The Role of the Haggadah in Retelling the Events of our Redemption

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01 Mar 2013

It is a positive commandment of the Torah to recount the miracles and wonders that occurred to our fathers on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan as it says: Remember this day that I took you forth from Egypt. (This should be understood in a manner) similar to that which it says: Remember the Shabbat day… (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chametz u’Matzah 7:1)

1. The Torah source for the commandment to recount the story of our redemption

With the above comments Maimonides introduces his discussion of the commandment to recount, on the Seder night, the story of our redemption from Egypt. Maimonides suggests that a passage in Sefer Shemot is the source for this mitzvah. In this passage, Moshe instructs the nation to 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. 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.

Maimonides adds that the meaning of the passage’s admonition to “remember” the day we were taken out of Egypt can be understood by comparing this passage to another in which we are instructed to “remember.” We are commanded to “remember” Shabbat.

Maimonides’ intention in these comments is not clear. He seems to acknowledge that the specific obligation engendered by a commandment to “remember” our redemption is unclear. What do we do in order to remember? What is required of us? He responds to this problem by directing us to the term “remember” in reference to Shabbat. By understanding the meaning of the commandment to “remember” Shabbat, presumably, we can understand the meaning of the commandment to “remember” our redemption. But Maimonides does not explain the meaning of the term when used in reference to Shabbat. So, he seems to be explaining one enigma by referring us to another enigma.

2. The connection between remembering our redemption and remembering Shabbat

Actually, Maimonides elsewhere does explain the meaning of the commandment to “remember” Shabbat. He explains that this passage requires that we verbally sanctify Shabbat upon its arrival and departure. This is accomplished through recitation of Kiddush at Shabbat’s onset and Havdalah at its ending – short paragraphs that describe the sanctity of Shabbat. Now, Maimonides’ intention is somewhat clearer. Our understanding of the admonition to “remember” our redemption should be informed by our knowledge that this term, when used in reference to Shabbat, engenders the obligation to recite Kiddush and Havdalah. So, Maimonides is telling us that there is a similarity between the commandments to “remember” our redemption and the obligation of Kiddush and Havdalah. However, he does not seem to provide any indication of the nature of this similarity.

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik zt”l suggests that Maimonides is dealing with a very specific problem. The Torah obligates us to remember various events. Maimonides maintains that in some of these instances no specific obligation is engendered by the admonition. For example, we are admonished to remember – or more specifically to not forget – the events of Sinai. According to Maimonides, this does not generate a commandment to regularly engage in a specific activity of recalling Revelation. In other instances, the admonition does generate a specific obligation. For example, we are commanded to remember the evil of Amalek. This nation attacked us without cause in the early stages of our journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel. In this instance, the instruction to remember Amalek is interpreted as a commandment. It requires that the episode be recalled through verbalization. However, according to Maimonides, this mitzvah does not include specific ideas or themes that must be recalled and reviewed. We are merely required to recall the incident and to feel an appropriate degree of anger and animosity towards these enemies of Hashem and His nation.[1],[2] The instruction to remember Shabbat is also a commandment. However, it requires a far more specific performance. Maimonides explains that this mitzvah requires that we describe the exalted nature of the day and its distinction from the other days of the week. A vague utterance acknowledging that Shabbat has arrived or departed is not adequate.[3]

In short, the Torah includes various admonitions to remember. Some do not generate a specific commandment. In the instance of the commandment to remember Amalek, a loosely formulated obligation is generated by the passage. In the case of Shabbat, a more specific obligation to recite Kiddush and Havdalah is engendered. Now, Maimonides’ comments are more easily understood. The Torah tells us we must remember the events of our redemption. Maimonides’ intention is to explore the meaning, in this instance, of the admonition to remember. He explains that in this case, our Sages understood the term “remember” to communicate a commandment. Furthermore, as in the case of the commandment to remember Shabbat, the commandment requires we remember through verbalization and that we recall with this verbalization specific events, themes, and ideas.[4]

