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How to Tell a Story: Two Approaches to Education in the Haggadah

What is the best way to have a Pesach Seder? What order should the Magid section- the retelling of the story of slavery and redemption- be told? Moshe Benovitz, Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, shares his insight on the matter. Bringing in opinions of different rabbis, Benovitz gives us tricks and hints on how to keep our Seder engaging for all ages.

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The rudiments of the Haggadah are found in the Tractate Mishnah Pesahim chapter 10. The Torah itself commands us a number of times to explain the significance of the Passover rituals to our children, and the earliest extant examples of this preserved in the Mishnah date from the years preceding or immediately following the destruction of the Temple. In describing the central part of the Seder known nowadays as Maggid (the telling), Mishnah Pesahim 10:4 says as follows:

They pour a second cup for him, and here the son questions his father. And if the son has insufficient understanding, his father teaches him. “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we dip once; on this night, we dip twice. On all other nights, we eat leavened and unleavened bread; on this night, only unleavened bread. On all other nights, we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled; on this night, only roasted.” And according to the son’s understanding, his father instructs him. He begins with shame and concludes with praise, and expounds from “My father was a wandering Aramean” until he completes the passage.

In the Mishnah, the child asks three, not the four questions (Mah Nishtanah) with which we are familiar from the Haggadah. Each question pertains to one of the required foods eaten at the Seder –the paschal lamb, matzah and maror. Why, asks the child, do we dip bitter herbs with haroset, in addition to the usual salad greens dipped in dressing?; and why do we eat exclusively unleavened bread?; and why do we eat exclusively roasted meat? The parent is to answer the child according to his or her level of intelligence, basing the answer on the first person summary of the story of the Exodus found in Deuteronomy 26:5-8, which he or she is to read and explain to the child.

That much is clear, but there is one curious line stuck in the middle of this Mishnah that is hard to understand. In telling the child the story of the Exodus, says the Mishnah, one should begin with shame and end with praise. מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח.
What does this mean? How can one tell the story of the Exodus without beginning with the bad, slavery, and ending with the good, freedom? The telling as related in the Torah, in Deuteronomy 26:5-8 clearly begins with shame and ends with praise, as would any coherent version of the exodus story.

The Talmudic Sage Samuel was correct in interpreting the shame mentioned in the Mishnah in its simplest sense, as the shame of slavery, and the praise as praise for the joy of freedom. But why should the Mishnah go to the trouble of instructing us to tell the story in order – wouldn’t anyone telling the Exodus as a story begin with the shame of slavery and end with the triumphant joy of freedom?

Let us leave that question aside for a minute and turn to the next Mishnah, Pesahim 10:5. After Mishnah 10:4 tells the parent to instruct the child on his own level, making sure to begin with shame and conclude with praise, until he completes the verses of the Deuteronomy narrative, Mishnah 10:5 continues:

Rabban Gamliel says: Whoever does not say the following three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: the paschal lamb, matzah, and bitter herbs. The paschal lamb, because the Omnipresent One passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt. Bitter herbs, because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt. Matzah, because our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.

At first glance, this Mishnah is even harder to understand than the previous one. The Torah commands us to tell our children the story of the Exodus on Passover, to eat the paschal lamb (at least when the Temple is around) with matzah and bitter herbs. If we tell the story and eat the foods, haven’t we already fulfilled all of these obligations? What does this Mishnah add? What does Rabban Gamliel mean when he insists that we say “the paschal lamb, matzah and bitter herbs”, and the little explanations associated with each?

To recap, we have two questions: Why does Mishnah 10:4 tell us to tell the Exodus story “beginning with shame and concluding with praise”? Is there any other way to tell the story? And: what is Rabban Gamliel talking about in Mishnah 10:5 when he warns us to say paschal lamb, matzah, and bitter herbs, or else we haven’t fulfilled our obligation? What obligation haven’t we fulfilled – if we ate the proper foods and told the story?

I think a single insight can answer both of these questions: Mishnah 10:4 and Mishnah 10:5 are really a single unit, which contains a disagreement about how to tell children the Passover story. Mishnah 10:4 explains that you must tell the story so that the child will understand it, on his own level, but you must also make sure to begin with shame and end with praise, that is, tell the story in order, and you must base the explanation on a specific biblical text, Deuteronomy 26:5-8.

