Friday 30 March 2018

Interesting Words of the Seder

 From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                         Some Interesting Words of the Seder

            Karpas: This word appears in the Tanakh only 1 time, at Esther 1:6. There it means “fine fabric, linen.”  In the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud, it has the meaning of a plant, or celery/parsley, but it is never used in connection with the seder.
              It is only in the Geonic period that we first find karpas (in the form karpasa) used in connection with the seder. It is mentioned as one of the permissible options for the bore pri ha-adamah at this stage. The earliest such reference to karpasa at the seder is a Geonic responsum published in Louis Ginzberg’s Ginzei Schechter, vol. 2, p. 252. For another early reference to karpasa at the seder, see The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, p. 922 (citing an 11th century piyyut).
              We are all misled by the introductory kadesh u-rechatz piyyut to view the word karpas as integral to the Seder. Many other such introductory piyyutim have come to light, and many of them do not include the word karpas. This stage of the seder is there in the these piyyutim, but it is represented by a different word or words. Some of these other piyyutim are collected at Menachem Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 77-82.
            Matzah: The etymology of this word is much debated. The simplest approach observes that the verb M-Tz-Tz  means “to suck” and the related verb M-Tz-H  means “to drain out.” (The word mitz=juice, found in Tanakh three times, is related to these.) Because it was flat and dry, matzah=unleavened bread could have been viewed as bread in which the normal texture and moisture was sucked or drained out.
             Many scholars find the above unsatisfying and propose alternatives. One suggestion relies on the fact that there was a  Hebrew root aleph-vav-tzade  that meant “urge” or “hasten.” There may even have been a Hebrew root nun-tzade-heh  that meant “hasten.” (See Lam. 4:15). The word matzah could have been derived from either of these and meant “that which was made in haste.”
               There is a dot in Tanakh in the tzade of M-Tz-H. One of the functions of such a dot is to indicate that a root letter is missing. This would support the idea that the root was M-Tz-Tz  or  N-Tz-H.
             I cannot resist mentioning the creative approach found in Rabbi Matityahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew. He has an entry for a Hebrew root  N-Tz-H  that he defines as “resist; oppose sporadically.” We are all familiar with this root. See, e.g., Ex. 21:22. Rabbi Clark includes matzah  in this entry (implying that it derives from an original M-N-Tz-H)  and defines it as “non-fermenting bread.” In other words, he views it as bread that resists fermentation. Of course, this is clever but it is farfetched. I doubt that we should view a struggle going on within the matzah!  (Rabbi Clark’s book is largely based on the commentaries of  Rav S.R. Hirsch, but Rabbi Clark sometimes makes suggestions not found in Rav Hirsch. I did not see this particular suggestion in Rav Hirsch himself.)
          Please forgive me for mixing in a chametz- related word now. The contrasting word challah  probably derives from the root Ch-L-L=empty space. A reasonable explanation is that  challah  in ancient times was probably a “pierced” or “perforated” cake with an empty area in the middle (like pita).
      Maror:  The word maror in the singular appears nowhere in Tanakh. The word used in Tanakh is the plural: merorim. It appears three times: in the commandment of pesach (Ex. 12:8), in the commandment of pesach sheni (Numb. 9:11), and at Lamentations 3:15 (hisbiani va-merorim; he has filled me with bitterness.)
