The Albany Haggada

It may seem rather pretentious for an unembellished 'hinterland' Haggadah to mimic the prominent Amsterdam, Istanbul, Sarajevo and Venice classic Passover editions.

But history is on our side. The famous illustrated Haggadahs go back to the Middle Ages, but this Haggadah relives the Bnai Brak Seder 2,000 years ago. Exotic Haggadahs feature intricate designs, but this Haggadah prefers to highlight the minute details of Talmudic discussion at that famous event.   

This Haggadah lacks colorful bird and flower motif borders; its value is not peripheral, but intrinsic. Instead of pretty paintings, it draws biographical sketches portraying the lives of the venerable sages.

The Albany Haggadah has no gold leaf on expensive vellum, but it contains treasured Torah gems. It lacks pastoral scenery, but compensates with a panoramic view of the greatest Talmudic masters.

I am very grateful that this Torah study developed in Albany, and I thank my students and friends who worked hard to help Torah flourish in our community.

Rabbi Israel Rubin                                                              Albany, New York                                       


"A Night to Remember"

Just as we begin to relate the Passover story, the Haggadah introduces us to yet another story:

"It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Joshua, and Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria, and Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining in Bnai Brak, and were telling the story of the Exodus all that night, until their students came and said: Masters! The time has come to read the Shema!"

It is an impressive episode, but also intimidating. Such a scholarly all-night Seder is a hard act to follow, as many of us, stomachs grumbling, eagerly look to end the reading and begin the eating.

We marvel at the stamina of these scholars who survived the world's longest Seder, but beyond their names, the Haggadah offers precious little information about their actual conversation.

We have no transcript of their discourse, but research into the sages' biography, genealogy and lifestyles provides clues to the issues on the table that night.  

These sages' Talmudic record shows them to be major Halachic disputants. Imagine the interpersonal dynamics of opposite schools of thought at the same Seder, reverberating with debate that allowed no one to doze off, as the Talmudic crossfire raged until dawn. Obviously, they didn't just chant Chad Gadya or sing Dayenu to pass the time. High on their agenda were numerous Halachic Seder issues on which they differed, i.e. the Afikoman deadline, Haggadah text, number of wine cups, etc.

Illustrated Haggadahs usually portray these sages as benign and complacent elders smiling to each other, but that may be the calm before the storm. As we eavesdrop, we can hear confrontation and argument. Their sharp exchanges pierce the night and their brilliance illuminates the darkness, leading to dawn.

The following are brief summary excerpts translated from the Hebrew section of this book.


 "It once happened;"

Reviewing the Exodus schedule of events will help us appreciate the controversy in Bnai Brak.

Pharaoh urged Moses to leave at midnight, right after Egypt's Firstborn died. But the Jews refused to steal away as thieves in darkness and stayed until morning to leave triumphantly in the daylight.

The issue here is: Did the Redemption occur at midnight, or the next morning? Consequently, must we complete our Seder by midnight, or may it continue until dawn? 

Rabbis Eliezer and Elazer b. Azaria conclude the Seder observances by midnight.

But Rabbis Joshua and Akiva continue the Seder until dawn, when Israel actually left Egypt.

Both sides of this argument were represented at the Bnai Brak Seder, so it seems inconsistent that all the sages actively participated in the Seder all night, contrary to their stated opinions.

This problem convinced the Responsa Mishkenos Yaakov that Rabbis Eliezer and Elazar b. Azaria had, de facto, retracted their positions, and no longer insisted on ending the Seder by midnight.

But did these sages really change their mind? 

Perhaps Rabbi Elazar b. Azaria (known to shy away from protest (Shabbos 52)) may have conceded as a gesture to their host Rabbi Akiva, as Bnai Brak was under his juridiction.                     

But this is certainly not characteristic of the uncompromising Rabbi Eliezer, who resisted peer pressure and majority opinion in the Tannur episode, following principle and conviction to his dying day.

Why is this Hallel Different?

Some try to answer that while these Rabbis were not obligated to discuss the Haggadah past midnight, - they went beyond the call of duty, for it is 'praiseworthy to increase retelling the Exodus story.'

But this is contradicted by these Rabbis' ruling that the Hallel, which recounts the Exodus, must be concluded by midnight. The Seder Hallel does not follow regular Hallel rules: a) It is said even by a mourner; b) we say it sitting, not standing; c) it is divided in two parts, half before and half after the meal.

Obviously, rather than being a recital, this Hallel is an extension of the Haggadah story. The Rabbis' midnight deadline is indeed firm, and so the question remains. Why did they continue to discuss the Haggadah past midnight, against their own convictions? 

Actually, we note that Rabbi Elazar b. Azaria digresses from the relevant Passover laws, into the general Exodus remembrance during the year, consistent with his opinion that the Seder ends at midnight.

Indeed, this very issue may have been the crux of their debate; whether their post midnight discussion was retelling Passover's Exodus, or was it rather a regular Torah study session.

The Shulchan Aruch Code resolves most Talmudic arguments, but this issue continues unabated. Maimonides allows the Seder to continue until dawn, but the Rama sets an Afikoman midnight deadline.

As a result, recent rabbinic Responsa grapple with the practical question, whether a person who couldn't eat Matzah earlier, is halachically permitted, or obligated, to eat Matza after midnight.

