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Understanding the Passover Haggadah

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HamburgHaggadahSo, you want to celebrate Passover in a traditional way. You pick up a Haggadah, a Passover manual, and you think it will be simple. Passover is a ritual meal with a few symbolic foods and the story from Exodus, right? But as you read the Haggadah it seems anything but. What’s going on?

It makes no difference if you are Jewish and have some experience at this or if you are a non-Jew trying to learn. Just because you are Jewish and had Passover at your uncle’s house growing up doesn’t mean you understand the Haggadah. And if you are a Christian seeking to add Passover to your spiritual life, don’t think the problem you are having understanding the Haggadah stems from your lack of Jewish background.

I’ll let you in on a secret: no one completely understands the Passover Haggadah just as no one completely understands the Bible.

The Passover Seder, according to the Haggadah, is not a straightforward symbolic meal with the Exodus story thrown in. You might notice some oddities as you read through the Haggadah. The first and most glaring: Moses is not mentioned at all (except in one scripture reference). How can Passover be about the Exodus story and not mention Moses? And the Haggadah doesn’t follow any outline from Exodus at all, but is all over the place with four questions and rabbis having an all-night discussion and four sons and even a song about a goat.

The following is a rather long commentary on the Haggadah. It was originally posted in 2009 on my old blog as five articles. Instead of reading it straight through, you may want to use it as a reference when looking through your Haggadah. Or skim through it, focusing on parts that interest you.

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The Passover Haggadah is Less About Exodus and More About Deuteronomy 26:5-10.

Judaism is a religion of halakhah, a word which means roughly “walking out the commandments.” Thus, commandments usually take precedence over narratives in Jewish practice. This does not at all mean stories (aggadah, or Haggadah) are unimportant. It just means commandments are even more important.

Thus, the Passover Haggadah is the eventual result of the rabbis and sages considering God’s commandments to Israel concerning the night of Passover and the family table.

Much of what you read in Exodus 12 is actually about the first Passover. While Exodus 12 does have material about the continuing observance of Passover, it is much more in Deuteronomy that we read God’s commandments and institutions for later generations.

Deuteronomy 26:5-10 is a script or a narrative of what the Israelite must say when he brings the firstfruits of his grain as an offering to the priest at the sanctuary. The firstfruits offering for barley occurs during the week of Passover on the day after the Sabbath.

In other words, in Deuteronomy 26 we have a commandment about telling the story of Israel each year during Passover. It is a sacred script, very similar to the command in Exodus 12:25-27 in which God gives a script for the parents to respond to their children’s question about the Passover meal.

And the rabbis chose to focus on the sacred script from Deuteronomy 26 as the basis of the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah is a series of midrashim (expansive and sometimes fanciful interpretations of Biblical texts) on Deuteronomy 26:5-10:

And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O Lord, hast given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God.

The Four Sacred Scripts in the Torah.

Deuteronomy 26:5-10 is one of four instances of a sacred drama or script in the Torah. The first comes right from the Exodus chapter itself, Exodus 12:25-27:

And when you come to the land which the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.

Similarly, Exodus 13:14-15 is a sacred script for explaining to children the ritual of redeeming the firstborn of animals:

And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem.’

Finally, in Deuteronomy 6:20-25 there is a sacred script explaining to children why the family keeps all of God’s commandments and statutes:

When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’

The Haggadah is an extended midrash, with stories, rituals, and questions and answers based on Deuteronomy 26:5-10 and influenced by the four sacred scripts in the Torah. Lawrence Hoffman, writing in My People’s Passover Haggadah, calls the Haggadah a sacred drama:

Liturgy in general is a sacred drama–sacred because of the way it is “performed” and the personal stake the performers have in performing it. It is clearly “theater”: people play roles (getting an aliyah, opening the ark), they wear costumes (tallit and kippah), and they have assigned roles to chant or read out loud. . . . The Haggadah is the Seder’s dramatic script. But scripts come relatively open or closed. . . . Open scripts give over the play to the interpretive capacity of those who plan and play it. . . . The Haggadah presents the foundational story of how we got here, and as its problem, it asks, implicitly, why it matters if the Jewish People continues. Each year demands its own compelling solution. That is why its script remains open and why, also, we have to reenact it every year. If it comes out exactly the same as the year before, we have failed our dramatic duty.

