Tag Archives: Seder

Mysteries of the Haggadah

The Passover Haggadah is one of the most ancient compilations of Jewish text. Its core goes back to the Mishnaic era (1st-2nd Century CE), and it came to its final version, more or less as we know it today, about 1000 years ago. The Sages filled the Haggadah with profound secrets and mysteries, giving people both young and old much to meditate and reflect on. In fact, we read in the Haggadah at the very beginning that although “we are all wise, discerning, sage, and knowledgeable in Torah”, it is still a mitzvah for each person to plunge into the Exodus story and uncover its secrets, and to share one’s thoughts and interpretations with others. Not surprisingly, the Sages embedded many such secrets and mysteries in the Haggadah itself. A small sample of them are presented below.

The Sefirot of Mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the Middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

The statement that we are all wise [chakhamim], discerning [nevonim], and knowledgeable [yodi’im], is a clear allusion to the upper three Sefirot of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at. The same verse also says we are all zkenim, literally “elders”, which is strange because obviously not everyone around the seder table is an elder! What does this really mean? We must remember that Da’at is only the inverse and the application of the highest Sefirah, Keter. There are, in fact, four mental faculties: Keter, Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at, or willpower, information, understanding, and applied knowledge, respectively. (The Arizal actually teaches that these four are the reason the head tefillin has four compartments!) Now we can understand the purpose of inserting zkenim in the Haggadah: The highest Keter reflects the “face” of God known as Atik Yomin, the “Ancient of Days” (a term that comes from Daniel 7:22). This is the “elder” zaken in the Haggadah’s phrasing. All four mental faculties are stimulated at the seder, just as the tefillin stimulates all four.

The Haggadah continues by saying it is a mitzvah for us to lesaper, speak at length about the Exodus. Speech corresponds to the bottom of the Sefirot, Malkhut. And what of the six Sefirot in the middle? The Haggadah goes on to tell us that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were all celebrating Pesach together one year. The teachings of these Mishnaic sages formed the core of the Haggadah text itself. They can be said to correspond to the six middle Sefirot (which are collectively called Zeir Anpin, and parallel the realm of Yetzirah, literally “formation”). You might ask: but wait, that’s only five rabbis—where is the sixth? The Haggadah itself answers: “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said to them: ‘Behold, I am like a man of seventy years, but I never merited to understand why the story of the Exodus is told at night until Ben Zoma expounded…’” The great Shimon ben Zoma is hiding here, too!

Recall that Ben Zoma is a contemporary and colleague of these wisemen, and even ascended up to the heavenly Pardes alongside Rabbi Akiva (Chagigah 14b). An amazing chiddush (that belongs to my wife) is that we can parallel the “Four Who Entered Pardes” with the Four Sons of the Haggadah: The wise one is undoubtedly Rabbi Akiva—the only one able to enter and exit Pardes in peace. The wicked one is, of course, Elisha ben Avuya who became the apostate Acher and traitorously joined the Romans. He totally separated himself from the Jewish community, so he said: “‘What is this service to you?’ To you and not to him.” The Passover service was no longer relevant to him. Hak’heh et shinav, Acher needed to have his teeth blunted! Then we have “the simple one” or “innocent” one, Ben Azzai, the bachelor who never married, and simply “gazed” at the Divine Presence only to immediately perish, his soul never returning back to Earth. Finally, the one who doesn’t know how to ask is Ben Zoma. Recall that upon his return from Pardes, Ben Zoma was thought to have gone “mad”, unable to converse with regular human beings or keep up a discussion with the Sages. Ben Zoma, quite literally, could no longer “ask”!

The Sages of the Haggadah were deeply contemplating the past redemption of Pesach, but also the future redemption of Mashiach. We find that much of the seder is centered around not ancient events, but forthcoming ones. This is, of course, evident from the concluding part of the seder with a wish for next year’s Pesach to be in a rebuilt Jerusalem, with a rebuilt Holy Temple, where we can properly bring a korban pesach. It is the deeper meaning behind reciting dam esh v’timrot ‘ashan, “blood, fire, and columns of smoke”—spilling a drop of wine for each—which actually comes from the prophet Joel’s vision of the End of Days (Joel 3:3). We are not talking here about the past miracles and plagues in Egypt, but the future signs and miracles that we await! The same goes for pouring a fifth cup for Eliyahu, with a prayer that Eliyahu returns speedily to usher in the Messianic Age. And this is the secret meaning behind those cryptic words we recite: sh’fokh hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ukha! “Spill Your wrath upon the nations that don’t know you!” (Psalms 79:6)

