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Seder plates can get awfully crowded these days, with all the causes vying to place a new symbolic food on them.  Some of these causes are dear to my heart, and some of the foods are delicious.  Nonetheless, I think the effort to formally incorporate them into seder ritual is a mistake.  Here’s a very rabbinic and somewhat winding explanation of why.

We say the complete Hallel on the first day(s) of Pesach, but we say an incomplete Hallel on the remaining days?  Why?  

Pesikta Derav Kehana cites as explanation Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice at the downfall of your enemy”.  This explains why we don’t complete Hallel, but what is different about the first day(s) that allows us to complete it?

Here is a parallel question.  Talmud Sanhedrin 39b states that after G-d drowned the Mitzriyim in the Reed Sea, the angels sought to sing His praises, but He restrained them: “My handiworks are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?!”  But the context, of course, is that the Jews were singing the Song of the Sea, and by all accounts they are praised for doing so.  Why was it proper for the Jews to sing while His handiworks were drowning?

One more question: The Haggadah tells a story in which a group of rabbis stay up all night telling the story of the Exodus, until their students come and tell them that the time has come for the morning Shema.  Now the third paragraph of the Shema is intended, the rabbis tell us, to fulfill the commandment of . . . telling the story of the Exodus.  What is the difference between these mitzvot?

I have one answer for all three questions.  The mitzvah on the first night of Pesach is to tell the story not as an observer, but rather as a participant.  In Yosef Yerushalmi’s famous framework, it is intended to create memory rather than to teach history. 

Direct beneficiaries of a miracle have an overwhelming obligation to express gratitude, even if a third party would note that the miracle caused harm to other human beings.  Thus the Jews were obligated to sing, but the angels were not permitted to.

On the first night(s) of Passover, we place ourselves in the position of the generation of the Exodus, in other words as direct beneficiaries of G-d’s miracles.  We therefore may and must sing the complete Hallel.  On the remaining nights, we are more like the angels (although unlike them, we are second-degree beneficiaries), and so we cannot complete Hallel – did not His handiworks drown even as we were redeemed?

How does this relate to the question of whether contemporary social justice causes should find symbolic expression at the seder?

Let me be clear.  The ultimate purpose of the Seder is to recommit us to justice, to recognizing that everything in Torah is mediated by our experience of the G-d Who hates slavery intervening to redeem us from slavery.  But the immediate purpose of the Seder is to root that experience in our minds, and the minds of our children, as uncontroversial and incontrovertible memory rather than as potentially controversial history.  The immediate purpose of the seder is to establish a narrative, not to draw morals from it.

When we impose meaning on the story, rather than simply telling it, we transform experience into opinion.  The story by itself must generate the meaning.  So long as we share memory, our conflicts as to the obligations imposed by that memory will occur within, and perhaps even strengthen, our shared identity.  They will be conflicts of interpretation about a common text.  But if the controversy is allowed to feed back into the memory – if our political differences no longer stem from a shared memory – those same conflicts risk turning us into multiple people, with multiple Torahs.

Now it is human and proper for Jews’ opinions to find their way into their divrei Torah at the Seder, just as every Jew experienced the original Exodus and Revelation at Sinai uniquely.  And it is beautiful and necessary for Jews to experience the Seder as generating obligations to act, to change the world toward greater morality and justice.  But we need the Exodus to be available to inspire our descendants as it inspired us; we cannot risk having it be seen as the constructed past of a dead ideology.

As we preserve a common text of Torah, we need to preserve a common core of Exodus narrative, and my strong sense is that this is best done by keeping the seder plate as is.

Chag kasher vesameiach!



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Who was hurried on the night of Pesach? Or: Why Rambam opens the Haggadah differently

The seder text I am accustomed to begins with the recitation

הא לחמא עניא

This is the bread of oni that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

The use of הא=this, equivalent to the Hebrew זה, suggests that one is pointing at a matzah,


The literary issue, however, is that no context has been set.  An anthropologist visiting the seder would reasonably conclude that the Jews ate matzah throughout their stay in Egypt, rather than specifically during the Exodus[1].


