Skip to main content

The Order of the Seder

Alumni and Students
Text file

by Dr. Shimon Gesundheit, alumnus 1980, Prof. Emeritus in the Faculty of Humanities, Hebrew University

[This is a modified form of an article originally published in "Alon Shvut" & "Daf Kesher".]

Anyone paging through the Haggada seeking some sort of logical structure is led to ask, "What order is there in the Seder?" ("Ma ha-seder she-baseder?")

We shall not simply accept the opinion that since the Haggada is made up on several 'layers' of text from different periods - pesukim from Tanakh, sections from mishna, halakhic and narrative midrashim, prayers and hymns (see Daniel Goldschmidt, Introduction to the Pesach Haggada, Mosad Bialik, Jerusalem 5737), it's pointless to search for coherent unified structure.

We shall attempt to prove that there is a four part structure to the Haggada, aimed at adapting the content to the educational objective of "ve-higadeta" ("And you shall tell"). We will both analyze the structure of the material presented in the Haggada itself, and draw from sources in the 10th perek of Pesachim.

In two separate places in the Haggada we find groups of questions: There are the four questions of "MahNishtana" (parallel version to be found in the gemara, Pesachim 116), and there are the questions posed by the four sons to whom the Torah addresses itself (parallel versions in the Mekhilta Bo, chapter 18 and Jerusalem Talmud 10, 2). We may gain an understanding of the significance of the questions in the Seder from the following story [Pesachim 115b]:

Why do we remove [what is on] the table? The school of R. Yannai taught, "So that the children will notice and ask." Abaye was sitting before Rabba and saw the tray being taken up from before him. He said to them, "We have not yet eaten, and they have already come and taken the tray from before us!" Rabba said to him, "You have exempted us from [the requirement of] reciting 'Ma Nishtana'!"

A simple understanding of the gemara (leaving aside for the time being the specific issue of "So that the children...") would suggest that the question and the curiosity themselves prepare the questioner to receive some type of response, even if there is no connection between the content of the question and that of the answer. In other words - a person in a situation of curiosity is comparable to a plowed field, ready for sowing, in his readiness to absorb information.

Hence it is understandable that "Ma Nishtana" is situated at the beginning of the Haggada, immediately following the Aramaic invitation to the Seder, which is "Ha Lachma Anya...." The second group of questions, i.e. those posed by the four sons, is also at the beginning of the Haggada - the beginning according to Rav, as is clear from Pesachim 116: Mishna: "We commence with shame and conclude with praise..." Gemara: "What is 'with shame'? Rav says, "Mi- techila...." [Originally our forefathers were idolaters...], and Shmuel says "Avadim Hayinu..." [We were slaves...].

Adjacent to the above difference of opinion between Rav and Shmuel, the gemara recounts the following story:

Rav Nachman asked his slave, Daru: "When a master frees his slave and gives him gold and silver, what should he say to him?" He replied, "He should praise and thank him." He said, "You have exempted us from reciting 'Ma Nishtana.'" And he commenced by reciting 'Avadim Hayinu.'

The closing words of the story are surprising. Why is the slave exempt from reciting "Ma Nishtana?" After all, he didn't ask a single question, as opposed to the previous story, which is found one page earlier in the gemara. [Rav Kasher presents proof (Haggada Sheleima, p. 34) that these words found their way to this page by mistake, having originally been situated on the previous page (115b).] In any event, two important principles are to be gained from this story with regard to the pedagogic theme of the Haggada:

1. A Jew is obligated to identify himself with the historical event of the Exodus from Egypt:

How [do we achieve this]? If he is slow-witted then he [his father] must say to him "My son, in Egypt we were all slaves just like that maid-servant there, or that man- servant, and that night the Holy One blessed be He redeemed us and took us out, to freedom." And if the son is great and wise then he informs him as to what happened to us in Egypt, and the miracles performed by Moses our teacher, according to the son's level of comprehension. [Rambam, Hilkhot Chametz U-matza (7:2)]

