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Thoughts on Rabban Gamliel’s Teaching in the Haggadah

The main mitzvah that we attempt to fulfill at the Passover Seder is the telling of the story of the Exodus to our children and to ourselves (v’higadta l’vincha), recounting the miracles that made us into a people.  The Seder is made up of fifteen steps, the longest of which is the actual telling of the story, the Maggid section of the Haggadah.  We can, as suggested by Dr. Ron Wolfson in his volume on the seder, divide up the Maggid into four sections, each of which follows a similar structure and begins with a “four”.  The first section has the four questions to open the discussion.  In the second section, we look at the four sons or four children who ask the questions and to whom we are to tell the story.  I’ve written about the questions and the children in past essays.  The story itself is summarized in the third section which is made up of commentaries and discussions around four verses taken from Deuteronomy which the ancient farmer was to recite as he presented his first fruits at the Temple in Jerusalem.  These four verses give us an outline of the story:  The descent to Egypt, the imposition of slavery upon our ancestors, their cries unto God to save them, and, finally, God’s salvation executed with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with signs and wonders.


Part four is introduced by citing a section from the Mishna of Pesachim.  Much of this tractate focuses on the laws of chametz and matzah and the offering of the Paschal Lamb in ancient Israel.  However, chapter ten describes the Seder meal and the order to be followed at this ritual gatheringl.  If we wish to maintain the structure with fours as in the other three sections, we might claim this part to begin with four selections from the Mishnah, the earliest law code of our tradition.  Admittedly, some manuscripts of the Mishnah are missing the fourth selection and some scholars suggest that maybe it got added into the Mishnah from the Haggadah rather than the other way round.  The Haggadah text is somewhat fuller than the original passage in the Mishnah as the authors of the Haggadah add in prooftexts for each of the statements and expand a bit on the teachings.  But there is no doubt that the origin of this section of Maggid goes back to the text of the Mishnah.


The Mishnah begins with a statement by Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin, the high court:  “Anyone who does notspeak about these three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation [to tell the story of the Exodus] and these are they:  Pesach (the Paschal lamb sacrifice), Matzah, and Maror (the bitter herbs.)  The Mishnah then takes each term in turn and asks what is the purpose of requiring us to eat this at the seder and gives a brief explanation. The Haggadah takes Rabban Gamliel’s statement and the statements about the three items to be eaten at the seder and elaborates on each of them a bit.  After explaining the significance of all three, the text goes on to say, “In every generation a person should see themselves as if they had personally come forth from Egypt.  As it says: You shall tell your son on that day the following: ‘It is because of what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt.’”  As mentioned before, this last statement appears in our current printed editions of the Mishnah though it is not in all the extant manuscripts, some of which go on to the L’fikach paragraph which appears next in the Haggadah.


Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we no longer have the Paschal lamb at our seder and thus we can only speak of it in the past tense.  However, there is some indications that certain rabbis might have continued to eat the lamb at their seder even in the absence of the Temple.  The original version of the Four Questions in which we ask about eating roasted meat at the seder seems to hint at this view.  Joshua Kulp, in one of his essays in the back of the Schechter Haggadah, discusses this view and cites a number of texts which seem to support it.  However, clearly after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132, all sacrifices seem to have disappeared.  Customs have varied since then in different communities as to whether it is appropriate to serve lamb at the seder or even any variety of roasted meat lest one think that we are offering sacrifices outside of the Temple.  Others argue that we should serve roasted lamb in remembrance of the Temple offering. It certainly would add something to the Hillel sandwich which originally was more than simply matzah and maror.


Another interesting view of this passage is raised by scholars who see the three symbolic foods as a response to the symbolic foods eaten at the last supper which some claim was a Passover meal.  If you recall, the bread and wine were to serve in the future as a reminder of the flesh and blood of Jesus. In some denominations when they are served in communion they are transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of their savior.In an interesting article in a volume on Passover and Easter, Israel Yuval points to our text as a kind of loyalty oath established by Rabban Gamliel.  Christians had seen the lamb as referring to Jesus, agnus de, the lamb of God.  Rabban Gamliel insisted that we affirm that “What is the reason for the Pesach offering (the lamb)?  It is because the Holy One, blessed be He, passed over (pasach) the homes of our ancestors in Egypt.”  Christians took the matzah and said it was the body of Christ, corpus Christi.  So Rabban Gamliel called on us to affirm, “Why do we eat matzah?  Because there was no time for the dough to become leavened.”  Maror, the bitter herbs, according to the Christian teaching was to represent the passion of Christ, his suffering on the cross, passio domini.  To this Rabban Gamliel called for an affirmation, “Why do we eat this maror?  Because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt.” Yuval points to a number of other places in the Haggadah which may possibly be seen as a response during the period when Judaism and Christianity parted ways, to Christian interpretation of Jewish texts.  This is an interesting theory, but other scholars do not buy it.  


Nonetheless, these three symbols are basic to the observance of Passover and in recalling them at the seder we remind ourselvesof their importance.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “This is a requirement peculiar to Pesach.  Normally commands are fulfilled by performing the requisite act with the intention of fulfilling the commandment…in the case of Pesach two commands are connected.  The story explains the food; the food allows us to relive the story…Thus from the very outset a connection was drawn between eating, asking and explaining, and it is this on which Rabban Gamliel bases his view that all these elements of the Passover meal must be explained.”


Once we have explained each of the symbols in turn, the statement added afterward sums up the entire purpose of our observance:  “In every generation a person is obligated to see him or herself as if they came forth from Egypt.”  Through the seder meal and its symbols, we continue the chain of tradition and relive the night of the Exodus, remind ourselves of the experience of slavery and of our gratitude to God for our liberation. Beyond this, we are constantly reminded by the Torah that having experienced the slavery of Egypt, having been strangers in a foreign land, it is our obligation to care for the strangers and other unfortunates in our midst for we know the heart of the stranger.  


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