The Story of the Five Tanna’im

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Translated by David Strauss

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In memory of Pinhas ben Shalom (Paul) Cymbalista z”l
Niftar 20 Nissan 5752.
Dedicated by his family.
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These Pesach Shiurim are dedicated in memory of Sidney Gontownik, brother of Jerry Gontownik, on the occasion of Sidney's upcoming seventh Yahrzeit, on the 24th of Nissan. 
May his memory be for a blessing.
The Gontownik Family
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Dedicated in memory of 
HaRav HaGaon R. Chaim Heller zt"l,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 14th of Nissan,
by Vivian S. Singer.
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It happened that R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar ben Azarya, R. Akiva, and R. Tarfon were reclining [at a seder] in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the exodus from Egypt all that night, until their students came and said to them: “Our Masters! The time has come for reciting the morning Shema!”

R. Elazar ben Azarya said: I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night, until Ben Zoma explained it: It is stated: "That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life" (Devarim 16:3); now "the days of your life" refers to the days, [and the additional word] "all" indicates the inclusion of the nights.

The Sages, however, said: "The days of your life" refers to this world; and "all" indicates the inclusion of the days of Messiah.

Why in Bnei Brak?

The simple reason for including this story in the Pesach Haggada is that it serves as a continuation of the statement of the Haggada's narrator: "Even if we were all wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and every person who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy." This story serves as an example of five Sages who were wise and understanding and knew the Torah, and yet they discussed the exodus from Egypt at length.

But why did they all gather together on the night of the seder around one table? And why specifically in Bnei Brak? Bnei Brak was home to R. Akiva, and his yeshiva was located there as well (Sanhedrin 32b). The four other Sages were spending the seder at his table, and they conducted themselves in accordance with the halakha that follows R. Akiva in his disagreement with R. Elazar ben Azarya (Pesachim 120b):

"And they shall eat the flesh in that night" (Shemot 12:8). R. Elazar ben Azarya said: It is stated here: "In that night," and it stated below: "For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night." Just as there it means midnight, so here too [they may eat the Paschal-offering] until midnight.

R. Akiva said to him: Yet surely it is already stated: "[And you shall eat it] in haste" (Shemot 12:11) – [implying] until the time of haste. If so, what is taught by "in that night?" You might think that it can be eaten like [other] sacrifices, by day. Therefore it is stated: "In that night": it is eaten by night, but it may not be eaten by day.

According to R. Elazar ben Azarya, the time for eating the Paschal lamb (and with it the matza, the maror, and the telling of the story of the exodus) is until midnight, the hour when God smote the firstborns of Egypt. R. Akiva disagrees; according to him, the time of the special mitzvot that are to be performed on the night of the seder, including the mitzva of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, extends until the morning.

R. Abba explains the disagreement (Berakhot 9a):

R. Abba said: All agree that when Israel was redeemed from Egypt they were redeemed in the evening. As it is said: "The Lord your God brought you forth out of Egypt by night" (Devarim 16:1). But they did not actually leave Egypt until the daytime. For it is stated: "On the morrow after the Passover the children of Israel went out with a high hand" (Bamidbar 33:3). About what do they disagree? About the time of the haste. R. Elazar ben Azarya says: What is meant by "haste"? The haste of the Egyptians. And R. Akiva says: It is the haste of Israel.

According to R. Abba, the determining time is the time of haste, for it is stated about the Paschal-offering: "And you shall eat it in haste." R. Elazar understood that this refers to the haste of the Egyptians to send out the people of Israel – haste that began at midnight:

And it came to pass at midnight, that the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt… And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead. And he called for Moshe and Aharon by night and said, “Rise up, get you forth from among my people, both you and the children of Israel, and go, serve the Lord as you said…” And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, “We are all dead men!” (Shemot 12:29-33)

R. Akiva, on the other hand, understood that we are dealing with the haste of Israel to leave Egypt, and they only went out during the day:

And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day, it came to pass that all the host of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. (ibid. v. 41)

Since all the Tanna'im assembled together in Bnei Brak, they all acted – including R. Elazar ben Azarya – in accordance with the view of the local authority, R. Akiva, recounting the story of the exodus until morning.

When did the People of Israel go out of Egypt?

