Thoughts on Pesach: Retelling the Redemption from Egypt

April 12, 2011

The Essential Elements of the Commandment to Retell the Redemption from Egypt

And Moshe said to the nation: Remember this day that you went forth from Egypt, from the house of bondage – for with a mighty hand Hashem took you forth from this. Leaven products should not be eaten. (Shemot 13:3)

1. A biblical source for the commandment of Sipur

In this passage, Moshe instructs the nation that must remember the day that they were redeemed from slavery in Egypt and that on the days that commemorate this event – the festival of Pesach – they should not each chametz – leavened products. In his code of law – Mishne Torah – Maimonides explains that the first portion of this passage in which Moshe instructs the nation to recall the day of its redemption is the biblical source for the commandment to retell the events of the redemption at the annual Pesach Seder.1, 2

2. An alternative biblical source for the commandment of Sipur

In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides suggests an alternative source for the commandment to retell the events of our redemption. There he cites the passage: And you should tell to your son on that day saying, “For this purpose Hashem did this for me when I went out of Egypt.” (Shemot 13:8) Why does Maimonides present different passages as the biblical source for the mitzvah in these two works?

3. The two aspects of the commandment of Sipur represented by its two sources

Every commandment has a purpose and objective. However, in most instances the halachic – the legal obligation – associated with the commandment is limited to its performance. Achievement of the mitzvah’s objective is laudable. However, the commandment is fulfilled at its basic requisite level without achievement of its objects. For example, we are required to pick up and wave the four species on Sukkot. Certainly, this commandment has some meaning and purpose. However, a person who performs the physical action of the commandment fulfills its requirements even if the person has no understanding of the meaning and significance of the performance.

However, there are some commandments in which the performance of the physical activity associated with the mitzvah is meaningless without achievement of the commandment’s objective. The best know example is repentance. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l explains that this commandment consists of two components or aspects:

1. The activity of verbal confession of one’s sin.
2. The internal commitment to repent from the sin and evil behavior.

The mitzvah is fulfilled only through the merger of its two aspects. A person who makes the commitment to change but does not verbalize his confession has not fulfilled the requirements of the commandment. Neither has the person who utters the required confession without the commitment to alter his behavior.3

Any commandment that consists of these multiple aspects – an activity and an objective – can be defined in terms of its activity or in terms of its objective. In the example of repentance it is equally correct to define the commandment as an obligation to confess one’s sin or as an obligation to repent or reform one’s behavior. Both definitions are correct. The first defines the commandment in terms of its required physical activity. The other definition focuses on the commandment’s purpose or objective.

Maimonides seems to suggest that the commandment of Sipur – retelling the events of our rescue from Egypt is a member of this class of commandments. The commandment consists of an outward activity designed to achieve an internal objective. We are required to engage in retelling the events of our exodus. Through this activity we must recall and internalize the significance of these events.

4. The Haggadah must be recited in a language understood by the Seder participants

This insight provides a basis for Rama’s ruling that the Pesach Haggadah cannot be merely recited in Hebrew without understanding its meaning. Instead, it must be read in a language understood to the participants or read in Hebrew and then explained.4 The process of Sipur must impact the participants. Therefore, the process must be carried out in a manner that communicates the events.

5. The aspects of redemption that must be recalled

A careful analysis of the above passage suggests that there are three issues or aspects of the redemption that must be recalled in the process of Sipur. The passage states: Remember this day…

1. that you went forth from Egypt,
2. from the house of bondage –
3. for with a mighty hand Hashem took you forth from this.

In other words, our recollection of the events must encompass three aspects. First, we were brought forth from Egypt. Second, we were in bondage in Egypt. Third, the process through which we were redeemed demonstrated Hashem’s omnipotence – His mighty hand.

Raban Gamliel said: Anyone who does not discuss these three things on Pesach does not fulfill his obligation. These are the things: Pesach, Matzah, and Maror.

