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Question: What constitutes the actual Haggadah – the mitzvah to retell the story of our slavery in Egypt and how Hashem redeemed us and delivered us from there? Also, if the head of household reads the Haggadah to those assembled, has he discharged their obligation?

Yosef Slomovicz
Via email



Answer: In your question, you correctly indicate that there is a mitzvah incumbent on each and every Jew to retell the story of our miraculous deliverance from the bondage of Egypt. We were asked this very similarly many years ago. That reader’s question was focused on the opening words, the question of the Haggadah, Mah Nishtanah – in what way is this night different from any other night of the year? We hope that our discussion will result in a satisfactory answer to this question. As a matter of disclosure, the young man’s grandfather, to whom he first put this question, Reb Beryl Ackerman, z”l, was a friend of mine. We first present that earlier readers question.

Question: Does a katan (minor) exempt the father or leader of the Seder from having to recite the Mah Nishtanah? The father could continue with Avadim hayyinu, as stated in the Shulchan Aruch (473:7, Hilchot Pesach). The poskim bring proof from Tractate Pesachim (116a), where R. Nachman continued with Avadim hayyinu, as did Abaye and Rava. I put this question to my grandfather, Reb Beryl Ackerman, and he responded that in the margin of the Shulchan Aruch the Chatam Sofer quotes Rambam, who states that the reader of the Haggadah must repeat the Mah Nishtanah. His Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Binyomin Paler, understands Rambam to mean that since a child is not a bar chiyyuva, the father must repeat the Mah Nishtanah, and the cases cited in the Talmud do not deal with a minor. In light of the above, why do certain poskim such as the Mishna Berurah state that he does not have to repeat the Mah Nishtanah?

Pinchus Cynamon
Beis Medrash of Flatbush


Indeed, the Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 473:7) states as follows: “We pour the second cup immediately so that the children ask, `Why do we drink a cup [of wine] before the meal?’ If the son lacks sufficient intelligence, his father teaches him; if he has no son then his wife asks him; if he has no wife then he himself asks; even two scholars ask one another the Mah Nishtanah.” The Rema notes, “If the son or wife asks, there is no need to repeat the Mah Nishtanah and we continue with Avadim hayyinu, etc.” The Mishna Berurah (ad loc.) adds that where there are two scholars and one asks the other, there is no further need to repeat the Mah Nishtanah, and we continue with Avadim hayyinu.

We find that even though the Rema [in name of Maharil] states that there is no need to repeat, and the Mishna Berurah further includes that rule for all cases, there are many whose custom it is to repeat the questions. Let us now examine the procedure for the Seder on Pesach to help clarify the source of this particular mitzvah.

We read in the Torah (Exodus 13:8) as follows: “You shall tell your son on that day, saying, `It is on account of that which Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.’” Rambam lists this precept in Sefer HaMitzvot as the mitzvah of “sippur yetziat mitzrayim – relating about the exodus from Egypt,” a positive commandment (Mitzvah 157).

Rashi, ad loc., citing the Mechilta, sees this as a hint to the answer one gives the wicked son: Hashem did it for me, but had you been there, you would have been unworthy of redemption. Rashi is actually citing the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:4), a text source for our Haggadah (both Talmudic texts, though not identical, differ somewhat from the text in our Haggadah), which states as follows, “R. Chiya learned in a Baraita that the Torah speaks of four sons: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is foolish, and one who does not know what to ask.”

The Pnei Moshe in his commentary, ad loc., explains that we find in the Torah four times a “haggadah,” lit. “a telling, of a father to a son.” The Gemara now explains how we come to these four sons.

The first verse we refer to concerns the wise son, who asks (Deuteronomy 6:20), “What are the testimonies, the decrees and the ordinances that Hashem our G-d commanded you?”

Pnei Moshe notes that the verse concludes with “commanded you,” but the Gemara quotes it as “commanded us.” He explains that in so doing the wise son manifests his wisdom because he does not wish to utter the words “commanded you,” for these words, on the face of it, appear to exclude him. Additionally, even though the verse states, “commanded you,” he still prefaces his words with “Hashem our G-d,” unlike the wicked son who makes no mention of Hashem.

The Gemara continues, “The wicked son, what does he say (Exodus 12:26)? ‘What is this service to you?’” The Gemara explains this to mean, “What is the great effort that you expend each and every year?” Since he has excluded himself from the community, you must tell him (Exodus 13:8), “It is on account of that which Hashem did for me.” For me it was done, but for the wicked son it was not done, for had he been in Egypt, he would never have been worthy of redemption.

The Gemara then states, “The foolish son, what does he ask (Exodus 13:14)? “… What is this…? Therefore, you must teach him the laws of the paschal offering – that one may not partake of the afikoman after the paschal lamb [i.e., one may not leave his chabura – group that partakes of the Korban Pesach, and subsequently join another group].”

Finally, the Gemara concludes with “the son who does not know what to ask.” Upon reviewing the four verses that we have repeated numerous times in relation to those questions, one verse, the one we cited originally (Exodus 13:8) “You shall tell your son on that day, saying,” lacks the preface of a question. Therefore, you initiate the query. R. Yosah quotes the Mishna (Pesachim 116a; Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 10:4) that if the son lacks the intelligence to inquire, his father teaches him.

It appears from all of the above that a main element of the Haggadah is the instruction of the children, who should be encouraged to make inquiries.

The Mishna Berurah (Orach Chayyim 473, cited at the outset) is essentially explaining the Mechaber and the Rema ad loc., who in turn are codifying the law based on the Gemara (Pesachim 116a), which states as follows, “We learned in a Baraita: if the son is intelligent, he asks [the father], if the son lacks intelligence, his wife asks him, and if [he has no wife] he himself asks, and even two scholars who are well versed in the laws of Pesach ask one another.”

The Rema deduces from this Gemara – and the Mishna Berurah rules accordingly – that in the event the son or wife asks the Mah Nishtanah, the father continues with Avadim hayyinu and there is no need for him to repeat the questions of the Mah Nishtanah.

The Chatam Sofer, quoted by Reb Beryl Ackerman, as found in the margins of the Shulchan Aruch, cites Rambam (Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 8:2), who states: “… We pour the second cup [of wine] and here the son asks [the Mah Nishtanah], and then the reader says Mah Nishtanah, etc.”

The Chatam Sofer notes that this text of Rambam appears to be at odds with what we conclude from the Gemara, upon which the Rema and the Mishna Berurah seem to base their ruling. The Chatam Sofer leaves this question unanswered, which only further confounds us in regard to this matter.

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.