And you should tell to your son on that day saying: For this reason Hashem acted on my behalf when I went forth from Egypt. (Sefer Shemot 13:8)

3. Sipur or Haggadah

Maimonides describes the commandment to retell the events of our redemption with the term sipur. However, the Torah uses a different term in describing the commandment. The above passage is discussing the commandment to recount the events of our redemption and it uses the term ve’hegadeta. This is a form of the same Hebrew root from which Haggadah is derived. In other words, in describing this mitzvah, Maimonides and virtually all other authorities use the Hebrew verb sipur. However, the Torah itself uses the verb ve’hegadeta. Both of these verbs communicate the process of recounting the events. However, the two verbs are not synonyms. The difference between these two verbs is evident in the Torah’s account of Yosef’s two dreams of dominance.

Yosef had two dreams. In the first dream he and his brothers were in a field. They were binding grain into sheaves. Yosef’s sheaf arose and stood. The brothers’ sheaves surrounded Yosef’s sheaf and bowed to it. Yosef told his brothers of his dream. The Torah tells us that the brothers’ hatred for Yosef was heightened by this dream.

Yosef’s second dream involved the sun, moon and eleven stars. Yosef envisioned these bodies bowing to him. Again, he related the dream to his brothers. He also retold the dream to his father. The Torah tells us that after hearing this second dream the brothers were jealous of Yosef.

Apparently, the brothers had different reactions to the two dreams. They hated Yosef after the first dream. After hearing the second dream, they were also jealous. Why did the dreams evoke these different reactions?

One reason may be that Yosef himself had a different response to the two dreams. Yosef retold both dreams. However, the Torah uses different verbs for the two instances. In Yosef’s retelling of the first dream, the Torah uses the verb vayaged – a conjugation of the same verb from which ve’hegadeta and Haggadah are derived. In the second instance, the Torah uses the verb va’yesaper – a conjugation of the same verb from which sipur is derived. Both of these verbs communicate that Yosef retold his dreams to his brothers. But these verbs indicate different forms of retelling. A few examples will illustrate the difference between these verbs.

Eliezer returns with Rivka. He tells Yitzchak of the wondrous events that led to the selection of Rivka. He wants to communicate that he has experienced an encounter with providence. We can expect that he spoke to his master with enthusiasm and shared with him the details of his adventure. The Torah uses the verb va’yesaper to describe Eliezer’s retelling of the events.[5]

Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, joins Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. Moshe tells Yitro of all the miracles experienced by Bnai Yisrael. He wants to impress Yitro with these events and their implication. He must have spoken with enthusiasm and provided colorful detail. Again, the verb va’yesaper is used.[6]

Va’yaged communicates a different meaning. This verb describes a person delivering a brief, to-the-point account or report. Avraham’s nephew Lote was captured in war. A refugee from the conflict reported the capture to Avraham. The Torah uses the term va’yaged to describe the refugee’s delivery of the report.[7] Avraham did not require a detailed account of the battle or of the experiences of the refugee. He required a brief, even concise, account of his nephew’s capture.

Bnai Yisrael are at Sinai awaiting Revelation. They declare their commitment to do all that Hashem commands. Moshe reports their commitment to Hashem. Again, Moshe’s report is described with the verb va’yaged.[8] Moshe did not provide a detailed account of his communications with the nation or attempt to communicate the process through which the nation determined that it would enter into a commitment to obey Hashem’s Torah. A precise report of their decision was required. The verb va’yaged is appropriately used.[9]

In describing Yosef’s relating of his first dream the verb va’yaged is used. Yosef retold the first dream in a brief and concise manner. The term va’yaged does not imply the speaker has any particular attitude or attachment to the information. In describing his retelling of the second dream the verb va’yesaper is used. This term also means to tell. However, it is used in the Torah to indicate that the speaker is recounting the events in detail and with enthusiasm.