For what reason did our ancestors eat the Pesach when the Temple was in existence? Because the Holy One Blessed be He passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt…

What is the reason that we eat this Matzah? Because there was not adequate time for the dough of our ancestors to leaven before the King of All Kings, The Holy One Blessed be He was revealed to them and redeemed them…

What is the reason that we eat this Maror? Because the Egyptians made the lives of our ancestors bitter in Egypt….
(Pesach Haggadah)

6. Retelling the events of our redemption through Pesach, Matzah, and Maror

The above section of the Pesach Haggadah is derived directly from the Mishnah of Tractate Pesachim. Raban Gamliel explains that we are required to retell the events of our redemption from Egypt through explaining the significance of the Pesach sacrifice, the Matzah, and the Maror. We explain that the Pesach reminds us that Hashem passed over the households of Bnai Yisrael when He struck the Egyptians with the most destructive and terrible of His plagues – the Plague of the Firstborn. Matzah reminds of the suddenness of our redemption. Our ancestors were hastily released from bondage and quickly and eagerly ushered from the land by the very masters who only days before had refused to grant them their freedom. Maror reminds us of the suffering and torment that our ancestors experienced in Egypt.

7. The essential elements of the mitzvah of Sipur represented by the Pesach, Matzah and Maror

Apparently, these three messages comprise the essential elements of the mitzvah of Sipur. Each of the objects central to the Seder – the Pesach, Matzah, and Maror – communicate one of these elements and these elements must be presented in the context of explaining the meaning of these objects.

Let us more carefully consider these messages. Pesach reminds us that Hashem spared the household of Bnai Yisrael when He struck the Egyptians with the Plague of the Firstborn. It communicates the miraculous nature of the redemption and the revelation in the redemption of Hashem’s omnipotence. Matzah reminds us of the sudden transformation to freedom; the redemption occurred so swiftly the people could not adequately prepare their provisions for their unexpected journey into the wilderness. Maror reminds us of the cruelty of our bondage in Egypt.

Why are these messages – communicated by the central objects of the Seder – so central to the mitzvah of Sipur? They are the essential elements because they exactly correspond with the elements identified in the first of the passages cited by Maimonides as the biblical source for the commandment. These are the three elements that we are required by the passage to remember!

[1] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 7:1.

[2] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik notes that the commandment as expressed in the passage is to recall the events of the date of the redemption – the 15th of Nisan. Maimonides’ formulation of the commandment in his code reflects this formulation. He states: It is a positive commandment to retell the miracles and wonders that were performed for our ancestors in Egypt in the night of the 15th of Nisan. (Mishne Torah,Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 7:1). Maimonides’ wording is unclear. One possibility is that the reference to the 15th of Nisan is intended to identify the date that the commandment is performed. In other words, Maimonides is saying that the commandment is to be performed on this date. Alternatively, he could mean that the commandment is to focus on the events that occurred on the 15th of Nisan. If this is the correct explanation, then the mitzvah of Sipur performed at the Seder would be limited to the discussion of those events leading up to the redemption and the redemption itself. Subsequent events – including the parting of the Reed Sea – would not belong in this discussion. Rav Soloveitchik suspected that this second interpretation was in fact Maimonides’ position. He cited peculiar omissions from the Haggadah attributed to Maimonides to support this position.

[3] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Al HaTeshuva (Jerusalem, 5739), Part 1.

[4] Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 473:6. See Mishnah Berurah ibid, note 63. Mishne Berurah suggests that the passage “And you should tell to your son… (Shemot 13:8) is the basis for this requirement. “Telling” means to communicate information. This cannot be accomplished unless the communicator and recipient of the information understand the message communicated. However, the term “tell” in the Torah does not always imply that the communication must be understood. When presenting the first fruit – the Bikkurim – in Yerushalayim, the presenter is required to recite a set of Torah passages. These are recited in Hebrew and the presenter reciting the passages need not understand their meaning. In its formulation of this requirement, the Torah describes the presenter as “telling” the contents of the passages.