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Passover Seder: A Night of Questions

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Passover Seder: A Night of Questions

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Passover Seder: A Night of Questions

Around the Seder table with scholars.

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Passover Seder: A Night of Questions

The Rabbis of Bene Brak, Haggadah with Yiddish instructions, 1725, Braginsky Collection B284, f. 3v (detail). E-codices

After the symbolic foods are set on the Seder table, the Mishnah instructs the child to ask questions:

משנה פסחים י:ד מָזְגוּ לוֹ כוֹס שֵׁנִי, וְכָאן הַבֵּן שׁוֹאֵל אָבִיו, וְאִם אֵין דַּעַת בַּבֵּן, אָבִיו מְלַמְּדוֹ, מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת.
m. Pesachim 10:4 They poured the second cup for him, and here the son asks his father. And if the son does not have the intelligence, his father teaches him: Why is this night different from all other nights?

In honor of Passover, a time we retell the story of the exodus, we invited our authors to share their own questions: What most intrigues you about the exodus story—narrative, historical, textual, other—that you would like to see answered?

1. In Search of the Exodus
2. What Does the Bible Know About Ancient Egypt?
3. Exodus: Promise or Obligation?
4. Moses, Leader of the Exodus
5. The Role of Moses’ Family
6. The Ten Plagues
7. Leaving Egypt
8. The Biblical Passover
9. Why Was the Exodus Story Written?
10. Post-Biblical Passover
11. Seder Night and Haggadah
12. Telling the Exodus Story
13. Matzah Customs
14. Slavery and Persecution
15. National Redemption


1. In Search of the Exodus

In their 3,000 years of history, the ancient Egyptians had 30 dynasties of kings. We know almost each and every one by name. The name of the Pharaoh who spoke to Moses is not mentioned in the Bible. Who was he? What was his name? Why is his name missing in the Bible?[1] Rami Arav

What do we know about foreign populations turned into a pool of unfree labor in Egypt? Did it happen, and if so, under what circumstances?[2] Yigal Bloch

How has the famous Merneptah Inscription been used by scholars to support and also to critique the alignment of the Exodus narrative with the historical and archaeological record?[3] Mark Leuchter

Would a comprehensive contemporary investigation of the exodus show that traditions of this sort tend, generally, to be based on real events to some extent or not? The best a modern scholar can hope to do is to assemble evocative echoes in the material record. We should take a broad, comparative approach to the question of what evocative echoes amount to! — Andrew Tobolowsky

What is the relation between: (1) the biblical traditions of Joseph's rule in Egypt, the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, and the Israelite exodus from Egypt, (2) Egyptian traditions of Israelite/Jewish rule over Egypt and banishment from there as reported in Josephus' Against Apion,[4] and (3) the historical events that we call the Hyksos takeover of Egypt and their later defeat?[5]

Does the Bible contain a memory of Akhenaten's monotheistic reform, e.g. in Exod 7:5?

שמות ז:ה וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָה בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת יָדִי עַל מִצְרָיִם וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִתּוֹכָם.
Exod 7:5 And the Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.

Raanan Eichler

2. What Does the Bible Know About Ancient Egypt?

How is it that in a story of death and suffering that takes place in Egypt, home of the afterlife (actual cities of the dead), the afterlife is never alluded to or discussed? — David Wolpe

If the Jews were in Egypt as long as tradition says they were, why aren’t our texts (particularly Exodus-Numbers) suffused with, dripping with, afterlife ideas, or at least, why do they not conduct a polemic against them given the Egyptians’ obsession with that subject and their likely influence on their Israelite servants? — Albert Friedberg

3. Exodus: Promise or Obligation?

In the Covenant of Parts (Genesis 15:13-16), God foretells the enslavement of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt and their eventual liberation. But the exodus narrative implies that it took Israelite groaning to remind God of this covenant:

שמות ב:כג וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמׇת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָה׃
Exod 2:23 A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.
ב:כד וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָם וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יִצְחָק וְאֶת־יַעֲקֹב׃
2:24 God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