The disagreement between the Tanna'im could be understood as merely exegetical – to which haste is the Torah referring regarding the mitzva of eating the Paschal-offering, the haste of Egypt or the haste of Israel? But the words of R. Eliezer ben Azarya indicate that their disagreement runs much deeper:

R. Elazar ben Azarya said: I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night, until Ben Zoma explained it….

It is difficult not to see a connection between R. Elazar ben Azarya's position that the primary haste was at night and his statement in the Pesach Haggada that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night. R. Elazar ben Azarya appears to have understood that the essential exodus from Egypt took place at midnight, and not “on that selfsame day.” What is the foundation of this disagreement?

Two different principles might explain R. Elazar ben Azarya's position, each one sufficing on its own.

First of all, God's explicit intervention in the course of history took place at midnight, when He Himself, and not an angel or a messenger, came down to smite the firstborns of Egypt. At midnight, God revealed His mighty hand and outstretched arm. R. Elazar ben Azarya maintains, therefore, that it is that hour that marks the exodus from Egypt!

Second, it was at midnight that Pharaoh rose from his bed and publicly declared Israel's release from their bondage. Pharaoh and the Egyptians were Israel's masters, and the declaration of the release was their liberation. R. Elazar ben Azarya maintains that Israel's liberation took effect at midnight, and at that moment, the time for eating of the Paschal-offering came to an end.

R. Akiva, for whom everything depends on the hour of Israel's redemption, must disagree with both principles upon which R. Elazar's position could be based. R. Akiva maintains the even though God's mighty hand was revealed at midnight through the smiting of the firstborns, the time of redemption was only when the people of Israel themselves made haste to leave. Every miracle that God was to perform depended on the moment that the people of Israel would agree to contribute of their own to their redemption. Without action on the part of Israel, this was not yet redemption.

R. Akiva would also say that even though Pharaoh agreed to release the people of Israel already at midnight, the Hebrew slave was still liable to say: "I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free" (Shemot 21:5). Israel's making haste to leave Egypt should not be something trivial in our eyes! See how many times the people regretted their going out into the great and terrible wilderness, and how they yearned to return to Egypt. The redemption, according to R. Akiva, was not the great power of God, nor Egypt's agreement to liberate Israel, but rather Israel's hasty actions to leave Egypt to go to the land of their forefathers that God had promised them. Therefore, the time of the redemption was on that "selfsame day," in the morning, and until then one could continue to eat of the Paschal-offering and fulfill the mitzvot that accompanied it.

The four Tanna'im who joined R. Akiva in Bnei Brak agreed that night to follow in his view.

In Every Generation

It is difficult not to draw a connection between that seder night in Bnei Brak and the events that took place in the generation of those five holy Tanna'im, who lived in the period of the great uprising against the wicked rule of Hadrian in Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem, on the eve of the Bar Kokhva revolt.

In no way am I suggesting some cheap connection that would turn things upside down and make the seder night and its profound mitzvot mere camouflage for the problems of the hour. And in no way do I wish to imply that the whole gathering of the Sages on the night of the seder was to discuss the imminent revolt and the roles that they would play in it. Despite the acute problems of the hour, we do not believe that the Sages pushed aside the mitzvot of the night of the seder, about which they were commanded from Sinai, because of current problems, as important as they may have been.

It seems, however, that the Sages explained the principle that they themselves formulated – "In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt" – not the way we tend to explain it today. In order to fulfill this commandment, some of us don old clothes and imagine that we are living more than three thousand years ago, at the time of the exodus from Egypt. It seems to me that Chazal understood this statement as it was understood by the prophets: A person must continue to live in his own generation and occupy himself with the redemption of Israel in light of the problems of his own generation, but he must read the events of his time in light of the events of the exodus from Egypt and what surrounded it.

Let us give one of many possible examples from the Prophets. The prophet Yeshayahu describes the redemption that will arrive at the gates of Jerusalem during the days of Chizkiyahu. In the end, this redemption was realized in the angel of God, who smote the entire Assyrian army at the gates of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was thereby saved from destruction, and the Assyrian army retreated from the region for decades. The prophet describes Assyria's fall as a continuation of the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea:

And the Lord will utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea; and with His scorching wind will He shake His hand over the River, and will smite it into seven streams, and cause men to march over dry-shod. And there shall be a highway for the remnant of His people, that shall remain from Assyria, like as there was for Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.