In Rambam’s Haggadah, however, the text begins בבהילו יצאנו ממצרים.  ‘בהלה’ is a translation of the Biblical חפזון, and seems to mean something like “hurry under stress”.  This makes the opening a straightforward reference to Devarim 16:3:

לא תאכל עליו חמץ

שבעת ימים תאכל עליו מצות לחם עני

כי בחפזון יצאת מארץ מצרים

למען תזכר את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך:

You must not eat chametz over it –

for seven days you shall eat over it matzot, bread of oni,

because it was in chipazon that you departed the Land of Egypt,

so that you will remember the day of your departure from the Land of Egypt all the days of your life.


It is possible that the absence of this opening is an error in our texts, although if so, the error precedes Rambam, as our text is found in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon.  But[2] the problem here, as in many Biblical texts, is determining the referents of the prepositional phrases.


Devarim 16:2 and 3 put together read as follows:

וזבחת פסח ליקוק א-להיך צאן ובקר

במקום אשר יבחר יקוק לשכן שמו שם:

לא תאכל עליו חמץ

שבעת ימים תאכל עליו מצות לחם עני

כי בחפזון יצאת מארץ מצרים

למען תזכר את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך:

You will sacrifice a Pesach to Hashem your G-d, flock and cattle,

in the place where Hashem your G-d will choose to have His Presence dwell there.

You must not eat chametz over it  –

for seven days you shall eat over it matzot, bread of oni,

because it was in chipazon that you departed the Land of Egypt,

so that you will remember the day of your departure from the Land of Egypt all the days of your life”


Grammatically, the term chipazon may relate either specifically to the command to eat matzah and not chametz, or else to the Pesach sacrifice.  The evidence that it relates to the Pesach sacrifice is Shmot 12:11:

וככה תאכלו אתו

מתניכם חגרים נעליכם ברגליכם ומקלכם בידכם

ואכלתם אתו בחפזון

פסח הוא ליקוק:

Thus you must eat it –

your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staffs in your hands.

And you must eat it in chipazon

it is a Pesach to Hashem.

This indicates that the eating of unleavened bread is not an essential component of chipazon, and this might lead someone to object that Rambam’s Haggadah makes an unwarranted connection between them, and remove the opening.


But isn’t eating unleavened bread is in any case part of the recollection of the “stressed haste” with which we left Egypt?


Not necessarily – Mishnah Pesachim 9:5 tells us that while the Pesach of Egypt was eaten in chipazon, subsequent Pesachs should not be, perhaps even must not be.  The immediate evidence for this halakhic position, as brought on Pesachim 96a, is

ואכלתם אתו בחפזון –

אותו נאכל בחפזון, ואין אחר נאכל בחפזון

you must eat it in chipazon’” –

it is eaten in chipazon, but no other is eaten in chipazon


This seems to indicate that while the entire Pesach ritual recalls the chipazon with which we left Egypt, it is not intended to recreate that chipazon.  If matzah were in fact a recreation of chipazon, then, it would be inappropriate to eat it with the Pesach.  That we eat matzah at the Seder is therefore evidence that matzah is not associated with chipazon, and therefore Rambam’s text is problematic.


Why should the Torah not wish the chipazon to be recreated?  One possibility is the controversy as to who, exactly, was in a “stressed hurry” to have the Jews leave Egypt.  Various midrashim suggest that it was the Jews, the Egyptians, and/or Hashem!  If we take the last approach, which is many ways the most interesting, chipazon may be a reference to the idea that redemption from Egypt was urgently necessary, and came prematurely, because the Jews would otherwise have descended into “the 50th gate of tum’ah” and become permanently unworthy of redemption.  Perhaps this is not an aspect of the Exodus that we wish to recall at the Seder, at least not at its outset, despite the principle that “we begin with shame”.


Another reason to not recreate chipazon may be the description of Ultimate Redemption in Yeshayahu 52:12:

כי לא בחפזון תצאו ובמנוסה לא תלכון

כי הלך לפניכם ה’ ומאספכם א-להי ישראל:

For you will not depart in chipazon,and you will not go in the manner of fleeing,

because Hashem goes before you, and the One who gathers you is the G-d of Israel.

