The Passover Seder is a time when family and friends from all walks of life come together to celebrate our shared heritage and retell the story of our Exodus from Egyptian bondage. It is in this spirit of unity and togetherness that we present 15 short insights on the Haggadah from 15 diverse Torah personalities. The number 15 is apropos, as there are 15 steps of the Seder. (Of course, this is just a sampling of the insights on the Haggadah; there are many possible answers for any given question.)

In this article:

Why no blessing for the mitzvah of retelling the story of the Exodus?

Before we do most mitzvahs, such as tefillin and lighting candles, we make a blessing, so why don’t we make a blessing before the mitzvah of retelling the Exodus story?

Some explain that we don’t make a separate blessing since there is no minimum requirement of retelling the story, and\or we may have already technically fulfilled our minimum requirement by mentioning the Exodus during the evening services or Kiddush.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi questions these explanations. After all, on all other nights (and days), a mere mention of the Exodus suffices to fulfill the mitzvah. But on this night, there is a special mitzvah to discuss the Exodus at length, so why don’t we make a blessing? He explains that just as we don’t make a blessing on the mitzvah of reciting Grace After Meals, since it itself is a blessing, so too the Haggadah itself is filled with blessings, and we don’t make a blessing on a blessing.1

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), also known as the Alter Rebbe, was the first Chabad Rebbe. Although he didn’t write a separate commentary on the Haggadah, his insights on the Haggadah and Passover are found throughout his writings. For more on the Alter Rebbe, see Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

Why extend an invitation when no one can hear?

We start the Haggadah with the passage “This is the bread of affliction . . . Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover.” Yet there is no potential guest to hear this invitation, and anyone hearing it is presumably already at the Seder.

One explanation, offered by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, is that this is not meant as an invitation to the poor to join (which presumably was already done at this point). Rather, we’re teaching our children that part of the mitzvah of Passover is making sure that those in need are provided for, and that we can only fulfill the mitzvah of being joyful on the holiday if we have guests.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (1910–2012) was considered one of the leading rabbis of Lithuanian Jewry in the last century. His teachings on the Haggadah were collected and published in 2006.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (Wikimedia)
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (Wikimedia)

Celebrate freedom in exile?

Why is it that Jews observe Passover, a holiday celebrating freedom, even during our long, bitter exile?

Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague, explains that the holiday of Passover does not simply celebrate our freedom from oppression. After all, throughout our long history, even under harsh and grueling conditions at the hands of other oppressive tyrants, we Jews have continued to celebrate our freedom from Egypt.

So what are we celebrating? The freedom we achieved through the Exodus on Passover transformed the essential nature of the Jewish people. We acquired the nature of free people, to the point that in our essence we are free, and no one has the ability to subjugate our essential selves ever again. Thus, despite subsequent oppression, enslavement and torture, the fundamental nature of the Jewish people remains free. This sustains us even through the harshest parts of exile. Our enemies may have attempted to subjugate our physical bodies, but they no longer have the ability to subjugate our spirit.2

Rabbi Yehuda Loew (1525–1609), known as the Maharal of Prague, was a Torah scholar, philosopher, mystic and prolific writer. Aside from the Haggadah Divrei Negidim published by his descendant, his work Gevurot Hashem is also dedicated to the holiday of Passover. For more on the Maharal, see Rabbi Judah Loew.

From the 1582 Gevurot Hashem printed in Cracow. (HebrewBooks.org)
From the 1582 Gevurot Hashem printed in Cracow. (HebrewBooks.org)

Why so important to get the children to ask questions?

One of the reasons why we have so many unique rituals on the Seder night (such as dipping the karpas vegetable in salt water) is to arouse our children's curiosity. As the verse states, “And it will come to pass, if your son asks you in the future, saying, ‘What is this?’ you shall say to him, ‘With a mighty hand did the L‑rd take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ ”3 Yet, why is it important that the child ask? Why can’t we just retell the story without being asked?

Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer, explains that Passover night is an especially opportune time to teach and ingrain in our children the fundamentals of the Jewish faith, of which the Exodus story is a cornerstone. Lecturing our children about the Passover story will have less of an effect than sparking their own curiosity about the story. Thus, we do things to arouse our children’s desire to know and understand the Passover story, ingraining within them lessons that will stay with them throughout their lives.

