A Seder Night That Changed History
Originally recorded on 21st March 2010 at Kollel Yom Rishon at Yeshiva University.
K’vod haRabanim, friends, it’s wonderful to be with you. Pesach is getting close and I know how hard it is to take off time to learn a little. Pesach really is hard work. In fact, once many years ago, when I was a congregational Rabbi, I reminded people of the T-shirt that was worn in the 1960s by the first generation of women who went en masse to college and they got married and then had children. And that had great burden and somebody made a great deal of money selling a T-shirt that read, “For this we went to college?” I said, somebody should make one specially for Pesach cleaning that says, “For this, we left Egypt?” As Divine Providence would have it, that week was the only week in my entire rabbinical career in which an apron maker was sitting in the shul, so we actually own that apron.
But friends, may I just begin by reminding us that this coming Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol and the Rishonim and the Acharonim are unsure as to why this particular name and they have many suggestions, but one is deeply appropriate. There were two times a year before Yom Kippur and before Pesach, when the Gadol ha’ir, the great man, the great Rav of the city would expound Torah for the wider community. And that is why this particular Shabbat was called Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat of the Gadol ha’ir. Elaine and I have come to the conclusion today of a week of activities dedicated to the recognition of Gadol ha’ir hazeh, the great Torah leader of this city, Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm. And this has been for us, and I hope for you, Shabbat HaGadol, a week of paying tribute to his greatness.
Rabbi Schachter asked a very simple question and provoked a simple question. If Hakadosh Baruch Hu brought out the Jewish people alone, ani veloh malach, ani veloh saraf, ani veloh shaliach, why did he even need Moshe Rabbeinu in the first place? Let him speak directly to the Israelites in Egypt as he spoke directly to them on Mount Sinai. Why even need a human intermediary at all, why not literally do it ani veloh shaliach? And the answer of course is very clear. I’m absolutely fascinated by the way everyone walks around the streets of New York, apparently talking to themselves. And I see everyone here has a mobile telephone, a Blackberry, ich weiss was, you know, freedom is not having a Blackberry. And the short answer is that out there in the ether are signals and down here are us who want to pick up those signals, but without a modem, without a bluetooth connection, there can be us and the signals, but we never ever meet. The universe is full of Vayikra, of God’s call to us. And here we are ready to receive that call, but without the bluetooth connection between us and those signals, there is no transformation of the human condition, there is no yetziat mitzrayim.
For a generation, for decades, Rabbi Lamm has been, as was Moshe Rabbeinu in his generation, the bluetooth connection between the call of God for this hour and we who stand ready for it. He was, like Moshe, the person who lifted the people so that they could hear the voice of God, and who took the voice of God and made it articulate so it could be heard by the people. So please join me in this, the last of this, Shabbat HaGadol, this week of events, join me in expressing our thanks and our gratitude to the Gadol, Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm.
Friends, I begin with the passage with which Rabbi Dr Schachter ended, the ma’aseh beRabbi Eliezer veRabbi Yehoshua et cetera in Bnei Brak. Let’s just remind ourselves, it’s not on the mekorot, you see, I didn’t want to schlep all these pages, so I condensed the mekorot to only the key ones. But remind ourselves what the Haggadah is saying. And it’s very interesting because we tend to read the Haggadah as if it was aggadah, as if it were mere narration.
But much of the Haggadah is also halachah, it is shaped by, and determined by, the parameters of Jewish law. So let us just remind ourselves of what is happening. The four questions have been asked by the child, and then we give our initial answer, avadim hayinu lepharoh bemitzrayim vayotzieinu Hashem elokeinu misham beyad chazakah uvizro’a netuyah, and then we say, ve’ilu loh hotzi Hakadosh Baruch Hu es avoseinu mimitzrayim, adayim anu uvaneinu uvanei vaneinu meshu’abadim hayinu lepharoh bemitzrayim, “if God hadn’t taken us out, we would still be there.” And then the Haggadah says, ve’afilu kulanu chachamim kulano nevonim kulanu zekeinim kulanu yod’im es haTorah mitzvah aleinu lesaper beyetzias mitzrayim,” if we were all wise, it would still be a mitzvah to talk about the going out of Egypt,” vechol hamarbeh lesaper beyetzias mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach, “and the more we do so, the greater we are to be praised.”