Today, some customs obey the Afikoman deadline only on the first night of Passover. On the second night, however, the Haggadah and the meal run leisurely, and the Afikoman is eaten whenever they desire.

..."Rabbi Eliezer;"

Q. How was Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrkanus allowed to join his colleagues at this Seder? At this time (dated by the comment 'I am as if 70 years'), Rabbi Eliezer was ostracized for non-conforming to the majority rule in the famous "Tannur" episode (Talmud BM 59a), and Jewish law forbade sitting with Rabbi Eliezer.

A. One possible solution would place Rabbi Eliezer's seat at the far edge of the Seder table, with four cubits separating him from the rabbis. This coincides with R. Meir Shapiro's listing the sages in a right to left seating arrangement. His seniority should have earned him a respectful seat in the center, but Rabbi Eliezer's ostracization placed him at the end.

It also seems that the schism between Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis was subtle at first but widened with time, as Rabbi Eliezer steadfastly defied majority rule. In the early stages, the 'separation' could have been temporarily lifted for this special holiday visit.

Furthermore, an issue involving Rabbi Eliezer, known as 'Hagadol-the great one,' versus the Sages cannot be decided by majority rule, as their master Yochanan b. Zakai said:" he outweighs them all" (Avoth 2). 

Given Rabbi Eliezer's overwhelming stature, the sages could not muster their majority to ostracize him. In this unique situation, either side had to recognize the other's right to disagree.

Human vs. Heavenly Perspective

Rabbi Eliezer regularly debates Rabbi Joshua in the Mishna. Regarding Passover, they disagree on the defining moment of the Exodus, certainly a relevant issue to discuss at this Seder, as mentioned earlier.

Rabbi Eliezer reckons the Redemption from the Divine perspective, when G‑d smote the Egyptian firstborn (hence the midnight Afikoman deadline). But Rabbi Joshua defines the Exodus by the human experience, when the people actually left Egypt (thus extending the Seder until dawn).

These differing perspectives are a consistent theme in Rabbi Eliezer vs. Rabbi Joshua's debates throughout the Talmud. In contrast to the secluded and idealistic Rabbi Eliezer whose loftiness reached the heavens, the popular and down-to-earth Rabbi Joshua had both his feet firmly on the ground.

This difference is also reflected in the famous "Tannur" debate, where Rabbi Eliezer asks Heaven to intercede, while Rabbi Joshua boldly responds: "Once the Torah was given, Heaven can't decide Halacha."

"...Rabbi Joshua Ben Chanania;"

As a Levite, Rabbi Joshua's ancestors were not personally oppressed in Egypt, as evident by Moses and Aaron's free movement in Pharaoh's palace. Yet R. Joshua was immersed in retelling the Exodus all night.

This presents a demographic anomaly, as the majority of the Bnai Brak Seder sages descended from Levi (Rabbis Eliezer, Elazar b. Azaria and Tarphon were Cohanim) while Rabbi Akiva's father was a convert.

This Levite over representation reflects their leading role. Although spared Pharaoh's yoke, the Levites empathized with their suffering brethren, tried to ease their burden and led the movement toward Exodus.

Levite Leadership

The Exodus begins with the verse: "A Levite man married a daughter of Levi,"(Ex. 2) referring to Amram, Moses' father, whose personal example reunited families in Egyptian bondage.

In describing Divine Revelation from Adam to Sinai, Maimonides states: "Amram in Egypt received Mitzvos. (Melachim)" The commentaries try to decipher which Mitzvos Amram received.

Perhaps the reference is to Pharaoh's decree "cast all Hebrew firstborn into the Nile," when a frustrated Amram and Yocheved divorced. His daughter Miriam, however, advised Amram to remarry, and look forward to the birth of salvation. Miriam's prophecy was thus a Mitzva to Amram to be fruitful and multiply.

"....Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria;"

The expression "Behold, I am as if 70 years old" reflects Rabbi Elazar's premature graying upon assuming the Presidency. Actually, Rabbi Elazar was only 18 years then (Talmud (Brachos 27b).

Rabbi Elazar's age helps us date this Seder to the year 74 CE, four years after the Temple's destruction.

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, however, this Seder may have been much later, when Rabbi Elazar b. Azaria was truly 70 years old. He was then reminiscing how he learnt from Ben Zoma as a youth, 60 years earlier, when his wizened appearance made him look like his present age.

This reckoning places the Bnai Brak Seder at the fall of Betar and defeat of the Jewish revolt, 130 CE, a year before Rabbi Akiva was martyred by the Romans. 

Maimonides says that Rabbi Elazar's premature graying resulted from intense study. Actually the Talmud considers it a miracle, but the point is that his change of appearance was not cosmetic, but truly reflected inner maturity.

"...Rabbi Akiva:"

Passover recalls our forefathers' bondage in Egypt. Rabbi Akiva's participation is noteworthy, for as a convert, his ancestors did not labor under Pharaoh's taskmasters.

This is not only to show that a convert is an equal Seder and Haggadah participant. It also gives us all a new dimension to the Exodus story. It is not merely a nostalgic remembrance of the people in the past, but is an ongoing liberating experience that continues until the final Redemption.      

This explains why certain of the Six Daily Remembrances (those of a current nature such as Shabbos and the Exodus) are emphasized more than a remberance recalling past history (such as the Golden Calf).

In the Haggadah, Rabbis Akiva and Eliezer parlay the ten plagues into hundreds of plagues on land and sea.

