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April 10th, 2019

At the beginning of the Seder, we recall the story of five Talmudic sages who passed an entire night discussing the Exodus from Egypt, after which they needed to be reminded that dawn had broken so that they would recite the Shema.

One of the five, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya, remarked that he had never known about the obligation to mention the Exodus each night until he heard an interpretation from a man called Ben Zoma, who derived it from an extra word in the verse.

But the rabbis offer a dissenting view, appearing to disagree with Ben Zoma’s interpretation, and they offer an interpretation of their own that predicts a requirement to discuss the Exodus from Egypt even after the final redemption, in the era of Messiah.

There are numerous reasons why the inclusion of this passage — which originates in a mishnah in tractate Berachot — is puzzling. The subject under discussion in that mishnah is whether or not one needs to say the third paragraph of Shema, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the retelling of the Exodus story on Passover night.

Why bring up this irrelevant halachic debate in the Haggadah? And even if the nighttime reference is relevant to the story of the rabbis who stayed up all night, why mention the dissenting view of those who disagree with Ben Zoma? And what exactly is the meaning of the rabbis view that the Exodus story will retain its importance, even after Messianic redemption?

Rabbi Dunner addresses these and other questions, and also includes a detailed look at the mysterious Ben Zoma, whose unusual personality and great scholarship are crucial to gaining an understanding of this curious passage of the Seder night Haggadah.

Image: The five sages of Bnei Brak, as illustrated by Joseph Schlesinger in his 1927 Haggadah (public domain)

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