Since God already made that promise to Abraham, wouldn’t Israel have been redeemed without their groaning? Did God actually forget the covenant with Abraham (and what does this have to do with the covenants God made with Isaac and Jacob)? — Michael L. Satlow

God’s liberation of the Israelites from Egypt is presented as a gratuitous act of grace and love for Israel (Isa 63:7—14, Amos 3:2; Hos 11:1). Yet Abraham calls God the overseer of justice throughout the world (שופט כל הארץ, Gen 18:25). If the oppressive slavery in Egypt was a gross injustice, wasn’t God obligated to liberate the Israelites? — David Frankel

4. Moses, Leader of the Exodus

Does the biblical Moses have a leadership personality? What is the significance of his having a disability? What about his having a dual identity as Israelite-born and Egyptian-raised? — Naftali Cohn

At what point does Moses realize that he is related to the Hebrew slaves?[6] Does he remember being nursed by his biological mother? If not, is he told, and if so by whom?

Why is Moses chosen to lead the Exodus? What do we make of his initial refusal to take on the mission at the Burning Bush? — Rachel Adelman

5. The Role of Moses’ Family

Moses claims not to be a man of words (Exod 4:10), and YHWH suggests that his brother Aaron “speaks readily” (maybe he was a professor?). Yet throughout the entire sequence with Pharaoh, Moses tells Aaron to do things, and Aaron is fairly quiet throughout the ten plagues, even though they both seemingly go to visit Pharaoh. So who is really the chatterbox in the family, and what is Aaron’s role, especially because of the important position he and his family have later regarding the priesthood? — Tammi Schneider

The minor prophet Micah (6:4) said:

מיכה ו:ד כִּי הֶעֱלִתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּמִבֵּית עֲבָדִים פְּדִיתִיךָ וָאֶשְׁלַח לְפָנֶיךָ אֶת מֹשֶׁה אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם.
Mic 6:4 In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Why does this verse not appear in the Haggadah?[7]

Unlike the biblical narrative, the animated film “Prince of Egypt” portrays Tzipporah as playing an important role in the Exodus. Is it a problem to falsify the original story? —Anna Urowitz-Freudenstein

6. The Ten Plagues

The separation (פ.ל.ה) between Israelite and Egyptian is repeatedly highlighted in the narrative of the ten plagues, appearing in the plagues of arov (swarm), dever (pestilence), barad (hail), hoshekh (darkness), and most dramatically, makat bekhorot (death of the firstborn).

Yet, ironically, the plague that first introduces the theme of separation is that of arov (Exod 8:17), meaning “mixture,” strongly hinting at the opposite theme, which we find elsewhere in the story: in the plague of hail, there is וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּרָד, “fire flashing in the midst of the hail” (Exod 9:24), in which the otherwise incompatible forces of fire and water are intertwined. It is again alluded to in the passing reference to a mysterious עֵרֶב רַב, “mixed multitude,” that joined the Israelites as they fled from Egypt (Exod 12 38).

What might the interplay between these two themes have to say about the exodus story as a whole? — Judy Klitsner

Why do some scholars seek “scientific” (meteorological, climactic, volcanic, etc) or historical explanations for the 10 plagues and the parting of the yam suf (Reed/Red Sea) when the whole point of the Exodus narrative is that they were all divine interference in the natural order?[8] Jack Sasson

After the ninth plague of darkness, Pharaoh tells Moses to go away and never see his face again, and Moses agrees (Exod 10:28-29). In the next verses, YHWH tells Moses there will be one more plague, and that Israel should ask for stuff from their neighbors, which they do (11:1-3).