But isn't it wrong to gloat over an enemy's suffering (Avoth 4)?                                                           

The focus is not on quantity, but on the quality of supernatural phenomena. The miraculous change of the 4 or 5 natural facets in each plague refer to the four categories on the perodic table of elements, air, water, earth and fire, indicating a multi dimensional reality, rather than a superficial facade.

The Miracles at Sea

According to Rabbi Akiva, the miracles at sea surpassed the plagues in Egypt itself.

Q. But isn't this overkill? The initial Ten Plagues were necessary to pressure Pharaoh to let Israel go. But why these multitudes of wonders at sea, after the Jews were already free?

A. The Talmud (San. 67) states that magical phenomena dissipate over a body of water. Earlier, Pharaoh's wizards had refused to recognize G‑d's Hand, dismissing the signs as mere magic. Sustaining the miracles at Sea thus proved them to be genuine acts of G‑d.

Crossing the Sea served more than a fast getaway from the pursuing Egyptians. Its symbolic significance enhanced Israel's liberating experience on several levels.

The "Gomel" Blessing

The Talmud notes that Jethro was the first to recite the Gomel blessing for Israel's Crossing the Sea.

Q. Why didn't Moses and Israel recite the "Gomel" as is usually said after travelling overseas?

A. Perhaps it is because the Israelites felt no sense of danger crossing via a dry, paved and secure channel.

In a modern application, Gomel may not be necessary when crossing the English-French Chunnel. Similarly, Noah may not have recited Gomel, having been spared from a sense of danger by G‑d's promise.

"... Rabbi Tarfon:"

The Seder's Four wine cups correspond to the Four expressions of Redemption: "I will take you out, I will save you, I will redeem you, and I will take you as my nation."(Exodus)

These are not merely four synonyms; each expresses a distinct aspect of Redemption.

But Rabbi Tarfon added a fifth cup for the fifth expression: "...And I shall bring Israel to the land."

The Gaon of Vilna attributes the name "Cup of Elijah" to the Prophet Elijah as the final arbiter who will resolve the conflict between Rabbi Tarfon and the Rabbis, among all other unresolved Talmudic issues.

Q. But why wait for Elijah? Why can't we resolve the issue by the established rule that the majority overrides a singular opinion? And why do we involve Elijah only here, and not the dispute of Hillel vs. the Rabbis, whether the Paschal offering is eaten with the Matza as a Korech sandwich, or separately?

A. The Fifth cup relates to Elijah as the herald of Moshiach's arrival in the future Redemption.

Historically, in times when the fifth expression "I will bring you to your land" was fulfilled and Jews lived comfortably in Israel, it may have been common practice to drink a fifth cup at the Seder.

But after the exile, the Fifth Cup remained on the Seder Table as a hopeful prayer for Redemption.

Rabbi Tarfon, however, retained the custom of drinking a Fifth Cup, reliving the good old days to realize his prayer for the future.

The Seder Centerpiece

A highly interactive experience, the Seder encourages us all to get into the act.

We ask the Questions and chant the Answers as we recite the Haggadah. We stand, we sit, and we recline. We crack the middle Matzah, we wash our hands, and then wash them again. We fill the cups, spill some wine drops, and then refill the cups again. We eat, we drink and we dip, not once, but twice. We point to the Matzah and the Bitter Herbs, and explain their meaning.

The Silent Cup

Rich with symbolism, Passover overflows with meaning and significance. But while the whole Seder hums with talk and activity, the "Cup of Elijah" stands alone by itself, without any apparent function. The wine poured into this cup remains untouched to the end, -we pour it right back into the bottle after the Seder is over. Is this 'fifth cup' like the proverbial 'fifth wheel,' an unneeded appendage tagging along?

While we ceremoniously enjoy the Four Cups, this cup stands around like an odd man out. We pay individual tribute with a blessing over each of the other cups, but not a word about this one.

Childish Imagination?

Surely, when opening the door for Elijah, the children gather round to watch the quivering liquid ripple, hoping to detect some sign of its sampling by the visiting Prophet. But isn't there more meaning to this cup than a child's imagination?

Let's not 'play pretend' with someone as serious and holy as the prophet Elijah. It is quite thoughtful of some people to offer Elijah a drink while visiting, but thank you; he doesn't need sips to keep him going. This cup has real purpose and meaning. Let us learn more about Elijah's historic role in Judaism, and we will realize that this cup is not here for Elijah's sake. This special cup is here for our own sake, to inspire us and to give our Seder a specific focus and direction.

What's in a Name

Originally, the issue appears in the Talmud as a question whether an optional pleasure drink is permitted after the mandatory four cups. Only Rabbi Tarfon's minority opinion suggests a specific Fifth Cup for each participant as part of the Seder routine. Centuries later, the Code of Jewish Law mentions the custom of placing a specific Fifth Cup on the table, calling it 'Elijah's Cup.'

Strangely, while the original obligatory Four Passover Cups remain anonymous, Jewish tradition has given this cup a most prestigious name after one of the greatest prophets. How ironic that the namesake of this quiet and passive cup is none other than the fiery, bold and outspoken Elijah!

Elijah the Arbiter

According to an explanation by the Gaon of Vilna, "Elijah" refers to the Prophet Elijah as the final arbiter who will eve ntually, in the future, resolve all Taiku stalemates in the Talmud. In this regard, the Fifth Cup remains in limbo, awaiting Elijah's decision on the debate between Rabbi Tarfon versus the Rabbis, whether we must drink four or five cups on Passover.

