Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary "Meaning in Mitzvot" on the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion's "Virtual Beit Midrash", www.vbm-torah.org. Subscribers are currently learning about Shabbat.
Our parsha begins with the mitzva of bikkurim, the first fruits, and the special recitation or mikra bikkurim which thanks HaShem for giving us the land of Israel. This recitation is also familiar to us from the Pesach seder, where it is explicated in detail and serves as the center of the Exodus story.
But the story of the Exodus at the seder is not told only in words, but also in foods. "Rabban Gamliel used to say, anyone who does not say three things on Pesach does not fulfill his obligation. They are: Pesach, matza, and maror." The haggadah continues: Pesach - to remind us that HaShem passed over (pasach) the Jewish houses as he smote the Egyptian first born; matza - to remind us that we left Egypt in haste; maror - to remind us of the bitterness of slavery.
The other Pesach foods also have a special imagery. In fact, each one has a double symbolism: one meaning suggesting freedom, the other reminding us of bondage.
The wine for the four cups, which commemorate the miracle of the Exodus, should ideally be red - because red wine is the most important, but also to remember the blood of the murdered Jewish children in Egypt. (MB 472:38.)
We make the charoset with delicious sweet fruits which in Shir HaShirim symbolize HaShem's special love for us. But we also make it thick and with fibers, to recall the mortar and the straw which went into the structures made by the Jewish slaves. (Rema SA 473:5.)
We customarily eat an egg because the Aramaic word for egg, bei'a, has the same root as the Aramaic word for earnest desire, hinting that HaShem yearns to redeem us. But another reason mentioned for this custom is that eggs are a food characteristic of mourners, so they help us maintain a demeanor of humility. (MB 473:23.)
We know that the seder night is devoted to telling the story of the Exodus in words, through the haggadah; why are we also required to tell the story through foods? Here is one explanation based on the traditions of Chasidut.
The Exile of Speech
Our sacred works tell us that when the people of Israel were in exile in Egypt, our power of speech was in exile as well. (Zohar Vaera, II:25b.) At the simplest level, this means that we had a limited ability to articulate our feelings. For one thing, it seems the Jews found it difficult to pray to G_d. In the mikra bikkurim we say that the people of Israel cried out to HaShem (Devarim 26:7), but the haggadah points out that what really happened was that "The children of Israel groaned from the work and cried out; and their cry rose unto G-d, from the work". While G_d heard their cry, it seems that they did not explicitly cry out to G_d. (Shemot 2:23.) And we see that Moshe, who was the greatest prophet of all time, found himself in Egypt "heavy of speech and tongue".
Only after they left their homes, as they feared the Egyptians at the border of the sea, do we learn that "the children of Israel cried out unto HaShem". (Shemot 14:11.) And after we crossed the sea, we opened our mouths in spontaneous song with the Song of the Sea.
At a deeper level, the "exile of speech" means that our status as slaves in a foreign land did not give us the ability to articulate, collectively, our special national mission. We did not have our own king, our own land, our own commonwealth, even our own laws which would enable us to proclaim - through our actions - our unique message of holiness.
But the "exile of speech" does not mean we had nothing to say. On the contrary, the entire problem was exactly the inability to articulate in words our immense treasury of faith and holiness. This helps explain the seder's emphasis on vocal expression: the night's special mitzva of telling the story of the Exodus, encouraging the children to articulate their questions, saying Hallel at night which is done at no other time and so on. Even the name of the holiday is sometimes rendered as "pe sach" - the mouth speaks. The symbolic foods demonstrate that the message of freedom is present all the time; the commandment to explicate them shows the important of actuating this message and giving it expression.
The silent speech of the special seder foods reminds us of the exile of speech we experienced as slaves; the inspired oratory of the haggadah and the hallel and nirtzah (songs of praise) remind us of our redemption which brought with it the power of expression.
Rabbi Asher Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. Rabbi Meir - who had given a series on Business Halacha at the Center, and has taught a series on the Meaning in Mitzvot. We hope to have him back at the Center some time in the future.