And then comes the word ma’aseh, “it happened” that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon, shehayu mesubin biBnei Brak, “they were sitting in Bnei Brak,” vehayu mesaprim beyetzias mitzrayim kol osoh halaila, “and they were talking about going out of Egypt all that night,” ad sheba’u talmideihem ve’amru lahem rabboseinu higi’a zeman krias shema shel shacharis, until the disciple came and told them “Rabbosai, it is time for the morning kriyas shema.”
And what I want to do this morning is simply to ask what they were talking about. And we will discover a quite extraordinary story, a story that as I say, in its own quiet way, changed Jewish history. And the reason I do so is because a great Anglo Jewish historian, the late Cecil Roth, actually speculated that what these five Sages were talking about was the Bar Kochba rebellion, which had not yet happened.
We know that in 66 of the first century of the Common Era, there was the great revolt against Rome. It ended disastrously with the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the death of the final outpost of resistance at Masada in 73. We also know that the next generation did not give up hope of a further rebellion that would be like the Macabees, that would restore Jewish sovereignty and allow the Temple to be rebuilt. And one of the great architects of that dream was Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Akiva famously thought that Bar Kochba was the man who might lead the successful recovery of Jewish freedom and believed that he was the Moshiach. So Cecil Roth speculated that what these five Rabbis were talking about, led by Rabbi Akiva was, on zeman cheruteinu, the festival of freedom, they dreamt of recovering Jewish freedom.
And it’s a beautiful story, it’s brilliant in fact. Only one thing wrong with it, which is there’s no evidence for it whatsoever. Mind you, I suppose that shouldn’t stop us, rarely does. But I actually wanted to ask the straight question, what does the evidence of the Gemara and the rabbinic literature generally tell us they were talking about?
And I believe we can discover it, and it is an extraordinary story. And we will see that what was happening at that particular place at night with those five Rabbis in Bnei Brak was a drama, but a completely different drama, not a drama between Jews and the Romans and a possible talk of a rebellion, it was a drama between Jew and Jew. And unlike the Bar Kochba rebellion, which as we know ended in tragedy, this particular drama had a happy ending. So let us begin at the beginning and let us remind ourselves of the sequence of events. We have just had the four questions of the child, Ma Nishtanah, and the reason is that consistently in the Torah, four times, three in Parshas Bo, one in Parshas Va’eschnan, we speak of children asking questions, and that is the context in which the mitzvah of sippur yetziat mizrayim occurs, vehaya ki yishalcha bincha machar, vehaya ki yomru aleichem beneichm, vehigadeta levincha bayom hahu.
And therefore from this, the Sages learned that the narration of the Haggadah on Pesach is triggered by the questions asked by a child. And of course, the Sages devised a principle, where they got it from, I’m not sure, but it’s a very fundamental principle. It defines the nature of the Jewish story, which is matchil bigenut umesayem beshevach, you begin with the bad news, you end with the good news. And as we know, two early Amoraim, Rav and Shmuel disagreed as to what the answer was, mitechila ovdei avodei zarah hayu avoteinu, according to Rav and avadim hayinu, according to Shmuel. And we have therefore, immediately the answer of Shmuel, the immediate answer to Ma Nishtanah is Avadim Hayinu, and later on, we read the passage of Rav, now I’m not going into any of that. But then we have, the Haggadah says two extra things which are not in the Torah. Avadim Hayinu appears in the Torah as the answer to the wise son in Va’eschanan, and the Haggadah adds to that two things that aren’t in the biblical text at all, namely, number one, afilu kulanu chachamim kulano nevonim kulanu zekeinim kulanu yod’im et haTorah mitzvah aleinu lesaper, and point two, vechol hamarbeh lesaper beyetziat mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach.
Why are those two things added to the answer according to Shmuel of the child’s questions? The answer first is as follows, why does it say ilu loh hotzi Hakadosh Baruch Hu es avoseinu mimitzrayim, what on earth is this about? Why do we say if God hadn’t taken our ancestors out 3,300 years ago, we would still be there? And the answer is very simple, because it is a rule of the narration on Seder night, that bechol dor vador, chayav adam lirot et aztmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim, we have to see the story not as happening then, there to someone else, but as something that is happening here, now to me. And that is why the Haggadah has to take the drama from there to now. If God hadn’t redeemed our ancestors, we would still be slaves, therefore, we here, now are experiencing liberation, that is why that sentence appears.
