Gems from Rav Soloveitchik on the Haggada By Rabbi Chaim Jachter



Rav Hershel Schachter recently published a work entitled “MiPenieni HaRav,” his second volume of collections of Torah insights of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.  In this essay, we shall present a number of the Rav’s ideas regarding the Seder that Rav Schachter published in this work.

Ha Lachmah Anya

The commentaries to the Haggada pose many questions regarding the introductory section to Maggid, Ha Lachma Anya.  We shall focus on the question regarding the relevance of the declaration we make at the conclusion of Ha Lachma Anya, “this year we are here, next year we shall be in the Land of Israel, this year we are slaves, next year we shall be free.”  Many ask why we mention this at the conclusion of Ha Lachma whose purpose is to invite any who are hungry to come and join us at the Seder.

Rav Soloveitchik cites the Mishna in Bava Metzia 83a to resolve this problem.  The Mishna there relates a story about Rav Yochanan ben Matya who instructed his son to hire some workers for a particular job.  The son proceeded to hire Jewish workers and he agreed, among other things, to provide them with food.  When the son told the father what he did, the father became concerned regarding the fact that the son did not specify to the workers what type of food he agreed to provide them.  The father ordered his son to immediately tell the workers before they started the job that he agrees to provide them with only an average meal.  Rav Yochanan explained that without specifying otherwise, the workers enjoyed the Halachic right to demand the most lavish meal imaginable.  This is because the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, are entitled to the finest treatment possible.

Similarly at the Seder, explains Rav Soloveitchik, when we invite a Jewish person to the Seder they are entitled to the most lavish meal imaginable unless we specify otherwise.  Hence, when we extend an invitation to poor people to attend our Seder, we indicate that in principle they are entitled to the finest meal possible.  However, due to our current pre-Messianic circumstances we are unable to provide them with such a meal.  This indication raises the self-esteem of the poor guests as we gently imply that their status as Jews endows them with “VIP status” and that anything we give them is less than what they deserve.

Vehee Sheamda

Why do we mention at the Seder that in every generation there are people who seek to destroy the Jewish people?  What does this have to do with Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim, telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt?  The Rav explains that it places the Egyptian experience into perspective.  We might have sought to explore whether there was some sociologic, economic, or political motivation for the Egyptians oppressors.  However, we note that in every generation and in every imaginable circumstance, enemies have arisen to oppress us.  Thus, we cannot attribute any particular set of circumstance as the trigger for hatred of Jews.  We must conclude that the reason for the Egyptian oppression is the sad reality that Rashi quotes in his commentary to Breishit 33:4 that it is the way of the world that Esav hates Yaakov.  The implications for the contemporary situation are painfully obvious.

Onus Al Pi Hadibbur

We emphasize that Yaakov went to Mitzrayim, Onus Al Pi Hadibbur, coerced by the divine instruction to descend to Egypt.  The Rav explains that we emphasize this to contrast Yaakov’s leaving Eretz Yisrael with Esav’s exit from Eretz Yisrael.  Esav gleefully abandoned Eretz Yisrael, regarding it a nuisance.  Rashi (Breishit 36:7) explains that Esav felt that the price to inherit a share in Eretz Yisrael – four hundred years of  being rootless and enduring slavery and torture as foretold in the Brit Bein Habetarim – was too steep and was happy to rid himself of this great burden.  This attitude caused Esav to forfeit any right he had to Eretz Yisrael when he left the country.  Yaakov, by contrast, left Eretz Yisrael unwillingly and thus did not forfeit his right to the land. 

This is reminiscent of the Rama Orach Chaim 539:7 (citing the Maharil) who states that when one leaves his Sukka because of heavy rain or some other significant irritant his attitude should not be that he is happy to rid himself of a nuisance.  Rather, he should be upset that Hashem has exiled him from his Sukka by sending rain or some other disturbance.  Interestingly, our sages compare the Mitzva of sitting in the Sukka with the Mitzva of living in Eretz Yisrael.  For example, the Vilna Gaon noted that the only two Mitzvot that we fulfill with our entire bodies are the Mitzva of sitting in the Sukka and the Mitzva of Yeshivat Eretz Yisrael.

Similarly, the attitude of those of us who do not have the privilege of living in Eretz Yisrael should be like Yaakov Avinu and not Esav.  Our attitude should be that the circumstances that Hashem has placed upon us (familial, economic, etc.) force us to reside outside the Land.  We should not happy that we reside in Chutz Laaretz.    


