(Before the reading of the weekly portion)
Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the last of the four special shabbatot which precede Passover. By a quirk of the calendar, it comes very close--the seder is tonight.
It is called "Shabbat HaGadol", the sabbath of "the great" because of the last line of the Haftarah, at the end of the book of the prophet Malachi, which runs:
Actually, this is not the last line but the one before it, but it is repeated at the end, because you don't want the reading to end on a bad note, which is what you would otherwise get.
It discusses something rather unusual: the final day of judgement. Nowhere in the Torah is the final judgement mentioned, and in general, the idea of final judgement is not often found in Judaism, though it is brought up at greater length in the book of Joel, chapter 3.
But we find it here, and we are told, before it arrives, Elijah the prophet will appear--Elijah who never died, you may recall, but ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire. Elijah will now come and will close the generation gap--return the hearts of sons to their fathers, and the hearts of fathers to their sons, or else a terrible calamity may befall the land. We are not told more, but it is obviously a very important business.
In later years, Elijah was given other roles, and in particular, to settle unresolved questions of Jewish law. As we will later see, Elijah's tie to the seder comes directly from this.
And finally, Elijah is seen as messenger of the Messiah, for people reasoned, what else can the "great and terrible day" be, if not the coming of the Messiah? This is why we sing after the Havdalah (at least in the version I know)
The Passover Haggadah
Tonight is the seder, and I thought it may be of interest to discuss here some interesting points in the Haggadah which we all are going to read. I apologize here to all the experts who are already familiar with what I am going to say, and I hope you have brought Haggadoth with you, and also have your books with the weekly readings.
Start with the name--"Haggadah." What does it mean? (ask)
It means "the telling", because today we fulfil the commandment (Exodus, 13, v.8, p. 261):
"Higad'ta" and "Haggadah" come from the same root. But this is not the only place: the Torah commands us to tell our children about the deliverance from Egypt not just here, but in three other places, in each of them differently. Let us find them!
One page ahead (Exodus 13, v.14, p. 262) it says:
Well, the Haggadah leaves nothing to chance: the son is supposed to ask, and the Haggadah even prepares for him a set of four questions, which expand considerably on the simple "what is this?"
And when the son is finished, the Haggadah also has prepared the father's answer, traditionally recited as answer to the 4 questions, at the start of the Seder:
Third place--Exodus 12, v.26, p. 257 (repeated top p. 22)
And finally, Deuteronomy 6, v.20, p. 773--an important chapter which also contains the Shma' Yisrael.
Again, you have almost the same answer by the father, and the Haggadah takes words from here, too.
So you have four expressions of the same commandment to "tell our sons", but each worded differently. Why? Our sages, may their memory be blessed, looked for a reason, and found one: because there exist four different kinds of sons.
But most of us lacke such deep resources, so again the Haggadah steps in and provides a ready-made discussion (a "default version" in computer-speak), interrupted now and then with the kiddush over a glass of wine. Such a discussion is really all the Haggadah is supposed to do, which is why changes and additions are quite often incorporated. They belong to the style.
The text contains many interesting things, but we only have the time for two.
In Deuteronomy 20, v. 5, p. 859, we read about a ceremony of thanksgiving in the temple, centered on bringing the first fruits of the harvest. They are brought to the priest as an offering, in a basket, and the priest then recounts a quick capsule history of the Jewish people:
As you read the Haggadah, this section is completely taken apart, phrase by phrase, sometimes word by word. Each is discussed, each is given a special meaning.
There is only one glitch. Instead of "a wandering Aramean was my father"--meaning, Jacob--it is taken to mean "An Aramean sought to destroy my father" implying that Laban the Aramite tried to destroy Jacob. This is a switch between two words of the same root "aleph-bet-dalet", oved here translated "wandering" and literally meaning "lost", and me-abed meaning "destroyed", literally "causing to be lost."
I guess playing fast and loose with the language is part of the midrash game.
And finally, I promised to come back to Elijah. We pour a 5th cup for Elijah--why? Because one faction claimed that the seder should have five cups, not four. In Jewish tradition, undecided issues will all be decided by Elijah before the day of judgement, so we drink 4 and put a 5th cup on the table. If Elijah comes and tells us--not four but five--then we are ready.
But we also open the door. Why? (ask)
It has nothing to do with Elijah, and everything with the reading that follows, from Psalm 79. It is rather harsh:
In medieaval times, Christians claimed that Jews were here cursing their neighbors, and would use it as a pretext to attack families in the middle of the seder. So we open the door for a practical reason (which thanks God is mostly forgotten)--to make sure no enemy is standing outside and listening.
Well, I could go on and on, but we all still have a lot of preparation for the holiday. Chag Sameach, may you and your families have an enjoyable seder tonight.
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Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 9 June 2002