This verse, as noted by many midrashim (but not Radak), seems to see the chipazon with which we left Egypt as a flaw in that redemption.  Perhaps the Pesach is supposed to look both forward and back, and we do not recreate those aspects of the Pesach that did not foreshadow ultimate redemption


These two rationales are intriguingly combined in a fascinating Midrash Sekhel Tov on the Song of the Sea (appended but not translated).  Exodus 15:12-19 is written in a grammatical form that obscures present and past, but there seems to be a perhaps anachronistic mention of the Temple as an ultimate goal, and the verses can be read as suggesting that the inhabitants of Canaan have already been struck dumb by the passage of the Children of Israel among them.


The verse Sekhel Tov focuses on is 15:13,

“You have guided with Your chessed this nation which You have redeemed;

You have directed them with Your strength to Your holy dwelling-place”.

“Your chessed” suggests that this was undeserved – but when had Hashem redeemed the Jews, let alone taken them to His holy dwelling-place?   Sekhel Tov posits that Hashem took the Jews to the Temple Mount (on the wings of eagles: see Shmot 19:4) on the night of Passover, where they brought and ate the Pesach sacrifice, and then returned them to Egypt in time for the Plague of the FirstBorn.  While Hashem was in chipazon lest they return too late, in His chessed He did not hurry them.

ושנשאתנו בעוזך על כנפי נשרים בשעה קלה

והבאתנו (ב)[מ]מצרים בלילי הפסח:

. . . למקום בית המקדש. . .

ואכלנו שם הפסח,

והחזרת לנו למצרים מיד,

ואע”פ ששכינתך היתה נחפזת לכך…

לנו לא החפזתה בכך

And that You brought us in Your strength on wings of eagles in a mere moment

and brought us from Egypt on the night of the Pesach

to the place of the Temple

and we ate the Pesach there

and then You returned us to Egypt immediately.

Even though Your Shekhinah was in chipazon for this

You did not put us in hurry/stress as a result


In this reading, we did not leave Egypt with chipazon at all, although we did eat the Pesach while G-d waited, patiently, but kebyakhol stressed.  And so it would certainly be inappropriate to begin the Seder by saying that we left Egypt in chipazon, and that the matzah recalls that chipazon.


In a Chassidic mode, we might suggest that the underlying message of this reading of the poetry of Exodus is that redemption can only happen to those who have already experienced it – the Jews could not leave Egypt unless they had a true understanding not only of what they were leaving, but where they were going.  Thus in the narrative of Exodus it is clear that true redemption cannot occur until Sinai, and perhaps not even then, until the message of Torah has been fully understood as well as heard.  This is a useful cautionary note with regard to contemporary dreams of redemption, but may we merit that complete understanding speedily and in our days, and strive toward it regardless.


Shabbat shalom



“נחית בחסדך” –

דומה לו “וינחם אל מחוז חפצם” (תהלים קז ל), “וינחם בענן יומם” (שם עח יד)

ולשון נחיי’ היא כאדם המפרש בים וקם סער עליו, או כיוצא בשיירה ותעה ורדפוהו ליסטין, ונזדמן לו אוהבו והוליכו והנחהו בשלום למחוז חפצו,

לכך נאמר “נחית בחסדך” –

שלא היו בידינו מעשים טובים ומצוות, אלא חסד עשית עמנו ונחיתנו:

“עם זו” –

כלומר עם זה, ולשון זכר היא,

ודומה לו “עם זו יצרתי לי” (ישעי’ מג כא):

“עם זו גאלת” –

במה גאלתם, בכופר שנתתה מצרים בתמורתם:

“נהלת” –

אין נהילה אלא נהיגה בלט,

ודומה לדבר “אתנהלה לאטי” (בראשית לג יד), “אין מנהל לה” (ישעי’ נא יח), “וינהלם בלחם”       (בראשית מז יז), וכל דומיהן:

“בעזך” –

בתוקף שלך, שאע”פ שאתה עזוז וגבור, לא היתה מדביקתו ללכת במרוצה, אלא כמחזיק ביד בנו    ומכה לו לאט,

ולא עוד, אלא שנהילתך היתה עריבה ביותר, שנשאתנו בעוזך על כנפי נשרים בשעה קלה והבאתנו             במצרים בלילי הפסח:

“אל נוה קדשך” –

למקום בית המקדש, דכתיב ביה “נוה שאנן אהל בל יצען” (ישעי’ לג כ),

ואכלנו שם הפסח,

והחזרת לנו למצרים מיד,

ואע”פ ששכינתך היתה נחפזת לכך, דכתיב “ואכלתם אותו בחפזון” (שמות יב יא), לנו לא החפזתה בכך:


1] This incongruity is one reason that עוני is not necessarily best translated “affliction”, as apparently we ate leavened bread throughout our affliction, and ate unleavened bread only as we were escaping it.