The Rav asks why don’t we sing the Shirat HaYam at the Seder as the song that celebrates Hashem’s delivering us from slavery.  Why did Chazal choose Hallel as the celebratory song of the Seder?  He answers based on Rashi’s commentary to the Pasuk in Shmuel 2:23:1 that describes David Hamelech as the “sweet singer of Israel”.  Rashi explains “the Jewish people do not sing songs of praise to Hashem in the Bait Hamikdash unless it was composed by David Hamelech.”  The Rav notes that the same applies to Pisukei Dizimra, where we note in Baruch Sheamar  that we will sing David Hamelech’s songs of praise to Hashem.  Indeed, it is for this reason that the Rambam (Hilchot Tefilla 7:13) records a custom to recite the Shirat Hayam, in our daily prayers only after the Bracha of Yishtabach is recited.  He believes that since David HaMelech did not compose the Shirat Hayam its place is not in the P’sukei Dizimra that are recited between Baruch Sheamar  and Yishtabach.  Similarly, the Rav suggests that at the Seder we utilize only songs composed by David Hamelech to sing praise to Hashem for redeeming us from Mitzrayim.

The Division of Hallel

The Rav explains why the first two chapters of Hallel are recited before the meal and the rest of Hallel is recited after the meal.  He notes (see Pesachim 108a for a basis for this assertion) that before the meal we should feel as if we were just redeemed from Mitzrayim.  After the meal, the mood is one of reflecting on the fact that we have been redeemed in the past.  Accordingly, before the meal we engage in Hodayah, an expression of thanks to Hashem for redeeming us from Egypt.  Hodaya may be offered only by someone who experienced the redemption and thus may be expressed only before the meal.  Shevach (praise) on the other hand, may be offered even by someone not involved in the event.  After the meal, we can no longer thank Hashem for redeeming us (as at that point we no longer feel as if we were redeemed), so instead we express Shevach to Hashem for what He did for us in the past.  The Rav explains that the first two chapters of Hallel are expressions of Hodaya and are thus appropriate to recite before the meal.  The subsequent chapters are only expressions of Shevach and thus are appropriate for recitation only after the meal.

Shifoch Chamatcha

Many wonder why Chazal included the plea of Shifoch Chamatcha in the Haggada.  The Rav explains that it is an introduction to the prayer of Nishmat that is recited soon after we say Shifoch Chamatcha.  In the Nishmat prayer, we pray for the arrival of the Mashiach when the soul of all people will call out to Hashem.  This is appropriate for the Seder since Hashem introduced himself to Moshe Rabbeinu and Am Yisrael as “I am who I am” (Shemot 3:14).  Rashi (ibid) explains this term to mean that I am with them during this period of misfortune and I will be with them in future periods of misfortune.  The Rav explains that Hashem promised Moshe Rabbeinu that just as He will redeem Klal Yisrael from Egypt, so too He will redeem us from future difficulties.  As such, we ask Hashem at the Seder to fulfill His promise made on the eve of the redemption from Egypt that He redeem us from our current difficulties and send the Mashiach.  Similarly, in the Malchiot prayer of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we ask Hashem to bring the time when all of humanity will recognize Hashem “and all of creation will know that You created them”. 

Accordingly, those people who do not know Hashem might be preventing the arrival of the Mashiach.  It is for this reason we ask Hashem to take His wrath to those who do not know Him, so that an impediment to redemption is eliminated.

We may suggest a variation of this theme.  We emphasize at the Seder that Hashem fulfilled His promise He made at the Brit Bein Habetarim (Breishit 15:14) to punish the nation that will torture and enslave us.  We develop at length how Hashem punished the Egyptians both in Egypt and at the Yam Suf.  Indeed, part of the Rambam’s (Sefer HaMitzvot 157) definition of the Mitzva of telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt includes telling how Hashem punished our oppressors.  The point of this emphasis is to demonstrate that there is a heavenly Judge and there is heavenly Justice, which is a general theme of Pesach (see Ramban at the conclusion of Parashat Bo). 

Accordingly, in Shifoch Chamatcha we ask Hashem to fulfill His promise to punish our contemporary oppressors, those who do not know Hashem, just as He punished our Egyptian oppressors.  “Those who do not know You”, that we mention in Shifoch Chamatcha, seems to refer to those who reject the seven Noachide Laws such as the prohibition to kill people.  Even “religious” people who kill innocents seem to be included in this prayer.


We hope you found these insights to be helpful and inspiring.  One might consider sharing them with his family this Yom Tov.

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