I really did come out of Egypt.
Looking for a route from Australia to Israel, my wife and I decided one year to go via Cairo. We took Qantas from Sydney to Cairo and then El Al to Israel.
We had one day in Cairo, a story of its own; when we left we took one overwhelming memory of Egypt, that it was a place of history where what happened long ago (pyramids, Pharaohs, etc.) was of supreme importance.
We landed at Ben Gurion Airport and encountered a contrast – life, bustle, today and tomorrow.
We asked ourselves why the Mishnah says, as repeated in the Haggadah,
“In every generation a person must regard himself as if he personally came out of Egypt” (Pes. 116b).
A hint comes in a duality of rabbinic expressions – “Pesach Mitzrayim” and “Pesach L’Atid”, the Egyptian Passover and the Passover of the Future.
The Mishnah is telling us to note both of them, to recall the historic bondage in Egypt and to acknowledge that there are so many people today whose lives are constrained and constricted.
What is important is not just the suffering but the determination to rise above it and leave it behind.
It is the Exodus, the going out, that really matters. Knowing that the Egyptian bondage came to an end inspires us with confidence that whatever bondage still occurs in the world will also come to an end.
BEST-SELLERS IN THE MIDDLE AGES.
How different this Pesach is from those of the Middle Ages. In those days printing had not been invented (nor of course computers), so Haggadot were not as profusely published and widely sold as today. If you had a Haggadah it would be in manuscript form, a valuable heirloom, one per family if you were lucky!
Most people would have had to rely on memory, which was a problem for those who found memorising difficult.
Some communities had walking Haggadot, experts who knew the Haggadah by heart and conducted a Seder for one or more family groups apart from their own, moving on from house to house before coming home… the original walkie-talkies!
Complications were caused by the constant persecutions and expulsions of Jewish communities, who often had little chance of packing their goods to take on their way to a hoped-for new haven.
Many of the end-of-Seder songs were not yet known, so the Haggadah was shorter than today.
If a family enjoyed stability they could hold a Haggadah for centuries. Talented artists worked long and hard on Haggadah manuscripts, producing illuminated versions that have sometimes come down to us (and raise vast sums if they find their way to auction sales). 30-40 such Haggadot are extant, remarkable pieces of art, some now reproduced in facsimile.
These include the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah written in Catalonia and the Golden (i.e. gold-leaf) Haggadah, a treasure of the British Library. An attempt at creating an artistic 20th century Haggadah was made by Arthur Szyk, using one of Cecil Roth’s texts. The illustrated Haggadot depict Biblical scenes using clothing styles of their times. Some even mimic church art styles and are part of cultural history.
7TH & 8TH DAYS.
This weekend the Diaspora and Israel have different practices. Friday is yom-tov for everybody but Shabbat is 8th day Pesach in the Diaspora and an ordinary Shabbat in Israel.
This is part of the old debate about keeping the second days of festivals. All over the Jewish world, Rosh HaShanah has two days and Yom Kippur one, but in Israel the second and eighth days of Pesach are not yom-tov, nor are the second and ninth (Simchat Torah) days of Sukkot.
The discrepancy is ancient. Instructions as to the calendar took longer to reach the Diaspora and an extra day of the festivals I have listed was added in order to avoid uncertainty. This was made possible by two verses, Deut. 4:2 which said that God’s word should not be added to or subtracted from, and Deut. 17:8-11 which recognised that new decisions might be necessary from time to time.
In regard to the calendar, the sages, using well-established legal principles, introduced an extra day of yom-tov for the Diaspora. The principles they applied were: make a “fence” around the Torah, and do not impose more than the people can cope with.
Because of the first rule an extra day was added to the festivals, which safeguarded the original Torah rule; because of the second, Yom Kippur could not be expanded.
The establishment of the State of Israel has meant that increasing numbers of Jews now follow the historic Land-of-Israel practice.
SONG AT THE SEA.
The 7th day of Pesach is marked by the Song of the Red Sea, the “shirat ha-yam”. This is Pesach at its most poetic and dramatic. A people recalls its liberation and sings to God.
Few poets could put into words the soaring emotions of the moment. Few could match what Hertz has called “probably the oldest song of national triumph still extant”.
This is not the only song which Israel sang in the course of Biblical history (Mechilta, Shirata). They sang in Egypt on the night they departed. They sang when a well of water sprang up in the wilderness. Moses sang a song of joy and comfort before he died.
Joshua sang when he won a great victory. Deborah and Barak sang when they vanquished Sisera. David sang when he was delivered from his enemies. Solomon sang when the Temple was dedicated. King Yehoshaphat sang as he went into battle.
There were many songs, but only one Shirah.
Shirat Hayam as sung in Synagogue in Gibraltar on Shabbat Shirah and on Shebi’i shel Pesach with a unique tune.
The rabbis state (Meg. 31a) that it is read on the 7th day of Pesach, but they do not fully explain why. Rashi fills us in (Commentary on Ex. 14:5).
He says that when the Israelites went on the three-days’ journey which Pharaoh had allowed, royal officials went with them. On the 4th day the officials returned and told Pharaoh that the Israelites were not coming back. On the 5th and 6th days the king’s forces pursued the Israelites.
On the night of the 7th day the Egyptians drowned in the sea and the following morning the Israelites sang the Song of Praise,
“and this was the 7th day of Pesach; that is why we read the Song on the 7th day”.
The Shirah is also found in the daily Shacharit service. The Zohar says,
“Whoever reads the Shirah daily with devotion will have the merit to read it in ‘Olam HaBa’ (the World to Come)”.
Machzor Vitry regards the daily reading as “a good custom”.
This indicates that there is more than historical association behind the importance of the song. Indeed the sages saw the splitting of the Red Sea as evidence for God: at the Red Sea a handmaid is said to have felt more spirituality than even the prophets did.
The Tanya (Sha’ar HaYichud, ch. 2) comments on how apparently illogical it was for the waters of the sea to stand upright. This occurred only because of God’s decree.
If this was a miracle,
“how much more so is it in the creation of being out of nothing which transcends nature and is far more miraculous than the splitting of the Red Sea, that with the withdrawal of the power of the Creator from the thing created, God forbid, it would revert to naught and complete non-existence. Rather, the Activating Force of the Creator must *continuously* be in the thing created to give it life and existence.”