Making Seder of the Seder

There has been more literature written about the Haggadah than any other Jewish text.  As much attention as the Seder receives, nonetheless, basic ideas of the overall structure of the Haggadah, specifically Maggid, remain unknown by many.  Based on the approach of Rav Reuven Taragin (a Rebbe of mine), the following Dvar Torah is an attempt to make “Seder of the Seder.” (Note: these ideas will be better understood if the reader makes reference to the text of the Haggadah.)

Regarding the Mitzvah of Sippur Yitziat Mitzrayim (telling the story of the exodus from Egypt) the Mishnayot in the 10th chapter of Gemara Psachim 116a give us four different guidelines of how to fulfill the Mitzvah.

  • A parent must teach a child based on the level of the child.
  • One starts with the negativity and ends with praise (of God).
  • We study the teachings of Chaza”l on the verses of the Exodus story in the Parshat HaBikurim found in Devarim Chapter 27.
  • Rabban Gamliel teaches us that we must also say and relate to the symbols of Pesach, Matzah and Maror.


Let us first notice that the first of the above criteria is subjective – based on the level of the child – and the remaining three are objective.  How do we see these principles express themselves in our Haggadah?  Secondly, how do they relate to one another?


The Gemara on the same page 116a, brings two opinions of how to explain the meaning of, “One starts with the negativity and ends with praise (of God).”  Shmuel states that the negativity that the Mishnah is referring to is that “we were slaves in Egypt.”  Rav explains that it is referring to the fact that “our forefathers were idol worshippers.” How do see this argument conveyed in the Haggadah?


After Kiddish Seder night, common to all holidays, we attempt to generate curiosity among our children.  The Rabbis teach us that the reason for Karpas is in order to stimulate the child to ask (Psachim 114b).  We lift up the table or Seder plate at the beginning of Maggid for the same reason (115b).


By the time of the four questions, the child should naturally be inclined to sincerely ask, “What’s going on here?  Why is tonight different?” That same question is repeated four times, inserting different details each time.


We answer the child by saying, “We were slaves in Egypt and God took us out with an outstretched arm.”  This is the simplest most concise form of fulfilling the mitzvah of Sippur Yitziat Mitzrayim.


Soon after we say or sing “Baruch Hamakom” praised be God, praised be the One that gave us the Torah!  Notice how simple the praise is.  The child, a second grader, asked simple questions, received a simple answer and the “praise” follows suite.  This completes the “track of Shmuel”, mentioned above.


We then open Rav’s track with the four sons.  Notice that we are reintroducing questions.  Three of the four sons, outside of the one that cannot ask, are asking questions.  This time the questions are more profound.  The four sons are not addressing differences of behavior on Seder night; the questions are attempting to reach to the root of the meaning of the night and our observance of the chag.


We answer the more mature children that “our forefathers were idol worshippers” as Rav suggested.  This is a much deeper retelling of the Exodus story.  It reaches the roots of how we became slaves in the first place.  Perhaps Rav is directing us to take responsibility for our own decisions which led to our own slavery, whether four thousand years ago or in our own times.  This more complicated form of the “negativity” of the story requires a more mature child, perhaps a 5th or 6th grader.


The praise is also more insightful.  We state, “Baruch Shomer Havtachato L’Yisrael” blessed be the One who keeps His covenant with the Jewish People.  This is not merely praising God, it is a shevach which includes the eternal relationship with God.  Once again, these are ideas directed at more advanced children.


By this point we have completed two rounds of the same format.  Younger children asked simple questions.  We gave them a simple answer and concluded with a simple praise.  In round two we once again opened with questions.  This time the questions, answers and praise are geared for the more advanced student.


There is a practical lesson that should be gleaned from the above ideas.  Our attention, at the beginning of the Seder should be directed at our youngest children.  It is inappropriate to give long, drawn out Divrai Torah at the beginning of the Seder when the main goal should be first to engage the youngest children.  We then move on and focus on the more advanced children.  One should save the long Divrai Torah for later stages of the Seder.

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