Redemption & the War Against Rome

To fully understand the Haggadah, we have to keep in mind that its core was composed in the Mishnaic era, and the undisputed adversary and oppressor of the Jewish people at the time was the Roman Empire. In fact, Rabbi Akiva would end up being martyred at the hands of the Romans. And this connects to an incredible idea that has been proposed to explain that strange episode in the Haggadah where the five chief rabbis are getting together on Pesach. We must ask: why are the rabbis sitting together all night? Where are their families? The Torah commands that one must celebrate Pesach with family, and make sure to instruct one’s children and grandchildren. It seems here in the Haggadah that the five rabbis are alone, confined to a room until the morning when “their students came and said: the time for the morning Shema has arrived!” Even their own disciples were not with them at the seder. What’s going on?

We must remember that Rabbi Akiva’s generation lived at the time of the Bar Kochva Revolt. Rabbi Akiva himself supported Bar Kochva, and believed the latter to be the potential messiah of the generation:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: “My rabbi, Akiva, used to expound that ‘A star shall emerge out of Jacob…’ [Numbers 24] is Bar Koziva… when Rabbi Akiva would see Bar Koziva, he would say: ‘He is the King Messiah!’ Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta would say to him: ‘Akiva, grasses will grow out of your cheeks and still the Son of David will not come!’” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 24a)

Bar Kochva did indeed get very far in the war, managing to expel the Romans (albeit temporarily), re-establishing a sovereign Jewish state (and minting his own coins), even clearing the Temple Mount and starting to rebuild the Beit haMikdash. This would not have been possible without Rabbi Akiva’s support. Unfortunately, the war ended in disaster, with 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students killed, along with Rabbi Akiva himself.

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

When exactly did Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues make the decision to support the revolt against Rome? This certainly would not have been an easy call to make. It would require all the chief rabbis of the time to get together and deliberate carefully. And, according to Rabbi Dr. Ronald Eisenberg (Essential Figures in the Talmud, pg. 16) this is precisely what they did on that Pesach night where they were all together. Confined in a room with no one else around, they stayed up all night to come to a verdict. The students arrived in the morning and said: Time’s up! Do we revolt or not? And what did the rabbis answer? They quoted that last part of the Haggadah: sh’fokh hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ukha! “Spill Your wrath upon the nations that don’t know you!” This was the signal to go to war against Rome. And we do know that the main part of the war subsequently took place between Pesach and Shavuot (Yevamot 62b), which is why we still observe a mourning period during this time today. All the puzzle pieces add up neatly to explain this Haggadic mystery.

The Sh’fokh verse in the Darmstädter Haggadah (c 1430)

Bar Kochva wished to throw off the oppressive and idolatrous Roman yoke. In supporting him, the rabbis were hoping to usher in the Messianic Age. It was Nisan, the month of Redemption; and Pesach, the holiday of geulah. And those same Sages taught: b’nisan nigalu, u’b’nisan atidin liga’el, “In Nisan we were redeemed, and in Nisan we are destined to be redeemed again.” (Rosh Hashanah 11a) This was the maxim of Rabbi Yehoshua—the very same Rabbi Yehoshua of the Haggadah, sitting and deliberating with his colleagues all night on that fateful Pesach. It seemed the time was ripe for redemption. The Vilna Gaon taught (as relayed in Kol haTor) that Bar Kochva really was the potential messiah of the generation (otherwise, Rabbi Akiva surely would never have supported him!) Unfortunately, the potential wasn’t realized.

Nonetheless, that same potential exists in every generation, just as there is a potential messiah in every generation. The power to bring the Redemption is in our hands. It takes two things: proper Torah observance and true repentance on the one hand, as well as a collective “Mashiach mass-consciousness” on the other. Rabbi Akiva’s generation had the former, but not the latter. This is evident from the Yerushalmi passage above, where Rabbi Akiva was constantly declaring publicly that Bar Kochva was the messiah—to spread that “Mashiach mass-consciousness”—yet other rabbis were quashing people’s hopes and telling them to stop dreaming, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta did.

In this difficult time that we are currently in—where all of the prophecies have already been fulfilled and there are none left to await—let’s make sure we do both, and finally bring about the Geulah.

Wishing everyone a chag Pesach kasher v’sameach!

How Long Were the Israelites Actually In Egypt?

Bo chronicles the final events in the exodus from Egypt. We read about the final three plagues (locust, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn), the first Passover night, and at last, the liberation of the Israelites. Here, we are told that the Israelites left Egypt after having dwelled there for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). However, Jewish tradition (based on counting up all the years mentioned in the Torah) holds that the Israelites were only in Egypt for 210 years! To further complicate things, God had prophesized to Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). So, which is it? Were the Israelites in Egypt for 430 years, 210 years, or 400 years? There appears to be a simple answer to this question, and is the one most commonly cited. However, upon closer examination, this explanation breaks down entirely, and the real answer becomes much harder to find.

