The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 13 April 2019 / 8 Nisan 5779

Pesach: Telling the Story

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Kaddish

Haggadah — giving contemporary relevance to a historical narrative

The cornerstone of the Passover Seder is the fulfillment of the Torah’s commandment, “And you shall tell your sons… ‘G-d performed for me, when I came out of Egypt.’” (Ex. 13:8) The verb used for “tell” is vehigadeta. The Passover Haggadah is thus aptly named, as is Maggid, the section of the Haggadah which deals with the story of the Exodus, for both words share a root with vehigadeta. One would expect Rabbinic literature to call this commandment vehigadeta, or haggadah; yet, the rabbis tend to refer to this commandment as sippur yetziat Mitzrayim (literally, “the telling of the Exodus [from] Egypt”).

What is the difference between the verbs lesaper (from which sippur is derived), and maggid/lehagid (from which haggadah is derived)? Nachmanides (to Deut. 26:3) seems to equate these two verbs, thus assuming that they are perfect synonyms. However, as we shall see, most commentators understand differently. In this first part we will focus on the term haggadah and its implications. In the next part we turn our focus to sippur.

When G-d told Moshe to prepare the Jewish People to receive the Torah, He told him, “So shall you say to the House of Yaakov, and tell (tageid) to the Sons of Israel.” (Ex. 19:3) Rashi explains that Moshe was supposed to present the topic forcefully and “tell” (tageid) the Jewish men about the Torah’s detailed expectations, and the punishments for those who fail to meet them. Rashi explains that the word tageid (a cognate of haggadah)is related to the word gid (“sinew”) and denotes something strong and durable, not soft and fluffy. From this we see that haggadah refers to presenting an idea in a strong, assertive way.

There is another aspect of haggadah/maggid that we can derive from its usage in the Bible. We find throughout the Bible that cognates of haggadah are used specifically when discussing information which was not known before it was revealed. For example, when Adam expressed his embarrassment at being naked, G-d asked him, “Who told (higid) you that you are naked?” (Gen. 3:11) Similarly, when Esther refused to divulge her origins and family, the word used is magedet. (Esther 2:20) The act of giving testimony is also described as haggadah (Lev. 5:1), because the witnesses present the court with new information. In accordance with these sources, Ibn Ezra (to Ex. 19:9) writes that haggadah refers specifically to saying something new which has not yet been told.

Interestingly, Radak in Sefer HaShorashim also writes that haggadah/maggid refers specifically to telling something new, and explains that the root of the word is NUN-GIMMEL-DALET (neged), meaning “opposite.” Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), and Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) all explain that when one tells his friend something new he presents it “opposite” (i.e. in front of) him. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) similarly explains that one brings new information to light to “oppose” what the listener already knows.

Alternatively, Menachem ibn Saruk (920-970) argues that the root of the word haggadah is GIMMEL-DALET, which Rabbi Pappenheim understands is an expression of “connection.” He explains that telling somebody new information allows him to “connect” to it. Although Menachem explains that haggadah has a different root (implying “connection” rather than “opposition”), this approach also links haggadah with new information.

From what we know so far, the term haggadah carries two implications. It canemphasize the forcefulness and authority with which an idea is told, and it can also stress the novelty of the information being relayed.

Both of these ideas are alluded to in the Haggadah Shel Pesach. As mentioned above, Ex. 13:8 commands us to tell (vehigadata)our children about the Exodus. The Haggadah discusses the Four Sons, each one of whom must be taught using a different approach; yet the Haggadahapplies Ex. 13:8 to both the wicked son and the son who does not know how to ask. In light of the above, this makes sense: One speaks strongly and harshly to the wicked son, so vehigadata is appropriate. And anything one tells the son who does not know how to ask is a new idea, so again the term vehigadata is fitting.

There is also another aspect to the word haggadah. Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) in Sefer HaTishbi writes that the word aggadah, "story" (related to haggadah), is an expression of “pulling” or “drawing,” because recounting Aggadic explanations draws in the heart of the audience. He adduces this view from Targum to Gen. 37:28, which uses the word negidu to denote Yosef being “drawn” from the pit. (By the way, Modern Hebrew unfairly redefined aggadah to mean a “fairytale” or “fictional legend”.)

In this vein, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) writes that the term haggadah applies specifically to one who reveals something by explaining it at great length. Thus, we find that the word haggadah does not refer to simply stating an idea or occurrence briefly, but rather to a purposely "drawn out" narrative.

Alternatively, Rabbi Dovid Abudraham (a 14th century commentator to the Siddur) writes that the word haggadah is an expression of “admission” or “thanks.” Rabbi Mecklenburg expresses a similar sentiment. He notes that haggadah's two-letter root, GIMMEL-DALET (gad), refers to “success” and “fortune.” Accordingly, he explains that lehagid refers to praising G-d in the context of recognizing His role in one’s success and fortune.