Conclusion: Let the Confusing Outline Be a Guide, Not a Closed Script.

So, if you are somewhat confused about the Haggadah, here is some perspective that may help:

(1) The Haggadah is a reflection honed over many generations (actively growing for a period of at least 800 years). It is the end-product of a complex tradition of rabbinic discussion about the commands to tell the story, especially centered on Deuteronomy 26:5-10.

(2) Don’t expect a simple meal and a story, but a meal with parts for people to play and multiple stories centered on the story of Israel emerging from Mesopotamia (“my father was a wandering Aramean”) and being set free by God from bondage to enter a land of promise.

(3) Understand that the emphasis on children’s questions and even the strange passage about four sons (wise, wicked, simple, and stuck-for-words) are midrashim or expansions of the Torah’s commands about telling the children the story.

(4) Don’t simply read every word of the Haggadah and neither fail to add words to the Haggadah. There is a lot of room for creative assigning of roles, abridging the text, and adding modern reflections. Ask yourself, “What can I say this year about God, freedom, and the future that I have not said before?”

Of course, this is just a beginning and not enough to help you understand the Haggadah. But it is an important step. Read the Haggadah well in advance of Passover (I will suggest a few Haggadahs that are readily available in a future article). Especially if you are the leader of the Seder, be educated in advance and know that you will learn something new every year.

Kadesh ur’chatz, karpas yachatz…

In many Haggadahs you will find a strange little Hebrew verse, sometimes explained and sometimes not. It goes like this:

Kadesh ur’chatz, karpas yachatz . . .
. . . Maggid rachatz, motzi matzah.
Maror korech, shulchan orech . . .
. . . Tzaphoon barekh, hallel nirtzah.

There are fifteen steps here (shulchan orekh counts as one), which some liken to the fifteen steps ascending the Temple. But what is this list all about?

It goes back to the days when there was no printing press, when leather parchment or handmade paper were vastly expensive, and when the ability to write copies of the Haggadah for millions of Jews simply did not exist. This little verse was a mnemonic, a rhyming device to help leaders remember the order of the Seder without a Haggadah.

This order of the Seder is not perfect. Many of the parts are very short in duration while others can go on for a long time. Karpas, for example, is dipping parsley, celery, or other greens into salt water. This and the blessing take a mere minute, while the Maggid, or telling the story, can go on for an hour (though it doesn’t have to go that long).

Still, in spite of imperfections, the Kadesh Ur’chatz is a nice way to understand the order of the Seder:

Kadesh ur’chatz Sanctify and wash the hands. This means a blessing of the first cup of wine (there are four in the evening) and a ritual handwashing. The handwashing ceremony should be undertaken on hands already washed for hygiene. This ceremony is a modern reenactment of the priestly washing of hands and feet before entering God’s sanctuary. The table is likened to a sanctuary, set apart for God’s purpose. Handwashing involves pouring a small amount of water on the right hand first (into a small bowl) and then on the left hand. In this first handwashing we do not say a blessing.

karpas yachatz . . . A green vegetable and breaking the middle matzah. Customs vary slightly, but a common method is to dip parsley in saltwater, recite a blessing, and eat. In Roman banquets, a green vegetable such as lettuce, cucumber, or the like, was eaten as an hors d’oeuvre dipped in vinegar or brine. For the breaking of matzah, most Haggadahs suggest three matzahs in a cloth cover or on the Seder plate or under it. The middle matzah is broken, wrapped, and hidden to be eaten as the very last food of the night (in ancient times it was a small piece of the Passover lamb that was last, according to Lawrence Hoffman in My People’s Passover Haggadah). This broken middle matzah has become a potent symbol for some Christians and Messianic Jews (since Jesus is the middle member of the Trinity and was “broken” for our transgressions).