          It is interesting that the Torah never tells us why the merorim are to be eaten with the pesach and pesach sheni sacrifices. It has been suggested that the merorim were merely added as a condiment to the sacrificial meat.(See, e.g., Daat Mikra to Ex. 12:8) But the phrase va-yemareru et chayeyhem is found earlier in the story, at Exodus 1:14. Therefore, it is very compelling to understand the inclusion of the merorim in the sacrificial pesach meals as symbolic of the bitterness of the slavery.
       Sippur: In Biblical Hebrew, the root S-P-R meant both “to count” and “to tell a story.” (It meant “count” in the kal construct. It meant “tell a story” in the piel construct.)
       Can we find a common ground here? Interestingly, there is such a phenomenon in English as well: to count, and to recount a story. Also, an “accountant” works with numbers, but a newspaper “account” is a retelling of a tale. The relationship between counting and telling a story is found in words of other languages as well. See E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, p. 626. The simplest explanation is that a story is the sum of details and that, in telling a story, there has been a counting and an ordering of all the details.       
     Ve-Higadeta Le-Vincha  (Exodus 13:8):  On a plain sense level, ve-higadeta  comes from the verb le-hagid. This word originated as le-hangid.  (Over time, the initial nun dropped.) The root is N-G-D,  meaning “next to.” Therefore, le-ha(n)gid  (a verb in the hifil) meant “to cause an idea to be next to someone else.” There was even perhaps an implication of  a “face to face” conversation.  The closest English equivalent would seem to be “to present.”  
      Haggadah: I had always made the common assumption that the word derived from the phrase ve-higadeta le-vincha.  Indeed, this view is expressed in the 11th century by the Arukh. But most likely the term was not derived from ve-higadeta le-vinkha.  Rather, the terms haggadah and aggadah originally had the same meaning and the term haggadah did not originate as a Pesach-related term. Haggadah is merely a variant form of aggadah. (Perhaps the meaning of both was “narratives that expound upon Biblical verses.” This meaning may or may not have derived from the Hebrew root N-G-D.)  But over time, the word haggadah eventually came to be associated mainly with Pesach, based on Exodus 13:8 and statements such as the one made by the Arukh.          
         Finally, it is interesting that the haggadah uses the word le-sapper in describing the mitzvah of the evening: “mitzvah aleinu le-sapper ….”  The key Biblical verse, Exodus 13:8, had used the word ve-higadeta! The unusual choice of the word le-saper in the haggadah here has had a tremendous influence over the centuries in the way the mitzvah has been understood. The haggadah is the earliest source to use the verb le-sapper in connection with the mitzvah.
      Ch-S-L: This root, which means “finish,” is used at the end of the seder, after the fourth cup.  This root appears seven times in Tanakh. Six times it appears as chasil, a word for locusts. The other time, at Deuteronomy 28:38, it appears as yechaslenu ha-arbeh (=the locusts will finish it/eat it away).  Most likely, locusts are called chasil because they finish off the crops.     
       S-D-R: A word with this root appears only one time in Tanakh, at Job 10:22 (sedarim). As we would expect, it means “order.”
      Hesebah:  The meaning of this word is ingrained in all of us. Wake any of us up from our reclining position in the middle of the night and we will tell you that it means “recline.”  But wait a minute. Everyone will agree that the root of this word is S-B-B, which has a meaning of “round.”  What is going on here?  How did this root S-B-B turn itself into a root meaning “recline”?
         Most likely, the process was as follows.  The root first evolved into a word for “eating a meal,” since meals were eaten in a circle. Then it evolved into eating a meal with couches around the table, where the practice was to recline on the couches. Now we use it to mean “recline,” even where no couches are involved!  
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He used to present face to face lectures. Now he enjoys reclining and writing for the Jewish Link.