What does any of this have to do with the literal meaning of haggadah — “the telling”?

Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann (a student of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro) teaches that haggadah relates an event that happened in the past, and “draws” it into the present by demonstrating its relevance. In other words, haggadah gives a historical narrative contemporary relevance (see also Alshich to Gen. 24:23). Rabbi Bergmann compares this to the concept of hagadat eidut, whereby witnesses who take the stand share testimony about a past event, and show its relevance for the court’s deliberations in the present. In his estimation, the commandment of vehigadata doesnot simply require us to recount the story of the Exodus, but to show how that story remains relevant to us.

The idea of drawing the historical narrative into the realm of the practical also comes up in a halachic context. Rabbi Aryeh Pomeranchik (1908-1942) writes that he heard from the Brisker Rav (1886-1959) in Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik's name (1853-1918) an explanation as to how the commandment of vehigadata on Passover night differs from the daily requirement to mention the Exodus. The formerentails explaining the connection between the Exodus narrative and the Passover commandments of matzah and marror, while the latter simply calls on “mentioning” the Exodus without regard to the commandments that stem from that narrative. This idea may be derived from the word vehigadata itself, which, as we explained above, denotes “drawing out” the story and showing how it applies to us (in this case, the practical commandments to be performed on Passover night).

To summarize, the word haggadah implies the transmission of new, novel information. Its roots convey both challenge/opposition and connection. The haggadah confronts the participant with new, challenging information. It speaks forcefully and rubs the participants' noses in questions. The participant is forced to engage with the material presented, and to ultimately connect to it. The term haggadah also implies a drawn out narrative, rather than a brief statement of facts, because the Haggadah Shel Pesach is supposed to spark dialog rather than monologue. At its core, haggadah is the act of giving contemporary relevance to a historical narrative. This can be accomplished by thanking G-d for the benefit that one receives from those events and the “success” that they bring us, or tying the narrative to commandments currently in effect.

Now that we understand the Haggadah better, we see that this ancient text is quite sophisticated in its multi-sensory, dynamic approach, designed to create active participants, and lead them on an extended process of discovering the Exodus' personal relevance. In the next section we will explain the implications of the term sippur and how that affects our understanding of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim.

Sippur — joining multiple details to form a singular, holistic “story”

We have explored several different aspects of the word haggadah/maggid, and showed how that word stresses certain elements of storytelling. With those ideas in mind, we painted a more vivid picture of the Torah’s commandment for one to “tell over” the story of the Exodus on Passover Night. As we mentioned in that section, another term used for the requirement of relating the Exodus story is sippur yetziat Mitzrayim (literally, “the telling of the Exodus [from] Egypt”). In this section we will sharpen our understanding of the word sippur/misaper and how it differs from haggadah/maggid. In doing so, we will also shed light on some more arcane aspects of the commandment to “tell” the Exodus story.

We have seen that haggadah/maggid referred to specific modes of storytelling. In contrast, the term sippur is a more general term for telling over a story. For example, while Radak in his Sefer HaShorashim writes that haggadah specifically denotes “telling” something new, he explains that sippur and its cognates refer to “telling” information about something that had already happened, or had already been told over. Others explain that sippur can refer both to something which was already known and to something which is being revealed for the first time. Either way, the point is that sippur does not refer specifically to relaying new information.

Similarly, Rabbi Ari Bergmann explained that while haggadah denotes showing how a past event is still relevant nowadays, sippur simply denotes relating an event that happened in the past. In that spirit, the Malbim explains that haggadah connotestelling over something that is relevant to the listener, while misaper refers to saying over a story which is not necessarily directly related to the listener.

Alternatively, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) explains that the difference between haggadah and sippur lies in how the speaker knows whatever he is saying over. The word haggadah implies relaying information which the speaker directly experienced (something he heard or saw himself). On the other hand, the word sippur is a general term for relating any story, or even a dream, which he did not physically perceive.

In short, haggadah implies that the content is personally known to the speaker, directly relevant to the listener (as we explained previously, GIMMEL-DALET denotes a form of “connection”), or new. Sippur/misaper is a more general term which does not carry any of these connotations. Nonetheless, there are still some important lessons which we can derive from the use of sippur/misaper.

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains that all words derived from the SAMECH-PEH-REISH root are interrelated. He explains that sippur denotes joining together multiple details to form a singular, holistic unit—the “story”. This resembles a sefer (book), which includes all the details and contents recorded therein, and binds them together into one entity. Similarly, a sfar (border) confines everything within its boundary and makes them into one unit — whether it is the border of a country or the city limits. Finally, mispar (number) and sofer (counting) refer to the system of counting numbers that are all bound together in an organized and logical way.

