Timely Thoughts

The Pauper’s Bread

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Elli Fischer

 

This is the pauper’s bread, which our forefathers ate in Egypt.

Anyone who is hungrycome and eat!

Anyone who needscome and make Pesach.

Now we are herenext year in the land of Israel.

Now we are slavesnext year free people.

 

The paragraph that opens “Maggid,” the part of the Seder during which we retell the story of the Exodus, has baffled commentators for centuries. The most obvious peculiarity is that this is the only part of the Haggadah composed in Aramaic (with the exception of a few late-medieval compositions added at the end, and which are not part of the “retelling” of the Exodus), but its placement within the Haggadah and its internal structure are unusual, as well.

In the Seder’s Mishnaic “blueprint” (the tenth chapter of Pesahim), the main meal is brought before the participants, whereupon the child, noticing the idiosyncrasies of this meal—the matzah, the second serving of maror, and the Paschal offering itself (in the earliest versions)—begins to ask questions. The food is then removed from the table, a second cup of wine is poured, and the storytelling begins. “Ha lahma anya,” the paragraph about the pauper’s bread, interrupts the natural and spontaneous flow from the beginning of the meal—the literal and figurative breaking of bread, Yahatz—to the child’s noticing the oddities of the meal with a seemingly premature recitation.

Moreover, later in the Seder, we will heed Rabban Gamliel’s charge to use the matzah and maror as storytelling props. Lifting the matzah, we will say that we eat matzah to commemorate how there was no time for the dough to rise as we rushed out of Egypt. That is, the matzah commemorates our emancipation, not our prior enslavement. Yet, in “Ha lahma anya,” the emphasis on the matzah as the bread of affliction (an emphasis that has roots in one interpretation of Devarim 16:3) appears out of step with Rabban Gamliel’s ruling in the Mishnah, which has become part and parcel of the retelling.

The paragraph itself is disjointed. After one sentence about the matzah’s origins in Egypt, there is an abrupt shift: the hungry are invited to come and eat. The invitation is then repeated, with a subtle difference. Whereas the first invitation is issued to all who are hungry (including non-Jews, according to Rabbi Yaakov Emden), the repeated invitation is specifically those who “need” to celebrate Pesach. The paragraph then concludes with another “couplet,” each half of which contrasts the present situation with our hopes for the future. Now we are “here” (anywhere but “there,” in the Land of Israel) and are enslaved. Next year we will be free and in the land. Slavery and freedom are clearly the theme of this paragraph, but the flow from one line to the next seems associative at best.

In his Benei Yissaskhar, Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dinov suggests that the key to understanding this paragraph is to look at it in connection with Yahatz, when we set aside the portion of matzah that will serve as the afikomen. In truth, the fact that we pour the second cup only after this paragraph indicates that it indeed relates to the breaking of the matzah and is not an “introductory” paragraph of Maggid. This accords with the structure of the Mishnah, as well as how several medieval commentators understand this paragraph, most notably Orhot Hayim.

Rav Zvi Elimelekh also emphasizes that the afikomen, the last thing we eat at the Seder, commemorates what would have been the last course in Temple times: the Paschal offering itself.

There were certain laws that governed the consumption of the paschal offering (and other offerings as well). For instance, the lamb was sacrificed only in the Temple and eaten only in Jerusalem and its immediate environs. Perhaps not as widely known, only those who had a “share” in the animal at the moment of the sacrifice could eat of it. Moreover, a gentile could not eat of the paschal offering (Shemot 12:43). Thus, R. Emden points out, in Temple times, it would have been impossible to invite “all who are hungry” to come and eat and even “all who need” to come and observe Pesach.

We can now imagine a genesis of this peculiar paragraph (a variation on Rav Zvi Elimelekh’s account): Jews, living in a foreign land, speaking a foreign tongue, subjects of a foreign power, found it much easier to relate to matzah as the pauper’s bread than as a symbol of redemption and liberation. The portion of matzah set aside for the afikomen is a poor man’s substitute for the paschal lamb, whose absence is thus made palpable.

Yet, as they meditate on Jewish suffering, whether in Egypt or in a host of other exiles, they are reminded that there are still those who are hungry. Moreover, without the Temple, guests can be invited at the last minute; all who are hungry may come and eat—even gentiles, who could not have partaken in Temple times.

This yields a further insight: Jews who are not necessarily hungry may participate in this simulacrum of a paschal banquet, even if they were not invited beforehand. So all who need may come and make Pesach.

Our memory and our direct experience of servitude sensitize us to the plight of the poor and needy. We recall our impoverishment, so we extend an invitation to the poor. It is only in our enslaved state that we can be so generous. For next year, after we return to the land of Israel and bring the paschal offering in Jerusalem, gentiles, even the poor, will not be permitted to partake, nor will Jews who were not part of the group for whom the lamb was sacrificed.

Moreover, our meditation on our historical suffering, which prompted us to consider the suffering of those around us, will not be acute next year, for we will no longer be slaves. Next year we will be free.

This accounts for the placement and progression of a baffling paragraph, but it leaves us with an uneasy feeling. What will happen to the poor and needy next year, when, in addition to their formal exclusion from the Paschal offering, we will no longer be sensitive to their plight? Can we retain our sensitivity toward the unfortunate even once we are living freely in our land?

That, it seems, is the question that underlies the entire Seder. We are not only acting out our past servitude. We are playing a double game of charades, acting like free people acting like enslaved people, in preparation for the arrival of the ever-distant but ever-close “next year.” It is then, when our freedom in our own land ceases to be an act and becomes real, that we will face the ultimate question: whether centuries worth of talk about feeding the hungry, because we remember the pauper’s bread that we ate in Egypt, was real, or just an act.

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Elli Fischer
Elli Fischer is an independent writer, translator, editor, and rabbi. Previously, he was the JLIC rabbi and campus educator at the University of Maryland. He holds rabbinical ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and is working toward a doctorate in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. His original writing has appeared in Commentary, Moment, Jewish Review of Books, Mosaic, Jewish Ideas Daily, Journal of Halakha and Contemporary Society, New York Jewish Week, Jewish Action, and elsewhere. Among his translated works are By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, and he is the editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series in English.