But why must we wait for Elijah to make this decision? Isn't the issue resolved simply by following the established principle that the majority rules, while Rabbi Tarfon is only a singular opinion? And why do we involve Elijah only here, and not also in the dispute of Hillel vs. the Rabbis, whether the Paschal offering is eaten with the Matza as a Korech sandwich, or separately?

Expressions of Redemption

The commentaries relate the Four Cups to the "Four Expressions of Redemption" in the Torah verses: "I will take you out," "I will deliver you," "I will redeem you," and "I will acquire you." (Exodus 6:2-8)

These are not merely four synonyms, for each represents a distinct stage and level of Redemption. "I will take you out" refers to physical exit from the land of Egypt. "I will deliver you from their bondage" means delivery from servitude and "I will redeem you" is the Divine guarantee that we remain a free people. "I will acquire you as My nation to be your G‑d" chosen at Mount Sinai - the goal of the Exodus.

The Fifth and Final Promise

In addition to these Four Expressions, the Torah also uses a fifth expression of Redemption: "I will bring you into the land." 

Until two thousand years ago the Seder may have indeed featured a fifth cup, when this 'fifth expression' was fulfilled and the Jewish people actually lived in the Promised Land.

But after being exiled from our homeland, languishing in alien countries all around the world, our situation no longer corresponds to the Fifth Expression; hence no Fifth Cup.

Yet this special cup remained symbolically on the Seder Table, expressing our prayers and hopes to be gathered again to the Land of Israel. What may once have been an optional custom, has developed over time into standard observance, reinforced by generations of Jewish yearning for the Redemption.

Now, being closer than ever to the Redemption, the Cup of Elijah figures prominently at our Seders.

Elijah the Herald

Elijah's Cup demonstrates that ' Redemption' is not an abstract concept, an old wives tale, wishful fantasy, or a vague notion. Our belief in Moshiach and the Redemption is real and relevant, being a pillar of the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith. Elijah's Cup takes the mystical concept of Redemption and Moshiach out of the closet, and places the issue right on the table for all to see and realize.

Presently, this cup is unfortunately beyond our reach; we cannot actually drink it. But we are all ready and waiting. We are on standby, eagerly anticipating Elijah's long awaited heralding of the Redemption.

Unlike the other cups that come and go, this special cup represents our staying power and perseverance.

Its very presence makes a most powerful statement. Elijah's cup is not merely a question of specific Halacha, but of our future as a whole. This cup contains our future hopes and aspirations as a people.

In a sense, the very quiet Elijah's cup is like the 'Eye of the Storm' around which all else revolves.

Moshiach Now

This follows Maimonides' teaching that belief in Moshiach shouldn't just be passive. It is not enough to merely sit back and wait. Moshiach should be on our daily agenda. We must actively demand and look forward to Moshiach's coming. Indeed, the Redemption process is accelerated by our prayers, actions and yearning.

Next Year In Jerusalem!

Even over the last fifty years, when, thank G‑d, we have Israel, we are not satisfied. We know that there is much more and better to come. Israel is indeed a place of Divine blessings and protection, but it has yet to achieve the true peace and lofty ideals of the Messianic age.

Israel has proven to be a safe haven for Jews from all over the world. We surely have much to be proud of Israel's miraculous victories and amazing achievements. But despite it all, Israel is constantly threatened from within and without, challenged by dubious processes, treaties and schemes by its enemies and detractors.

Israel has not yet reached its full potential. So, as good as things are, we haven't yet arrived. And without the full fulfillment of the fifth expression of 'arriving in the land,' we cannot drink the fifth cup.

Even while standing at the Kotel today, we pray for the Rebuilding of Jerusalem. As beautiful and impressive as it is, the Kotel is only an outer wall, and only one out of four. Even while celebrating Passover in the city of Jerusalem today, we conclude by exclaiming "Next Year In Jerusalem!" longing to see it in its true and full glory.


Elijah's cup is not there just to grace our table. It is not served merely as an honorary toast to a great prophet. It is rather here to give our whole Seder a new focus and direction.

There is a common misconception that the Seder is all over after eating the Afikoman. Once they've closed the door on Elijah, some people tend to doze off or clear away the table, assuming that the rest is just winding down with optional chants.

On the contrary! At this point the Seder rises to a crescendo, as it approaches the grand finale of the future Redemption. It is here that the context changes course from the past, and turns the corner to the future.

Judaism sees the Exodus from Egypt as the beginning of a process to be completed by our Redemption through Moshiach.

The Seder doesn't just look back to the past, to the Pharaohs and the Pyramids; we also look forward to our Redemption in the future. As much as we relive the Exodus from Egypt through Moses, let us not lose sight of our ultimate goal, our own redemption now from exile through Moshiach, speedily in our days.


"...they were "Mesubim":

What brought these sages from opposing schools of thought together for this Seder? Perhaps they came to seek comfort and strength from Rabbi Akiva amid the turbulence after the Temple's destruction (Mak. 24).

Q. The Hebrew word Mesubim is usually translated as "reclining." But how were they permitted to recline in the presence of the Nasi, Rabbi Elazar b. Azaria?