Apparently, Yosef did not attach tremendous importance to the first dream. He viewed it as an interesting curiosity. The brothers perceived the dream as an expression of a latent desire to dominate and they resented Yosef’s egotism. However, the second dream made a much greater impression upon Yosef. He felt this dream had meaning. He carefully, eagerly, and in detail described it to his listeners. Yosef’s enchantment with this second dream – as expressed in his impassioned recounting of its contents – suggested to the brothers that Yosef took seriously this second dream of dominance. This evoked the brothers concern and their jealousy.

The Torah uses the term ve’hegadeta in describing the requirement to recount the events of our redemption. This term communicates an obligation to recount events in a concise and precise manner. However, when Maimonides and others describe the commandment, they use the term sipur. This term has a different meaning. It communicates an obligation to recount the events with vigor and in detail. Why did these authorities adopt a term that seems to communicate a description of the commandment that differs from the Torah’s description?

Anyone who does not recite these three things on the night of the 15th does not fulfill his obligation. These are the things: Pesach, Matzah, and Maror… These things in their entirety are referred to as Haggadah. (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chametz u’Matzah 7:5)

Even great scholars are required to recount the exodus from Egypt. Anyone who discusses at length the events that occurred and that which happened is praiseworthy. (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chametz u’Matzah 7:1)

4. The meaning of the term Haggadah

Maimonides explains that the mitzvah of sipur is only fulfilled by a discussion of the redemption that includes specific components. Maimonides carefully lists all of the elements that must be included in the discussion in order for the commandment to be fulfilled. For example, the discussion must include a description of the obligations to eat the Pesach sacrifice, matzah, and marror. These mitzvot must be discussed and their meaning and message communicated. He concludes his delineation of the required elements of sipur with the comment that these elements – taken together – are referred to as Haggadah. Why is the term Haggadah used to describe this body of information?

Before responding to this question, it will be helpful to consider another law regarding sipur. Maimonides explains that although the mitzvah of sipur requires a discussion that includes certain fundamental elements, these elements represent a minimum standard for the discussion. The discussion has no upper limit. In other words, there is no point at which the discussion of our redemption has been exhausted and further consideration of the events is irrelevant to the mitzvah. The more one discusses the redemption, the greater the magnitude of the fulfillment of the mitzvah of sipur. In short, the mitzvah of sipur requires that we discuss our redemption. The Torah establishes a minimum content for this discussion but there is no maximum. The more content added to the discussion the greater the fulfillment of the commandment.

Now, Maimonides use of the term Haggadah can be understood. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l explains that the term Haggadah aptly describes this minimum content requirement. The elements that compose Haggadah form the basic framework for the discussion. Because these elements are the essential components and the framework for the discussion it is appropriate to describe them as Haggadah. Haggadah communicates a recounting of events in a minimal presentation that is limited to the fundamentals.

5. The messages of the terms ve’hegadeta and sipur

The Torah uses term ve’hegadeta to describe the mitzvah of recounting the events of our redemption. This term communicates that specific fundamental information must be imparted. We do not fulfill the commandment by simply relating any detail or aspect of the events that comes to mind. A specific body of information must be communicated. The term sipur communicates an additional message regarding the mitzvah. What is this message?

Maimonides and others consistently describe the mitzvah of retelling the events of our redemption as lesaper (sipur) be’yetziat mitzrayim. This is a very unusual grammatical construction and somewhat enigmatic. The use of the prefix be following a form of the verb sipur is uncommon. The term sipur – in its various conjugations – appears frequently in the Torah. It is usually followed by some form of the word et. What is the significance of the replacement of the more common et with be?

