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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Who Tells the Story of the Exodus? — BT Pesachim 116 — #76

MISHNAH: [116a] Rabban Gamliel used to say, “Whoever does not explain [116b] these three things has not fulfilled their obligation, and these are they: the pesach offering, matzah, and maror. Pesach: because the Omnipresent passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt, as it is said, You shall say, “It is the passover sacrifice of Adonai, because God pasach (passed over) [the houses of the Israelites in Egypt…] (Exodus 12:27). Matzah: because our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt, as it is said, They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt (Exodus 12:39). Maror: because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt, as it is said, Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them (Exodus 1:14). In every generation, one is obliged to see him/herself as if s/he had left Egypt, for it is said, And you shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of this (zeh) that Adonai did for me when I went

 free from Egypt (Exodus 13:8)…”
 GEMARA: …Rav Acha bar Yaakov said, “A blind person is exempt from telling the account [of the Exodus] for it is written here, And you shall explain to your child on that day: It is because of this (zeh) (Exodus 13:8), and it is written there, This (zeh) son of ours  (Deuteronomy 21:20). Just as there [the term zeh] excludes a blind parent, so, too, [here the term zeh] excludes those who are blind.” Is that so? But Mereimar said, “I asked the rabbis of Rav Yosef’s academy, ‘Who told the account in Rav Yosef’s house?’ They said, ‘Rav Yosef.’ [I then asked,] ‘Who told the account in Rav Sheshet’s house?’ They said, ‘Rav Sheshet.’”

Many will recognize the teaching of Rabban Gamliel from the Passover Haggadah. Some will be surprised to learn that it comes word for word from Mishnah Pesachim 10:5, where Rabban Gamliel teaches the obligation to explain the three central symbols of the seder: pesach (paschal offering), matzah (unleavened bread), and maror (bitter herbs).

Passover is a celebration with strong didactic qualities. Torah itself instructs us to teach our children, and what better way than with storytelling, visual aids, and materials that tantalize the senses (tastyfoods, interesting smells, catchy tunes to sing), as well as commentary and songs that are, in turns, serious, humorous, dramatic, and downright silly. No wonder Passover captivates the Jewish imagination and marvelously creative seders and haggadot continue to proliferate.

We might, therefore, be inclined to predict that Gemara will dive into Rabban Gamliel’s teaching by discussing the meaning of pesach, matzah, and marror. But Gemara is rather unpredictable, much like the conversation around any seder table. Once launched, there is no predicting the direction the conversation will take.
From the Sarajevo Haggada (14th century)

Almost immediately, the Gemara introduces a strange claim by Rav Acha bar Yaakov: Blind people are not obligated to recount the story of the Exodus because the word “this” presumes they are pointing to the items named and explaining them. Since blind people cannot “see” the pesach, matzah, and maror, they are accordingly exempt from Maggid, telling of the story of the Exodus. He supports his contention with  an interpretive technique called gezeirah shavah, whereby meaning attached to a term in one verse of Torah is applied to another verse. In this case, Deuteronomy 21:20 concerns the ben sorer u’moreh (“wayward and rebellious son”), a capital offense. In BT Sanhedrin  71a, the Rabbis explain that the second time the parents bring their son to court, they point to him and say, “This son of ours…” “This” indicates that they must be able to see him, thereby excluding from prosecution any son whose parent is blind. In the context of the rebellious son, this serves to limit instances in which a child can be charged and convicted; in fact, the Rabbis successfully pare down the possibilities for capital convinction to virtually none. But here, Rav Acha bar Yaakov claims that just as zeh exempts blind parents in Deuteronomy 12:20, zeh in Exodus 13:8 exempts blind people from giving the account of the Exodus—the central ritual, and indeed the stated purpose, of the Passover seder.

Mereimar sidesteps the gezeirah shavah argument entirely and seeks empirical evidence concerning the law. Enquiring about two blind rabbis, Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet, he asks: Who does Maggid at their seders? The answer: Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet. As far as both blind authorities are concerned, being blind does not exempt them. The conversation doesn’t end here—we’ll continue in TMT #77.

Looking for a new haggadah? Here’s one that is condensed, includes Hebrew, transliterations, and graphics, is appropriate for families with children, has room for your additions—and it’s yours for free: 

  1. Will there be differently abled people at your seder this year? What can you do to ensure that everyone participates?
  2. The use of zeh to exclude blind parents in the case of the ben sorer u’moreh serves to diminish the possibility of invoking the law and its horrible consequences. However, applying the exclusion to the Maggid has a negative outcome, raising the question whether a literary analogy is sufficient to make a halakhic argument. What are your thoughts?
  3. What are you looking forward to most at the Passover seders this year? 

I wish you a happy and healthy Pesach!

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