Who Reads the Haggadah?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Three Seder Practices

Generally speaking, when it comes to the Pesach Seder, people know the details of their own family’s practices but not those of many other families. From conversation, they might know what different people eat for marror but not necessarily when they stand and sit, how they engage in conversation, in what format they conduct the Seder. In an informal survey, I have found three ways in which families read the Maggid section of the Haggadah. In some families, only one person reads the text — the Seder leader, usually a grandfather or father — and everyone else listens quietly and follows along in the text. In other families, the Seder leader reads the whole text while everyone else reads along together, albeit in a quieter tone. And in some families, people take turns reading from the Haggadah. This all reflects a halakhic debate.

However, the Gemara seems to imply only one of these practices. When discussing whether a blind man is obligated to say the Haggadah, the Gemara (Pesachim 116b) says that they asked the Rav Yosef’s students who said the Haggadah in his home and the students answered that Rav Yosef said it, even though he was blind. Similarly with Rav Sheishes, who was also blind. It seems to have been the practice that one person read the Haggadah for everyone at the Seder. Rashbam (ad loc., s.v. ke’ein) and Tosafos (Megillah 19b, s.v. ve-Rabbi Yehudah) say that Rav Yosef and Rav Sheishes were fulfilling the mitzvah for others (being motzi them).

This would imply that it is proper for the Seder leader to read the text while everyone else follows along silently. And, indeed, the Vilna Gaon (Ma’aseh Rav 191) and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav 473:24) say that one person reads the Haggadah and fulfills the mitzvah for everyone listening. Rav Shneur Zalman offers a reason for the practice.

II. One For All

The general rule is that when people can fulfill a mitzvah together, that is better than each individual doing the mitzvah alone. “Be-rov am hadras melekh,” the King is glorified in a larger crowd. For example, all other things being equal, it is better to pray with a large group than a small group (Mishnah Berurah 90:28). Similarly, when multiple people need to recite a blessing, it is better for one person to say the blessing out loud and everyone else to listen and answer “Amen” than for everyone to say the blessing on their own (Mishnah Berurah 213:17). For this reason, Rav Shneur Zalman says that it is best for the Seder leader to read for everyone and fulfill the obligation for them while they listen.

Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, in his Haggadah commentary (Yerushalayim Be-Mo’adeha, Pesach, pp. 56-57), says that those who observe this practice — that the Seder leader reads for everyone — should have intent (kavanah) for the reader to fulfill the obligation for (be motzi) those listening and the listeners to fulfill their obligation through the leader. But he also notes a different practice, in which everyone reads along quietly with the leader. If it is clear from the Gemara, commentators and codes that it is best for one person to read the Haggadah, why would this other practice emerge?

Rav Yosef Karo (Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 183) quotes Medieval authorities who say that with long blessings, it is best for each person to recite the blessings along with the leader. Rav Tzidkiyahu Ha-Rofei (Shibbolei Ha-Leket 39) quotes Rav Avigdor who says this with regard to the grace after meals. Similarly, Rabbeinu Peretz (quoted in Orechos Chaim) says that everyone should recite the grace after the meal quietly because it is very hard to focus on someone else’s recitation of a long blessing. Rav Ya’akov Ben Asher (Tur, Orach Chaim 59) quotes a responsum by his father, Rabbeinu Asher (Rosh), that similarly even if the prayer leader says the blessings before Shema out loud, each individual should the blessings on their own because you cannot concentrate for so long on every single word that someone else is saying.

III. All For One

This would seem to be a good reason for everyone to read the Haggadah quietly with the Seder leader. Indeed, we find some authorities recommending this practice. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky (Kovetz Halakhos, Pesach 26:18) says that despite the implications of the Gemara and later authorities, it is best for everyone to read the Haggadah along with the leader, although he does not explain why. In footnote 21, the editor quotes Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv who likewise recommends that everyone read the Haggadah. Perhaps their reasoning follows the above logic.

However, this was anticipated by the author of Seder Ke-Hilkhaso (quoted in Ma’aseh Rav, Jerusalem 1987 edition, sec. 191 n. 17). He offers two responses to this objection. First, the Gemara (Megillah 25b) says that even though we normally say that people cannot hear two voices at once, Megillah is different. You can fulfill your obligation by listening to one of multiple readings going on at the same time because people enjoy it and can focus on a reading. Similarly, the same can be said about the Haggadah and therefore people can pay attention for a long time. Second, blessings have many parts that if you miss any of them, you do not fulfill your obligation. The Haggadah is different. You can miss almost all of it, you can space out or doze off, and still fulfill your obligation. Some parts are required but very few. Therefore, it is easy to pay attention to the bare minimum of the Haggadah.