Rabbi Moshe Schreiber or Sofer (1762–1839) is known as the Chatam Sofer after the title of his main work. He served as rabbi of Bratislava (Pressburg), now Slovakia, where he was known for his uncompromising stand against the Enlightenment movement. A number of Haggadahs have been published with his insights.

Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer
Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer

What is the actual answer to the four questions of the Mah Nishtanah?

Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel explains that there is one underlying question behind the Four Questions: Why on this night do we do things that symbolize freedom and luxury, such as dipping our food twice and leaning on our sides while eating, while also eating matzah—poor man’s bread—and plain, bitter herbs, which symbolize servitude?

The answer to this, explains the Abarbanel, is right in the next paragraph: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the L‑rd, our G‑d, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.” At the beginning of this night, we were slaves, and by the end of the night, we were free people. Thus, the rituals on this night encompass both aspects: freedom and luxury, as well as servitude.4

Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437–1508) was a Jewish philosopher, statesman, leader of Spanish Jewry and finance minister to a number of kings, including the king of Spain up until the Spanish expulsion. His commentary to the Haggadah, Zevach Pesach, is considered one of the classic commentaries on the Haggadah. For more about him, see Don Isaac Abravanel - "The Abarbanel."

A 1557 edition of the Zevach Pesach Haggadah. (HebrewBooks.org)
A 1557 edition of the Zevach Pesach Haggadah. (HebrewBooks.org)

Why did Rabbi Elazar tell us he was “like 70 years old”?

In the Haggadah, we quote Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, who said, “I am like 70 years old, and I have not merited to prove that the Exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night.” The commentators ask, why does he stress “like 70 years old,” which implies that he wasn’t that old?

The Talmud explains that a miracle occurred when he was nominated at a young age to lead the Sanhedrin: he aged prematurely so that he would command respect. Maimonides, on the other hand, explains that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah had toiled so tremendously in Torah that he aged prematurely.

Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, known as the Arugat Habosem, explains that we can reconcile the two explanations. Although Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah toiled mightily in Torah and could have thus aged prematurely, the merit of his Torah study protected him, and he remained youthful-looking. However, when he was nominated to lead the Sanhedrin and it became necessary for him to look more distinguished, G‑d allowed the natural result of his intense toil to take effect, and he began to look like a 70-year-old.5

Rabbi Moshe Greenwald (1853–1910), known as the Arugat Habosem after his work by that name, was one of the leading rabbis of Hungary at the end of the 19th century. He served as rabbi of Chust, Hungary, and is the progenitor of the Pupa chassidic dynasty. His commentary on the Haggadah is called Hallel Nirztah, corresponding to the last two steps of Passover Seder.

Responsa of the Arugat Habosem. (Wikimedia)
Responsa of the Arugat Habosem. (Wikimedia)

What is with the harsh reply to the wicked son?

In the Haggadah, we read about the question and reply to the wicked son: He asks, “What is this service to you?!" He says “to you,” but not “to him”! We therefore “blunt his teeth and say to him . . . If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!"

Although it is true that the Midrash tells us that many of the Jews who were wicked perished in Egypt and weren’t redeemed, what do we hope to gain by further alienating this child by speaking harshly to him?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that our reply to the wicked son is not a message of rejection, but one of acceptance and promise. We need to put the emphasis on the word "there," i.e. had he been there in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed. However, the Exodus was before the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, when G‑d chose us and we became His nation. Therefore, in Egypt, the redemption was contingent upon the Jew's choice and consent. Had he been there, he would still be there in Egypt.

But now he is “here,” after Sinai. Here, we are chosen by G‑d regardless of what our personal preference is. True, we are currently in exile, but with regard to the ultimate redemption from this exile, G‑d tells us that "you will be gathered up one by one, O children of Israel"—not a single Jew will be left behind.6

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, published a commentary to the Haggadah in 1946 under the title Haggadah Im Likutei Taamim U'Minhagim. In addition, many of the Rebbe’s insights on the Haggadah are scattered in the over 200 published volumes containing his Torah insights. Over the years, compilations of these insights have been published in a number of languages.

JEM/The Living Archive
JEM/The Living Archive

Why mention that our forefathers were idol worshipers?

In the Haggadah, we read, “In the beginning our fathers served idols; but now the Omnipresent One has brought us close to His service . . .” It doesn’t seem relevant—why stress the negative on this special night?

Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta explains that one who was born righteous, without tasting sin, cannot truly teach others to appreciate how negative and abominable sin and idolatry are and how beautiful and special it is to be close to G‑d. Thus, we say that our forefathers themselves did taste the negativity and came close to G‑d, and they are therefore in a position to teach us to fully appreciate our close relationship with G‑d.

Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta (1748–1825), known as the Apter Rov or the Ohev Yisroel (“Lover of Jews”) after his work by that name, is founder of the of the Mezhbizh/Zinkover chassidic dynasties. His teachings have found their way into various collections of insights on the Haggadah.

Tombstone of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta (Wikimedia)
Tombstone of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta (Wikimedia)

Why mentioned other enemies?

Why do we mention at the Passover Seder that in every generation there are people who seek to destroy the Jewish people? What does this add to the story of the Exodus?

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that it puts the whole Passover experience into perspective. One may think that there was some political, social or economic motivation for the Egyptian oppressors, and had we acted differently, we could have avoided our enslavement. We therefore note that in every generation and in every imaginable circumstance, our enemies have arisen against us. There is no logical trigger for anti-Semitism since, unfortunately, as the Midrash puts it, “It is the way of the world that Eisav hates Ya’akov.”7

Rabbi Joseph BerSoloveitchik (1903–1993), known to many as "the Rav," was the dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City. He was a leading Jewish thinker who authored many volumes on Jewish thought and law.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik

Why get off topic about Laban’s plot?

In the Haggadah, we say, “Go forth and learn what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh had issued a decree against the male children only, but Laban wanted to uproot everyone . . .” Not only does this seem off topic, it doesn’t seem to be accurate, at least according to the literal story of Laban.

Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna explains that this piece comes as a continuation of the previous piece, in which we said, “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!” As an example of this, we bring the story of Laban. Indeed, a superficial reading of the story does not reveal that he wished to destroy Jacob and his descendants, but unbeknownst to us, he plotted against us. So, too, in many generations we aren’t even aware of the miracles that G‑d performs to save us from our unknown enemies.

Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720–1797), known as the Vilna Gaon, was a famed Talmudist and Kabbalist and was one of the leading figures in the opposition to the chassidic movement in its early years. Like many works attributed to him, his commentary on the haggadah was published by his student Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov based on his teachings he heard from his teacher.

Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720–1797), known as the Vilna Gaon
Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720–1797), known as the Vilna Gaon

Was the stick really the sign?

In the Haggadah, we read, “‘And with signs,’ this refers to the staff, as it is said: ‘Take into your hand this staff with which you shall perform the signs.’" Yet we G‑d told Moses, “This is the sign for you that it was I Who sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G‑d on this mountain."8

Rabbi Menachem Kasher explains that Moses knew that a belief based on a sign is a shaky belief, and the people might always have doubts. Therefore, Moses hesitated to go on his mission. Finally, G‑d told him that all of these signs and wonders were only temporary, for ultimately he would bring the Jews to Mount Sinai, where they would witness the Divine revelation with their own eyes and would no longer base their faith on signs.

Rabbi Menachem Kasher (1895–1983) was a prolific author who wrote an encyclopedic work on the Torah entitled Torah Sheleimah. He wrote two works on the Haggadah: Haggadah Sheleimah, an encyclopedic work on the Haggadah that discusses, among other things, variant texts and customs of the Haggadah; and the perhaps more famous Haggadat Pesach Eretz Yisraelit, with a short running explanation and commentary. This was one of the first Haggadahs to be translated into English with commentary.

Rabbi Menachem Kasher
Rabbi Menachem Kasher

Why give a mnemonic for the ten plagues?

After reciting the ten plagues, we read that Rabbi Yehudah referred to them by their Hebrew acronyms: DeTzaCh (blood, frogs, lice); ADaSh (beasts, pestilence, boils); BeAChaV (hail, locust, darkness, first-born).What is the significance of this?

Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli, known as the Ritva, explains that each of these three groups of plagues were brought to teach the Egyptians a specific lesson. The first group, DeTzaCh,was brought to teach the Eygptians that G‑d exists; thus, they werepreceded by the verse “With this you shall know that I am God.”9

The second group, ADaSh, was brought to teach the Egyptians about Divine Providence, how G‑d watches over the world. Thus, they are preceded by the verse “In order that you know that I am the L‑rd in the midst of the land.”10

The final group of plagues, BeAchaV, was brought to teach the Egyptians that G‑d is omnipotent. Thus, they are preceded by the verse “So that you should know that there is none like me in the entire world.”11 12

Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (c. 1260s–1320s), known by his Hebrew acronym Ritva, was a leading medieval rabbi famous for his commentary on the Talmud. Both his commentary on the Talmud as well as on the Haggadah are known as Chiddushei haRitva.