And then the second sentence, afilu kulanu chachamim is telling us another fundamental principle of halachah which is this, we might have thought since the Torah mentions telling the going out of Egypt in the context of children, if we had no children, we would thereby be exempt from it just as if we do not have a four-cornered garment, we would be exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis. In fact, states the Rambam, there is a second source for this mitzvah, zachor et yom hazeh asher yatzatem mimitzrayim, remember this day, the day you went out of Egypt, and the Rambam tells us that establishes a completely separate mitzvah of sippur yetziat mitzrayim, which is completely independent of children and their questions. And that is why that passage now appears, in other words, all of this is teaching us halachos and then comes the word ma’aseh, ma’aseh beRabbi Eliezer veRabbi Yehoshua. Now, normally we just read that as “it happened”, but actually ma’aseh is a halachic word and its significance here is precisely halachic.
How so? There is a halachic principle, there are two ways of deciding halachah. Way one is to use established halachic principles, meta-halachic principles. So for instance, we have a law that if there’s a machlokes Rav and Shmuel, the halachah is according to Rav, chutz mihanitlas, except in three specific occasions, those are the principles for determining the halachah. However, there is a second way of determining the halachah which is much more powerful than determining the halachah by klalei p’sika, by the general principles, and that is ma’aseh.
We have a principle ma’aseh rav, in other words, in any halachic situation, if the possek is not merely willing to say, this is the halachah, but is willing publicly to act on that halachah, then that is the strongest form of halachic determination. And you can see that here in a very powerful example in the first source I brought you from the Bavli, do you have the mekorot? Can you see Masechet Rosh Hashanah, the first box, itmar Rav veRabbi Chanina amri botlah Megillas Ta’anis. Rabbi Yochanan veRabbi Yehoshua ben Levi amri loh botlah Megillas Ta’anis (Rosh Hashanah 18b). You will know that there was a scroll called Megillat Ta’anit which recorded a series of minor festivals that were associated with the Second Temple period. Nowadays we would call them, days on which you don’t say Tachanun. We don’t do as well as the Chassidim, that’s the trouble, we should have more Modern Orthodox Rebbes, and then on their yahrtzeit, we would have more days on which we don’t say Tachanun.
And the question was, when the Second Temple was destroyed, are those festivals still enforced or not? The whole purpose of them was to record great things that happened in the Bayis Sheni period. If the Bayis isn’t there, does Megillas Ta’anis still apply? And we can see the Rabbis disagreed, Rav veRabbi Chanina said no, the whole thing is now abolished and Rabbi Yochanan veRabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said no, it’s still in place. And the Gemara then tells us ma’aseh, can you see it, can you see the penultimate line? kidekaimi kaimi, meitiv Rav Kahana, do you have that? ma’aseh vegazru ta’anit baChanukah beLud, it actually happened that one year, they decreed a ta’anis tzibbur, the rain hadn’t fallen, whatever it is, in Lud on Chanukah. Now, one thing is clear about Chanukah and all the other minor festivals mentioned in Megillas Ta’anis, you cannot fast on them, you can’t establish a fast.
So in Lud, the townspeople, by declaring a fast on Chanukah, were proclaiming to the world, Chanukah is null and void, it doesn’t exist anymore because batlah Megillas Ta’anis, the whole scroll and all it represents is now nullified because of churban habayis. And what happened? The Rabbis didn’t issue a p’sak, they did something much more significant, they did a ma’aseh. It says vayeired Rabbi Eliezer verachatz veRabbi Yehoshua vesipper, Rabbi Eliezer went to the public bathhouse on the day that the people of Lud had proclaimed a fast, they travelled to Lud and Rabbi Eliezer went to the public bathhouse, Rabbi Yehoshua had a haircut, two things you cannot do on a ta’anis tzibbur. So they were doing a ma’aseh to show the people of Lud that you cannot abolish Chanukah, that Megillas Ta’anis, at least as far as Chanukah is concerned, is still enforced. And therefore “you’re wrong,” and they didn’t pasken, they did a ma’aseh, amru lahem tze’u vehisanu al ma shehisanisem, they said “your punishment is you’re going to have to fast after Chanukah to do teshuvah for the fact that you fasted on Chanukah.”
