligation to tell the story. Indeed the message is also about the whole concept of remembering the exodus from Egypt.
There is another mitzvah of remembering the exodus from Egypt. "Remember this day that you came out from Egypt" (Shemot 13:3). Every day during the Shema prayer we fulfill this mitzvah by reciting the words "I am God your God who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God" (BeMidbar 15:41). Indeed the first of the Ten Commandments opens with the statement that God took us out of Egypt (Shemot 20:2). The mitzvah to remember the Exodus and the fact that God took us out of Egypt is a daily one. Every single day of the year we remember coming out of Egypt. However, once a year we have a special mitzvah to tell the actual story of coming out of Egypt. This mitzvah we observe on the first night of Pesach during the Seder when we relate the story of the Exodus as set forth in the Haggadah.
Why do we need to have this special mitzvah? Is it not enough for us to remember, on a day-to-day basis, coming out of Egypt? Why do we devote an entire evening to telling the story in addition to remembering?
These two mitzvot are independent of each other. Even on the night of Pesach, when we tell the story late into the night, we still have the obligation to remember the Exodus and we still read the Shema.
There is a great difference between remembering and telling the story. Remembering signifies a fond recollection of events that happened in the past. We recall that once our nation was enslaved to Paro in Egypt and at that time God saw fit to take us out of there and eventually lead us to the Promised Land of Israel.
When we tell the story it is not simply a historical recollection. In the words of the Midrash, we tell the story only when we have matzah and maror in front of us. We eat the matzah and maror, the matzah reminding us of the simple life of a slave who eats the most basic food, with no additions or flavorings. The matzah also was the food eaten during the hasty escape from Egypt. Thus we are eating the very food that was consumed before and during the Exodus itself. The herbs leave a bitter taste in our mouth, giving us a taste of slavery. The wine serves to sweeten the harshness of the slavery and gives us a taste of freedom.
By partaking in the Seder we are acting out the Exodus. Some of the elements are symbolic of slavery, others of freedom. The salt water recalls the tears of the slaves. We eat while reclining to show how we are at leisure and ease, we are free men.
By telling the story on the actual night that we came out of Egypt we identify with the characters and our ancestors who lived through the events. Much more than that, we actually act as though we ourselves are coming out of Egypt. Every single year on the night of Pesach we go through the same redemptive process as the Jews did all those years ago.
This explains the Midrash that we discussed earlier. The question has to be rephrased. It is not "When do we read the story?" but rather, "In what manner do we read the story?" or to put it in different terms, "How will we successfully pass on the lessons of the past to the next generation?"
The answer given is that we have to tell the story when we have the matzah and maror in front of us. A detached relating of the events will not suffice; it will remain a past event, a chapter of history. Only by reliving the episodes of leaving Egypt will we convey the right message. This is not something that happened to another people thousands of years ago. No, this is relevant to our lives in the here and now.
Coming Out of Egypt
The Mishnah states, "In every generation one is obligated to view himself as though he came out of Egypt, as it says: ‘Tell your son on that day saying, "Because of this God acted for me when I came out of Egypt"’ (Shemot 13:8). Therefore, we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, exalt, bless, and honor Him who performed all of these miracles for our fathers, and for us. He took us from slavery to freedom, from sadness to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to light, from servitude to redemption, we shall recite before Him the Hallel" (Pesachim 10:5).
This Mishnah has been adopted as part of the Haggadah, and we recite it in the first person. God did the miracles for us, we have to praise Him. Each person has to feel as though he took part in the slavery and he was personally freed.
The Rambam records in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, the text of the Haggadah. It is interesting to note various differences between his and other versions. In this passage the Rambam makes a slight but very significant change from the text of the Mishnah. Instead of writing that a person is obligated to view himself as though he came out of Egypt, the Rambam writes: "One is obligated to show himself as though he himself came out of Egypt".1
The Rambam’s alteration of the text sheds light on the way we are to view ourselves as though we came out of Egypt. If we show ourselves, if we present ourselves as actually coming out of Egypt, then we will find it easier to identify with the events of the Exodus. If we act out the story, then we will see ourselves as players in that very same story.
Thus this elaborate ceremony of the Seder is a learning tool, a visual and physical aid. Not to memory, but as a means to identify personally with coming out of Egypt. Every day of the year we have to remember that we came out of Egypt, our relationship with God was forged through it. But once a year we have actually to come out of Egypt ourselves. We have to go through the process of slavery and redemption. We have to free ourselves from those internal and external forces that enslave us. Then we will truly be able to forge a personal relationship with God, who took us out. That is the essence of Pesach and of the Seder, to see ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt.
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