Thursday 29 March 2018

RBH Pesach Videos on Koshertube on YouTube

Wednesday 28 March 2018

Mah Nishtannah

 From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                           Mah Nishtannah: The Three Questions

                         It is well-known that the Mishnah in the tenth chapter of Pesaḥim includes a set of mah nishtannah. If one opens a standard printed Babylonian Talmud (Pesaḥim 116a), one sees four questions in the text of the Mishnah (matzah, maror, roast, and dipping). But if one opens a standard printed Jerusalem Talmud, one sees three questions (dipping, matzah and roast). Is this one of those rare instances of a disagreement between the text of the Mishnah preserved in Babylonia and the text of the Mishnah preserved in Palestine?
                      It turns out that it is practically certain that the original text of the Mishnah recorded only 3 questions: dipping, matzah and roast. This is what the earliest and most reliable Mishnah manuscripts record. There is no distinction between a Babylonian Mishnah and a Palestinian Mishnah here.
                      Moreover, if one opens up a standard Massekhet Pesaḥim of the Babylonian Talmud and looks at the text of the Mishnah recorded in the Rif (R. Isaac Alfasi, 11th century) and the Rosh (R. Asher b. Yeḥiel,  13th century), one sees that they too record a Mishnah which included only the above three questions. Also, Rambam (12th century) utilized a text of the Mishnah which included only the above three questions.
                     Almost certainly, the familiarity of later copyists with the maror question from the texts of their Haggadah led some of them to erroneously insert the maror question into their texts of the Mishnah, generating a new four-question Mishnah.                                                                  
                     A widely quoted understanding of the mah nishtannah takes the position that there were always four questions, and that the roast question did not survive after the ḥurban, with the reclining question substituting for it. I just showed that there were originally only 3 questions. It also turns out that the roast question survived in some areas for 1000 years after the ḥurban.
                   Documents from the Cairo Genizah generally date from the 10th through the 13th centuries. This is roughly the period of the Haggadah fragments as well. Of course, not all of the Haggadah fragments from the Genizah span the mah nishtannah section. But of those that do, many include the roast question.
                Although most of the mah nishtannah Haggadah fragments found in the Genizah record four questions the way they are asked today, we also find the following:
                       -Several record three questions: matzah, dipping, and roast, just like the original text of the Mishnah.                       
                       -One records the following three questions: dipping, matzah and reclining.
                      -One records five questions: dipping, matzah, roast, maror, and reclining. (See the photograph in M. Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, p. 93.)
                      -Two record only the questions of dipping and roast. (There does not appear to be any reason why the matzah question would have been intentionally discontinued. Perhaps the matzah question was accidentally dropped by a scribe in one source, and further copies were later made from that source.)
                      - One records only the questions of dipping and matzah.
            I would like to focus on this last source, which is not actually a Haggadah fragment, but is a section of an anonymous Geonic responsum that includes an outline of the procedures at the seder. It can be deduced that the responsum was composed in Babylonia because it includes avadim hayyinu, which was not a part of the Palestinian seder ritual in this period. This responsum was first published by Louis Ginzberg, in his Ginzey Schechter, Vol. 2,  pp. 258-60. (It is cited in Kasher, p. 113, n. 11 with the symbol shin.) Ginzberg took the position that the author of this responsum provided only an abbreviated version of the mah nishtannah, and listed only the first two questions, even though his practice was four. But this interpretation seems very unlikely. The whole purpose of the responsum was to spell out the procedures and text of the seder. Abbrevation here would have defeated its purpose.
         Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai take a different approach to this responsum in their monumental work Haggadat Ḥazal. They write that the third and fourth questions are ḥaserot be-sof he-amud, implying that these questions were originally included in this responsum but were cut off. See Haggadat azal, p. 64, n. 53. (See also their later English adaptation, Haggadah of the Sages, p. 65, n. 30.)  They take this approach so that the set of questions in our responsum could then parallel the set of questions found in the other known Babylonian Geonic sources of the Haggadah text: Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Siddur Rav Saadiah Gaon, and the Haggadah text published in 1984 by M. R. Lehman. All these sources record the standard four questions: dipping, matzah, maror, and reclining.
            But anyone can now view this responsum (Cambridge T-S Misc. 36.179) at It is clear that the third and fourth questions were never there. The first side ends with the last words of the matzah question, the next side continues immediately with avadim hayyinu, and there are no missing lines in between.
            Assuming we reject the unlikely interpretation of Ginzberg, this source records a two-question set in Babylonia. The idea that we have now been able to “excavate” such a set, evidence of a period before four questions became the universal practice there, is truly remarkable. On a paleographical basis, the responsum has been dated to the 10th century.
            Regarding the issue of when the maror and reclining questions were added, the following are some reasonable observations:
               ◦ The reclining question was probably the last question to be added. Unlike the maror question, it did not make its way into in any manuscripts of the Mishnah, and in all communities, it is the last question of the set.
               ◦ The maror question probably did not arise until after the text of the dipping question was changed in Babylonia (see Pesaḥim 116a) and the dipping question lost its connotation as a maror question. Once the dipping question lost this connotation, it was probably viewed as necessary to add a question relating to maror.
                ◦ The reclining question probably originated in Babylonia as well. It was probably added, after the maror question, due to a desire to fix the number of questions at four, parallel to the themes of four cups of wine and four sons.
              The above an abridged version of an article published in my book Esther Unmasked (2015).                                                   
             P.S.  I cannot leave this topic without the following diversion into the modern period. The Haggadah particularly resonated with the early kibbutznikim because they felt that they were like people who had gone out of Egypt. But they felt free to modernize the text. For example, at Kibbutz Ein Harod in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Four Questions were: “Why do people all over the world hate Jews? When will the Jews return to their land? When will our land become a fertile garden? When will there be peace and brotherhood in the world?”  For more on this topic, see Muki Tzur and Yuval Danieli, Yotzim Be-Chodesh Ha-Aviv (2004).  This book includes extracts from hundreds of kibbutz Haggadot written between the late 1920’s and 1960’s.

