Rabbi Israel Chait

Student’s notes from a lecture on 4/19/05


Rabbi Chait commenced citing the Ran (in the Rif’s pages, 25b): the Ran states that the correct manner of reading the Haggadah is that a “reader” recites it, while all others listen. The implication is that all present fulfill their obligation to ‘read’ the Haggadah, through the halachik mechanism of “Shomaya K’Oneh”, “One who listens is as one who answers (recited).”


In his Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Chametz and Matza” 7:4, Maimonides states, “And these matters are all called Haggadah.” The question is; to what does he refer - what is subsumed under “these matters”? Maimonides had already stated numerous ideas from the beginning if this chapter. Is he referring to all that he stated, or a smaller portion? Rabbi Chait first stated that “these matters” (are Haggadah) refers only to his fourth ands fifth laws in this chapter, and not to anything mentioned earlier. Let us review Maimonides’ laws:


Law 1: Maimonides records the obligation to transmit the miracles to our sons, when we must recite, and that no one is exempt regardless of age. Law 2: He continues to discuss ‘how’ we must relate the information, based on our sons’ understanding. Law 3: Maimonides discusses the obligation to act in a manner that will evoke interest and questions from the child. A “question” format is required, and questions are so vital, that were someone alone, he must verbally ask himself questions.


But in law 4, Maimonides describes the obligation that one must commence with the degraded state of the Jews, and conclude with our elevated status. Maimonides gives examples: we were first idolaters in Abraham’s day, but God eventually drew us close to His worship, teaching us his Unity, that he alone is the exclusive Creator. (One must say, “God brought us to the correct idea of God’s oneness”. Starting with our degraded state and concluding with our ‘elevated status’ refers to our realization of the ultimate truth: God is One.) He continues that we must also describe our Egyptian bondage under Pharaoh, and our freedom delivered by God’s miracles and wonders, provided that one explains the entire section commencing with Laban’s desire to annihilate Jacob and the tribes. In law 5, Maimonides discusses the obligation to discuss the Paschal Lamb, Matza, and Bitter Herbs, and their significances, as essential to fulfilling the command retelling the Exodus (Haggadah). He concludes as we mentioned at the outset, “And these matters are all called Haggadah.” So what is it to which Maimonides refers when he makes this conclusion, “And these matters are all called Haggadah”? What matters?



Two Forms of Haggadah

Rabbi Chait suggested that there are two forms of Haggadah. There is an informal retelling, and a formal retelling. This latter, formal retelling of the Exodus is what Maimonides refers to as “Haggadah.” The first 3 laws describe an informal guideline as to what “elements” must be incorporated, however, there is no set format. We simply must insure that the miracles are discussed, and done so on a level where our sons may comprehend. But in laws 4 and 5, Maimonides clearly describes texts, which must be read. And it is only in regards to a text, that the concept of listening and fulfilling makes sense. This complies with the Ran, that one reads for all others present. If one merely retells the story in his own words, he lacks in a complete retell of the Exodus. This is called an “Incomplete Mitzvah”. Therefore, one must also refer to texts to fulfill his “formal retell” of the Exodus. Thus, only in a formalized text may one achieve “listening is as if reciting”. This is because there is a discreet and precise “entity” - a formal text - there is a “prescribed vehicle” of fulfillment. But regarding an informal retelling of the Exodus, where one uses his own words, the concept of “listening is as if reciting”, or “Shomaya K’Oneh” cannot apply. For in this case, there is no universal “entity” of text prescribed by the Torah to fulfill one’s obligation. By definition, a subjective recital cannot function universally: that which is subjective is not universal.


This idea of a formal text, expresses the philosophy of the Torah; it is not a loose, subjective system, but a system that is well formulated with precision. A fixed text comprises the retelling of the Exodus for this reason. 



What are the ingredients in the formal text?

It includes the following: 1) commencing with degradation and conclusion with praise; 2) explaining from Laban’s attempt to annihilate us; and 3) Mitzvah’s of the night, i.e., Paschal lamb, Matza and Biter Herbs.


There are two forms of “commencing with degradation and conclusion with praise”: A) discussion of the elements, and B) studying at text. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik said that the very study of the commands is found in the Haggadah, as they contribute to the retelling of the Exodus. The command of retelling, itself, has its nature tied to the ‘reasons’ of the command. Thus, the laws of retelling actually form part of the command.


Why must we commence with our degradation? It is because if it is omitted, our retelling lacks in praise for God. The contrast created by discussing man’s lowly nature unveils greater praise, as God is that much more praiseworthy. This is the first “commencing with degradation and conclusion with praise”. However, we must note that we cannot praise God, that is a foolish idea, as man has no concept of God. This is why our praise surrounds “our” change in status, and not God.



The Mah Nishtanah

Rabbi Chait now asked on Maimonides’ formulation in law 3: “And it is required that one make (behavioral) changes in this night, in order that sons may see, and ask, and say, ‘why is this night different than all other nights?” Rabbi Chait asked why Maimonides added the phrase “and say”. Isn’t it sufficient that Maimonides writes, “and ask”? Why does Maimonides add the phrase”and ask, and say”? Additionally, if the child “says” the Mah Nishtanah, why must the reader recite it as well?


Rabbi Chait said that the night must commence with an idea: “this night is different”. Now, if there were a fixed answer, then one may simply state it. But here, there is no fixed answer; it is an “infinite” answer. Some questions have a single answer…but not so here. Here, the question about the difference of this night opens new worlds of answers of how different Passover is. The child must reach the point that he ‘says’… “How different is this night?!” This is not a question, but an exclamation. It is as if a child attends a circus for the first time, and says, “How great is this?!” The child is overawed. Here too during our retelling of the Exodus, the miracles, and God’s mercy in elevating us from idolatry and slavery to true monotheism and freedom, the child senses there is something different on Passover, something so grand that the child realizes it is incomparable. “Mah Nishtanah!”, “How Different?!”  Similarly, Jacob said the word “mah”: “Mah norah hamakome hazeh”, “How great is this place?!” when he awoke from the famous dream of the ladder and the angels. This must be the opening statement of the Haggadah – both the informal and formal retelling. This explains why the reader also states “Mah Nishtanah”…as he too is about to enter the infinite answer of how different this night is.


A child commences life with an attachment to pleasure. What we desire in relation to the Haggadah is to attract and allow expression of the child’s pleasure seeking nature – his pleasure should find expression and increase in the Haggadah. We desire this “What a difference” response. In general, me must not dissuade a child from enjoying pleasures, as this will retard his ability to experience pleasure in connection with Torah.