Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Pesah 5760/2000

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.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Pesah 5760/2000

"Recounting the Exodus": A Family Haqhel

R. Judah Zoldan

Midrasha for Women

The commandment of haqhel, based on Deut. 31:12, "Gather (haqhel) all the people--men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities--that they may hear and learn to revere the Lord your G-d", was observed once in seven years, on the eve after the first day of the festival of Sukkot following the Sabbatical year. The king or supreme leader of the people was commanded to read passages from Deuteronomy to the people -- men women and children -- gathered at the Lord's command, in the Womens' Court in the Temple.

The command to "recount the story of the exodus from Egypt," on the other hand, is still observed yearly, on the eve of the 15th of Nisan. From the time when the pascal lamb was slaughtered and roasted in the Temple until today, the story of the Exodus has been recounted in front of the shank bone, matzah, and bitter herbs-- either the real sacrifice or its modern-day representative-- placed on the table of the family Seder. The father tells his children, and if he is alone, he recounts the story to himself.

In Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah (ch. 7-8), Maimonides deals with the practices observed at the Seder, and in Hilkhot Hagigah (ch. 3) he discusses the laws concerning haqhel. In both places Maimonides uses similar turns of phrase which are unique to these two commandments. Maimonides apparently viewed observance of the command to recount the story of the Exodus at the Seder as having a similar format to the study of Torah at the gathering of haqhel. In one the entire community of Israel gathers, in the other, the family, but the setting and messages conveyed are similar. Below we shall present the points noted by Maimonides, carrying his discussion further in the same spirit.

1. "Even were we all wise men"

The gathering of all Israel -- men, women and children -- is for the purpose of reconstructing the Theophany at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah anew. The presence of the entire community of Israel at this special occasion is what stirs the audience and is supposed to cause the messages conveyed to be internalized. It is not a matter of close theoretical study, but of general understanding and connecting with the reality of the Torah being part of the Jewish community. The most inclusive figure, the king, who is the heart of the people, presides over the gathering and is commanded to read to the people.

In contrast to the gathering at haqhel, the Seder is observed in a diminutive setting, in the context of the family or the community, and all are commanded to tell about the Exodus. The Seder is presided over by the head of the family, whose role is to tell the story of the Exodus to all those seated at his table in a language and level appropriate to them.

At haqhel the king reads solely in the holy tongue, and even those who do not understand, such as young children, must come. At the Seder there is no specific requirement to read or recount in the holy tongue; quite the contrary, the story of the Exodus must be told in the language and manner that will be best understood.

At haqhel the listeners are passive, whereas at the Seder the listeners are much more active. The leader must make changes in the feast in order to stimulate interest and questions, so that the story of the Exodus will be internalized and understood. The Haggadah itself is structured in the form of questions: "How different is this night from all other nights!?" "What does the wise son say?" (as well as the other sons). "How do we know that each and every plague represented...?" "Why do we have a shank-bone, matzah and bitter herbs?", and so forth. This stands in contrast to the straight reading from the Torah in the context of haqhel, the gathering of all Israel.

With respect to those who know and understand, Maimonides uses similar turns of phrase. Regarding haqhel he writes (loc. sit. 3.6): "Even very wise men who know the entire Torah are obliged to hear with great concentration," and regarding the Seder he writes (loc. sit., 7.1), "Even very wise men are obliged to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt." This is stated more extensively in the Haggadah itself: "Even were we all wise men, all men of understanding, all advanced in years, all men with knowledge of the Torah, it would yet be our duty to recount the story of coming forth from Egypt." The phrases used are similar, yet the actions are different in accordance with the nature of each gathering. At haqhel the wise men are obliged to hear, and at the Seder they are obliged to recount. At haqhel the message is internalized passively; at the Seder, actively.

2. "My father was a fugitive Aramean"

At haqhel certain passages are read from Deuteronomy, without any commentary or interpretation (although Tosefta, Sotah 7.9 writes that "sermons are given on it," from which one may deduce that the king would embellish on what is written in the verses read, Maimonides does not mention this), whereas at the Seder passages are read from the Torah and "whoever recounts at length the events that transpired is to be praised" (loc. sit. 7.1).

Most striking is a passage that is read both at haqhel and at the Seder, namely, "My father was a fugitive Aramean" (Deut. 26:5-8). At haqhel the king would read from the beginning of Deuteronomy until the end of the Shema, then he would skip to the passage that begins, "If, then, you obey the commandments..." (Deut. 11:13ff), and from there to "You shall set aside every year a tenth part..." (Deut. 14:22), and then through the passage of blessing and curses in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deut. 27-30; according to Maimonides, Hagigah 3.3). The passage, "My father was a fugitive Aramean" comes before the blessings and curses in Ki Tavo. The king would read this passage, along with all the other passages from Deuteronomy, without any commentary or additions.

At the Seder this passage is the focus of the commandment to recount the story of the exodus from Egypt. The passage is interpreted word by word in the Haggadah, after the conclusion of "ve-Hi She-Amdah" ("It is this divine pledge that has stood by our fathers..."), beginning with "Tzeh u-lemad" ("Go and learn what Laban the Aramean...") until recitation of the words "Dam, va-esh ve-timrot ashan" ("blood, fire and pillars of smoke"). Regarding the special way of interpreting this passage, Maimonides adds: "Whoever adds and interprets this passage at length is to be commended" (Hametz u-Matzah 7.4). It is especially commendable to discuss this particular passage at length, even though the commandment is to recount the story of the exodus in general. No other passage in the Torah, not even a particular section of Exodus where the deliverance from Egypt is told, is embellished upon in the Haggadah in like manner.