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He looks forward to creating his own novel mah nishtannah questions someday.

Monday 26 March 2018

Rationalist Judaism: The Kezayis Post

From RRW

Address of Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik - Chunich Atzmai Dinner 1956

From RRW
in Yiddish

In a world where we are concerned about the growing (antagonistic) diversity within the Jewish people and within the world of Orthodoxy, it is important to learn from the gedolim of the past about how to behave properly even within the context of divergent Torah opinions. Here is an example of such behaviour: Rav Yoshe Beir, from the world of Mizrachi, speaking -- no, fundraising -- for Chinuch Atzmai. And who invited him to speak -- no, requested him to speak -- no one less than Rav Aharon Kotler. This is gadlut -- and a model for us all.

Sunday 25 March 2018

Arami Oved Avi

 From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
 Arami Oved Avi: The Interpretation Hidden in the Mishnah           

                    As children, we all grow up thinking that the phrase “arami oved avi” is a reference to Lavan seeking to destroy Jacob. After all, this is what we are taught in the Haggadah, Onkelos, and Rashi.
                     But when we get to high school and start learning commentaries like Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, we realize that this is not a plain sense interpretation. “Oved,” if it is a verb here, would be in the “kal,”  But in the “kal,” the root aleph-bet-dalet is intransitive. This means it cannot act on an object. (For the root aleph-bet-dalet to be transitive, it needs to be in the piel or hiph’il. But I don’t want to overload you with grammatical details.)

                     Thus, Lavan cannot be destroying anyone with an intransitive “oved.”  Rather, the subject of the verse is “avi,” and “arami oved is a description of “avi.” The meaning of the phrase is “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean.” Of course, the plain sense commentaries did not agree on whether “my father” was a reference to Abraham (Rashbam) or to Jacob (Ibn Ezra). (A very reasonable alternative approach is suggested by S. D. Luzzatto; “my father” is a reference to all the forefathers in one composite figure.)
                       For almost all of us, this was how we understand the history of the interpretation of the phrase. The early Sages, we believe, understood the phrase one way, while the plain sense Rishonim figured out a different interpretation.        
                       But now I am going to turn the tables on you and show you that the interpretation expressed by the plain sense Rishonim was not a new one. Rather, they were just resurrecting what was the mainstream interpretation in the time of the Tannaim.
                       Mishnah Pesachim 10:4 includes the following statement: “Matchil be-genut u-mesayem be-shevach, ve-doresh me-“arami oved avi” ad she-hu gomer et kol ha-parshah.”
                      The Talmud records an Amoraic dispute between Rav and Shmuel about the meaning of the word genut (=disgrace, shame). But neither of the two seem to consider the “arami oved avi” section (Deut. 26:5-9) as relating to the genut referred to in the Mishnah.