[2] see on this Rav Kasher’s הגדה שלמה

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How not to eat Matzah

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but two Wrights make an airplane, two rights make a lawsuit, and sometimes – two rights make a wrong.  Let me explain. 

Not all chumrot (stringencies that go beyond the basic legal requirement) go well together, even if separately they are praiseworthy. 

My usual illustration of this has been that there is a chumra that one should fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah by putting a full olive-volume of matzah in one’s mouth simultaneously and swallowing (some suggest chewing first).  There are also chumrot as to how much matzah constitutes an olive-volume, depending on the size of olives and how finely one grinds the matzah to measure it.  Combining these chumras requires one to put a huge quantity of matzah in one’s mouth and try to swallow it in one shot, and not surprisingly, every year the newspapers report a number of emergency room visits by people who choked on the mitzvah.

This safety concern is heightened now that my friend Professor Chaim Saiman sent me a link to a Yeshiva World article that goes this combination one better.  The author, Rabbi Yair Hoffman, contends that each Jew should try to fulfill the mitzvah by putting two olive-volumes of matzah in their mouth and chewing.

Now Rabbi Hoffman’s article has a marvelously honest and revealing prologue in which he acknowledges that his proposal will seem alien to just about all lay Jews, no matter how meticulously observant, and that they would be correct in assuming that it was not practiced by their parents. 

“What?  I never heard of that!”

“I’m sorry, but I do not know anyone who eats matzah like that.  It can’t be true”.

“My parents would have told me if this was true.  I don’t care if you say it is in the Shulchan Aruch.  This is just not done.  It can’t be that tens of thousands of people are doing it wrong.”

Here is how he justifies it nonetheless: 

Let us remember that for centuries, Jews have tried to fulfill mitzvos in the most ideal manner possible.  Often what this means is to fulfill the mitzvah in a manner that is consistent with the views of as many of the rishonim as possible.  Some people who are not accustomed to this notion will find such dedication extreme.  Others, however, will realize that dedication to mitzvos and Torah observance is a manifestation of ahavas Hashem, the love we have toward G-d”.

Let us concede that sometimes “the most ideal manner possible” to fulfill a mitzvah is to engage in rishon-position-maximization (the parameters of when deserve full discussion, but that is not my purpose here).  Surely there are other values as well, though, both general and matzah-specific, and relating to both the letter and spirit of the law, such as hiddur mitzvah (making commandments aesthetically pleasing), simchat mitzvah (joy in fulfilling commandments), oneg yom tov (making the holiday pleasurable), akhilah b’teiavon (eating matzah with appetite), avoiding akhilah gasah (gross consumption), and last but not least, avoiding potentially fatal behaviors.

In other words, there are very good reasons to oppose Rabbi Hoffman’s outcomes even if one concedes the truth of his specific halakhic analysis of matzah.  Rabbi Hoffman simply dismisses popular practice (minhag) here on the ground that it strays from the Shulchan Arukh – he grants mimetic culture no power at all against books.  But perhaps here the mimetic tradition has the authority of near-fatal experience, as when Rabbi Zeira refused to again eat a Purim meal with Rabbah the year after Rabbah had violently killed him at such a meal (albeit resurrecting him through prayer the next day).

But what about the Shulchan Arukh itself?

I think there are three good reasons not to follow Rabbi Hoffman’s understanding here.

1)  Shulchan Arukh may have been using a much smaller olive-volume.  In other word, when he proposed his position, it was not even potentially dangerous.

2)  Shulchan Arukh was referring to soft pita-like matza rather than the hard crackers with which Ashkenazim make do.  Again, when he proposed his position, it was not dangerous.

Reasons one and two are valid separately but are also mutually reinforcing justifications for the contemporary public failure to heed the Shulchan Arukh on this matter.

3) Shulchan Arukh never said any such thing.