. . . Maggid rachatz Telling the Passover story and washing the hands a second time (before the meal, the first washing was before the hors d’oeuvres). The Maggid portion is long and I will explain it in another installment. The second handwashing is followed by the customary blessing.

motzi matzah Recite two blessings: the HaMotzi for bread in general and a special blessing over the matzah (unleavened bread, the bread of slaves).

Maror korech Eat the bitter herb and make the Hillel sandwich. Most today use grated horseradish for the maror (though the tradition is diverse on this and it can even be a piece of lettuce!). Hillel made a custom of eating the sanctified lamb meat with bitter herbs on a sandwich (or burrito) of unleavened bread. This is from a literal reading of Exodus 12:8 and Numbers 9:11. Later rabbinic tradition says you should not fulfill two mitzvot at the same time, so Hillel’s sandwich is now eaten after the bitter herbs are already eaten (the sanctified lamb meat no longer possible since the Temple was destroyed). Hillel’s sandwich (korech) is sort of an extra step retained in honor of this great sage.

shulchan orech . . .This is one step: serving the meal. Passover isn’t just a little horseradish and parsley. It is a kingly/queenly meal.

. . . Tzaphoon barekh Eat the afikomen and recite Grace After Meals. The history of the word afikomen is complex, but it might be summarized a the dessert. It is not sweetened, but is a broken piece of the middle matzah (at least the size of an olive). It is to be the last food that enters one’s mouth until the morning. Since it is followed by a blessing and the third cup, it resembles and is likely the origin of the Christian communion service arising from Jesus’ Last Supper. The Grace After Meals is a lengthy blessing recited every day at least once in traditional homes.

hallel nirtzah Sing the Hallel psalms and recite the concluding prayer for God’s acceptance (nirtzah) of the Seder. The Hallel consists of Psalm 115-118 and 136 (the Great Hallel). It is always moving for me, as a follower of Jesus, when we read the lines from Psalm 118, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

Understanding the Parts of the Maggid (Storytelling).

The part of the Haggadah most people associate most strongly with Passover is the telling of the story. It is called the Maggid, or the telling, and it is roughly 1/3 of the Haggadah (24 out of 72 pages in the Artscroll Family Haggadah, for example).

Before the Maggid section comes, these are the preparations leading into the storytelling: the first cup and its blessing, handwashing, the green vegetable, and breaking the middle matzah.

After the Maggid, which includes many physical elements itself, such as explaining the Seder plate and a second cup, these are the elements finishing out the worship aspect of the Seder: handwashing again, blessing bread and matzah, bitter herbs, the Hillel sandwich, the meal, afikoman, grace after meals, the third cup, Hallel psalms, fourth cup, and concluding blessings.

The storytelling of the Haggadah does not proceed the way we would expect it to. This is not the Exodus story told simply and in a straightforward fashion. Instead, you might say we have a storytelling section defined over time by committee, and not just any committee, but an unofficial committee of tradition building on itself with variations over hundreds of years. As with any product of committee, it is a bit of a jumble.

So take out your Haggadah (a traditional one, preferably, and use this guide to understand the parts of the Maggid section. You might copy these notes below and print them out to insert for reference in your Haggadah.

Bread of Affliction — The time this part was added is uncertain. It may be a leftover from the days when the lamb was still eaten. The leader of the Seder may have made a statement to the effect that, “This is the sanctified Passover offering.” As matzah came to replace the lamb as central to the Seder after the temple was destroyed, perhaps this bread of affliction statement was the replacement.