The term et identifies the material that is the subject and content of the sipur. Yosef recounted – et – his dreams. The dreams are the content of his account. Moshe described to Yitro – et – the events that had befallen Bnai Yisrael. These events were the substance and content of his account to Yitro. The term be literally means “in”. The phrase lesaper (sipur) be’yetziat mitzrayim means to engage in a discussion “in” or regarding the topic of our redemption. In other words the phrase used by our Sages to describe the mitzvah communicates an important idea. According to Rav Soloveitchik, the mitzvah is not to merely recount specific events – albeit in detail. The mitzvah is to engage in a discussion regarding the topic of our redemption. These finite events are not the content and substance of our discussion. They are the topic of a discussion that can be virtually endless.

An illustration will help clarify this distinction. A contract contains an account of an agreement. The agreement is the content and substance of the document. It provides a complete description of all aspects of the agreement. The contract can be said to recount et the agreement. In contrast a biology text – even a very thick one – can only be said to discuss the topic of biology. It is an account be biology. Biology is the subject discussed but the text makes no attempt to exhaust this immense topic. The conventional description of the mitzvah as lesaper (sipur) be’yetziat mitzrayim conveys the message that the mitzvah is not to merely recount a specific set of events. The commandment requires that we engage in an unbounded discussion on the topic of our redemption.

Now, the Sages use of the verb sipur – rather than Haggadah – in describing the mitzvah is understood. As explained above, the term Haggadah communicates that the discussion is not completely open-ended. It must include fundamental elements that form its framework. However, the mitzvah is not to merely identify and review these elements. The commandment is lesaper (sipur) be’yetziat mitzrayim. We are commanded to engage in a discussion that is about these elements. However, these elements only form the topic for the discussion. The exploration and analysis of these elements has no limit. Every additional observation, comment, and insight on the topic contributes to the fulfillment of the mitzvah and increases the degree to which the mitzvah is fulfilled.[10]

[1] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 189.
[2] This commandment is fulfilled on an annual basis through the reading of the section of the Torah that contains the commandment and the associated mitzvah to wage war with Amalek. However, it seems that according to Maimonides, the recitation of this specific section of the Torah is a Rabbinic enactment or custom and is not required in order to fulfill the Torah obligation. This interpretation of Maimonides’ ruling is confirmed by Minchat Chinuch (Commandment 603). However, as Magen Avraham points out (685:2) this is not the universal view and other authorities maintain – based upon the comments of the Talmud (Tractate Megilah 18a) that the Torah obligation can only be fulfilled through the reading of the specific Torah portion that discuses the commandment or perhaps, through reading the parallel chapter in Sefer Shemot that describes the incident of the attack.
[3] Maimonides Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive command 154.
[4] Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, Recorded lecture.
[5] Sefer Beresheit 24:66
[6] Sefer Shemot 18:8.
[7] Sefer Beresheit 14:13.
[8] Sefer Shemot 19:9.
[9] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l observes that the term used for a witnesses delivery of testimony is haggadah – a conjugation of va’yaged. He explains that this is the appropriate term and not sipur. Testimony should be to-the-point and precise. It should not take the form of a rambling account filled with irrelevant details. (Recorded lecture)
[10] Much of the above material is based upon a recorded lecture of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l. The material represents an attempt to communicate the basic content of the lecture and to extend Rav Soloveitchik’s conclusions slightly beyond the specific issues discussed in the lecture. Some of the technical elements of Rav Soloveitchik’s presentation are not included and other material has been added in an attempt to replace these elements with content that hopefully contributes to a clear understanding of his ideas. Specifics that are virtual paraphrases of Rav Soloveitchik’s insights are noted by attribution. However, in cases in which the above presentation may not be completely true to Rav Soloveitchik’s intended message, no attribution is made.

Rabbi Bernie Fox has served on the faculty of Northwest Yeshiva High School since 1980. He was appointed Head of School in 1986. Rabbi Fox is a member of the first semikhah class of Yeshiva Bnai Torah of Far Rockaway and earned Masters of Business Administration Degree from Long Island University, Brooklyn.