Here is the language of the Shulchan Arukh OC 475:1

יטול ידיו ויברך על נטילת ידים,

ויקח המצות כסדר שהניחם,

הפרוסה בין שתי השלימות,

ויאחזם בידו ויברך המוציא ועל אכילת מצה,

ואחר כך יבצע מהשלימה העליונה ומהפרוסה,

משתיהן ביחד,

ויטבלם במלח,

ויאכלם בהסיבה ביחד, כזית מכל אחד,

ואם אינו יכול לאכול כשני זיתים ביחד, יאכל של המוציא תחלה ואחר כך של אכילת מצה,

He must wash his hands and make the blessing “regarding washing the hands”,

then he picks up the matzot in the same order that he left them,

the broken one between the two whole ones,

and he grasps them in his hand and blesses hamotzi and “regarding the eating of matzah”,

and afterward he cuts a piece from the upper whole one and from the broken one, from the two of them together, and dips them in salt,

and he must eat them reclining, together, an olive-volume from each one. 

But if he cannot eat two olive-sizes together, he eats the one from hamotzi first and afterward al akhilat matzah.

Rabbi Hoffman, following some acharonim, understands this as follows:

If one reads the Shulchan Aruch carefully, the indication is that both kezeisim should also actually be swallowed together. However, both the Magen Avraham and the Mishnah Berurah (475:9) write that it is only necessary to have them in the mouth together, chew them, and separate them in the mouth, but it is not necessary to swallow them together—one after the other will suffice.

If it is not possible to put two kezeisim of matzah in the mouth simultaneously, then one should take a kezayis from the whole matzah for the berachah of HaMotzi and, after chewing it, swallow it in its entirety. Afterward, he should take a kezayis from the broken piece, chew it well, and swallow that one in its entirety.

I contend, however, that a careful reading of Shulchan Arukh reveals no trace ever of an obligation to put any olive-volume of anything in the mouth at one time.  Rather, to “eat an olive-volume” of something always means to chew it deliberately, bite by bite, so long as one finishes it bikhdei akhilat pras, in the time an ordinary person eats 3-4 egg-volumes (this measurement has of course been downsized by its own chumras, although it may be that the chumra of necessity cancel each other out mathematically, i.e. the time must increase if the volume does).  To eat two olive-volumes together is to eat them both within that time-period, and Shulchan Arukh reasonably notes that many people will not be able to do this (let alone swallow them simultaneously).  He therefore allows them to be eaten in consecutive time periods, so long as an akhilat pras period does not elapse in which he is not eating matzah.  (Even Mishnah Berurah concedes that this is sufficient bediavad – I simply contend that there is no evidence that it is not lekhatchilah, and Shulchan Arukh’s language offers no basis for a lekhatchilah/bediavad distinction of this sort.)  The requirement that pieces of both matzot be in the mouth together immediately after the blessings refers to an initial bite of indeterminate quantity. 

The broader point is that practical texts are best read in light of lived experience, and reading them without any physical or cultural context leads to error, and ruling in accordance with such readings can lead to dangerous error. 

Now to be fair, the position that the mitzvah of matzah requires swallowing the whole olive-volume simultaneously is cited by Darkei Mosheh from Terumat haDeshen 139 (Darkei Mosheh seems to claim that Beit Yosef also cited this position from Tosafot, but I have not been able to find a relevant reference.)  Terumat HaDeshen in turn cites as his precedent Mordekhai to Pesachim 116a.

However, here too I suggest humbly that an error has crept in.  Terumat haDeshen notes that Mordekhai understands the Hillel sandwich as involving an olive-volume each of matzah, maror, and charoset.  Mordekhai then asks:  How can the throat hold all this?  He responds that it can once the food has been chewed up.  Terumat haDeshen reasonably concludes that Mordekhai must require the entire sandwich to be swallowed at once, and presumes that the same applies to the independent mitzvot of matzah and maror.

My contention, however, is that Mordekhai was responding specifically to the language that Hillel was “korkhan bevat echat v’okhlan”, wrapping them at one time and eating them.  The language at one time suggested to him that Hillel ate his sandwich in this fashion, but Mordekhai had no intention of suggesting that this should be required of the other mitzvot.  Indeed, it is possible that Mordekhai understood the gemara to mean that Hillel’s capacity to eat that much at one time was unusual.  As the Talmud there points out, Hillel’s sandwich was not obligatory even when the Temple was standing.

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