The reason for these differences in approach to the passage, "My father was a fugitive Aramean," lies in the different emphasis of each occasion. Haqhel is a sort of re-enactment of the Theophany at Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah anew. The Torah was given to the entire community of Israel in assembly, or haqhel: "The day you stood before the Lord your G-d at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, 'Gather [haqhel] the people to Me that I may let them hear My words'" (Deut. 4:10). Therefore the assembly at Mount Sinai is also known as "the day of the Assembly" (Deut. 9:1), yom ha-qahal, the emphasis being on giving the Torah to the people of Israel as a nation.

At the Seder the main emphasis in the story of the exodus is the process of becoming a people in the national sense, beginning with the first Hebrew, our patriarch Abraham, through the bondage in Egypt and until our miraculous deliverance from there. It is interesting to note that this overview of history in Deut. 26:3-10 does not mention the giving of the Torah at Sinai (in the Haggadah, we mention that "G-d drew us near to his worship",an oblique reference to Sinai).

3. "To Appear" -- to see oneself and to be seen

One of the three commandments concerning the Festivals is "to appear before the Lord" (le-heraot, lit. "to be seen"; Deut. 16:16), both to be seen before G-d and to see. Thus in the gemara, Hagigah 2a, R. Judah interpreted the verse from Exodus 23:17: "'Three times a year all your males shall appear (yera'e, lit. shall be seen)' -- just as he comes to see, so he comes to be seen." Yera'e is interpreted by R. Judah as if the vowels were pointed: yir'e, meaning "shall see."

The commandment of haqhel is fulfilled "when all Israel comes to appear (ley-ra'ot) before the Lord your G-d" (Deut. 31:11). The gemara in the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 2a-3a, and in the Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 1.1, deduce the laws of pilgrimage from these verses on haqhel, especially as regards those who are exempt and those who are obliged to observe the commandments of appearing before the Lord and of haqhel.

Sefer ha-Hinukh (commandment 489) discusses the commandment to appear in the Temple on the pilgrimage festivals and draws a connection between this commandment and the commandment of haqhel:

So that all Israel see and take to heart, through the inspiring act of sacrifice, that all -- from the most lowly to the most elevated-- are the Lord's portion and allotment... On this foundation we were given the commandment, on the Sabbatical year at the festival of Sukkot, to gather all the men, women, children, and converts ... Moreover, there is another reason underlying the commandment of haqhel which we shall discuss later, in the relevant place (commandment 612).

The commandment of haqhel, observed once in seven years, is also the culmination of the pilgrimage commandment observed on all the festivals during the seven years preceding this assembly. This provides the basis for applying the halakhah that is learned from haqhel to the commandment of pilgrimage, as we see in the Talmud.

At the Seder, as well, everyone must "view himself and appear," as Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah 7.6:

In every generation each person must show himself as if he himself has just been freed from the bondage of Egypt, as it is said: "and us He freed from there" (Deut. 6:23). It is in this context that the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded in the Torah, "Remember that you were a slave" (Deut. 5:15). In other words, it is as if you yourself were a slave and had been freed and redeemed.

But Maimonides' version of the Haggadah, after Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah, presents another reading: "In every generation each person must view himself (lir'ot et atzmo) as if he had been freed from Egypt."[1]

There is no contradiction between the two: At the Seder, the commandment is both 'to view oneself as', and 'to appear as'; Maimonides in Mishne Torah indicates how this is to be done in the course of the Seder, and in his Haggadah he cites what words must be said. One must recite, "In every generation each person must view himself...," ( lir'ot et atzmo), but it is insufficient merely to utter these words; rather, one must also show himself before others as if he were redeemed from Egypt through the actions which Maimonides describes (loc. sit., 7): "Hence, at the feasting on this evening one should eat and drink reclining, as is the way of free persons,... and even the poorest of Israel shall drink no fewer than four cups." Earlier (loc. sit. 3) Maimonides writes that one should do things so that others, as well, will see: "One must do something different on this night so that the sons shall see." In other words, the recitation from the Haggadah is to be fulfilled in actions.

At haqhel one appears before the Lord and thus also "sees" the Lord, whereas at the Seder the narrator sees himself as if he had been freed from Egypt and thus also shows others. The difference between 'seeing or viewing oneself' (haqhel) and between 'showing or appearing' (the Seder) depends on the nature of each gathering. At haqhel the object is to internalize the idea of revelation through passive hearing and seeing, for "the king is the emissary charged with making the words of the Lord be heard" (Maimonides, Hilkhot Hagigah 3.6). At the Seder the object is to actively recount the story and thus involve others, absorbing the message through active participation. On Passover, the birthday of the nation, each individual takes an active part in constructing the national experience, while at haqhel, the renewal of Revelation and the giving the Torah, the entire people as a whole -- men, women and children -- are the passive recipients.

[1]. This is the formulation in the above-cited halakhah and in the Haggadah, according to the usual editions of Maimonides' works. In the edition of R. Shabtai Frankel, according to most of the manuscripts both places cited say "to appear," although this edition notes that there are some variations. In Hidushim u-Beurim Ba-Shas, I, §12, the Lubavich Rebbe, Schneersohn, attempts to reconcile the contradiction between seeing oneself and appearing, according to the usual editions.

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