                     But what if we would consider the Mishnah on our own? The Mishnah instructs one to begin with an exposition of genut and end with one of shevach. It then refers immediately to Deut. 26:5-9, a section that can easily be understood as beginning with genut and ending with shevach. This can be mere coincidence, but much more likely the adjacency suggests that Deut. 26:5-9 is the genut-shevach section referred to.
                    We all know the first four of these five verses from our Seder. Deut. 26:5-9 reads: 5) You shall speak and say before the Lord thy God: “Arami oved avi, and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty and populous. 6) The Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondage. 7) We cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. 8) The Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awe, and with signs and with wonders. 9) He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

              A very reasonable approach to understanding the Mishnah is that the genut referred to focuses on the phrasearami oved aviand the shevach referred to focuses on verse 9. This shevach can be either the implicit praise of our ancestors for becoming worthy of being given the land, or the praise of God for giving it to them.  A genut of “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean” contrasts perfectly with this shevach. Moreover, a statement that “Lavan was trying to destroy my father” does not, on the simplest level, amount to a genut; it is merely a statement about an attempt to make our ancestor into a victim. Thus, the Mishnah itself is implicitly adopting the “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean” understanding.

            Of course, one can argue that being ill-treated, afflicted and put to hard work in Egypt is the genut, and being taken out (and brought to Israel) is the shevach. But in this interpretation, the genut does not begin until the sixteenth word, “va-yareiu.” Moreover, verse 6 only describes what the Egyptians did to us; it does not call us “avadim” or directly assign to us a negative status. Reading the genut as focusing on the first few words of the section referred to, words that do clearly portray a genut in the non-Lavan understanding, seems to be the simplest understanding of the Mishnah.

             Of course, we are assuming that verse 9 was part of the Seder ritual at the time of the Mishnah. But this assumption is a compelling one. The Mishnah describes the section to be expounded as running through “kol ha-parshah.” To read the Mishnah as implying that only up to verse 8 was expounded is farfetched. Verse 9 is a direct continuation of the capsule history of verses 5 through 8; the Mishnah would have had to be more specific to indicate that verse 9 was not part of the ritual. Moreover, Mishnah Bikurim 3:6 specifies a ritual in the bikurim context that begins with “arami oved avi and continues through “kol ha-parshah.” It is evident from chapter 26 of Deuteronomy that verse 9 was part of the ritual recitation there.                                                                        

           (Regarding the word “ve-doresh, although we are used to it as indicating an extended exposition, or a resort to midrashim or hermeneutical principles, this was probably not the meaning of this root at the time of the Mishnah. All that “ve-doresh” meant was that some explanation above and beyond the mere recital of the verses was being suggested.)    

           In sum, reading the genut as focusing on the first few words of the Deut. 26:5-9 section seems to be the simplest understanding of the Mishnah. If the genut is to be located in these words, the Mishnah almost certainly understood “arami oved avi to mean “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean.” The assumption that verse 9 was part of the Seder ritual at the time of the Mishnah is a compelling one. A genut of “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean” contrasts perfectly with this shevach.

             Our approach to Mishnah Pesachim 10:4 is very satisfying since we are no longer forced to take the position that the widespread interpretation of the Sages was a grammatically problematic one.

              Over the centuries, due to the influence of Onkelos and the Haggadah, and due to the interpretations of “genut” expressed by the Amoraim, the way the Mishnah originally understood “arami oved avi was forgotten. It seems that it did not occur to almost all the Rishonim who argued for the homeless/wandering/lost Aramean interpretation that they were advocating the interpretation already implied in this Mishnah! (The one exception: the little-known R. Judah Ibn Balam.)

              Of course, the next question is what motivated the ungrammatical Lavan interpretation found in Onkelos and in the Haggadah. Also, what motivated the two Amoraim to deviate from the plain sense of the Mishnah that the genut is found in the “arami oved avi verses. Many answers to these questions have been suggested and I refer you to my longer article in Ḥakirah, vol. 13 (available on line at
 Mitchell First, a Non-wandering Attorney, can be reached at his desk at