And in that day you shall say… Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for God the Lord is my strength and song; and He is become my salvation… And in that day you shall say, Give thanks unto the Lord, proclaim His name, declare His doings among the peoples… (Yeshayahu 11:15-12:4)

Yeshayahu relates to his own time as if it were the time of the exodus from Egypt. He sees God's miracles in his own day as a continuation of the miracles of the exodus from Egypt, and even the prayer of thanksgiving that he describes is a continuation of the prayers of thanksgiving that those who left Egypt and their descendants were obligated to offer.[1]

It seems that this is the way that R. Akiva and his colleagues viewed their own times. They put their trust in God and prayed for His help in their time, in the manner that He was with His people at the time of the exodus from Egypt.

Hadrian's Decrees

We will touch upon the historical background of the five holy Tanna'im on the night that they sat to discuss the exodus from Egypt, as well as the prophecy of Mikha (7:15):

As in the days of your coming forth out of the land of Egypt will I show him wonders.

The Emperor Hadrian decided to bring an end to Judea's exceptionalism in the empire over which he ruled and to integrate its people culturally and mentally into the grand empire. There were many different ways that he could have tried to do this, but he chose two main ones.

Under the guise of an earlier Roman decree from the days of Emperor Domitian, Hadrian outlawed circumcision. The earlier decree was intended to prevent castration, an ancient practice that had spread throughout the empire. This earlier decree was fitting and welcome. Hadrian expanded it to include a ban on the mitzva of circumcision, which he forbade, as it were, for “humanitarian” reasons. It was clear to him that in this way he would blur Jewish identity and make it easier for him to cancel it altogether in a relatively short time.[2]

Hadrian also turned Jerusalem into a pagan city that was named after him, Aelia Capitolina (his full name was Aelius Hadrianus). He erected an image of himself on the Temple Mount, apparently on the site of the Temple itself.

There was no chance that the Jews would tolerate these two decrees and the threat that they posed to their Jewish identity. Slowly, with moderation and in stages, the revolt began to take shape. Underground tunnels were excavated, weapons and ammunition were stockpiled, and military training exercises were conducted. It is possible that during one of these years of preparation, the five Tanna'im gathered together on the night of the seder in Bnei Brak at the table of R. Akiva, whose position on the revolt was well-known.

Should We Rebel?

The five Tanna'im did not necessarily deal with military or strategic issues. It is more reasonable that they occupied themselves with the spiritual question that accompanied the revolt. To what extent was Israel permitted, at a time of bans on fundamental mitzvot, to rely on God's help and engage in an active rebellion? The historical comparison to the exodus from Egypt would be expected in light of the words of the prophets, but the dangers lying in such a comparison are many and great. The night of the seder was meant for such a discussion, as remembering the exodus from Egypt is in no way merely the distant past. Remembering the exodus from Egypt is an existential present!

On the one hand, the Torah explicitly commands that we derive confidence from the exodus from Egypt in times of war against the nations:

If you shall say in thy heart, “These nations are more than I; how can I dispossess them?” You shall not be afraid of them; you shall well remember what the Lord your God did unto Pharaoh, and unto all Egypt, the great trials which your eyes saw, and the signs, and the wonders, and the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, whereby the Lord your God brought you out. So shall the Lord your God do unto all the peoples of whom you are afraid. (Devarim 7:17-19)

But may we content ourselves with a simplistic comparison between two events, so distant and different one from the other? Did God give us a guarantee or a promise that He would help us in every situation, even when the people's service of God is faulty? Is a violent rebellion the only way to solve the problem of the decrees?

The five Tanna'im had much to discuss on the night of the seder, and presumably their discussions revolved around statements that they themselves had made: "In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt."

As stated, R. Akiva's support for Bar Kokhva and the rebellion against Hadrian is well-known. Perhaps this is the way to understand the statement regarding four of the five Sages:

Once again they were coming up to Jerusalem together, and just as they came to Mount Scopus, they saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies. They fell a-weeping, but R. Akiba seemed merry.

They said to him: Are you merry? He said: Why are you weeping? They said to him: A place of which it was once said, "And the common man that draws near shall be put to death" (Bamidbar 1:51), is now become the haunt of foxes, and should we not weep?!

