Aruch HaShulchan’s Laws of Telling the Pesach Story

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Metzora, 5784

Let me say upfront: in my experience, Jews often limit the requirements/goals of Judaism with halachah, think that as long as we do what halachah says, we’ve fulfilled all God wants of us.

The mitzvah of sippur yetzi’at Mitzrayim offers a corrective, reminds us it’s not all in those books. [For those who like movie references: in A Few Good Men, there was a long debate about whether a “Code Red” existed because it was not in the Code of Army Regulations. The defense lawyer pointed out that the definition of the mess tent was also not in the Code.]

We only hear of the mitzvah in Shulchan Aruch, by the way, as almost a side point in Orach Chayim 473, a siman that covers the laws of the Seder from the beginning, with kiddush and the first cup of wine, until the drinking of the second cup. Experientially, most of that is telling the Seder story, yet SA gives it part of one paragraph, AH parts of seven (out of twenty-six). Let’s see.

The Importance of Questions

Se’if seven in SA tells us to pour the second cup of wine, with tinnokot, children, asking why we are pouring a second cup before the meal [a reminder we should generally not drink two cups of wine before a meal; problem drinking is not an issue to ignore]. Should the child not yet be aware enough, the father should teach him/her. If there are no children, the wife should ask.

[Side point: halachic books often seem male-focused, and the use of ben, son, might confuse us into thinking we only care about a son asking questions. Except the next option after “if he has no ben” is for the wife to ask. Clearly, we are not ignoring females, so “if he has no ben” can only mean “if he has no child.”]

AH makes the point explicit, says if there is no son, a daughter asks, only then a wife, and if there is no wife, anyone else at the table can ask. A single man at Seder alone should ask himself, and even Torah scholars must ask each other the Four Questions. AH understands this to be a requirement, the Torah insisted the telling of the Exodus story happen in question/answer. I believe I have seen R. Soloveitchik cited with the explanation that questions stimulate interest, involvement, and imbibing of information.

A Big Blank Space

The rest of the se’if in SA tells us: when we start Avadim hayyinu, we were slaves to Par’oh in Egypt, we return the Seder plate, which has the matzot, and read the Haggadah. At the point of matzah zu, this matzah we eat, for what reason (to hypertranslate), we lift the matzah.

Two points. First, notice that the Seder plate was assumed to include the matzot, and it is those we are focused on returning, for the telling of the Seder story to happen in their presence. (We need the rest of the plate only when we get up to maror zu, why do we eat this maror, and then for the actual eating, when it comes.)

Second, SA feels comfortable referring us to the Haggadah, and saying nothing more about the obligation to tell the Seder story. A point to which to return.

In a Language We know

AH’s first reference to an Haggadah comes in se’if twenty, where he says to recite Ha lachma anya in a language the people around the table understand, or translate for everyone. By our times, he says, the need to translate is less, there being enough haggadot in local languages. Since all our women and children can read, he says, we need not teach them the Haggadah to the same extent.

[I would have thought he would limit this to Ha lachma anya, a paragraph not yet part of the official retelling of the Exodus story. More, as we just said, he explicitly wants question/answer format, and this would have been a great example. Yet here, he says they can read themselves!

I think he means to free ourselves for more advanced conversations, not to get bogged down in plain translation. Even if so, he assumes the people around the table will make sure to read the words, not a certainty in our times.]

Start With Wonder

In se’if twenty-one, for Mah Nishtanah, AH reads the word mah differently than most of us. The famous English version has why is this night different than all others, where AH thinks mah signals wonder. Bil’am said mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and Tehillim 92;6 expresses wonder at the greatness of God’s creations with the word mah as well. How wondrously different this night is! For on all other nights…

If so, the question is implicit rather than explicit: what creates the greatness of the night we demonstrate in the four ways?

AH’s Permanent Slavery Story

Finally, in se’if twenty-two, we arrive at some real discussion of the Pesach story. We finish the Four Questions, uncover the matzah, and start with our having been slaves in Egypt—Avadim hayyinu—to be said wonder, happiness, and chedva, delight (thanks Google translate). Our essential story is that the Exodus eternally binds us to God and Torah, to be Hashem’s slaves/servants.