The phrase “bread of affliction” comes from Deuteronomy 16:3 (lechem oni). Rabbi Akiva read it slightly differently as the bread of poverty. It may refer to the affliction of the Israelites in their wilderness journey with only hard bread to eat. It is also possible that it was a kind of slaves’ bread, as those in forced labor may not have had time for proper breadmaking.

We say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” a part of the Seder intended to inspire us to invite families to join us at Passover, especially families lacking the money or the knowledge to lead a Seder on their own. Leviticus Rabbah 34:9 says, “The poor man stands at your door and the Holy One, Blessed be he, stands at his right hand.”

Four Questions — These are really one question (“why is this night different from all other nights?”) and four observations. The idea of children asking questions when they observe the Passover Seder goes back to verses in the Torah in which children ask (Exod. 12:26-27; 13:8, 14-15; Deut. 6:20-25).

Originally the children were to have asked questions spontaneously and a list of questions developed in case the children did not know what to ask. Over time the questions became fixed. When the temple was standing the questions were different and included one about the Passover sacrifice.

The questions are not directly answered, but the answers come in the rest of the storytelling for those who listen and pay attention. The modern custom is for a child to chant these questions to a melody.

We Were Slaves — The rabbis of old made a ruling about how the Passover story should be told (Mishnah Pesahim 10:4): the story should begin with disgrace and end with praise. What is the disgrace the story should begin with? The obvious answer would be Israel’s slavery. Some of the rabbis leaned in this direction and Deuteronomy 6:21 is a response in the Torah to the child’s questions that fits this interpretation, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Yet other rabbis felt the disgrace began long before Israel’s slavery in the reality of Joshua 24:2-4, “originally . . . our fathers served other gods.”

In the Maggid section, both approaches happen. This section, “we were slaves,” fulfills the first opinion, that the storytelling should start with slavery. In a section to come later, the story will backtrack and start again from the other opinion, “originally . . . our fathers served other gods.”

The Five Rabbis at Bnei Barak — Bnei Barak was a town near modern Tel Aviv, mentioned in Joshua 19:45. There is a traditional story about five rabbis meeting there during the second Jewish revolt to celebrate Passover. Five is considered a well-rounded number for Torah learning (such as the five books of the Torah).

Some Haggadahs have commentary that suggests a military interpretation about this Seder with five rabbis. Why were they up all night “telling the Passover story”? The military interpretation is that they were planning a part of the Jewish revolt. As observed in My People’s Passover Haggadah, however, there is no evidence for this colorful theory, but it fit well in Haggadahs from the era after Israel’s independence as an inspiring example of Jewish resistance in history.

It seems, rather, the good rabbis were up all night dialoguing about the details of the Exodus story in good rabbinic fashion.

Rabbi Elazar’s Passover at Night Midrash
One of the five rabbis was Rabbi Elazar, who was a friend of Rabbi ben Zoma. Zoma was known in the Mishnah as a master of the deeper meaning of texts. Elazar had learned from him a novel interpretation about why the Passover story was to be told at night. It might seem that Deuteronomy 16:3 interpreted literally would call for the story to be told in the day (i.e., the day after the Seder). Deuteronomy 16:3 says to remember the story “all the days of your life.”

Zoma taught Elazar that while days would mean daytime, “all the days” includes the traditional night telling at the Seder. Further, “days of your life” means this lifetime, but “all” means even in the world to come.

The Four Sons — There are four places in the Torah in which a child asks a question relating to Israel’s Exodus story. The rabbis noted midrashically that these four questions seem to come from four kinds of children:

Wise Son — Deuteronomy 6:20-21
Wicked Son — Exodus 12:26-27
Simple Son — Exodus 13:14-15
Unable to Ask — Exodus 13:8

The rabbis saw different motivations behind each question. Yet the principle is that all children should be told the story and not just the most deserving children. Numbers Rabbah 8:4 says, “If you estrange those who are distant you eventually estrange those who are near.”