A. "Mesubim" here can be traced to the original Hebrew Saviv, i.e. sitting around in a circle, the preferred seating arrangement in a forum for debate and deliberation, so all parties can see each other.

This was no chance meeting. The sages had traveled from afar to join together at this symposium, which is significant in view of their intense ideological feuds. It was probably here that they presented their arguments in the famous debate whether the Mitzvot of Passover night end at midnight, or do they extend all night until dawn.

Let's Pick Our Fights and Choose Our Battles

This Haggadah commentary focuses on the debate at the Bnai Brak Seder, a typical Talmudic method of argumentation. Let us therefore review the Torah attitude to difference of opinion.

How are we to understand the range and disparity of interpretation? Were those sages whose opinions were proven wrong, considered mistaken? Can clashing viewpoints both be considered "Words of the Living G‑d"?

Good and Bad Arguments

The old joke that two Jews have three opinions has become a sad fact.  Our penchant for division recalls the story of a Jew shipwrecked on a solitary island. In time, this isolated Jew built himself all of life's necessities, including two shuls; one where he prayed, and the other shul "in which I will never set foot."

Movements try to assert themselves at the expense of others. Some fear others elbowing their way in by pushing others out, while others feel threatened by others' higher or lower 'religious' level. Positions harden as personal agendas are cloaked in religious mantles, and politics are sanctified as righteous 'isms.'

Unfortunately, these 'Holy War' mongers add fuel to the fire by invoking the Mishna: "An argument for the sake of Heaven endures forever" (Avoth 5).  "If Hillel and Shamai fought, why not we?"

But unfortunately, the 'idealism' degenerates into mutual recrimination and defamation. Minor matters are magnified into major chasms, and bridgeable differences are burned. Suspicion breeds suspicion, and what divides us overrides that which unites us. As the 'religious' rhetoric escalates and clouds the controversy, it becomes hard to tell whether an argument is really for the 'Sake of Heaven.'

Divisiveness as a Blessing

'An argument for the sake of Heaven endures forever- this is the argument between Hillel and Shamai.'      

Let us study the unique Hillel - Shamai relationship to better appreciate the value of Division.

Why is eternal divisiveness a blessing? Wouldn't Judaism be less confusing and more peaceful without conflicting opinions? Don't we escort the Torah singing: "Its ways are pleasant; all its paths are peace?"

Actually, Talmudic diversity of opinion reveals that Torah is not one-dimensional, but a broad spectrum of Divine light that radiates on different wavelengths.

For practical purposes, the Halacha usually follows Hillel. But Shamai, too, is a valid school of thought. No one is right or wrong, because Hillel and Shamai both come from a good and holy place. As a multi-faceted diamond, the Torah's sparkle is appreciated from different angles, depending on the perspective.

Who is Number One?

The Talmud notes Hillel's humility in allowing Shamai to be the first to state his opinion (Eruvin 13b).

How ironic that Pirkay Avoth breaks this rule in the first, second and fifth chapters. Why does our authoritative source of ethics violate this arrangement, consistently mentioning Hillel before Shammai?

Obviously, there is more to Hillel allowing Shamai to speak first than mere courtesy.

An Unrivaled Rivalry

Despite the issues dividing them, Shamai and Hillel enjoyed an excellent loving relationship. Usually, intense rivals try to prove their opponent wrong, to eliminate the opposition.

But Hillel and Shamai welcomed their opposition, for it allowed them to expand the breadth of the Living word of G‑d.

Hillel refused to state his position without first hearing Shamai. Hillel allowed leniency only after Shamai's stricter ruling pulled in the opposite direction, providing a healthy counterbalance to the Torah equilibrium.


Hillel and Shamai had clashing personalities, attitudes and modes of interpretation, but both agreed that there is more than their own side to a Torah issue. Convinced as they were of their opinion, they were also convinced that their opponent was also right, at least on a theoretic level.

They didn't only tolerate a contrary viewpoint, or politely agree to disagree. They eagerly welcomed the opportunity to explore all sides of the Divine word.

It is remarkable that Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai, a leading member of Bet Hillel, was a student of both Hillel and Shamai (Avoth 2). It certainly is a challenge to be an ardent student of diametrically opposite schools.

The Perfect Blend

The Talmud (San. 37 b) describes the 23-member Jewish Supreme Courthouse. Seated in front of the court's semi-circle were three rows of 23 rabbinical interns who participated in the deliberations. Based on a quote from Song of Songs comparing the Court to a blend of wine, the 23 judges represented a 1:3 ratio in the full courthouse of 72, just as one part of wine concentrate is diluted with three parts water.

The Chasam Sofer explains that the diversity of Torah opinion requires a balance similar to the blend of wine and water, i.e. the sharp and tepid. Hillel and Shamai could not exist without each other, just as wine concentrate is not drinkable without water, or vice versa.

Kindness Tempered by Severity

The famous story of the three converts who were rejected by Shamai but accepted by Hillel is an example of this interdependence. 

Hillel's acceptance raises a serious Halachic issue. A potential convert must first be discouraged to test his sincerity? How did Hillel accept the converts without an initial rejection?

Typically, Hillel relied on Shamai's initial rejection. The convert's sincerity was proven by his persistence to seek out Hillel after being rejected by the first rabbi he met.

'An argument for the Sake of Heaven endures.' 'Endurance' is not only a result; it is the criteria defining which argument is "for the Sake of Heaven."                