As a matter of law, adds AH. A free person cannot be enslaved against his will, a claim I noticed because he points to eved ken’ani to prove it. Not our topic here, but I think many of us assume Jews used to force non-Jews into slavery, just like others of their time. AH is sure we did not (it’s debated among rishonim, and not our topic here).

It was our already being enslaved to Par’oh that meant Hashem’s redeeming us turned us into slaves to God, a status VaYikra 25;55 asserts explicitly, for the Children of Israel are slaves to Me, are My slaves, whom I took out of Egypt.

I want to emphasize his emphasis on legal status. From his perspective, our central goal Seder night is to remind ourselves that we are not free people, with full rights to choose what we want. We are slaves to God, obligated as a matter of our enslavement to do what God has said. Fortunately, our Master gives us much room to make choices, but the framework should be of a loose slavery.

I’m not sure it’s a popular phrasing of religious commitment today, but we’re here to learn from AH.

Feeling It Ourselves

His version explains a passage later in the Haggadah, in every generation a Jew must see him/herself as if s/he left Egypt. I normally think this a matter of truly experiencing the miracles and Revelation of God of the Exodus, leading to a renewed gratitude, where AH takes it to rejuvenate our sense of ourselves as slaves, peshuto ke-mashma’o, literally.

To stave off the rebuttal that only the original generation was taken out of Egypt, the Haggadah reminds us of Rava’s requirement, Pesachim 116b, to say out loud Devarim 6;23 (a verse said to all later generations), ve-otanu hotzi mi-sham, and us He took from there. Us, not our forefathers, confirmed by the end of the verse, to give “us” the Land, untrue of those who left Egypt.

A Custom With the Wine

Like SA, AH skips to the second cup, adding only, in se’if twenty-four, the custom to spill off some wine when we quote Yo’el 3;3, dam va-esh ve-timrot ashan, blood, fire, and pillars of smoke, when we list the plagues, and repeat R. Yehudah’s simanim/mnemonic for the ten, detzach, adash, be-achav.

A total of sixteen spillings, he says, a matter of sod (usually a kabbalistic secret; he does not tell us what it is, and a quick Internet search did not turn up anything). Some pour from the cup directly, some with their fourth finger, some with the pinkie, and it’s all fine, says AH.

A Few Final Versions of the Text

Se’if twenty-five adds some points of what to say and how. Before we say yachol me-Rosh Chodesh, could the mitzvah to tell the Exodus story start on the first of Nisan, we must have said ve-higadeta le-vincha, you shall relate to your children (that because of all this God took me out of Egypt). In our haggadot, we say the verse in our discussion of the four children.

At the end of the storytelling, we note how it inspires/compels us to praise God. One phrase in the paragraph leading into the blessing of God for our salvation says ve-nomar lefanav shirah chadash, we should/must recite before Him a new song. AH accepts Magen Avraham’s view to read the word ve-ne’emar, there was said, the Jews who left Egypt said a new shirah, and we should emulate them.

Why So Little?

At the end of paragraph twenty-five and again in twenty-six, AH pulls back the veil on why he does not say more here about this mitzvah de-oraita, Biblical obligation. Rather than clarify the correct version of the blessing of asher ge’alanu, the lead-in to drinking the second cup of wine, or the reason we split the Hallel as we do, some before the meal, some after, AH refers us to his Haggadah explanation (now reprinted, and certainly worth study).

It’s a revelatory moment. AH, perhaps the first author since Rambam to attempt to cover all of Jewish law in his book (he has an Aruch HaShulchan He-Atid, to codify what SA left out for not being currently practical), freely acknowledges he did not include the text or interpretation of the Haggadah, because it exists independently.

As I wish you a chag kasher ve-sameach, and a successful reliving of the Exodus, to revivify our sense of commitment and obligation to our Redeemer, I also hope we are reminded of the limits of what we call halachah, how it leaves for other genres essential elements of serving our Redeemer. Not all we must do is halachah, and we shortchange our relationship with God if we stop at halachah.

May our service of Hashem be full and complete, this Seder night and beyond.

About Gidon Rothstein

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