He said to them: Therefore am I merry… Scripture linked the [later] prophecy of Zekharya with the [earlier] prophecy of Uriya. In the [earlier] prophecy [in the days] of Uriya, it is written: "Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field" (Mikha 3:12). In Zekharya it is written: "Thus says the Lord of hosts: There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem" (Zekharya 8:4). So long as Uriya's [threatening] prophecy had not had its fulfilment, I had misgivings lest Zekharya's prophecy might not be fulfilled; now that Uriya's prophecy has been [literally] fulfilled, it is quite certain that Zekharya's prophecy also is to find its literal fulfilment.

They said to him: Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!

Perhaps the "fox" is a designation for the idols that the Romans erected on the Temple Mount on the site of the Holy of Holies. Thus we find in the midrash:

"Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards" (Shir Ha-Shirim 2:15). R. Yudin said: "Little foxes" – these are Esav and her dukes. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 2:3)

R. Akiva's merriment and his optimistic exposition testify to his optimism on the eve of the outbreak of the revolt. R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua, and R. Elazar ben Azarya were drawn to the Temple Mount by R. Akiva's consolation and by the optimism that he radiated concerning the rebellion. R. Akiva believed that success depended on us, on Israel, on our efforts and our courage. If we arm ourselves with these tools, God too will come to our aid. He also viewed the exodus from Egypt, the day of liberation, as dependent more upon the question of what Israel would do than upon the question of what God would do or what Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, would do.

R. Elazar ben Azarya, who served as Nasi together with Rabban Gamliel, would regularly meet with Roman officials. Perhaps he thought that he would succeed in persuading them to ease Hadrian's decrees. Perhaps R. Elazar ben Azarya thought that liberty and independence entail, first and foremost, recognition by the world's powers of the Jewish People's right of self-determination, and he therefore considered negotiations with the emperor and his associates as preferable to war. He saw midnight, the time when Pharaoh recognized Israel's freedom, as the time to eat the Paschal-offering and fulfill the accompanying mitzvot, and this is also the way he saw his own period. Perhaps R. Elazar ben Azarya thought that they should wait for an overt sign of God's hand in His war against His enemies, as was seen at midnight in Egypt, before Israel acts on behalf of its freedom.

But R. Akiva argued against him that Israel's actions to advance their freedom are the will of God. The essence of Pesach is "that selfsame day." Three days before the Pesach in Egypt, all of Israel underwent circumcision, and now they are going out to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Similarly, in the days of Hadrian, when they underwent circumcision in the days of Ben Kuzeba or when they fought for their right to circumcise, they must go out to the Mount Sinai of their day to receive the Torah anew, and to further that end they must rise up against the enslaver of their day, Hadrian.

The seder was conducted at the table of R. Akiva, and it was his approach that carried the day. Bar Kokhva captured Jerusalem from the hands of the Romans, and he began to establish the kingdom of Israel. But owing to our sins, the hope of R. Akiva, the greatest Sage of Israel, proved to have been misplaced. The house of Israel and the people of God were doomed to the sword, and R. Akiva himself was sentenced to die with iron combs, with the Shema on his lips.

But R. Akiva's teachings did not fall:

Moreover, the wicked State once promulgated a decree against Israel concerning circumcision… It was taught: R. Shimon ben Elazar said: Every precept for which Israel submitted to death at the time of the royal decree, e.g., idolatry and circumcision, is still held firmly in their hands. (Shabbat 130a)

Circumcision was held firmly in the hands of the people of Israel through thousands of years of exile, and in all those years their ultimate dream remained Jerusalem:

To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem.


[1] The verse,"For God the Lord is my strength and song; and He is become my salvation," is a quote from a verse in the Song of the Sea: "The Lord is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation" (Shemot 15:2). And the verse, "Give thanks unto the Lord, proclaim His name," is a quote from a prayer of thanksgiving for the exodus from Egypt, brought in Tehillim 45: "O give thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name; make known His doings among the peoples… He sent Moshe His servant, and Aharon whom He had chosen… He smote also all the firstborn in their land, the first-fruits of all their strength. And He brought them forth with silver and gold…" 

[2] Regarding this decree, see Tosefta, Shabbat 15:9; Aelius Spartianus, Life of Hadrian