Pesach Pearls from the Rabbis

The Mishnah in Pesachim (10:5), quoted in the heart of the Maggid section of the Haggadah states:


Rabban Gamliel used to say, anyone that does not say these three things has not fulfilled his obligation, and they are: Pesach (Passover lamb), Matzah , Maror … Pesach (Passover lamb) that our fathers ate during the time of the Temple - for what reason [did they do so]? Because the Omnipresent passed over our fathers' houses in Egypt… This Matzah which we eat - for what reason?  Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them… This Maror that we eat for what reason?  Because the Egyptians embittered our fathers’ lives in Egypt...


According to Rabban Gamliel, each of the three primary symbolic foods of the Seder relate to a portion of the story of slavery and redemption from Egypt.  The Passover lamb represents the night of the first Seder, when G-d spared the Jewish firstborn males, while killing the Egyptians.  Matzah represents the hurried exit from Egypt the following morning, and Maror represents the bitterness of the slavery that preceded the redemption.  Very strangely, Rabban Gamliel puts these symbols out of chronological order.  Maror should be first, followed by Pesach, and then Matzah. This is especially striking in light of the principle at the very end of the previous Mishnah in Pesachim (10:4), which teaches regarding the retelling of the story of the redemption from Egypt on Seder night that we should “begin with shame and conclude with praise”.  This principle means we start with the negative, such as “our forefathers were slaves in Egypt” and “in the beginning our forefathers were idolaters.”  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Harari Kedem v.2 ch.87) says we begin with the negative in order to appreciate the positive that follows and be able to fully give thanks to G-d.  We need to start with slavery to appreciate the freedom that follows and we need to start with our idolatrous past to appreciate being brought out of Egypt in order to come to Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.  It would be logical therefore that both chronologically and because of the principle “begin with shame and conclude with praise” that the order should be Maror, Pesach, Matzah. 


Rabbi Soloveitchik explains (The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening, pgs 95-96) that Rabban Gamliel uses the order Pesach, Matzah, Maror, because he organizes these symbols according to level of importance. The Pesach offering should be the central symbol of the Seder and is therefore first.  Post-destruction of the Temple, the Torah’s mitzvah of Matzah is still fully applicable, but Maror is only a rabbinic mitzvah when we no longer have the Pesach offering to eat with it.  Therefore, Matzah takes precedence over Maror. 


The Sefat Emet (Pesach 5632) has a more experiential approach to explaining why Rabban Gamliel puts the discussion of Maror after Pesach and Matzah as well why in our performance of these Mitzvot, we eat Maror after Matzah.  Based upon his grandfather, the Chiddushei HaRim, he says that Maror represents reunderstanding the suffering of Egypt after we have experienced redemption.  The Mishnah teaches to “start with shame and conclude with praise” in order to properly appreciate and give thanks for the good we have received.  However, here a different concept is operating.  The bitterness of slavery, symbolized by Maror, comes after the redemption from Egypt, symbolized by Matzah, to teach us that after we fully experience redemption, we are able to recognize that even our suffering and affliction were ultimately for our good.  May Eliyahu HaNavi come this year and bring tidings of our ultimate redemption and may we merit in that redemption to understand and appreciate the travails and suffering of our people.     


Chag kasher v’sameach,


Rabbi Yitzchak Falk   



Words from Rabbi Wax

 The nation of Israel was born as the result of a revolution -- the rebellion of the Israelite slave against the totalitarian regime of the Pharaohs.  But this revolution did not fail. On the contrary, its message of the inalienable right of freedom for all and its abhorrence of all forms of enslavement reverberate to the present day.  It is important to understand and learn from this revolution at the dawn of history.
        The Israelites were able to leave Egypt and emerge from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, as the result of ten plagues that descended on the Egyptians and wrought havoc on the most advanced civilization of that time.  The Israelites celebrate -- indeed, attempt to re-experience -- their miraculous Exodus every year at a family oriented Seder dinner accompanied with, and preceded and concluded by, special readings from a liturgical composition called the Haggadah.
        These ten plagues, declares Rabbi Yehuda as cited in the Haggadah,can be easily remembered by means of a Hebrew mnemonic device דצ“ך, עד“ש, באח“ב which divides them into three separate sections:  blood, frogs and vermin; wild animals, animal illnesses and boils; hail, locusts and darkness; and the slaying of the first born.
        Apparently, each grouping highlights the mastery of God over another crucial aspect of Egyptian life.  The first three (in which the Nile turned to blood, the waters spewed out frogs and the dust turned into vermin) demonstrate control over the waterways and the land.  The second three (wild animals, animal illnessesand boils) demonstrate control over those who populate the land.  The next three (hail, locusts and darkness) demonstrate control over the heavens and what comes from the heavens to affect the earth.  And the final plague (the slaying of the first born) expresses power over life and death.
        The Maharal of Prague and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch provide and even deeper insight into the three categories of plagues.  These great scholars go back to the prophecy included with God’s initial covenant with Abraham, when the patriarch is informed “your offspring will be strangers in a land which is not theirs, they shall be enslaved and they shall be afflicted,” after which they will inherit the Promised Land of Israel.
        Since the Egyptian experience serves as a paradigm for all subsequent exiles and persecutions, this prophecy delineates the three characteristics ascribed by every totalitarian persecutor to any minority group:  alienation, enslavement and affliction.  These are what Pharaoh did to the Hebrews, what Hitler would have done to all non-Aryans, and what Stalin did to any people he thought might pose a threat to his authority, be they liberal intellectuals or Yiddish writers.
        Certainly the Hebrews in Egypt as well as the Jews in Germany three millenia later) were first delegitimitized as strangers in a country to which they did not belong (alienation), were then enslaved and forced to build the storehouses of Pithom and Raamses (slavery), and finally were mercilessly afflicted through the mass murder of Hebrew male babies and back-breaking labor under inhuman conditions (affliction).
        The Maharal and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch ingeniously suggest that the God of the Israelites punished the Egyptians measure for measure by means of the plagues.  And Rabbi Yehuda brings this allusion to the forefront with his tripartite division of the plagues דצ“ך עד“ש באח“ב.  
        And indeed, this is the true message of the revolutions against Egypt. We dare not exit from slavery in order to lord it over any other minority.  God taught us and Pharaoh that there is only one Lord.  The God of the Exodus demands that “we love the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  God gave us a Sabbath day in order that any gentile servants “may rest like you,” for no one may be enslaved or afflicted under God.  The Ten Plagues teach us that no totalitarian regime which enslaves and afflicts people has the right to exist -- especially in a global village in the nuclear age.
Rabbi Burton H. Wax    

Fri, September 22 2017 2 Tishrei 5778