Connecting the Mitzvah of Maggid to the Seder Night
The Maggid section of the Passover Haggadah, immediately following the Four Sons, contains a curious Tannaitic derashah, also preserved in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael:
שומע אני מראש החדש, ת”ל ”ביום ההוא.“
I might understand this to mean from the first day of the month, Scripture teaches, saying “on that day (ביום ההוא).”
שומע אני מבעוד יום תלמוד לומר”בעבור זה.“ בשעה שיש מצה ומרורים מונחים לפניך על שלחן.
I might understand this to mean on the preceding day, Scripture teaches saying בעבור זה—at the time that the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs are set before you on your table.
The derashah analyzes Exodus 13:8:
וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְ־הֹוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
You shall tell your child on that day (ביום ההוא), ‘On account of this (בעבור זה) the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’
The phrase “On account of this” (בעבור זה) is problematic—on account of what? The derashah initially analyzes two proposals that are rejected in light of other phrases in the verse.
Derashah 1: “Today” vs. “On that Day”
The first argument asks:
Might the commandment to recount the story of the exodus take effect already on the first day of the month? No, because the verse states “on that day (ביום ההוא).”
The point is relatively easy to reconstruct, and derives from the ambiguity of the Hebrew word חדש that in some contexts means “month,” and in others refers to the day of the “new moon.” The possibility that the “day” on which the exodus is recounted is actually the whole month is likely motivated by the language of Exodus 13:4, “Today, in the month of Aviv, you are going out,” as well as the concluding phrase of 13:5, “you shall keep this observance in this month.” If the Torah places “today (היום)” in apposition to “in the month of Aviv,” and then reiterates that the observance is to be kept during the month, perhaps it is obligatory to tell of the exodus on any day that falls in the month of Aviv. But Exodus 13:8 gainsays that possibility, since the obligation takes effect “on that day (ביום ההוא).”
Derashah 2: On Account of this (בעבור זה)
The second argument notes:
Is, then, the commandment in effect on the day preceding the Seder? No, because the verse states “on account of this (בעבור זה).”
This is more complicated than the previous argument. Now, the biblical sense of בעבור זה, as noted above, is ambiguous. The previous verse prohibits possessing leavened bread during the festival of Chag HaMatzot. Reading the two verses together yields an odd sounding command:
מַצּוֹת֙ יֵֽאָכֵ֔ל אֵ֖ת שִׁבְעַ֣ת הַיָּמִ֑ים וְלֹֽא־יֵרָאֶ֨ה לְךָ֜ חָמֵ֗ץ וְלֹֽא־יֵרָאֶ֥ה לְךָ֛ שְׂאֹ֖ר בְּכָל־גְּבֻלֶֽךָ: וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְ־הֹוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread (chametz) shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day, ‘On account of this (בעבור זה) the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’ (Exod 13:7-8).
But even after clarifying the meaning of the biblical verse, it is still unclear why the Haggadah takes בעבור זה to refer to such a specific aspect of the Seder: the moment when unleavened bread and bitter herbs are on the table.
The matter is instantly clarified once we recognize that the Haggadah is not understanding עבור in its typical sense of “because,” but is midrashically connecting the biblical phrase with a second, rare sense of עֲבוּר, namely, “agricultural produce.” The word appears only twice in the Bible, in consecutive verses in Joshua dealing with the Israelite’s first Passover after crossing the Jordan:
וַיֹּ֨אכְל֜וּ מֵעֲב֥וּר הָאָ֛רֶץ מִמָּֽחֳרַ֥ת הַפֶּ֖סַח מַצּ֣וֹת וְקָל֑וּי בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה: וַיִּשְׁבֹּ֨ת הַמָּ֜ן מִֽמָּחֳרָ֗ת בְּאָכְלָם֙ מֵעֲב֣וּר הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה ע֛וֹד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מָ֑ן וַיֹּאכְל֗וּ מִתְּבוּאַת֙ אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הַהִֽיא:
“On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce (עֲבוּר) of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce (עֲבוּר) of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year” (Josh 5:11-12).
The Mekhilta (and subsequently the Passover Haggadah) identifies the עֲבוּר in Exodus 13:8 with the עֲבוּר, “produce,” of Joshua 5:11-12—the spelling is exactly the same: the commandment is only effect when the עֲבוּר, the unleavened bread and bitter herbs, is present on the Passover table.
The Meaning of זה in Tannaitic Literature
But why does the Haggadah speak of the unleavened bread and bitter herbs being set on the table? Is it not enough to note that they are part of the Seder meal? The answer has to do with the meaning of זה in tannaitic Hebrew. As a number of derashot make clear, זה is understood as a demonstrative (or: deictic) indicating the immediate presence of its referent—“this here,” “this thing right here that I am indicating,” an understanding congruent with the Biblical Hebrew sense of זה.I
Thus, Rabbi Akiva identifies the phrases “This month (החדש הזה),” “These are impure for you (וזה לכם הטמא),” and “This is the work of the candelabrum (וזה מעשה המנורה),” as three matters that God pointed out to Moses with His finger. That is, God points at each of these objects—the moon, the roster of impure animals, and the candelabrum, and emphatically asserts “this month …,” “these are impure …,” “this is the work of the candelabrum …”. Elsewhere, Rabbi Eliezer interprets the phrase “this is my God (זה א-לי), and I will praise him” (Exodus 15:2) as proof that the Israelites pointed at God as God appeared on the Red Sea.
So too the Haggadah understands בעבור זה as referring to the produce (עבור) that is right here, the unleavened bread and bitter herbs that can be gestured to, because they are set out on the Seder table.
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March 29, 2015
June 29, 2020
Dr. Azzan Yadin-Israel is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies in the departments of Classics and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. He holds a Ph.D. from University of Califronia, Berkeley and Graduate Theologial Union. He is the author of Scripture as Logos: Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash and Scripture and Tradition:Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash.
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