Interestingly, Hebrew is not the only language in which the words for “telling” and “counting” are related. The same phenomenon is found in German/Yiddish. In fact, the English words “tell” and “tale” are derived from the German word zahlen, which also means to “count”. Another English word, recount (“to narrate a story”), is obviously related to count. Some etymologists even claim that the English phrase “to tell time” uses the word tell in the sense of “counting” — not “storytelling”.

This idea can help us better understand the requirement to “tell over” the story of the Exodus on Passover night. Rabbi Aryeh Pomeranchik (1908-1942) writes that he heard from the Brisker Rav (1886-1959) in the name of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) that this special commandment on Passover night differs in two ways from the daily requirement to mention the Exodus. Firstly, the fulfillment of this commandment must assume a question and answer format, while the daily commandment of mentioning the Exodus simply entails “mentioning” the story. Secondly, the commandment on Passover night requires telling over the entire story of the Exodus — beginning with the Jews’ enslavement, the ensuing miracles leading up to and following the Exodus, the miraculous exit, and the praise of G-d for performing these miracles — while the commandment of “mentioning” the Exodus does not require all these details.

These two components of the commandment of Passover night are evident in the term sippur and the requirement to be misaper. Sippur/misaper denotes a structured storytelling, made up of several components joined together in a logical and coherent way. The different parts of the story must flow from each other in one smooth progression, like numbers that flow from each other when counted. This refers both to the question-and-answer format of the Passover night storytelling, and to the fact that the story follows one chronological/logical narrative.

Peirush HaRokeach explains that while haggadah refers to telling something new, sippur refers to “the first time and more.” Perhaps he means to explain that sippur refers to a story which is intended to be told over multiple times. When one is misaper, thisis but one instance within a series of instances, like a number which is but one point on the infinite number line. This fits neatly withsippur yetziat Mitzrayim, which is told and retold every year.

Haggadah and Sippur — the ultimate purpose of telling the story

That said, we can now begin to understand why the Torah refers to the commandment of telling the story of the Exodus with a haggadah-related verb, while the Rabbis tend to use a sippur-related word. From the Torah’s perspective the commandment of telling over the story of the Exodus requires one to say over something “new,” because when that directive was first issued, the story had never been told yet — it was still unfolding. For this reason the Torah uses the word vehigadata. But from the Rabbis’ perspective, the story had already been repeated for generations, so the commandment calls for one to continue transmitting that story from generation to generation. Accordingly, they use the word misaper.

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Feinstein (1906-2003), a son-in-law of the Brisker Rav, finds Biblical precedent for referring to the commandment of vehigadata as sippur yetziat Mitzrayim. He notes that although the term sippur does not appear in the Bible concerning the commandment in question, it does appear in a related context. The Torah says that the reason for G-d’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart and performing all sorts of miracles leading up to the Exodus was so that the Jewish People will “tell” their descendants about this and they will know G-d. (Ex. 10:2) In that context, the Torah uses the word tisaper (a cognate of sippur). Because that is the ultimate purpose of the miracles, the Rabbis focused on that word, referring to the commandment as sippur yetziat Mitzrayim. Rabbi Feinstein asserts that the Torah uses the word vehigadata onlyto teach how the story should be presented, but not concerning what the ultimate purpose in relating the story is — that we will know G-d and recognize His power.

A similar explanation is offered by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865). He writes that another hallmark of sippur/misaper is “explaining something in a clear way”. He argues that these words are related to the word sapir — a type of blue gemstone. Moreover, Rabbi Mecklenburg likens G-d’s administration of the world to the clear blue sky. The sky’s clarity is sometimes blocked by clouds, just as the wicked sometimes obfuscate His role in the universe. By clearly spelling out how G-d runs all of creation and puts the wicked in their place, one essentially “clears up” any misconceptions about His role in the universe. He clears away the clouds, with only the blue sky remaining. According to this, the term sippur applies to our narrating the story of the Exodus, because by presenting the entire story as a whole, we show how G-d oversees the entirety of creation.

Two Separate Commandments?

After a lengthy discussion of the two terms used for the commandment in question, Rabbi Nosson Gestetner (1932-2010) concludes that there are actually two separate commandments that one performs at the Passover Seder. One commandment is sippur yetziat Mitzrayim, which obligates one to verbalize the story and sequence of events that happened at the Exodus. This commandment even applies to somebody celebrating the Passover Seder alone, and even if he already knows the story he is still supposed to say it over to himself. In addition to this there is another commandment, which is the commandment of vehigadata. This second commandment requires revealing/teaching one’s children ideas or details about the Exodus that they did not previously know.

For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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