It is for the Sake of Heaven when both parties sincerely want the opposing view to endure. Such an argument will truly endure forever, and no one can argue with that.

Similarly, we find Israel's Twelve Tribes engraved twice on the High Priest's garments: once collectively as a group on the Ephod shoulder straps, and again individually on the breastplate, each a gem with a distinct color. The Torah emphasizes that these two expressions must be firmly bonded and secured. We are both diverse and together, and even as individuals, we must never lose sight of the whole.

" Bnai Brak:"

The location of that Seder is significant. Even after the Destruction prevented them from celebrating in Jerusalem, the sages continued the tradition through the dark and harrowing Galut night.

Abarbanel associates the name "Bnai Brak" with the Hebrew word 'Barak' for lightning.

'Brak' may also be related to 'Barkai' (Yoma 3:1) heralding of dawn to begin the Temple service. Similarly here, the students herald the approach of daybreak to recite the Shma.

 "... telling the story of the Exodus"

No blessing is recited for the Mitzva of reciting the Haggadah, for blessings are recited only on a Mitzva that is fixed and defined. Example: A blessing on food is said only when the item is in hand (which presents a problem regarding the Etrog)

Ideally, the retelling of the Exodus story should flow freely as a casual, shmoozing conversation between father and son, rather than as a formal recitation from a prepared text. Our present Haggadah was made to serve only as an outline of 'talking points.'

Similarly no blessing is required before thinking Torah in the mind, being only in the initial thinking stage.                                                 

Q. When Moses originally asked Pharaoh "Let my people Go," he asked to leave for only three days for a religious service. But wasn't it obvious that they had no intention of returning?

A. In the history of other freedom movements, the primary goal is physical freedom. Only after gaining independence, do they eventually develop a national identity and purpose. But here it was the reverse. Israel's primary quest was spiritual freedom, which eventually also developed into physical independence.

"They shall leave Egypt with great riches."

The Talmud (Ber. 9) asks: If freedom was Israel's goal, why emphasize physical riches? Compare this with Purim: when the Jews retaliated, the Megillah notes repeatedly that they took no booty.

It symbolizes that the exile experience was not negative; Not just happy to get out, put it behind us and let's forget about it, as if it never happened.

No! In retrospect, it was a rewarding experience we take along with us that made it all worthwhile.

 "Said (to them) Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah..."

According to Maimonides, this continues from the previous paragraph, recording Rabbi Elazar's words at that Seder. "But the Chachamim say..." may also be the response of his Bnai Brak colleagues.

 "All that Night"

Q. Why refer to it indirectly as "that night," without identifying it clearly as "Passover night"?

A. "That Night" may refer to the original night of the Exodus, the actual departure from Egypt. These sages became so absorbed in their subject, that they actually experienced it.

"Until their students came...:"

The Talmud describes two sets of students during Rabbi Akiva's lifetime: the first students who died in a plague during the Sefira period, and the latter 5 prominent students who rebuilt a desolate world. The identity of these students can be determined by the two possibilities of the date of this Seder (see above)

"... they said: 'Our masters!'"

      This term of deference is proper here, so the students' disturbing their masters Seder not be perceived to be disrespectful.

"...The time has arrived"

Besides alerting the sages of imminent Reading of Shma, it also echoes a romantic expression in Song of Songs alluding to 'The dawn of Redemption' after a long 'night' of exile. Symbolically, the students' initiative confirms that their masters' retelling the Exodus brought closer the dawning of a new light.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The Haggadah opens with Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria's excitement upon hearing Ben Zoma say that the Exodus should be remembered also at night.

Derived from the verse "Remember the Exodus all the days of your life" (Deut.16),  Ben Zoma explained the word "All"  to include the Exodus also during the evening prayers. 

The Majority Opinion

The majority of the sages, however, differed with Ben Zoma. According to them, the key word "All"  refers to "the Days of Moshiach," assuring that the Exodus will never become an anachronism. It will not be overshadowed or rendered meaningless even by the great wonderous events of the Final Redemption. Accordingly, we will still  remember the Exodus even after Moshiach is here.

This argument in the Mishna (Brachot 1:5) is typical of the Talmud, where the sages will debate specific words or expressions in the Torah, and apply their interpretations to actual law and custom.

Going Off on a Tangent?

But the question arises, why is this Talmudic debate included in the Haggadah?

At first glance, this subject seems irrelevant! It does not relate to Passover law or custom, but rather to the year round reading of the Evening prayers!

Such exegetic material properly belongs in the Talmud rather than in the Haggadah. Why must the average lay Haggadah reader become involved in this complicated Talmudic controversy?

(Later in the Hagaddah we read varying Talmudic opinions regarding the number of plagues that the Egyptians suffered at the Red Sea. That is certainly appropriate, as it demonstrates the multi-faceted aspects of Divine power revealed during the Exodus, fulfilling the Haggadah's stated mission, "He who increases to speak and tell about the Exodus is praiseworthy.")

Going Against the Majority?

But how does this academic debate on a Halachic issue, whether or not the third part of the Shma belongs in the evening service, enhance our perception of the Exodus?

Furthermore, if Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria felt so fortunate to hear Ben Zoma's opinion, why quote the conflicting majority opinion? Doesn't the alternative interpretation detract from Ben Zoma's words? And shouldn't Ben Zoma's unpopularity have diminished Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria's excitement ?