Perhaps this second explanation also helps us understand the practice of those who take turns reading the Haggadah. If the reader fulfills the obligation for everyone, then it only has to be one reader at a time. Different people can read different passages to which everyone listens. Rav Ya’akov Ariel (Ohalei Halachah, Pesach, p. 104) expresses concern that people might get bored and space out. While this does not invalidate the mitzvah, it is not ideal either. Therefore, he recommends that either everyone read together at the same time or people take turns. This engages everyone in the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus. (Rav Nebenzahl, ibid., adds that even according to this practice, everyone should say Hallel on their own.)

However, there is a view that women have only a rabbinic obligation to read the Haggadah while men have a biblical obligation (see Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 479:2). While others disagree about women, everyone agrees that a child has at most a rabbinic obligation. How can a woman (according to some) and a child (according to all) fulfill the obligation of the men at the table by reading the Haggadah? Based on the second answer, we can suggest that most parts of the Haggadah are not obligatory and if you miss them, you still fulfill your obligation. Therefore, perhaps it is best that a man (or the Seder leader) read the key Haggadah passages (Avadim Hayinu and Rabban Gamliel Hayah Omer) or that everyone read those passages quietly along with the main reader.

Every family has their own ways of doing things. May we continue celebrating Pesach according to our family customs, while eating the korban Pesach in a fully rebuilt Jerusalem.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

2 comments

  1. Since the mitzva of Sipur Yetzias Mitzraim is to retell the events through discussion and the numerous deviations are designed to elicit questions in order to prevent a scenario in which the mitzva is performed as a frontal lecture conducted by the leader (or the reader as formulated by the Rambam), why should the text of the Hagaddah be deemed as a canonized text to be READ from beginning to end? This to my mind is not how the Mishnah prescribed the Mitzva of Sipur, rather it provides guidelines such as starting with the shameful circumstances that led to the enslavement and culminating with Hashem’s praise of redeeming the Bnei Yisroel and giving the Torah and ultimately leading them into Eretz Yisroel. The main components to the Mitzva of Sipur are the texts in the Mishnah with respect to Pesach, Matza and Maror as codified by Rabban Gamliel and the intricate Midrashic expositions of the psukim of Arami Oved Avi. In other words, wouldn’t the Mitzva be BETTER fulfilled by treating the standard text of the Hagaddah as a PLATFORM for leading discussions? For example, a key topic regarding the redemption from slavery is the concept of Cheirus and being Bnei Chorin? I intend to cover this topic this year at my Seder by also framing the discussion in the contemporary debate ongoing in the State of Israel with respect to the constitutional reform underway and ask both the children and the adults to suggest what should be the preamble to the Israeli constitution that is currently being discussed under the aegis of the President and what constitutional rights should be included in this constitution (e.g., Talmud Torah, the Hebrew language, pursuit of happiness, defense of Eretz Yisroel, equality).

  2. Regarding the opinion you brought of the Pri Megadim that women are only obligated rabbinically (although to quote the Pri Megadim accurately, he only brings it as a safek, perhaps women are only obligated rabbinically but perhaps they are obligated from the Torah based on Tosfot 4a d”h she af hen – depending on which of the two answers in Tosfot there you follow). However it is surprising that the Pri Megadim does not quote a different Tosfot, that of Tosfot Pesachim 108b d”h hayu b’oto hanes – because based on that Tosfot one would conclude that af hen b’oto hanes does not work by a Torah mitzvah – not even to make it rabbinic (otherwise women would be obligated in Sukkah rabbinically due to the operation of af hen b’oto hanes) – and on that basis and from a diyuk in the Rambam the Beit David Hilchot Pesach siman 256 page 69 (R’ Yosef David Av Bet Din Salonika 1662–1736), rules that indeed women are not obligated at all in the hagada on Pesach – and the Kape Aharon (R’ Aharon Uzriel 1819- 1879) ruled to forbid women to make a seder by themselves out of concern for the opinion of the Beit David. Note however that the view of the Beit David is rejected by the Chida (Birchei Yosef Orech Chaim siman 473) and also Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Shut Yachave Da’at Chelek 2 siman 65), who concludes that the obligation of women in the hagada is from the Torah and they can exempt others.

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