2. Stemming from genuine historic awareness a person will seek to express his thanks and will praise his Redeemer.

Hence there are three central ingredients of the Haggada --questions, story, thanks and praise. Let us examine how the Haggada is built around them:

Ha Lachma Anya

According to Shmuel According to Rav

Questions: Ma Nishtana Four Sons

1) Story: Avadim Hayinu Mi-techila Ma'aseh BeRabi Eliezer Amar R. Elazar

(2) Thanks & praise: Barukh Ha-Makom Barukh Shomer

(1) StoryArami Oved Avi Ten Plagues Explanations by Tana'im regarding Splitting of the Red Sea

(2) PraiseDayenu & Thanks

1) StoryRabban Gamliel: Anyone who hasn't mentioned three things...

(2) PraiseHallel & Thanks

It comes as no surprise that the Haggada is divided into four sections, since that number is central to the Seder. But beyond that, the FIRST TWO sections parallel each other, according to the views of both Rav and Shmuel. Rabbeinu Chananel: "Nowadays we follow both of them." [Pesachim 116]. According to other opinions among the Rishonim, each has his own opinion but they do not contradict each other: Either both agree that we have to recite both portions, and the debate centers around which should come first, or otherwise the second adds to what was said by the first and says that in addition we must recite "Avadim Hayinu". (cf. summary of all the different opinions in the Haggada Sheleima of Rav Kasher, pp. 23-26).

As mentioned above, at the beginning of the Seder there must be a question, as preparation for fulfillment of the mitzvah of recounting the Exodus from Egypt. Juxtaposed with the story are thanks and praise as a natural, immediate reaction, as we learned from the example of Daru, the slave of Rav Nachman. The parallel expressions ("Barukh Ha- Makom... Barukh Shomer...) further emphasize the parallel nature of the two sections.

The content of the THIRD section returns to the set order of the Haggada, i.e. Story - praise and thanks, but this time we adopt a different pedagogic strategy: The father teaches his son according to his level. This time what is presented is not a short, abstract message ("Avadim Hayinu" or "Mi-techila") but rather, as we are instructed by the mishna [Pesachim chapter 10 mishna 4], a person is obligated to "delve into" the pesukim from the Torah, starting from "Arami Oved Avi" until the end of that parasha

Clearly this method seeks to make the content tangible by drawing all the information possible from the pesukim whose words are familiar to all. It is no coincidence that these particular pesukim from Sefer Devarim were chosen, rather than the narrative from Sefer Shemot. The style of these pesukim, which are included in the vidui bikkurim [recitation by the farmer upon bringing his first fruits to the Beit Ha-mikdash] is quite easy and simple, and the words are well known by the whole nation. Moreover, by delving into these pesukim we make the meaning of each word tangible by using dramatic pesukim taken from their authentic source in the story of the exodus in Sefer Shemot, and we illustrate the scene most vividly.

This section, too, begins with shame and ends with praise in the same way that the two previous sections are organized. But while the principal difference between Rav and Shmuel is that one describes spiritual enslavement ("Mi- techila") while the other desphysical slavery ("Avadim Hayinu"), the section of "Arami Oved Avi" includes both the physical and spiritual enslavement, and both political and spiritual freedom.

The FOURTH section starts with the words of Rabban Gamliel: "Anyone who has not mentioned these three things on Pesach..." [Pesachim chapter 10, mishna 5]. In the previous section the narrative element was emphasized more than it was in the first two sections, but here it is truly experienced: not through a short abstract message and not through explanations of pesukim, but rather simply by looking at the table and explaining the significance of the central ingredients of the Seder.

The Haggada summarizes [mishna 5] as follows: "In each generation a person must see himself...." This is the essence and purpose of the entire narrative foundation which we have seen in the Haggada. At the same time we find the eternal connection between historical awareness and the expression of thanks and praise, which is expressed here in Hallel and the culmination of all the expressions of praise and thanks in the Haggada: "Lefikhakh....[Therefore we are obligated to thank...]....!"

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!