Writings of the Ritva published in Warsaw in 1864 (HebrewBooks.org)
Writings of the Ritva published in Warsaw in 1864 (HebrewBooks.org)

What is the point of being at Mount Sinai without getting the Torah?

In the Dayeinu (“It would have sufficed us”) ode, we say, “If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Torah, dayeinu, it would have sufficed us!”

What would have been the point of being at Mount Sinai if we didn’t receive the Torah?

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Kleinman explains that regarding the Jews’ encampment at Mount Sinai, the verse tells us “And Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.”13 The Midrash points out that the verb for “encamped,” vayichan, is written in the singular form as opposed to the plural to teach us that they were united like one person with one heart. Thus, we are saying that simply experiencing this unique and unparalleled unity, without even receiving the Torah, would have sufficed.14

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Kleinman lived in Brisk at the beginning of the 20th century. His Haggadah Tzuf Amarim, which includes a collection of various commentaries on the Haggadah as well as his own insights, was published in 1924 in Warsaw. It is the only known work to bear an approbation by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The approbation by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, appears on the bottom right side of the page (HebrewBooks.org).
The approbation by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, appears on the bottom right side of the page (HebrewBooks.org).

Why should G‑d spill His wrath on our oppressors, who were merely doing His bidding?

G‑d is the One who orchestrates all events, so why should He be angry at the ones who carry out His plan? Rabbi Shlomo Kluger explains that this is why, when we say “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations,” we add “that do not acknowledge You, and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name,” and only afterward do we say “for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.” The reason for G‑d’s wrath is not so much that our enemies oppressed us; rather, it is that they don’t even recognize G‑d or give Him praise and thanks for what they have. If they would recognize that everything comes from G‑d, they wouldn’t willingly oppress His people or destroy His Temple. Thus, after a night of praising G‑d for the miracles he performed for us, we stress the difference between us and our oppressors: we acknowledge G‑d and they do not.15

Rabbi Shlomo ben Judah Aaron Kluger (1785–1869) was chief rabbi and preacher of Brody, Galicia. He was a prolific author who wrote over 160 volumes. Many of these writings remain in manuscript form. He commentary on the Haggadah is called Ma'aseh Yedei Yotzer.

Title page of the Ma'aseh Yedei Yotzer Haggadah (HebrewBooks.org)
Title page of the Ma'aseh Yedei Yotzer Haggadah (HebrewBooks.org)

Why next year in Jerusalem at end of the Haggadah and Yom Kippur?

Both at the end of the Passover Seder as well as the very end of the Yom Kippur services, we say, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Why do we do so specifically at these two times?

Rabbi Eliyahu Ki Tov explains that as outlined in Psalm 137, we promise that we will “bring to mind Jerusalem during our greatest joy”; thus, at the end of Yom Kippur, when we are joyful that we were forgiven for our sins, and at the end of the Passover Seder, when we finish celebrating the joy of going out of Egypt, we must remember that we await the final redemption, when we will all go up to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Of course, as the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, explains and stresses, it’s not that we’re asking to be redeemed next year. Rather, we are asking to be redeemed now, so that next year when we celebrate Passover, we will already be in Jerusalem with the ultimate redemption.

May it be speedily in our days!

Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Mokotow (1912–1976), better known as Eliyahu Kitov, was a construction worker, educator and community activist, until he finally left public works and began to write full time. He is best known for his work Sefer HaToda'ah, translated into English as The Book of Our Heritage. His work on the Haggadah is called Seder Leil Pesach, or in English, The Heritage Haggadah. To read many of his works online, see Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (18801950), the Sixth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, is known as the "Frierdiker" or "Previous" Rebbe. He established a network of Jewish educational institutions that was the single most significant factor in the preservation of Judaism during the dread reign of the Communist Soviets. In 1940, he moved to the USA, where he established Chabad world-wide headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. For more, see Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.

The Previous Rebbe wearing his shtreimel (or more accurately, a kolpik).
The Previous Rebbe wearing his shtreimel (or more accurately, a kolpik).