Tuesday, January 31, 2023

One of the potentially biggest themes in the Exodus from Egypt and the seder night is language. Psychologists and anthropologists have deemed language to be one of the biggest cultural influences, capable of keeping close neighbors separate and driving complete strangers together, all based on a few words. During the Jews’ subjugation by the Egyptians, our ancestors used language to their advantage, naming their children Hebrew names and keeping the Jewish culture strong in their households even centuries into their stay in the African empire. According to our rabbis of Blessed Memory (Chaza”l), this is one of the main factors that allowed them to merit the Exodus.

Within the Haggadah, language plays a significant role as well—wording, quotes, expressions weave in and out of the author’s text in order to emphasize various parts of the enslavement and Exodus. Interestingly, language also raises one of the biggest questions in the Haggadah, at the very beginning of sipur yetziat mitzrayim (the retelling of the Exodus).

The Magid segment of the seder, where the actual mitzvah of sipur yetziat mitzrayim is fulfilled, is immediately preceded by yachatz, the splitting of the middle of the three matzot. Before the children are released to hide the afikomen, the leader of the seder holds both halves of the matzah up and recites in Aramaic: “Ha Lachma Anya…” This is the only declaration in Magid that is written in Aramaic, and, in fact, the middle of this recitation already switches to Hebrew in time to finish with well-known words of redemption: “Leshana Haba Bnei Chorin,” “Next year we’ll be free men.” But, the rest of this paragraph was written in Aramaic, language of the Babylonians. This is quite unusual, especially in light of the significance of the Jews’ separate languages in Egypt. Why then, in retelling the story of Egypt, would even part of the Haggadah be written in the language of their modern-day Egypt equivalents, who destroyed the First Temple and forced all Jews to leave Israel for Babylon?

Rabbi Eliezer of Meneza, better known as Ra’avan, answers our question in his commentary on the Haggadah by using what is perhaps the most overused Pesach cliche since sliced matzah: so that the children will ask. Just moments after the matzot are split, the youngest child without stage fright gets up and asks four questions, proceeded by: “Mah Nishtana HaLayla Hazeh Mikol Halylot,” “How is tonight different from other nights?” He or she could ask this question like a newscaster or politician from a teleprompter, but this is not ideal—we would like them to really feel the difficulty, to actually want to ask the question. For this reason, we introduce the matzah in a language that, at least in the time of the compilation of the seder, the children would better understand.

While this adequately explains why the sipur yetziat mitzrayim segment of the seder begins in Aramaic, it opens a potentially bigger question. One of the main reasons that we have a seder at all is to fulfill the commandment in Shemot of “Vehugadta L’Bincha Bayom Hahu Leimor,” “And you will tell your children on that day (Pesach) saying…” Based on this, many compare the seder to an extravagant and dramatic show. Why? So the children will understand how central the Exodus is to our faith and our nationhood.

If this is true, then why does the Haggadah “switch back” to Hebrew after Ha Lachma Anya? If the central purpose of the seder is so that the children will understand, and we’ve established that the children understand Aramaic better than Hebrew, then surely it would make more sense to continue the rest of the seder in this tongue? (After all, the Talmud Bavli and the zohar, among many other essential works, are both written exclusively in Aramaic.)

I believe that the answer to why Magid continues in Hebrew after Ha Lachma Anya lies not in the children, but in the parents, in the questions they should be asking themselves.

Imagine the typical Joe Jew in the time of the writing of the Haggadah—living the comfortable life in Babylon, passing the Hanging Gardens on his way to work in the morning, earning a solid living and sending his children to a good local school. The good life of the exiled Jew, in other words. Every year, he and his family sit down to read the Haggadah and remember the pain that Jews in Egypt went through before Hashem saved them. Joe sees his Babylonian children’s eyes light up as they wash their hands, eat the karpas vegetables and hear Ha Lachma Anya, eagerly anticipating the hiding of the afikomen. Then, as the seder continues, the light begins to dim as the children slowly but surely stop understanding what is going on. They read the four questions, not really understanding what they mean, and then they are lost for the rest of the seder, not really following sipur yetziat mitzrayim.

I believe that at this point, just as the children asked “why?” as the matzah was being split, now Joe Jew of Babylon needs to ask “why?” Why aren’t my children following in Magid? Why can’t they understand the retelling of the miracles of the Exodus? Why didn’t I follow in the example of the Egyptian Jews and give them only Hebrew names? Why don’t my children, descendants of the holy Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, understand the language that God spoke to them in, Lashon Hakodesh?!

The Medrash Raba (Bereshit, on Parsha 81:3) relates that the Jews who returned to the Land of Israel from Babylon to build the Second Temple were “sheimoteihem pe’orim aval ma’aseihem na’im,” “of disgusting names but good actions.” Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina elaborates that they were individuals who made the difficult transition from the comfortable Babylonian life of Joe Jew to rebuilding our Promised Land, so their actions were very pure. Nonetheless, a permanent smear on their legacy is their Babylonian names, such as Barkos, Sisra and Tamach, among others—their previous over-immersion in Babylonian culture, in other words. As we know, these “sheimoteihem pe’orim aval ma’aseihem na’im” individuals numbered very few compared to the Jews who remained in Babylon throughout the time of Shivat Zion and the Second Temple. Imagine how the average Babylonian Jew, like our friend Joe Jew, who the Medrash Raba would have called “of disgusting name and disgusting actions,” would feel sitting down to the seder, very immersed in his home Babylonian language and culture, with no desire to return to Eretz Yisrael at the end of the exile. He probably wouldn’t even ask why his children did not understand the rest of the seder following Ha Lachma Anya—for him and his family, it was just going through the biannual motions, and nothing more.

As we prepare this week to sit down for the seder this year, let us not fall into the trap of Joe Jew of Babylon. The Haggadah shel Pesach, in all of its difficult-to-understand Hebrew beauty, should be a wakeup call to all of us whose children (and even ourselves) cannot properly understand it. Furthermore, we, in the year 5776, are blessed with an opportunity that global Jewry has not seen since the time of our imaginary Babylonian Joe Jew—our modern-day Ezras and Nechemias paved the path in 5708/1948 so that each and every one of us can lock in the status of the Jews of Babylon, to redeem ourselves despite our “shemoteihem pe’orim,” our immersion in the cultures of the Diaspora, something that the Jews of Egypt could only dream of doing. Let us not waste this opportunity, as the overwhelming majority of Babylonian Jewry did, to return home to the Land of Israel and fulfill the dreams of our forefathers. Let us all work towards consummating God’s promise to us on the original Leil Hashimurim by doing our best to be Bnei Chorin next year in Jerusalem!

Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

By Tzvi Silver/JLNJ Israel Correspondent

Tzvi Silver, a Teaneck native, has been living in Israel since 2011. He is in his penultimate year of studying Electrical Engineering at JCT-Machon Lev in Jerusalem, works as an investigator for Israel’s Ministry of Justice and serves as JLNJ and JLBWC’s Israel correspondent. His weekly Divrei Torah are published in the Times of Israel and can be found on his website, tzvichaim.wordpress.com.


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