By 'shelving' the issue for the future "Days of Moshiach," do the sages mean to distance the verse from it's practical daily application?  Are they implying that the word "All"  is now a moot point, which is not relevant to us here and now? If so, why bring it up at our Seder?

Not Just for Old Times' Sake

Obviously, the broader message of this debate is not restricted merely to the issue of the night time prayer. It goes beyond that specific detail to address a greater issue about the very nature, meaning and essence of the Exodus, and how it affects us today.

Let us begin with the reasoning behind this Mitzva to "remember the Exodus all the days of our life." This is not just a flashback for old times' sake, for it actually reflects the essence of the concept of freedom and redemption in Judaism. As the Haggadah states clearly: "Not only our ancestors were redeemed, but we, too, were redeemed with them."

It's a Long Story

We know that "in each and every generation a person should see himself as leaving Egypt."

The original Exodus was not a one-time event that occurred long ago in the ancient past. Judaism sees the Exodus from Egypt as the beginning of an ongoing redemptive process, which continues to the present, and will be completed by the Redemption through Moshiach.

Our ancestors left Egypt geographically, but mentally and spiritually we still linger in "Mizrayim," the Hebrew word for Egypt that implies straits, constraints and limitations.

Redemption means freedom from all boundaries that confine and restrict us. Physical redemption means freedom from an external tyrant or oppressive regime. But there is also spiritual freedom from a dangerous habit or an abusive situation; to be freed from our own internal limitations.

Moshiach Now

The sages' concern here is not about a Halachic issue in the distant future. On the contrary, they are telling us  that the "Days of Moshiach" affect us immediately now, emphasizing the central and primary role that Moshiach plays in our daily lives.        

To paraphrase the sages' expression: "All the days of your life bring the days of Moshiach."

As Maimonides writes, the belief in Moshiach demands more than just waiting passively for the Redemption to happen. It is not enough that we should sit back, and be willing to welcome Moshiach when he arrives. Our basic belief requires that Moshiach should be part of outr daily agenda. We yearn for him every day and look forward with eagerness to Moshiach's coming at any time.

Redemption is a cumulative process from Moshe to Moshiach in which every mitzva and improvement refines us and the world, bringing us one step closer to completion.

This cumulative effect is also expressed in Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria statement, "I am as if 70 years old." The Arizal explains that although he was only 18 years old, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria's experience included the years of his soul mate, the Prophet Samuel, who died at the age of 52.             

Tunnel Vision

Just as Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria rejoiced with Ben Zoma's comment, he also rejoiced with the relationship to Moshiach that was expressed by the other sages. (Indeed, the commentaries explain that there is no actual halachic diaagreement here).                  

"All the days of you life bring the days of Moshiach" shows the connection between the present and the future. There is a direct relationship between the two seemingly diverse worlds, our era and the Era of Moshiach.

The Final Redemption as it relates to our exile is a little like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but even more so.

Ours is not just a journey towards a distant light located at the very end. Rather, it is the journey itself that creates the light we strive to reach. The Divine revelation in the times of Moshiach is the direct result of the Light created by the good deeds that have accumulated throughout the ages.

In ordinary subterranean tunnels, the light at the end exists regardless of whether we head towards it or not.  But the great light of Moshiach is created through the myriad sparks of light and holiness that were created through our toils and struggles through this long exile.

Creation is Goal Oriented

"All the days of your life bring to the Days of Moshiach" teaches us how one leads into the other.          

The ideal world of Moshiach is not a separate and disconnected entity from our present world. It is rather the result of our efforts to improve ourselves and the world around us.

The Final Redemption and ultimate perfection is the original reason and purpose of all of Creation, that Good will ultimately prevail.  The Redemption is not a sudden surprise that will spring upon us from nowhere at the end of time. Redemption is not merely an after-thought, a last resort when all else fails. It is not only an emergency rescue operation to save us from a bad situation.

Redemption is rather an integral part of  the original Divine plan to join Heaven and earth, and make this lowly world a dwelling place for G‑d.

Without the future of Redemption our lives would be reduced to meaningless wandering in an endless tunnel of darkness, with no hope of ever seeing the light. The unique Heavenly light beyond the darkness will eventually give meaning and purpose to all of life and to all of creation.

Seeing the Light

Rather than just look ahead to see the light shining far away in the distance, we should learn to appreciate the imminence of Moshiach and his relevance to our lives.

By opening our eyes and raising our Moshiach awareness, we can be imbued and inspired by that Heavenly light even while we are still in exile, for Moshiach is almost here.

 "... 'All'...To include also the Nights:"

As a metaphor, 'Darkness' represents Exile, the antithesis of the dawn of Redemption, so it may seem inappropriate to recall the Liberation of Exodus at nighttime. The extra word 'All' is thus necessary to emphasize that we should remember the Exodus even during the dark of 'night.' 

'Night' serves as the darkroom where our negatives are developed into positives.This is why the Maariv nighttime prayer is relatively 'optional,' coming at a difficult time in our life when it is hard to observe the commandment as during the 'day,' when all is bright and clear. This also explains the emphasis in the ma nishtana questions on the observance at night rather than day.

 "...until the Drasha of....:

The term drasha is a 'Janus word', containing opposite meanings. Today, Drasha is usually translated as a lecture to the public. Yet in scripture, the word Drasha means a student's search and yearning to learn, rather than the masters' delivery.