It’s great for WeightWatchers, for the rest of us it’s a bit heavy. So we now understand that when the Haggadah tells us ma’aseh BeRabbi Eliezer veRabbi Yehoshua veRabbi Elazar ben Azariah veRabbi Akiva veRabbi Tarfon, it’s not just telling us a nice story, it’s teaching us a halacha. That is the meaning of ma’aseh in rabbinic literature. This isn’t a story at all, it is a story that establishes a halacha. Now, what is the source and status of that paragraph in the Haggadah? We know, first of all, this is a teaching of the Mishnaic period, and therefore it can be one of three kinds: a) it could be a Mishnah, b) it could be a Tosefta, those are the two collections of rabbinic sayings from that period, or (c) third possibility, it’s a beraisa, that is a teaching from the Mishnaic period that never got included in the Mishnah or the Tosefta. And the short answer is this is a beraisa and this is the only place in which it appears.
And that is very interesting. Of course, when we search the entire rabbinic literature, we only find one other passage which is similar, and it is so similar that some scholars believe that it is referring to the same event, only some people told the story one way, and some people told the story another way, and tell me if you think that’s plausible. I’m going to read you, we’re going to read together in the second source, the only other place where a similar passage occurs. Tell me if you can count the differences between this one and the one in the Haggadah. Can you see it? Second box, Tosefta Maseches Pesachim Perek Yud. Ma’aseh beRabban Gamliel uzekeinim, “it happened with Rabban Gamliel and the elders,” shehayu mesubin bebayit Baitus ben Zunim beLud, “they were sitting in the house of Baitus ben Zunim in Lud,” vehayu asukim behilchot hapesach kol halaila, “and they were studying the laws of Pesach all night,” ad krot hagever “until the cock crowed telling them it was time for kriat shema,” higbi’u milfaneihem veno’adu vehalchu lahen lebeis hamedrash, “they lifted up the table, they got themselves together and they went to the Beis Hamedrash.”
In this, can you see some differences? What are the differences?
Number one, the people are different. Nobody mentioned in the first one, the one in the Haggadah appears in this one, and the man who appears in this one, Rabban Gamliel, does not appear in the ma’aseh in Bnei Brak, so the people are different.
Number two, the place is different, because the one in the Haggadah takes place in Bnei Brak, and this story takes place in Lud.
Thirdly, what are they talking about? In the Haggadah, they are talking about hayu mesaprim beyetzias mitzrayim kol halaila, they were telling the story of the Exodus, but in Lud, they were asukim behilchos pesach kol halaila. They weren’t telling the story, they were studying the laws.
And fourthly the awareness of time. In Bnei Brak, they forgot the time completely, and a talmid had to come along and tell them higiya zeman, but in Lud, they remembered the time, they saw it was time, they heard it was time, they got up of their own accord and they went to the Beis Hamedrash. So, let us begin our journey with one question. One person is missing from the story in the Haggadah. You remember ma’aseh BeRabbi Eliezer veRabbi Yehoshua veRabbi Elazar ben Azariah veRabbi Akiva veRabbi Tarfon, somebody is missing, who is missing? Rabban Gamliel, exactly. Rabban Gamliel was the Nasi, he was the Chief Rabbi, I have rachmanus on him. He wasn’t there, why wasn’t he there? He should have been the star of the show, he should have been there, he was missing, why? And the second we see that question, we can suddenly, immediately answer the question, when? Which year did this particular Seder night take place? The answer is very simple. The Gemara – here it is. Have you got source three?
Which is the hardest bit of a wedding? I don’t know, is it finding the shidduch or is it doing the seating arrangements? Do you know how many friends you can lose by getting the seating arrangements wrong? So here is a Gemara about seating arrangements, okay? This is Talmud Bavli Maseches Brachos Daf Mem Vav Amud Beis (Brachot 46b).
Amar lei Reish Galuta leRav Sheshes, “the Exilarch said to Rav Sheshes,” af al gav derabanan keshishei atun, “even though you are very distinguished Rabbis,” parsa’ei betzarchei seudah bekiei minaichu, “the Parshees, the goyim are better when it comes to manners.” Does that make sense to you? It has a certain ring of truth about it.