The Simple Answer

Let’s begin with the simple answer. Rashi’s commentary on the verse in question is that the Israelites were indeed in Egypt for only 210 years, since this is the sum one comes to when counting the lifespans of Jacob, Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses. According to this chronology, the Israelites lived prosperously in Egypt for 116 years. By this point, Jacob and his sons (the original immigrants) had all passed away, and a new pharaoh ascended to power in Egypt. Envious of Israelite prosperity and success, and suspicious of their populous numbers, the new pharaoh began instituting various anti-Semitic laws. Tradition holds that this period of segregation and persecution lasted thirty years, after which the Israelites were formally enslaved. Thus, the Israelites were slaves for 86 years. The year of their enslavement corresponds to the year of Miriam’s birth, hence her name, which (according to one explanation) literally means “very bitter”.* Moses was born six years later, and liberated the Israelites when he was eighty.

Rashi states that since 400 or 430 years in Egypt is impossible, one must assume that by “dwelling” and “sojourning”, the Torah refers to all the dwellings and sojourning since the time of Abraham. Rashi points out that if one counts back 400 years from the Exodus, one comes to the year that Isaac was born. Another thirty years before that was when Abraham beheld the “Covenant of the Parts”, and received the prophecy that his descendants will be slaves and foreigners for 400 years. Therefore, when the Torah states that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, it is going all the way back to Abraham’s Covenant, which happened exactly 430 years earlier. And when God told Abraham his descendants would be slaves for 400 years, He literally meant all of Abraham’s descendants, starting with his first son, Isaac, born thirty years later. This explanation seems to work, at least when reinterpreting the definition of what it means to be “enslaved” and what it means to be “in Egypt”.

However, even Rashi is unhappy with this answer. He says that one has no choice but to accept this explanation al karchacha, literally “against one’s will”. He finishes by saying that this was one of the things that the Sages edited when translating the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy. (Recall that over two millennia ago, Ptolemy gathered seventy rabbis, put them in separate guarded rooms, and forced them to translate the Torah into Greek. Despite their separation, all seventy rabbis produced the exact same translation, making the exact same amendments where necessary, to make the text more palatable to the Greeks. This text became known as the Septuagint, because of the seventy rabbis. According to Yalkut Shimoni, there were seventy-two rabbis, and they made fifteen changes to the text, one of which is the duration of the Israelites’ dwelling in Egypt.)

The Problem with the Simple Answer

Aside from the fact that the Israelites were slaves for 86 years, not 400, and that the Torah states that they dwelled specifically in Egypt for 430 years, and not elsewhere, there is a much more pronounced problem with the simple answer. If we say that the 430 figure comes from the moment when Abraham first received the prophecy, that means that Abraham got it thirty years before Isaac was born, which means Abraham was seventy years old at the time (since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100). However, the Torah tells us that Abraham only came to the land of Israel for the first time when he was 75 (Genesis 12:4). Sometime after this, he descended to Egypt because of a famine, then returned to Israel. Years later, he participated in the war against the Mesopotamian kings (Genesis 14). It is only following this war that the Torah states, “After these things the word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision…” (Genesis 15:1). And it was in this vision that Abraham received the prophecy of 400 years. It is therefore impossible that he was seventy years old at that time! In fact, the very next chapter speaks of the birth of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son through Hagar, who was born when Abraham was 86. Based on this, some commentaries suggest the Covenant of the Parts happened when Abraham was 85 or 86 years old.

So, we may accept the figure of 400 years starting with Isaac, but where did 430 come from? In lieu of a historical answer, we may have to delve into more mystical literature.

The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. To continue reading, get the book here

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

“No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…”

– Winston Churchill

Chanukah is perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakhah of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of frog legs, crabs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons—soon to be known as the “Maccabees”—started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 60,000 troops, together with war elephants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (4:28-29). The Maccabee forces managed to scramble 10,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 10,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with elected officials sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some sources). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Persia (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions appear to have even found their way into Jewish holidays. In ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left—sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (epikomon, literally “that which comes after” or “that which comes last”, referring to either dessert or the concluding festive songs).

While the ancient Greeks certainly held onto a number of abhorrent beliefs and practices, to suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek titles, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly defeated the immoral and oppressive Seleucid Greeks in battle, but definitely not the Greek spirit as a whole. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our Sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being true to ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.

[This is part one of a three-part series. See here for part two.]

The article above is adapted from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!