The Meaning of the Seder (Part 2)

Recounting the story

Print this page Print this page

The Maggid section of the seder--recounting the story of the Exodus and various interpretations--is very complex, yet vital to the purpose and meaning of the seder. This article highlights certain elements of the Maggid section. It is by no means an exhaustive list of everything that takes place in this section. Reprinted with permission from A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute.

The Bread of Poverty

As everyone knows, the Jews eat unleavened bread because the dough they brought out from Egypt in their rush to leave never had a chance to rise. Matzah is then the bread of liberation. It is a mark of an exodus whose rapid pace overtook them unprepared. The Egyptians who enslaved them suddenly expelled them after God brought the plague on the first born.

a family passover sederYet "ha lahma" the first official explanation for matzah in the Haggadah, calls it the "bread of poverty and persecution"based on Deuteronomy 16:3, "You shall eat unleavened bread, bread of oni [distress]--for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly." Here matzah is a memorial not of liberation, but of slavery. The life of oppression is marked by a pressured, "hurried" pace, for the slaves do not control the rhythm of their existence.

The Four Questions

Why were the Rabbis so insistent that the Exodus story open with a spontaneous question?

First of all, one can view this as an educational device. Teachers know that if they can just get their students to pay attention, get their minds working on something they find interesting, then the teachers have gone a long way towards creating an openness to learning new things. The Rabbis wanted to remind the leaders of the seder not just to focus on the story--but first to make sure to have an active, attentive audience.

On a deeper level, the Rabbis may have reflected that questioning is an essential part of the freedom celebrated on the seder night. The whole Talmudic literature is in the form of questioning and dialogue--not the meek questioning of inferior to superior but the give-and-take interaction of adamant rivals pitted against one another, and sometimes even against God! (8.7: Bava Metzia 59 b)

An essential characteristic of free people is that they notice the world around them, make distinctions and search for meaningful patterns. They want understanding, not inscrutability. For a slave mentality, nothing is "different"--all tasks are part of the same meaningless arbitrariness. There is no point in asking if no one answers, no place for questions in a world where the master's arbitrary orders are the ultimate justification for the way things are.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Noam Zion

Noam Zion is the Director of Shalom Hartman Institute's Resource Center for Jewish Continuity. He specializes in teaching Jewish Holidays, Bible and Art, and has edited several educational books for the Shalom Hartman Institute.

David Dishon

David Dishon has been with the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978 and founded their Torani High School for Boys, where he currently teaches.