Anyway, bizman shehen shtei mitot gadol mesev barosh vesheni loh lemala hemenu, don’t forget, in Persia they used to recline on couches, which we do a semi re-enactment of nowadays. And therefore, “if there are two people, the Gadol, the senior sits at the head,” vesheni loh lemaala hemenu, “and the second one above him on his left,” bizman shehem shalosh gadol mesev be’emtza sheni loh lemaala hemenu shlishi loh lemata hemenu, “when there are three, the senior sits in the middle, the second one above him, the third one below him,” amar lei vechi ba’i ehsta’ei behadei metaritz terutzei veyasiv umishta’ei behadei. Rav Sheshes brought the objection, if that’s the way you’re going to have the seating arrangement, with the Gadol sitting here and the next most important person sitting on his left, then when the Gadol wants to say something, he’s looking at the feet of the person next to him, so it’s not a very good way of communicating, and the Resh Galuta says “no, don’t worry,” amar lei shani parsai demechvei lei bemachog, actually, it’s not in a straight line, it’s in a circle, so it’s much easier to communicate.
Anyway, amar Rav Sheshes ana masnisa yadana detanya, he says, “listen, forget about the Persians, I simply know a beraisa that says, keitzad seder hasavah bizman shehein shtei mitot gadol mesev berosh vesheni loh lemata heimenu,” that’s the significant distinction. Our principle says, “when there are only two people, the elder sits at the head and the second one sits below him, not above him,” bizman shehen shalosh mitot gadol mesev barosh sheni loh lemaalah hemenu shlishi loh lemata hemenu, “the elder sits in the middle and the second most important one sits there, and the third one sits there.” And that agrees with the Persian minhag, if they’re three or more than three. In other words, we have now a simple principle of seating arrangements, and it tells us that, whether according to the Persians, or according to the Rabbis, the most important person is sitting where? In the middle. Now please listen to the list of people sitting there and tell me, who is the Gadol? Ma’aseh BeRabbi Eliezer veRabbi Yehoshua veRabbi Elazar ben Azariah veRabbi Akiva veRabbi Tarfon, who is the Gadol? Who was sitting in the middle? Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, he was sitting in the middle, he is the Gadol. Now, how can Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah be the Gadol in that particular company?
The elders of that company were sitting on the outside, they are Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Tarfon. Junior to them, sitting on the inside were Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva. In the middle was Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, the youngest of all the five, so there’s something odd about those seating arrangements. And that seating arrangement allows us with precision to identify exactly which year this Seder took place. And it also explains the atmosphere in the Jewish world, of the rabbinical world, at that particular moment. And here it is, the background is this, as you know, we know from Pirkei Avot, that Jewish leadership, rabbinic leadership in the late Second Temple period and the post-destruction period was a dual leadership, they were known as the zugot. On the one hand you had the Nasi, and junior to him, you had the Av Beit Din. At this particular time in Jewish history, the Nasi was Rabban Gamliel.
The Av Beit Din was Rabbi Yehoshua, and they did not always see eye to eye. We know that there was a big machlokes between the, I didn’t bring it here in the mekorot, but let me tell you, it concerned a bechor, a firstborn animal that belonged to Rabbi Tzadok, the Kohen. We know the law that a firstborn animal or bechor beheimah belongs to the Kohen, if it is unblemished, it’s offered as a korban. If it is unblemished, it’s offered as a korban, if it’s blemished, it belongs to the Kohen, it stays chulin and he can sell it. As a result, Kohanim were suspected of putting a blemish on the animal in order for them to benefit more materially from a beheimah that had a moom. And Rabbi Tzadok has a bechor, a bechor beheimah which has a blemish. And he comes to Rabbi Yehoshua, the Av Beis Din, and he says, to Rabbi Yehoshua, “Tell me, is there a difference in Jewish law between an ordinary Kohen, a kohen am ha’aretz, an ignorant Kohen, and a kohen chaver, a Kohen who is known and has a reputation for keeping law in all its stringency. Do you make a distinction?
Do you say only a kohen am ha’aretz is suspected of deliberately making a blemish, whereas a kohen chaver is exempt from that suspicion, or do you penalise all Kohanim equally and suspect them of having imposed the blemish themselves? And Rabbi Yehoshua says ”p’sak halacha, there is a distinction between a kohen am ha’aretz and a kohen chaver, and a kohen chaver is not suspected of imposing a blemish, and you Rabbi Tzaddok are a kohen chaver, and therefore, since it’s you it’s okay.