Then suddenly, Moses is back in front of Pharaoh, announcing YHWH's message about the death of the firstborn, which YHWH hadn't yet delivered (that comes in ch. 12), then walks off in a huff (11:4-8). How did a text like this get put together? Are we supposed to imagine Moses receiving revelations while he is literally standing in front of Pharaoh, as Rashi does?[9] Zev Farber

What is the moral justification for the suffering of the Egyptians? What is accomplished that couldn't have been by simply extracting Israel? One biblical answer seems to be “So that you may tell your children and your grandchildren” (Exod 10:2). If so, then the staying power of Passover/Seder is its effectiveness in providing a means for this end, but it hardly offers a moral rationale. The notion that “the Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH” (Exod 7:5, 14:18) is not satisfying as ethics or theodicy, nor more generally, is the explanation of victory over other gods and glorification of YHWH. The theodicy aspect is related to the question of YHWH holding Pharaoh responsible after hardening his heart and stating this intention at the outset.

This is related, for me, to a question of genre and socio-literary purpose. In the book of Esther, the farcical exaggerated presentation persuades me of the interpretation of the violence as revenge fantasy. I'll always see the Exodus in the epic dramatization of Cecil B. DeMille (where actually, I guess the plagues are somewhat cartoonish). — Shani Tzoref

7. Leaving Egypt

The Israelites were told to “borrow” or take objects of silver and gold from the Egyptians before they left Egypt (Exod 11:2-3) and they did so (Exod 12:35-36; “garments” is added here).

What is the purpose of this gold and silver stuff? Was it a kind of payment for all the labor the Israelites had performed? Gold and silver objects do not seem useful for wandering in the wilderness. Were some of these objects the gold earrings from which the golden calf was made?

The vignette ends when God causes the Egyptians to be favorably disposed towards them, and they readily let the Israelites have these objects. Were the Egyptians favorable to Israel only for this one moment? What did they think of the Israelites at other times? Does this suggest that the Egyptian population in general did not agree with Pharaoh’s stubbornness towards the Israelites?[10] Adele Berlin

Who is the machshit (מַשְׁחִית Destroyer) that God sends forth in the final plague? (Exod 12:23)[11]Kristine Henriksen Garroway

What is the significance of the crossing of a body of water as a literary motif (e.g. as a birth metaphor)? — Naftali Cohn

8. The Biblical Passover

It appears that the holiday of Passover is a combination of two separate feasts, a sacrifice offered by herders and an agricultural festival celebrated by farmers. When did the combination of the two occur and under what circumstances?[12] Oded Borowski

While still in Egypt, God gives Moses instructions for the yearly commemoration of the Festival of Pesach/Matzot (Exod 12:15-20), but the circumstances that gave rise to the eating of unleavened bread are the result of their speedy departure from Egypt (12:34, 39). Why are the instructions for the festival to commemorate the event given before the event which is itself contingent? — Elaine Goodfriend

Each of the three harvest festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) has a connection to a specific piece of the exodus story. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur don't. What is the connection between the harvest and the Exodus? Or is there specifically a disconnection between the High Holidays and the Exodus?[13] Devorah Schoenfeld

9. Why Was the Exodus Story Written?

I have always wondered why the Exodus story was written. No other ancient people would brag about their beginnings as slaves to another. On the one hand, there is the miraculous rescue by YHWH, but is this an adequate explanation? Why is it necessary?

According to the book of Chronicles, the genealogy of Israel begins with Adam, who is autochthonous on the land of Judah. There is no Eden, no Exodus.[14] I happen to think (with no evidence), that the story in Chronicles is original, and Eden, Egypt, all added after the Babylonian Exile. If that is the case does the return from the Babylonian Exile explain the Liberation from Egypt? If not, why was the story written? — Lisbeth S. Fried

Why would any nation make so much of being the descendants of slaves? In the present sad state of our nation, I am also inevitably troubled by the notion of freedom that is constantly associated with the Exodus and Pesach: Does freedom from slavery also mean freedom to keep slaves?[15] What would the Israelites or Moses have thought of personal freedom as presumably practiced in present day democracies?
Ruth Fidler

The Exodus stories in the Torah are the works of authors who lived many centuries after the events that they relate are said to have taken place. Each of the authors takes on the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator who makes no claim to have witnessed these events, and in fact makes it clear that they occurred well before his own time. I find myself wondering: Whom do these authors have in mind as their listeners or readers, and on what sources of knowledge might the listener or reader have thought the author to have relied? — Baruch Schwartz