Not so! says Rabban Gamliel. Don’t bother starting with a Biblical text, and don’t even bother to tell the story in chronological order. Doing so will not ensure that you fulfill the Biblical obligation to tell the story of the Exodus on Passover night. The best way to fulfill the obligation of והגדת לבנך, of telling the Passover story, is through the visual and gastronomic teaching aids found on the table, the paschal lamb, the matzah and the maror. The children must see, smell and taste the roasted offering, and you should use it as a trigger to talk about the highlight of the story, the fateful night on which God saved our firstborn. Smell and taste the maror, and tell of the bitter slavery that preceded that fateful night. Taste the matzah and talk about the Exodus that followed that fateful night. The order is not important, the coherence of the story is not important. Quoting all those Biblical verses is certainly not important, because the method essential to a successful telling, is building the story around the three foods that are actually on the table, the three foods that the child asked about in the Mishnaic version of Mah Nishtanah!

Moreover, as if to better illustrate the point, Rabban Gamliel’s three responses are found in two slightly differently versions. The printed editions of the Mishnah and our Haggadah present the order as Pesach, Matzah and Maror. However, some manuscript (medieval) versions of the Mishnah have the order Pesach, Maror and Matzah. In both versions, the story starts in the midst of the drama, with the events of midnight on Passover, the blood on the doorposts, the consumption of the paschal offering, the slaying and rescue of the firstborn. In our version, it moves on to tell of the subsequent Exodus from Egypt, and then backtracks to the background of the story – the bitter slavery. In the manuscripts, after starting with the climax of the story, midnight on Passover, we backtrack to the background, and then zoom forward to the exodus and freedom. Neither of the versions tells the story in order, and neither starts with shame and ends with praise. One version starts with the miracles – the rescue and the exodus, and leaves the bad stuff, slavery, for last; the other starts with the highlight, flashes back, and ends at the end.

After the child asks questions about the food on the table, Mishnah 10:4 has us lecture him on the Passover story: Teach each child on his or her own level, make sure to begin at the beginning and end at the end – chronologically from shame to praise.

In Mishnah 10:5, one can almost hear Rabban Gamliel’s frustration in his retort to this approach: He says to the unnamed sage (tanna kama) presenting Mishnah 10:4, your child asked you about maror, matzah and the paschal lamb – and you didn’t answer his questions! You claim to be teaching him on his own level, but your answer is a pre-packaged, pat, intellectual response that does not fulfil the central obligaton of the evening, והגדת לבנך – educate your child! You failed in the number one rule of education, you didn’t listen. To teach your child you have to listen to what he is asking– to keep his interest you have to be responsive. Don’t worry about the order in which you tell the story – eventually the child will get the point. Don’t bore the child with Biblical verses; build the story around the food; hit the highlight first, then flashback or progress as you see fit. The only relevant factor is keeping the child excited and interested. If you lecture the child, rather than engaging the child and answering his or her questions, you have not fulfilled your obligation.

The unnamed Sage apparently found this psychodynamic approach too liberal for his taste. The reasoning: the child might find it more interesting, but if you start by talking about the rescue of the firstborn, and then move on to a discussion about slavery and freedom or freedom and slavery, you may excite the child’s imagination, but you will only confuse him as to the storyline itself, and you are not teaching him Torah. Try to keep it on his level, but stick to the narrative as retold in Deuteronomy!

The idea that Mishnah 10:4 and Mishnah 10:5 are actually a dispute between Sages enables us to understand the phrases we found difficult in each. The unnamed Sage presenting the Mishnah insists on a telling in chronological order, beginning with shame and ending with praise, because Rabban Gamliel tells us to ignore chronology in favor of highlights and flashbacks. What does Rabban Gamliel mean when he says you have not fulfilled your obligation if you don’t say pesach, matzah and maror? He means that in his view the lengthy chronological exposition of the Exodus story based on verses in Deuteronomy 26 does not fulfill the obligation of והגדת לבנך, because you have not answered his or her questions, which were about food.

The editor of our Haggadah combined the two educational approaches, which were originally mutually exclusive: after our children ask the Mah Nishtanah, we answer them by telling the Exodus story in order, beginning with shame and ending with praise and expounding Deuteronomy 26, verses 5-8. After that lengthy narrative full of verses from the Torah, we now pay lip service to the “relate to what’s on the table” approach by reciting Rabban Gamliel’s three explanations in answer to the Mah Nishtanah, but by this time, Rabban Gamliel’s point has been lost. The children are no longer paying attention. They are bored or hungry or may be asleep, and in any case, we have already told the story chronologically, so there is little to add by repeating the story out of order.

Ultimately, the editors of the Haggadah opted for the unnamed Sage’s standard of coherence over Rabban Gamliel’s insistence on engaging in dialogue and experiential learning. However, in some cases it might be a good idea for the leader of the Seder to change the order of Maggid section, moving the Rabban Gamliel passage right up to the beginning, hitting the story highlights right after the Mah Nishtanah while everyone is still alert, then return to Avadim Hayinu and the consecutive narrative based on Biblical verses.

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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