Rabbi Tzaddok takes a second opinion. Chevra, when a Rav gives you permission, never ask for a second opinion, but Rabbi Tzadok asked for a second opinion. He came to Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi and said, “tell me Rabban Gamliel, do you recognise the distinction in halachah between a kohen am ha’aretz and a kohen chaver?” Rabban Gamliel says, “there’s no such distinction” and Rabbi Tzadok says, “but your number two, Rabbi Yehoshua told me there is such a distinction.” And Rabban Gamliel then publicly humiliated Rabbi Yehoshua by having him stand up and become a laughing stock amongst his chaverim. That was episode one.
Episode two is a famous episode, I brought it here in the mekorot, it’s in Bavli Rosh Hashanah Kaf Heh Amud Aleph, (Rosh Hashanah 25a), it’s the fourth box down. This is about kiddush hachodesh and the principle of to what extent, does kiddush hachodesh rely on eyewitnesses solely? Or can you add to that an astronomical determination, because you can calculate the RoshChodesh and you then just rely on eidim as a sort of completion, but not as the sole way of determining whether it is RoshChodesh or not. Rabban Gamliel kept astronomical charts on his wall, he was an expert astronomer. And so he required the two witnesses only for the legal technicality of pronouncing the RoshChodesh, but he didn’t rest everything on the believability of those two witnesses. So the Gemara says ve’od ba’u shnayim ve’amru re’inuhu bizmano, “two witnesses came to the Beis Din, and they said we saw it on the 29th day,” uveleil iburo lo nirah, “but the next day it wasn’t visible,” vekiblan Rabban Gamliel, ”Rabban Gamliel let their eidus stand” because he had already calculated by his astronomical figures that that was indeed Rosh Chodesh and amar Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus eidei sheker hein, and Rabbi Dosa said, “no, they must be false witnesses,” hei’ach me’idim al ha’ishah sheyaldah ulemachar kreisah bein shineha, “how can you give witness that a woman has given birth when the next day she’s still looking pregnant?” amar lo Rabbi Yehoshua ro’eh ani et devarecha, “Rabbi Yehoshua said, you’re right.”
In other words, Rabbi Yehoshua challenged Rabban Gamliel’s determination of Rosh Chodesh that particular month, which happened to be Tishrei and as we know, Rabban Gamliel arranged for yet another public humiliation of Rabbi Yehoshua. And he said, gozrani alecha shetavo etzli bemakelcha uvimotecha beyom hakipurim shechal lihyot bechoshbonecha, he said, “I penalise you, I order that you should appear to me carrying your staff and your money belt on the day which is Yom Kippur according to your calculation, but which on my calculation is the 11th Tishrei.” And Rabbi Yehoshua took advice from many people, and in the end they said, “no, don’t make a machlokes.” So he did indeed go humiliate himself by appearing in public before Rabban Gamliel on the day Rabbi Yehoshya sure thought was Yom Kippur, holding his staff and his money belt. This was the second public humiliation and then came the most famous one of all, the third humiliation, which was tefillat Arvit, Ma’ariv, is it chova or reshut? Is it an obligation or is it optional? And as you know, Rabbi Yehoshua said, ”tefillat Arvit reshut,” Rabban Gamliel said “tefillat Arvit chova.” And again somebody, as it were, sneaked on Rabbi Yehoshua and told Rabban Gamliel that Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed. And again, Rabban Gamliel made Rabbi Yehoshua stand up in front of the entire congregation and the Rabbis finally rebelled and they deposed Rabban Gamliel. And then, they wanted to know “who shall we appoint in his place?”
And if you look in the fifth, is it the fifth source down in the middle, in the middle with the line beginning ve’amad (Brachot 27b) amri ad kama netza’arei veneizil. “For how long is Rabban Gamliel going to humiliate Rabbi Yehoshua?” beRosh Hashanah eshtakad tza’arei bivchoros bema’aseh deRabbi Tzadok tzarei, “he’s already done it twice before about the calculation of Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, about the bechorot in the episode of Rabbi Tzadok,” hacha namei tza’arei, “here he has humiliated him again,” ta venabrei, “let us, depose him.” Three times to humiliate your deputy is not on. Man nokeim lei, “so who will we appoint as his replacement?” Nokmei leRabbi Yehoshua, “shall we appoint the number two, Rabbi Yehoshua himself?” “No,” ba’al ma’ashe hu, “he was Rabban Gamliel’s opponent in these arguments, and it would be just too cruel to Rabban Gamliel to appoint his own number two in his place.”