10. Post-Biblical Passover

We know that some sort of Passover-like holiday was celebrated in Elephantine in the Persian Period, but will we ever find evidence of if and how it was celebrated in earlier times? — Aren Maeir

What is the earliest evidence for a Passover seder that is structured more or less as our seders are today? — Adele Reinhartz

When did the ancient Egyptians first learn of the Israelite story of being slaves in their land, and what is their first documented reaction? — David D. Steinberg

11. Seder Night and Haggadah

If you do not believe that the exodus is historical, how do you break this news to your Seder guests without ruining their entire experience? — Marc Brettler

If the sources in the Torah (and elsewhere in the Bible) cannot agree on what happened during the Exodus, what about it was so significant that its telling and retelling pervade our tradition?[16] Ely Levine

Why does the Exodus story resonate so deeply that so many people in so many different places and time periods feel that it speaks to them? — Pamela Barmash

At the Seder we ask several questions to which we can find answers, mostly related to the symbols we present and the rituals we perform. What questions connected to Pesach and the Seder do you think are unanswerable? — Ed Greenstein

Why is Moses hardly mentioned in the Song of Moses and in the Haggadah? — Reuven Kimelman

12. Telling the Exodus Story

The traditional Seder ritual is very meta—it doesn't really retell the story of the liberation from Egypt as much as it rehearses classical rabbinic comments on the story. In what way does this—or does this not—fulfill the commandments of Exodus 12 to observe the day as a perpetual ordinance? — Meira Kensky

After presenting the Mah Nishtanah (four questions), the Mishna Pesahim 10:4 instructs:

מַתְחִיל בִּגְנוּת וּמְסַיֵּם בְּשֶׁבַח, וְדוֹרֵשׁ מֵאֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי, עַד שֶׁיִּגְמֹר כֹּל הַפָּרָשָׁה כֻלָּהּ
He begins with [the Jewish people’s] disgrace and concludes with [their] glory. And he expounds from: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father” (Deut 26:5) until he concludes explaining the entire section.

Why did the Sages couch the first part of these instructions in such an open-ended way (“disgrace” and “glory”) instead of offering exact portions to discuss, like they do in the second part? — Robbie Harris

The Haggadah is built as a midrash around Deuteronomy 26:5-8, beginning with אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, “my father was a lost Aramean,” and ending with YHWH freeing the Israelites בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, “with an outstretched arm and awesome power.” But this verse is not the end of the section. We leave out the following verse:

דברים כו:ט וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ׃
Deut 26:9 bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Especially since the Mishnah (Pes. 10:4) says to interpret the text “until one finishes the entire section,” why don’t we include this last verse? If the answer is that this Haggadah text was formulated in exile, should we include the verse today, with the Jewish return to the land of Israel? — Aaron Koller

The Haggadah is based on the required retelling by the Israelites of the exodus story as they bring the first fruits of the land to the high priest each year (Deut 26 5-10). How closely do these Deuteronomic verses hew to the plain sense of the exodus story as it is told in the first 15 chapters of the book of Exodus? What “inner biblical midrash” can we identify in Deut 26:5-10? — Rachel Friedman

13. Matzah Customs

At the start of the Maggid section of the Haggadah, we hold up the matzot and declare:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם
This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

But does the Bible consider matzah to be bread of “affliction”? In the stories of Lot, Gideon and Saul, matzah is served to important guests.[17] The priestly service calls for offerings of matzah on numerous occasions. Never in the exodus story are the Israelites described as eating matzah in Egypt. Only once is matzah called לֶחֶם עֹנִי, "bread of distress" (Deut 16:3), but this verse implies that the distress is tied to the Israelites’ quick departure from Egypt, not to their years of slavery.

Do we have any comparative evidence, from Egypt or elsewhere in the ancient Near East, that unleavened bread was an impoverished or enslaved people's food? — David Bar-Cohn

There is a medieval custom of having three (not two) matzot at the beginning of the seder. The middle matzah is broken, and one half being the “afikoman.” What about the other half of the middle matzah? Most folks simply add it back into the hopper and casually “make motzi” over 2 1/2 matzot, but I know that was not the original custom. What is the purpose, if any, of the “other half”? — Robbie Harris

14. Slavery and Persecution

The passage of Vehi She’amda states:

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ
In every generation they rise up to destroy us.

