Putting the Seder in Order

Marc Herman  Tradition Online | April 11, 2022

The Haggada has a justifiable reputation for being structured: the night is known as Leil HaSeder and throughout the text there are repeated four-fold configurations, which suggest inherent structure and order. Yet, at the beginning of the Haggada there is a seeming problem with the design. Immediately following the Ma Nishtana, the Haggada turns to the Jewish enslavement: Avadim Hayinu, we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. The Haggada then mentions how the Tannaim celebrated Passover, then the idolatrous past of our forefathers, before finally returning to the Exodus. The apparent disorganization is bewildering.

This problem might be addressed with reference to the well-known debate about where the Haggada actually starts (Pesahim 116a). The Mishna instructs that the Haggada “begin with disgrace and conclude with praise.” Most interpreters agree that the praise at the end of the Haggada is the recitation of Hallel, but some Amoraim disagree about the identification of the disgrace: is it the Jewish people’s idolatrous past or is it their enslavement in Egypt? In the Vilna edition of this passage, Rav takes the former interpretation and Shmuel the latter. Many commentators claim that the halakha follows the view that the Haggada begins with the phrase “Avadim Hayinu,” and we therefore adopt the position that the “disgrace” discussed in the Mishna is Israel’s slavery. This explanation, however, suffers from all problems mentioned above.

Looking again at the relevant Gemara, many Rishonim transmit a different version of this debate. Instead of a dispute between Rav and Shmuel, they record that the two opinions are offered in the name of Rav and Rava (see Haggada shel Pesah im Perush HaRishonim, 30-31, and Dikdukei Sofrim VI:181a). According to Ri ben Yakar, Ritva, and Abudraham, the halakha follows Rava (as he is the later Sage) and the Haggada opens with Avadim Hayinu. One may suggest, however, that Rava is only supplementing Rav’s interpretation by focusing the story on the later disgrace of the Israelites as well.

Following this interpretation, the halakha may in fact not be forced to decide between these two readings of the Mishna. If so, we can suggest that the Haggada itself (that is, the retelling of the Exodus) does not formally commence after the Four Questions. According to this read, following Kiddush, the evening moves to Ha Lahma Anya and the pouring of the second cup of wine, to which the youngest child expresses his or her bewilderment through the Four Questions. Avadim Hayinu, then, is only the beginning of the answer to the Four Questions, not the formal Sippur itself. The Haggada continues with the story of the Sages in Benei Brak to illustrate the importance of the retelling, the Four Sons to show how the retelling should be performed, and the passage “It could be done from Rosh Hodesh” to discuss when the Exodus should be remembered. The actual fulfillment of the obligation to recount the tale of the Exodus, which must begin with “disgrace,” only starts with “originally our forefathers were idolaters” (see the commentary of Orhot Hayyim, who at this point writes “Here begins the Haggada”). The enslavement is then fully integrated into the Haggada’s interpretation of Arami Oved Avi. This reading of the Haggada’s structure answers all of the challenges outlined above: the first section of the Haggada is arranged logically and the chronological order is not disturbed.

Indeed, this may be a better read of the Mishna’s instructions regarding the Haggada. After the Four Questions, the Mishna instructs that “according to the intelligence and the ability of the son, his father teaches him about the Exodus,” which in line with the above analysis, is recalled with mention of the Four Sons. Only after that does the Mishna say “begin with disgrace and conclude with praise”: the disgrace is not Avadim Hayinu but the section that appears where the Mishna dictates: originally our forefathers were idolaters.

Marc Herman, a specialist in medieval Judeo-Arabic halakhic literature and the history of Jewish thought in the Islamic world, will join the faculty of York University as an assistant professor in the fall.


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