Thursday, August 17th, 2017

More Than Just a Line in Our Prayers: Remembering the Exodus by Gidon Rothstein

January 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Holidays, New Posts, Tanach

In the context of my Mission of Orthodoxy project, I recently noted that Orthodox Jewish men are required to twice daily recall the Exodus from Egypt.  While Rambam does not count this as a separate mitzvah, he does include it as part of the structure of the Shema that obligates us morning and evening.[1]  We might think of that obligation as a throwaway, a line of prayer like so many others, but several sources suggest it behooves us to pay greater attention.

Toying With the Egyptians, Central to Our Family Legacy

First, we should note that there are two Torah verses relevant to this obligation, each of which bears further consideration.  In Shemot (10;1-2), during the Exodus itself, Hashem tells Moshe that He has hardened Paroh’s heart so as to be able to administer the various plagues, in turn meant for us to be able to tell our children and grandchildren how God toyed with the Egyptians and the various signs placed upon them, and then know that God is God.

That itself is a mouthful, in several ways.  God seems to be placing stock in the process of the Exodus as vital to how Jews construct their sense of selves.  It would seem to be insufficient to acknowledge only that there was an Exodus, we would seem to have to acknowledge the plagues and signs as well, and transmit that knowledge to our children and grandchildren.

The issue of transmission to a third generation is one I believe should be highlighted.  On only two occasions does the Torah mention that we are supposed to interact with our grandchildren in a certain way, here and in the reference to remembering מעמד הר סיני, the Giving of the Torah at Sinai.  We can leave that second one for another time, but the examples suggest that the barest essentials of our national historical memory should be a family tradition passed down unbroken through the generations.

Ramban, in his commentary on a verse regarding tefillin, tells us why.  He says that God will not perform a sign or a wonder in every generation or for every evildoer or heretic—I am struck by this in particular because it is a repeat theme of many high school students with whom I have had honest conversations in the past, ‘if God did a miracle now, I could believe’—but that, instead, God tasked us with remembering the events in Egypt.

According to Ramban, that is the reason eating חמץ, leavened bread, incurs excision, because it implies a forgetting of the events in Egypt.  It is for that reason that we are supposed to wear tefillin, to remember the miracles and wonders of Egypt, and it is for that reason that we verbally articulate our memory of those events every day.

All the Days of Your Life and the Exemption of an Onen From Shema and Tefillin

That we are supposed to do it every day comes from a second verse in the Torah, Devarim 16;3.  In describing the offering of the Paschal sacrifice, the Torah tells us not to eat leavened bread for seven days afterwards (a reaction to the sacrifice itself, a topic of its own), so that we should remember the day we left Egypt all the days of our lives.

I note that we assume, and have for hundreds of years, that remembering that day means saying that we left Egypt, but Torah Temimah cites a Yerushalmi in Berachot (3;1) that takes it in a different direction. According to the Yerushalmi, the reference to “all the days of your lives” means that we are only obligated in this mitzvah at times when we are involved in life, exempting those who have the status of onen, being involved in burying a deceased relative.  Surprisingly, though, the Yerushalmi uses it to prove that the person is exempt from reciting Shema and wearing tefillin.

This is surprising in two ways, both noted and explained by Torah Temimah.  First, an onen is exempt from all mitsvot, not just those two.  Torah Temimah suggests that the importance of these mitsvot might have led us to think that we could not exempt an onen from them.  Second, this is not the technical source, even for the Yerushalmi, since the real reason for the exemption is that the person is too heavily involved in the matters related to the relative to be able to give attention to anything else.  Nonetheless, Torah Temimah argues, the Yerushalmi saw value in offering this quasi-textual support.

More striking to me is that the Yerushalmi used a verse that we tend to think means only reciting the words at the end of the 3rd paragraph of Shema (I am the Lord  your God Who took you out of the Land of Egypt…) and applied it to the Shema broadly and to the wearing of tefillin.  This offers some reason why Rambam would have gone out of his way to point out that remembering the Exodus daily is a part of Shema and also supports Ramban’s claim that the Exodus and its memory is not a discrete memory so much as a recurrent underlying part of many of our daily Jewish experiences.