One Might Think . . . — Since Exodus 13:8 has been brought up in the previous section, this paragraph is used to discuss an ancient question about the timing of Passover. As typical in rabbinic discussion, much is assumed without being stated. The stated reason for asking about the timing of Passover is a phrase in Exodus 13:8, “on that very day.” It is likely, however, that what is really at issue is Deuteronomy 16:1, which could be translated either, “in the month of Aviv the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt” or “on the new moon of Aviv.”

Scholars who view the text of the Torah critically often assume from Deuteronomy 16 that the Passover used to be celebrated on the first of Aviv (Nisan) and was later changed to the fifteenth. This “one might think” paragraph is the rabbis clarifying that their interpretation is that Passover is on the fifteenth (and thus, the word should be translated month in Deuteronomy 16).

Those modern interpreters who insist that Deuteronomy 16 contradicts the Passover traditions found elsewhere in the Torah are guilty of unnecessary dogmatism. The idea that periods from new moon to new moon might be referred to in shorthand with the same word as new moon (chodesh) is not difficult to sustain.

Our Ancestors Were Idol-Worshippers — This section, as noted previously, begins to retell the story following the other opinion about what “disgrace” should form the beginning of the Passover story. Was it the Israelite slavery, as the previous section assumed, or the idolatry of the pre-patriarchal fathers, as this section assumes? The answer for the rabbis is to do both.

This piece of the backstory of Israel comes from Joshua 24:2-4.

God Calculated the End of Our Bondage — This is an extra observation thrown into the Passover story for good reason. It refers to Genesis 15, when God showed Abraham that Israel would go into slavery and come out after a period of time. God showed redemption in advance to the Patriarchs. This is obviously of interest to the Jewish community, particularly in hard times, as a reminder that the Messianic Age of redemption is coming and Jewish sufferings are only for a while. It also shows that the Patriarchs may have started in disgrace (pre-Abrahamic idolatry) but moved on to redemption and praise (thus, the story is told from disgrace to praise, as the old ruling calls for).

The Laban the Aramean Section
This is one of the most difficult sections of the Haggadah to understand. And the difficulty most readers have interpreting this part of the storytelling for Passover is understandable. It’s not even easy to explain in short form, though I will try my best below.

Here is a simple translation from Artscroll of the Laban section in which I place in bold text a few key phrases that help the whole story to make sense later. I have also omitted some text as noted by the periods of ellipsis:

Go and learn what Laban the Aramean attempted to do to our father Jacob. For Pharaoh decreed only against the males, Laban attempted to uproot everything, as it is said (Deut. 26:5):

An Aramean attempted to destroy my father. Then he descended to Egypt and sojourned there, with few people, and there he became a nation — great, mighty, and numerous.

Then he descended to Egypt — compelled by divine decree.

He sojourned there — this teaches that our father Jacob did not descend to Egypt to settle, but only to sojourn temporarily . . .

With few people — as it is written (Deut. 10:22): with seventy persons . . .

There he became a nation — this teaches that the Israelites were distinctive there.

A Short Explanation of the Laban Section
Below I fill in the details, but many readers may want to simply get a quick answer for what this section is all about. Then you can decide if you’d like to wade into the details below for more depth.

The Laban the Aramean section is an example of the creative retelling of the Exodus story to fit the struggle of a later generation. It is a model for the way the Biblical story can be told to fit the struggle of any generation of Israel.

The generation that best fits this creative retelling is from the time between the two Jewish revolts against Rome (between 70 and 135 C.E.). I will explain this theory as developed by Lawrence Hoffman in My People’s Passover Haggadah below.

The underlying message, Hoffman tells us, is that Jews should keep the Land of Israel as the center of Judaism and not allow the Labans, Pharaohs, Romans, Nazis, and so on to pull us off course. Even Jacob in a time of duress only entered Egypt to sojourn and only when God decreed it. The place for Jacob and thus for Judaism is the Land.

Now, this is an interpretation of this creative retelling, but the evidence is in the details if you care to read.

