Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was wondering if you have an explanation of: If the entire Haggadah of Passover night is written in Hebrew, why is the first section “Ha Lachma Anya” written in Aramaic? What is the significance of this paragraph as the opening to the entire Haggadah story?
— Bruce K.
The opening paragraph which you asked about, “This is the bread of affliction, (literally, the ‘poor man’s bread’) which our forefathers ate in Egypt,” was composed and added to the Haggadah during the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the first Temple. Hence the Aramaic, as that was the spoken language at that time.
This introduction is quite significant, as it sets the mood by creating a framework through which to view the ensuing story. Up until that time in history, the Babylonian exile, the Seder night was focused upon the Paschal offering, the sheep eaten that night in remembrance of God’s “skipping” over the Jewish homes during the final plague of the firstborn. (“Pesach” means to skip.) Consuming the meat of that offering by all Jews brought them immense joy as it was a testimonial to their redemption which had continued for so many hundreds of years. The matzo, during that time, was secondary in importance to the Paschal lamb which was sacrificed in the Temple and eaten at the Seder table.
After the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile, many things changed for the Jews, including the central focus of the Seder table. From that point onward, in the absence of the Paschal lamb, the central focus became the matzo. Unlike the Paschal lamb, which conjures up only the most positive feelings of joy and redemption, the matzo carries a dual message. As the food eaten at the time of redemption, the matzo carries a message of joy and celebration. At the same time, the matzo is also a bitter reminder of our time of slavery, when we were forced to eat the “poor man’s bread.” In that sense the matzo is joined by the bitter herbs, reminding us of the bitterness of our slavery, alongside the salt water reminiscent of our tears.
Despite the remembrance of our bitterness, the matzo carries a message of hope, which is the source of our joy on this holiday. We are reminded that, no matter how bleak things seem to look, nothing could be as dark as it was in Egypt when we were slave labor in every sense of the word. When the time was right, the “One in Charge” brought us forth with great miracles.
This opening paragraph reminds us that no matter how good our lives might seem to be, we are still in exile. Even those who live in Israel recite this paragraph in Aramaic because, until the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, even those living in Israel are ultimately living with an element of Diaspora. Recent events, such as those in Har Nof and many others, especially the looming danger in Iran, are a poignant reminder that we are yet far from the period of the final redemption we so await.
This paragraph contains part of the solution to our situation and to open the gates of redemption: “All who are hungry come and eat, all that need come in and join us for Pesach.” One of the central themes of the Haggadah is that at the time of the redemption from Egypt we did not emerge as a collection of individuals; rather we became a nation. We became ONE. From that moment on we began to share a collective responsibility for one another, as one big family. The early commentators explain that one of the key reasons the Prophets cite for our exile was the lack of fulfilling that responsibility; the Jews were lax in their fulfillment of tzedakah and the required tithing which supported the poor, the widows and the Levites. They were gifted the Land of Israel to fulfill the collective obligation of all to support our entire family and lost it when they forgot that obligation. The opening lines of the Haggadah remind us that if we are still in exile, we are not yet learning that message to its fullest. We therefore proclaim to all, whoever needs, please come; you are welcome here! Together with all the messages we teach our youngest children and adults alike, comes the all-important message of Klal Yisrael: our love and collective responsibility for every Jew. Just like we teach the Haggadah to all types of Jews (the “four sons”), we also need to look out for the physical well-being of every Jew, completing the complete picture of Klal Yisrael. May we learn this message well; it will surely be accepted Above as a reason for the final redemption!
Best wishes for a Chag Kasher v’Somayach, a kosher and Joyous Passover to all the readers.