The Belief is in the Details

If so, it would seem that we would be better off going into greater daily detail than just the bare fact of the Exodus, and indeed three significant sources suggest it is so. First, in his Haggadah, R. Shimon b. Zemach Duran (late 14th, early 15th century Spain and North Africa, forced to flee the riots of 1391 and move to Algiers) says that whoever speaks at length about the events of the Exodus at any time in the year is praiseworthy. 

More significantly, R. Ovadya Yosef[2] assumes that the ideal fulfillment of this obligation includes at least also mentioning the killing of the Egyptian first-born and the splitting of the Sea.  This latter inclusion assumes not only that we should go into the Exodus in detail, at least ideally, but that we should go beyond the scope of the event of leaving Egypt, at least extending to when we were finally free of worry about the Egyptians.

Once we mentioned the splitting of the Sea, let me note an anomaly that, to me, debunks some of the most insistently rationalistic readings of Rambam’s writings. In the commentary on Avot, where the Mishnah mentions there were ten miracles in Egypt and ten at the Sea, Rambam chooses to expound on the ten at the Sea at length.  I say “chooses,” because Rambam opened his commentary to that tractate by announcing that he would not insist on interpreting every Mishnah, but would stick only to those that taught matters of belief or character.  If so, he had no need to simply recount Midrashic sources about the splitting of the Sea, unless he thought they fostered matters of right thinking or character.

Not only that, he expounds at greater length on this idea than in all but two or three other places in the tractate as a whole.  Worse for the arch-rationalists, he chooses a decidedly miraculous version for those miracles.  Even though tradition offered some less blatantly unnatural miracles for the list, Rambam goes whole hog, for example assuming that the water did not only rise and arch over the Jews as they passed through, but that it in fact formed a roof at 90 degree angles to the walls.  Rambam does not tell us why he is doing this, but my personal guess is that he thought it worthwhile noting that part of Jewish faith is the presence of miracles on at least some occasions in history, the Exodus and its aftermath being a prime example of that.

All of this, to me, points to our daily reminder of the Exodus as situated more centrally to a Jewish worldview than we sometimes realize.  We aren’t only saying daily that God took us out of Egypt, we are daily saying that we recognize that our belief system, our way of life, and our adherence to the set of rules and customs we call Judaism are predicated in a view of human history in which there is a God Who rules the course of that history, and Who is able and sometimes willing (the frequency of ‘sometimes’ depending on one’s view of Providence) to radically intervene in the course of that history and in the course of Nature.  Without those beliefs, we daily remind ourselves, we aren’t really Jews at all.

The Connection Between Pesach Night and the Rest of the Year

If I may offer one last speculation, this view of our daily reminders of the Exodus suggests an answer to a question R. Menashe Klein discussed in correspondence with R. Ovadya Yosef.[3]  They were struggling with why it is that we do not make a ברכה, a blessing, on the mitzvah of reciting the Exodus on the first night of Passover.  R. Ovadya had mentioned and rejected the answer of Responsa Chessed le-Avraham, that the mitzvah of reciting the Exodus is subordinate to the mitzvah of eating matsah that night, and we therefore make the blessing on the central mitzvah, the eating of matsah.[4]

R. Klein tries to revive the idea, and readers can consult his letter to see if they are convinced.  The basic idea, that we only make the blessing on the central mitzvah not the subordinate or preparatory one, allows us to suggest that the mitzvah of sippur, of fully telling the story on Pesach night, is in fact subordinate or preparatory to the mitzvah of zechirah, of remembering it daily.  On that mitzvah, we do make a berachah, the ones before and after Shema (since, as we’ve seen, zechirah became part of the mitzvah of Shema). 

That would mean that we tell the story Pesach night in as full detail as possible, to imprint as much of the story as we can on our memories, so that, throughout the year, our brief reference to the Exodus will bring alive for us, as much as possible, our lived history, our lived experience of the God Who redeemed us then, many times since, and continues to redeem us in our times, and hopefully will bring us the full and final redemption, speedily in our days.


[1] הלכות ק”ש א:ג.

[2] Yabia Omer 2, Orah Hayyim 6;11.

[3] שו”ת משנה הלכות י”ג:ס”ח.

[4] I would note that the connection between the telling of the story and the eating of the matsah explains another well-known question, the source of women’s obligation to tell the story that night.  I would suggest that since they are obligated in eating matsah, and the eating of the matsah is clearly attached to the recitation of the story, they are obligated in reciting the story as well.

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