Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Haggadol-Metzora 5763/ April 12, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Shabbat Haggadol-Metzora 5763/ April 12, 2003

The Fifth Question: Why Is Moses Missing?

Dr. Michael Avioz
Department of Bible

The traditional Torah reading on the seventh day of Passover is taken from Parashat Beshalah, which describes the splitting of the Red Sea (Ex. 14-15). This depiction glorifies the wonders the Lord performed for Israel. This miracle served several ends: to deliver the Israelites from their oppressors and punish the Egyptians for enslaving Israel and not acknowledging the Lord; to show the Israelites and the other nations an act that would make them believe in the Lord's greatness and uniqueness, "Let the Egyptians know that I am Lord" (Ex. 14:18); to strengthen Moses' standing in the eyes of the people as G-d's emissary and faithful servant, in line with the text, "they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses" (Ex. 14:31).

The splitting of the Red Sea is but one in a series of miracles that were done for Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness, and in which Moses was involved. Moses is described not only as taking the Israelites out of Egypt, but also as working to mold them into a people. The figure of Moses is deeply engraved in the national consciousness as one of the pillars of Israelite faith. In the light of this, it is extremely surprising to find so few references to Moses in the Passover Haggadah. He appears there only once, incidentally, in the context of a quote from Parashat Beshalah:[1]

Rabbi Jose the Galilean says: How do we know that the Egyptians were smitten by ten plagues in Egypt? ... On the sea, what is said? "And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses."

The authors of the Haggadah had numerous opportunities to mention Moses. The passage beginning with the words, "At the outset our ancestors were pagans," quotes from Joshua's last testament to the people (Josh. 24:2-4). Verse 5 of this speech mentions Moses explicitly ("Then I sent Moses and Aaron"), but the authors of the Haggadah chose not to quote this verse. Moses' name is also absent from the passage beginning, "My father was a fugitive Aramean," which gives an overview of the history of the Israelites up to the entrance to the land. Likewise, it does not appear in the poem, Dayyenu. This poem mentions the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the revelation at Sinai – all events in which Moses' role was quite significant.

How, then, are we to understand the omission of Moses' name from the Haggadah? Is this omission accidental or deliberate? Below we present two possible explanations:

A. The omission of Moses' name could stem from a desire to ascribe these miraculous acts solely to G-d. As we pointed out above, according to the account in Exodus the description of the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea served several objectives, one of which was to aggrandize Moses as the Lord's faithful servant. It appears that the authors of the Haggadah wished to focus attention entirely on the Lord, in accord with the principle, "not by an angel, and not by a seraph, and not by an emissary." In Exodus 14, the Red Sea is indeed split by the joint actions of G-d and Moses: Moses played a part in the miracle by means of his wonder-working staff (Ex. 14:15-21). In the Song on the Sea (Ex. 15), however, splitting the Red Sea is ascribed to G-d alone. The miracle is also described as the sole working of G-d in the Song of Miriam (Ex. 15:20-21), and in several psalms: "Come and see the works of G-d, who is held in awe by men for His acts. He turned the sea into dry land; they crossed the river on foot" (Ps. 66:5-6); "He [G-d] split the sea and took them through it; He made the waters stand like a wall" (Ps. 78:13); "He sent His blast against the Sea of Reeds; it became dry; He led them through the deep as through a wilderness... Then they believed His promise [not Moses], and sang His praises" (Ps. 106:9-12); "who split apart the Sea of Reeds, ... and made Israel pass through it, ... Who hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds" (Ps. 136:13-15).

The tension between Divine redemption and Moses' actions is also expressed in the midrashic literature of the Sages (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai, Beshalah 14.21):

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea... When Moses came and stood at the sea, he spoke to it in the name of the Holy One, and it did not obey him; he showed it his staff, and it did not obey him. When the Holy One, blessed be He, appeared before it, the sea saw and fled. Moses said to it: I spoke to you in the name of the Holy One, and you did not obey. I showed you the staff, and you did not obey. Now, what alarmed you, O sea, that you fled? It answered, "Not from you, son of Amram, but at the presence of the Lord, tremble, O earth.[2]

Similar ambivalence over the identity of the miracle-worker is also expressed in the stories of the wonders performed by Elijah and Elisha (I Kings 17; II Kings 13). These stories portray works of wonder in several ways: some are described as being wrought by G-d alone; some by partnership of G-d and His prophets; and some by the prophet alone. The tension between the different views prevalent in Israel in the biblical period regarding who worked the miracles is, as far as we can tell, what accounts for this variation.[3] Accordingly, perhaps the authors of the Haggadah wished to ascribe the miracles to G-d, and G-d alone. Incorporating Moses' name extensively in the Haggadah, as surely might have seemed warranted, would have obscured this theological statement.

