Ha Lachma Anya

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by R. Ira Bedzow

In Ha Lachma Anya, we immediately show the matzah that our forefathers ate, in order to help us look back and personally experience the Exodus at the present moment.  Yet, the remainder of the paragraph serves a much greater purpose than simply reminding us of what our forefathers ate.  Like the four cups of wine, this introduction and presentation of the matzah forces us to think forward as well.

The statement “Anyone who is hungry, come eat; anyone who needs, come enjoy the Pesach offering with us!” cannot be taken literally as a halachically appropriate expression for the Seder, since only those who were including in the original invitation to eat the offering can enjoy it at the Seder.  Also, we do not sacrifice the Pesach offering today.  However, even though the statement is not halachically appropriate in the strict juridical sense, it has great philosophic and psychological import.  Its import lies in how it communicates the idea that simcha is a consequence of providing for others rather than simple personal enjoyment.  This notion is codified by Maimonides, when he writes that one who locks the gates of his courtyard without feeding the poor and the embittered is not rejoicing as commanded, but rather is “rejoicing with his gut.” Maimonides calls this a disgrace, and he applies to such people the verse, “Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners, all that partake thereof shall become impure, for they kept their bread for themselves alone. (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18.)”

Based on a similar expression used by Rav Huna whenever he would have a meal (BT Taanit 20b), we say “anyone who is hungry, come eat,” to demonstrate the importance of our common bonds and mutual responsibility.  We also say that “all who needs, come enjoy the Pesach,” to force ourselves to recognize that our freedom comes from giving to our brethren in need, since the Pesach offering is meant to be eaten by households and neighbors together, not by individuals fulfilling personal obligations.  As such, it serves as a reminder of what our forefathers said (and we and our children will say in the future) before the Seder when thinking about with whom to eat on the night of Redemption.

Ha Lachma Anya ends with a double recognition of the present (and our imagined present of being slaves in Egypt) and the anticipated future of being free in Israel.  Yet, benei chorin (free people) are not simply those who are released from slavery, since the eved Ivri who is freed after six years enjoys chofesh and not cherut (Exodus 21:2).  Cherut (freedom) is a different form of freedom than either dror or chofesh.  Dror is a form of political freedom (it is the freedom of yovel); chofesh is to be stripped of external encumbrances.  Cherut, as it is related to charut, is the ability to act properly after being shaped through one’s observance of the Torah.  Hence the exegetical pun of the Talmudic Sages, “It says, ‘The Tablets are God’s handiwork and the script was God’s script, engraved (charut) on the Tablets.’ Do not read engraved (charut) but freedom (cherut) for you can have no freer man than one who engages in the study of Torah. (Mishna Avot 6:2.)”

Similarly, in ending with the idea that we will be in Israel next year, Ha Lachma Anya reflects the end in Nirtzah where we say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”  The purpose is to reinforce, from beginning to end, that the goal is not simply leaving Egypt and enjoying freedom in the sense of personal liberty but rather in achieving the freedom (cherut) of being servants of Hashem and not servants of servants.

The many facets of this paragraph “Ha Lachma Anya” is implied by what the Rabbis say for the reason we call matzah lechem oni in the first place, i.e. that it is a symbol that responds to many different things (BT Pesachim 115b).  However, the primary connotation for lechem oni is that it is bread for the poor (just as a poor person must content himself on broken bread or must fire the oven in advance…), yet poverty as a symbol for matzah should not be taken in the economic sense or as negative per se, since matzah is also the bread associated with korbanot.  Rather, the bread of poverty is meant to remind us not only of our status in Egypt but also that what prevents us from performing God’s will are “the yeast in the dough and the subjection to the foreign powers. (BT Berachot 17b)” Matzah, therefore, also symbolizes what it takes for us to be worthy of redemption, namely the recognition that what we have is less valuable to us than what we do.


About Ira Bedzow

Ira Bedzow is the Director of the Biomedical Ethics and Humanities Program at New York Medical College. Among his other responsibilities, he is in charge of a new master’s program in biomedical ethics at NYMC, which has an option for a focus in Jewish medical ethics. He is also the Senior Scholar of the Aspen Center for Social Values. Rabbi Bedzow received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg (Yoreh Yoreh), Rabbi Daniel Channen (Yoreh Yoreh), Rabbi Yitzchak Oshinksy (Yadin Yadin), and Rabbi Dovid Schochet (Yadin Yadin). He earned his PhD in Religion at Emory University.

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