The Biblical Roots of the Laban Section

And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. (Deut. 26:5).

The key phrase is, “a wandering Aramean (Syrian) was my father.” The Hebrew is ambiguous (arami oved avi). Oved usually means perish or destroy. It can also mean lost or strayed (as in 1 Samuel 9:3 and 20). Not only is the word ambiguous, but so is the grammar. To make a long story short, the most likely two options are either:

–A wandering (lost/fugitive) Aramean was my father
–An Aramean destroyed my father

Of these two, there are two reasons to prefer the first one: (1) the verb is a participle and fits better as an adjective than as a past tense and (2) the second statement is not historically true. Thus, as we will see in the explanation below, some interpretations rendered it, “An Aramean wished to destroy my father.”

Onkelos and Later Rabbis
Onkelos is the name of an Aramaic paraphrase (Targum) of the Torah that is very ancient (1st Century C.E.). Onkelos reads this phrase from Deuteronomy with different vowels (arami ibed avi). This could be translated, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” Lawrence Hoffman explains that later rabbis likely had an even more creative reading in mind that uses the same consonants: romi ibed avi, a Roman tried to destroy my father (My People’s Passover Haggadah, Vol. 2, pp.25-26).

The Roman Theory
The best theory that explain this curious retelling of Deuteronomy 26:5 is that it was devised by the rabbis who lived after the destruction of the Temple when the oppression of Rome was felt strongly. Lawrence Hoffman suggests the key is to note the details that diverge from a simple reading of the Biblical story:

1. The idea that Laban the Aramean was worse than Pharaoh is a stretch Biblically speaking. It is true that if Laban had killed Jacob in Genesis 31 or if he had seduced Jacob into idolatry, Israel would never have formed as a people. But Laban did nothing of the kind (some interpreters say the fact that Laban wanted to do it was enough to create the possibility, so that “an Aramean destroyed my father” is real in a potential kind of way). But the Romans did do something like what Laban is accused of: destroying the Temple and killing many thousands of Jews. The Romans were worse than Pharaoh and killed more than just the males.

2. The idea that Jacob only went into Egypt by divine decree is also a stretch. It is true that God caused a famine and this might be interpreted as God orchestrating Jacob’s journey into Egypt, though the text never says this was the purpose of the famine. It is true, however, that in the period of Roman persecution, the Jewish center in Alexandria, Egypt, became the most important Jewish community outside of Israel.

3. The idea that Israel became a distinct people in Egypt is true Biblically, but Hoffman asks why emphasize it? This too fits the Roman theory, in which diaspora Judaism threatened to become the spiritual center of Judaism (it eventually did in Babylon; hence the Babylonian Talmud). Meanwhile, rabbis such as Gamaliel II sought to bring the center back to the Land of Israel.

Therefore, what we have in the Laban the Aramean section is a retelling of Deuteronomy 26:5 that makes its message contemporary for Jews in between the two Jewish revolts (66-70 C.E. and 132-135 C.E.). With some creativity, repointing the vowels, and making use of fanciful exegesis, the rabbis were able to make a wisdom parable for their generation.

One could easily imagine, and it has been done, other generations of Jewish history fitting the story to their generation’s struggle.

The Egyptians Did Evil to Us . . . We Cried to the Lord
The Laban the Aramean section, which I commented on in the last part of this series, was the beginning of a midrashic explanation of Deuteronomy 26:5-8. Laban the Aramean figures prominently in the midrash on Deuteronomy 26:5 and so now, I am continuing from the midrash on Deuteronomy 26:6, “The Egyptians did evil to us…”

Most of the rabbinic commentary here is relatively unremarkable. They tend to comment in ways that bring out the meaning of the text without too many surprises or scriptural gymnastics. Yet there are a few places in this extended explanation of Deuteronomy 26:6-8 that are intriguing puzzles calling for questioning and reflection.

