Friday, April 11, 2008

כל המרבה לספר: New Things I Have Learned for this Pesach

From Rabbi David Silber (of Drisha):

--The two sets of Biblical verses that comprise the core of the Haggadah, ארמי אובד אבי (Arami Oved Avi) and עבדים היינו (Avadim Hayinu), are both taken from the book of Dvarim rather than Shmot. Why? We would expect to be focusing on the exodus, that is, on Exodus! No, the focus of the seder is not the story itself, but the telling of the story. Dvarim is the book of remembrance, in which Moshe narrates the exodus for the people – a project more similar to our own on Leyl Haseder.

--The wise and the wicked children basically ask the same question, but they ask it with a different attitude. The wise child essentially asks, "I am sure there must be meaning to Pesach – but what is it?" The wicked child, on the other hand, asserts, "I'm sure there is no meaning to this Pesach you are doing." Thus the wise child merits a detailed explanation of the meaning of the seder, while the wicked child is told only (in the sternest of teeth-blunting terms) that the seder does indeed have meaning.

From Rabbi Benny Lau (of Beit Knesset Ramban):

--Of the wicked child, it is said: "And since he excluded himself from the community, he blasphemed against the very essence." What is that very essence of our tradition? That no one should remove himself from the community.

From Professor Avigdor Shinan (of Hebrew University):

--Over the course of the first 800 years of the Common Era, the haggadah got its form as we know it, taking shape mostly in the seventh and eighth centuries.
--The piyut "קדש ורחץ" (Kadesh Urchatz) dates back to eleventh century France. The final stage of the seder here is Nirtza, which is the only future-oriented stage. (All the others look to the past, concerned as they are with remembering and retelling the exodus.) A few of the six piyutim of the Nirtza, the final step, are discussed below.

--The piyut "חסל סידור פסח" (Chasal Sidur Pesach) is actually the last part of a much longer piyut composed in northern France in the eleventh century by Rabbi Yosef Tuv Elem. He wrote this piyut not for Pesach but rather for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach, when it was customary to read most of the haggadah at minchah. And thus "כאשר זכינו לסדר אותו" )Ka'asher zachinu l'sader oto( refers to that which is learned in shul (i.e. the learning about the seder), and ken nizkeh la'asoto refers to that which will be enacted a few days later at home (i.e. the seder itself). It is only we who study this piyut out of context who think it refers to the present day and the future redemptive era! Moreover, the line "לשנה הבאה בירושלים" (Lashana Haba'ah B'yerushalayim) was added much later, in the seventeenth century; with "הבנויה" (Habnuya) added at the turn of the twentieth century as Zionism gained force.

--The piyut "ויהי בחצי הלילה" (Vayehi Bachatzi Halayla) was written in the fifth/sixth century by the famous paytan, Yannai. It was written not for the Seder, but rather for the Shabbat on which we read the verses from the Torah about the night of the Exodus (found for us in Parshat Bo Exodus 12:29). The piyut was written as a lead-in to the Kedusha. Thus it enumerates the many miracles performed for God's chosen people at night, including Avraham's Brit ben Hab'tarim and Jacob's wrestling with the angel. It concludes with extolling the glory of God, and by extension His angels, who rise on their feet and sing "Kadosh, kadosh."

--The piyut Chad Gadya, written in grammatically incorrect Aramaic (for example, d'zabin means to sell, whereas to buy is zaven), first appeared in haggadot in Prague at the end of the sixteenth century. It too, has bafflingly little to do with Pesach, and was probably inserted into the seder to keep young children awake until the end. Although many explanations have been posited, folklorists have found parallels in all cultures, suggesting it is probably more universal than some of us would like to think.

--The piyut "אחד מי יודע"(Echad Mi Yodea) also had nothing to do with Pesach at its inception. After all, none of the numbers are identified with anything Pesach related – even ten is not the ten plagues, but rather the ten commandments! This piyut was written as a polemic against the Christian world. You Christians say there are three gods? No, there's just one! You say there is one father? Nope, there were three! And even: You say conception happens immaculately? Nope, it takes nine months! Although originally written with 12 verses, a thirteenth was later added to serve as further polemic – in Christianity, thirteen may be an unlucky number (consider the number of attendants at the last supper) but in Judaism, thirteen is especially lucky (bar mitzvah, the midot of God, etc).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

fascinating! thanks for these.


8:23 AM  
Blogger BZ said...

The piyut Chad Gadya, written in grammatically incorrect Aramaic (for example, d'zabin means to sell, whereas to buy is zaven)

This part isn't necessarily incorrect - it could be just different variations of what the song means, so some versions say that my father bought a goat, while other versions say that my father sold a goat. It still parses either way.

2:39 PM  

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