Where does this idea come from? In the wake of the Holocaust and even of October 7th, it has become easy to identify with the sentiment, but surely that was not the Jewish experience “in every generation.” Or does the word לְכַלּוֹתֵנו not mean “exterminate us” at all, but rather “be rid of us,” which would include expulsions and a variety of non-existential threats? If we were more clear about the date of composition, that might provide some insight into the likely mindset at the time.

The passage continues:

הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם
The Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.

Surely some are saved while others are not, so the “us” in “delivers us” seems to refer only to the survivors. The text looks to be making a bigger claim than that circular idea, but what is it claiming exactly? Could it be that the Jewish collective being saved must be celebrated by those survivors, even though so many have also been lost? — Yehudah Cohn

How did the experience of powerlessness and lack of sovereignty affect the text of the Haggadah? What might a recitation celebrating the exodus from Egypt, whatever form it might have taken, have looked like before the destruction of the Second Temple? What, if anything, was done to the text in order to make it speak to diaspora Jews who did not themselves feel free? — Marty Lockshin

After having delivered us from Egyptian bondage and making the modern State of Israel possible, why God did You allow the Romans to commit genocide against us in the Bar Kochba Revolt and allow the Shoah to happen? Will Your response be the same as it was when R. Nehunyah ben ha-Qanah reproached you for destroying Jerusalem and the Temple (Heikhalot Rabbati), and You said that he was correct and You accepted his reproach?[18]Marvin Sweeney

The central question for me is how to understand Passover as a holiday of freedom in light of the October 7th slaughter. — Dalia Marx

15. National Redemption

The exodus story is about YHWH freeing the Israelites from slavery to the Egyptian king (Pharaoh) so that they can serve YHWH. Yet, after settling in the land, the people approach the prophet Samuel and ask for a king. YHWH is angry, and complains that Israel has rejected divine rule, even reminding them of the exodus:

שמואל א ח:ז ... כִּי אֹתִי מָאֲסוּ מִמְּלֹךְ עֲלֵיהֶם. ח:ח כְּכָל הַמַּעֲשִׂים אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ מִיּוֹם הַעֲלֹתִי אֹתָם מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וַיַּעַזְבֻנִי וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים...
1 Sam 8:7 … it is Me they have rejected as their king. 8:8 Like everything else they have done ever since I brought them out of Egypt to this day—forsaking Me and worshiping other gods…

Even so, YHWH acquiesces, and Samuel appoints Saul as king, who is followed by David and Solomon, whom the Bible extol as great kings. Indeed, the Jewish messianic ambition is for the return of a Davidic ruler. But why don’t we hope for a future when we live under YHWH’s direct rule?[19] — Philip Kahn

What would be an ancient way to understand the fact that the Israelites leave Egypt and are no longer slaves (in a biblical or post-biblical context)? Later this is interpreted as "redemption" and as "freedom," but what might a contextual understanding be? — Naftali Cohn

What are the historical or literary roots of the Hebrew idea of national liberation?[20] Warren Zev Harvey

On Seder Night, we will talk about slavery going back thousands of years and think of it abstractly as a feature of a barbaric world long gone. But do we have to reach so far to get a glimpse of what slavery is really like? The hostages of October 7th have been deprived of any control over what happens to their bodies. Not only can their lives can be taken at any moment, but they can be tortured, raped, starved and made to live like animals at the whim of their captors. Hamas’s ongoing inhumanity is a tragedy beyond imagination and a fate worse than death.

This, along with the attack on Israel by Iran, will make Seder night this year more meaningful, more painful, and more terrifying than any we have experienced since the Holocaust. When I sing “LeShanah HaBaah BiYerushalayim,” I will pray with all my heart not just that I will be there, but that it will still be there for me! — Jeremy Rosen

Published

April 17, 2024

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Last Updated

April 17, 2024

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