Regarding Deuteronomy 26:6 (And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage), the commentary of the Haggadah is simple. The sages use Exodus 1:10, 11, and 13 to remind us of the roots of Israel’s slavery. The Egyptians enslaved Israel to keep us down, to keep us from coming to power, and to keep us from becoming a threat to their own power. The reason for this comment becomes apparent in the explanation of 26:7.

Regarding Deuteronomy 26:7 (Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our burden, and our oppression), the Haggadah commentary leads in a specific direction: the affliction of Israel was about the killing of the male children and inhibiting the growth of the incipient nation. Through a series of references (Exodus 2:23-25; 1:22; and 3:9), the rabbis focus the issue of suffering on the slaughtering of the children. The affliction is identified as disruption of family life. The burden is the casting of infant sons into the Nile. And the oppression is the groaning of Israel. These comments are surprising, perhaps, in emphasizing the killing of children above the pains of slave labor.

It is in their explanation of Deuteronomy 26:8 that the sages introduce the largest puzzle of all, a puzzle worthy of its own section in this article.

Hashem Brought Us Out of Egypt
Deuteronomy 26:8 is straightforward: and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders. The explanation in the Haggadah is not so straightforward: …not through an angel…but through the Holy One…I and no angel…I and no other.

Reading it the obvious question is, “What are you arguing against?” Clearly the point that it is God who rescued Israel is being made from Deuteronomy 26:8, “the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” But why deny the involvement of angels? There is a long history of texts from the apocalyptic writings, the New Testament, and various rabbinic texts discussing the mediation of angels at Mt. Sinai (see Acts 7:53 and Gal. 3:19, for example).

In My People’s Passover Haggadah, Vol. 2, Marc Brettler (who comments on the Biblical background of the Haggadah) sees this as another example of the rabbis giving priority to one Biblical text over another. Specifically the rabbis give priority to the first of these two references:

Exodus 12:12, I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast.

Exodus 12:23, …the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you.

Brettler shares the commonly held view of critical scholars that the Torah is a composite of several sources written in different eras and pasted together with some contradictions left intact. He sees these two verses as irreconcilable and the rabbis are choosing one over the other in order to hold a consistent theology of the Passover story.

Lawrence Hoffman, on the other hand, gives what is likely the real reason for the strange commentary of the Haggadah on this verse:

This is almost certainly a polemic against Christianity. Origen of Alexandria (185-c. 254) . . . engaged in controversy with Rabbi Yochanan, the most significant rabbi in the Palestinian Talmud, on precisely this point. Origen claimed that the Christian “second” covenant through Jesus surpassed the Jewish “original” one through Moses, because Jesus was the Christ, a part of God, whereas Moses was merely a human agent or messenger.

If you know that the word “angel” is the same as the word “messenger,” then you understand how this Haggadah commentary might be a response to a Christian triumphalism over Judaism. The rabbis here are not necessarily denying Exodus 12:23, as Brettler claims, but emphasizing the direct role of Israel’s God in the Passover. They wish to emphasize this so no one can claim the Jewish story is inferior to the Christian story.

Note: How Yeshua-followers Could Use This Section
Is it a problem for Yeshua-followers, then, to recite from the Haggadah when it says, “It was I and no angel”?

The answer is decidedly no, it is not a problem. Origen had his good points, but his triumphalist attitude toward Jews and Judaism was not one of them. Origen’s attack on Judaism is without merit and perhaps reveals some of early Christianity’s sense of inferiority to Judaism rather than the reverse. There is no need to denigrate Moses or Mt. Sinai or the Torah to exalt Christ. Christ would never share in such attacks. The God who gave Torah is the God of Christ. Origen and many leaders throughout Church history have failed to see this.

It is fitting, then, for Yeshua-followers to insert a note in the Haggadah and explain at this point in the service, why the sages used such an explanation.

I never actually finished this short commentary on the Haggadah. Maybe next year. Pesach same’ach, everyone!

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