As a perpetual student who declined a Rabbinic title, searching was Ben Zoma's life's quest, as he states: "Who is wise? He who learns from all." (Avoth 4:1)

Ben Zoma:                                                                                                                                        

Q. Why is this respected sage (whose opinion Rabbi Elazar follows), called indirectly by his father's name, rather than his own? 

Q: All Talmudic sages (since Rabban Gamliel) carry the title  'Rabbi.' Why is Ben Zoma an exception? Some commentaries claim that Ben Zoma died as a youth before he could be ordained. But why couldn't the brilliant Ben Zoma (Brachos 60) have been ordained, as was Rabbi Elazar b. Azaria, by the age of 18?

Furthermore, we must address as 'Rabbi' anyone who taught us just one letter (Avoth 6:3).  As Haggadah and Pirkay Avoth students learning from Ben Zoma, doesn't he deserve that we address him as 'Rabbi'?

Ben Zoma's opening statement explains his lack of rabbinic title. "Who is Wise? (Not the great scholarly master, but rather) 'He who learns from all people."  A persistent seeker of knowledge, Ben Zoma preferred to remain a student, rather than be raised on an honorable know-it-all pedestal. 

This may also explain why Ben Zoma isn't called by his own name 'Shimon,' This omission does not slight Ben Zoma, but on the contrary honors him! For halachically, a master cannot be called by his proper name without a title. Since Ben Zoma declined a rabbinic title, as explained above, we cannot call him 'Shimon.'

The Titanic Haggadah

It was a week after Passover on that fateful night of April 15, 1912 when the Titanic went down. So why are we making a headline commotion about a Titanic Haggadah? Actually, it is doubtful they had a Haggadah or a Torah aboard the Titanic. Indeed, a Torah scroll would feel out of place amid the glitz and glamour on the grand luxury liner. Passengers flaunting material riches and jewelry probably didn't list a Torah among their treasures. Yet the Titanic is still making big waves these days, and everyone and everything is being swept up with it. We're all bobbing up and down in the tremendous wake of "Titanic," and it was probably the "Titanic" in the title of this article that first caught your eye. But now that you've come aboard, please make yourself comfortable. Be my guest and join me, if you will, on a little cruise where we can think and reflect on the meaning of it all. Admittedly, Torah and the Titanic don't go together. The Titanic offered vanity, fun and frolic, while the Torah represents truth, purpose and dedication. They're hardly a comparison. A Torah's top wooden handles are no match to Titanic's towering masts and looming smokestacks. A Torah is richly dressed in velvet with gold embroidery and decked out in silver, but it didn't fit into Titanic's fashion and lifestyle. On the other hand, the Titanic couldn't make it through her maiden voyage, while the Torah has been a virtual lifeboat for thousands of years. It has no fancy decks and big ballrooms, but Torah certainly offers a First Class lifestyle, regardless of economic level. We've had rough sailing through history, but we've weathered many a storm, and kept an even keel despite much turbulence. Torah continues to direct us full steam ahead to this day. This may seem unthinkable, but the Titanic mania can teach us a lesson. Indeed, the Baal Shem Tov taught that there is a lesson in everything we see and hear. Isn't it amazing how Hollywood managed to turn the great disaster into a great success? Why has everyone fallen in love with an old, rusting wreck? It's not just a great story. Actually, all of Titanic's details and information have long been common knowledge, and it has been fully documented in books, periodicals and movies. So what's the secret that propelled a sunken shipwreck into a super production?  Obviously, it's not the story itself, but how it is told, that makes all the difference! "Titanic" doesn't just repeat dry facts; it breathes new life to revive the old story. Torah personalities, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, are here and now. Torah events and issues are relevant and contemporary, as we receive the Torah anew each day, -it's what's happening! For the Torah to come alive, we should infuse it with love, warmth and inspiration. Rather than be passive bystanders, or readers, let us personalize the story and feel part of it. We cannot relive the Exodus by reciting it as an archaic, once-upon-a-time story of days bygone. Hurry, our cruise is almost over. Our ship is coming in, as we approach the era of Moshiach when "Divine wisdom will fill the earth, as the waters cover the sea."(Isaiah 10) Then, we will fully appreciate the Torah's depth, for the Torah we see now is really just the tip of the iceberg.  



Rabbi Israel M. Lau The Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel

'I join the great Torah masters in approving Rabbi Rubin's scholarly work of deep thought and illumination."

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel

"Rabbi Rubin adds generously of his own to the earlier commentaries of Roshonim and Acharonim in a clear and pleasant style ...May his wellsprings spread forth!"

Rabbi P. Hirshprung Chief Rabbi of Montreal

"Rabbi Rubin's excellent ideas deserve deep study.  They should be published for the public benefit..."

Rabbi Aaron Sloveichik Yeshivas Brisk

"Glancing through your book, I saw precious gems and beautiful interpretations. May you continue to publish more in all areas of Torah."

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz Jerusalem, Israel

"Hundreds of commentaries on the Haggadah and Avot draw from its inspiration, revealing one of more facets of hidden wisdom.  Every age and place faces different problems and there is a need for renewed insights. Rabbi Rubin's work on Haggadah and Pirkay Avot creates a new story to our tall tower of knowledge.  Building upon previous works, he adds his own scholarly insights, weaving old and new into an important commentary."


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