B. The omission of Moses' name might also have served anti-Samaritan polemics. The Haggadah appears to have taken shape over several centuries, from the end of the Second Temple period through the time of the geonim.[4] During these years, especially towards the end of the Persian period, the struggle between rabbinic Judaism and the Samaritans reached a peak, finding expression in an alternative temple being built on Mount Gerizim in Shechem. Moses was a figure of great importance to the Samaritans, considering the fact that they included in their canon only the Pentateuch. According to their faith, the redeemer in the end of days is described as a "second Moses."[5] This view is also reflected in Hellenistic literature and in the New Testament.[6] Hence it seems quite reasonable that the authors of the Haggadah might have wished to minimize the role of Moses as part of their anti-Samaritan (and perhaps also anti-Christian) polemic. The story of the exodus from Egypt, as it is recast in the Haggadah, shows an attempt at coping with the personality cult that had developed around the figure of Moses, which in its most extreme manifestations went as far as to deify him.
Once the role played by Moses had been reduced or eliminated, the way was paved for the authors of the Haggadah to express other messages. Maimonides, for example, believed that the central message of the Haggadah is to acknowledge the kindness the Lord has done for us. Maimonides found this message especially in the passage, "My father was a fugitive Aramean": "The passage of bikkurim [the passage from Deuteronomy 26, recited when first fruits are brought to the Temple] also contains the virtue of modesty ... and recognition of G-d's grace and kindness, remembering the times of hardship when in a time of ease" (Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, ch. 39).[7] This message of thanking G-d for the good can also be found in Dayyenu, as well as in the passage, "Therefore we must give thanks, praise, and extol ... the one who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and us."[8]

Compensation for not mentioning Moses in the Haggadah can be found in medieval illustrated Haggadot (such as the Sarajevo Haggadah). In these Haggadot the text is illustrated with illuminations depicting various periods in the life of Moses.[9]

[1]In some manuscripts of the Haggadah even this verse has been omitted, so that Moses' name does not appear at all.
[2]Cf. Tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah 8.3: "Did Moses' hands do the fighting? ... Rather, it is to say that as long as the Israelites cast their eyes upwards and enslaved their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would prevail, and if not, they would lose."
[3]Cf. R. Kasher, "Defusei ha-Pe'ilut shel Osei ha-Niflaot ba-Mikra," in U. Simon (ed.), Iyyunei Mikra u-Farshanut, Menahot Yedidut le-Yehudah Elitzur, II, Ramat-Gan 1986, pp. 161-174; Y. Zakowitz, Al Tefisat ha-Nes ba-Mikra (Sifriyat ha-Universita ha-Meshuderet), Tel Aviv 1987, p. 69ff.
[4]For a discussion of the development of the Haggadah, see D. Goldsmith, Haggadah Shel Pesah – Mekoroteha ve-Toledoteha, Jerusalem 1969; A. Shinan, "Dor Dor ve-Haggadato (Le-Toledoteiha shel Ha-Haggadah shel Pesah)," Dukhan, 13 (1991), pp. 44-60.
[5]The basis for this notion is taken from Deut. 18:18-19 ("I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself"). These verses appear in the Samaritan version of the Torah after the Ten Commandments. See Y. Ben-Zvi, Sefer ha-Shomronim, Tel Aviv 1970, p. 138; J. Heinemann, Aggadot ve-Toledoteihen, Jerusalem 1974, pp. 109-111.
[6]For example, Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus as heralding the Messiah or escorting him (Math. 17:1ff). See Heinemann, note 5 above, p. 111.
[7]See E. Aderet, " ‘Arami Oved Avi': Midrash Yetziat Mitzraim ba-Haggadah shel Pesah," Alei Si'ah, 12-14 (1982), pp. 70-93.
[8]Tabori believes the message of the Haggadah to be that "there is no true Redemption for the Jewish people except in upholding the Torah, while living in their own land, the Land of Israel." See Y. Tabori, Pesah Dorot: Perakim be-Toledot Leil ha-Seder, Tel Aviv, 1996, p. 384. Of course there are other themes that can be viewed as the central message of the Haggadah, but this is not the place for a lengthy discussion. For example, see the commentaries cited by Rabbi M. L. Katzenelenbogen, Haggadah Shel Pesah – Torat Hayyim, Jerusalem 1998.
[9]On these Haggadot, see B. Narkiss, "Haggadot Me'uryarot mi-Yemei ha-Beinayim," Rimmonim, I (1983), p. 31ff.