Nokmei leRabbi Akiva, “so let us appoint Rabbi Akiva who is the most distinguished Sage of our times, but then they said, no,” dilma anish lei you know, “if you become a Jewish leader, you’ve got to put up with an awful lot and maybe Rabban Gamliel will pray to God to punish Rabbi Akiva” delais lei zechus avos, “because he was a ben gerim and he therefore lacks zechus avos“, elah nokmei leRabbi Elazar ben Azariah, “let us appoint Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah,” dehu chacham vehu ahsir vehu ashiri le’Ezra, “he’s wise, he’s rich, and he has yichus, he is 10th in line of descent from Ezra himself,” et cetera, et cetera, hu chacham de’i makshei lei mefarek lei, “he’s wise, therefore he can answer all the criticisms of his view,” hu ashir de’i is lei lefalochei leve keisar af hu azel ufalach, “he has enough money to be a diplomatic representative of the Jewish people,” vehu asiri le’Ezra de’is lei zechus avos veloh matzei anesh lei, “since he has a wonderful yichus, Rabban Gamliel’s prayers are null and void against him,” asu ve’amru lei nicha lei lemar delehevei reis mesivta, “they come to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and say, “oung man, we’re going to appoint you Nasi”, we’re going to make you Chief Rabbi. Amar lehu eizil ve’imlich be’inashei beisi, “the answer’s simple, I’ve got to ask my wife.” (This is a principle I advise all people to do at any conceivable time.)
Azal ve’imlich bideveishu, “he went and took his wife’s advice,” amara lei dilma me’abrin lach,“they got rid of your predecessor, maybe they’ll get rid of you,” amar lah, for that he had an answer, lishtamash inash yoma chada bechasa demokra velimchar lisvar, “listen enjoy it for a day.” Actually, if you’re going to be a leader of Jews, a day is about right. amara lei, she said to him, leis lach chivarata, “you don’t have grey hair,” he was only 18 years old hahu yoma bar tamnei serei shnei havah, he was 18 years old, isrechish lei nisa, “a miracle happened, ve’ihadaru lei tamnei serei darei chivarata, and immediately, his hair went grey.”
That is a miracle that happens in every generation. hainu deka’armar Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah harei ani keven shivim shana veloh ben shivim shana, and that’s why Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says in the Mishnah, which is quoted in the Haggadah, “I am like a 70 year old, not actually a 70 year old,” or as they said to me in Anglo Jewry when I first became Chief Rabbi 18 and a half years ago, “aren’t you a little young for this job?” And I said, “yes, but believe me in this job, I will age rapidly.”
So, now we know the time this ma’aseh happened in Bnei Brak. It happened in the year that they deposed Rabban Gamliel because, quite soon thereafter, the people had rachmanus on Rabban Gamliel, they said to Rabban Gamliel “go and apologise to Rabbi Yehoshua.” He went, he apologised to Rabbi Yehoshua, and they reinstated him as Nasi. So as not to humiliate Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, they arranged it that there would be a cycle for three weeks, Rabban Gamliel would be the Nasi and the fourth week Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, and that was the cycle. But Rabban Gamliel was replaced quite soon thereafter. So there was only one possible year when this ma’aseh happened, that was the year when they deposed Rabban Gamliel.
Now, Chevra, I now want to give you the scene in the Jewish world that particular year, think about this. Disaster had struck the Jewish people in the Second Temple period, the disaster of what the Gemara euphemistically calls sinat chinam, of baseless rivalry between Jews. I want you to see the picture of the Jewish world in around the year 60 middle first century secular time. We know from Josephus, the Jewish world was divided into three fundamentally different groups, the Saducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes. We know from Chazal that the Perushim themselves were internally divided, ravu machlokot bein Beit Shammai uBeit Hillel. And that, so deep were the arguments between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel that it was as if there was a danger that na’asah shtei torot beyisrael, chas veshalom, in Chazal’s words. There was a danger that one Torah would be divided into two Torahs, so deep were the arguments within the Pharisaic section. Politically, there were arguments, between the people who believed in opposing militarily the Romans, and people like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who was teaching accommodation, and even within the zealots themselves there were divided and factionalised leadership.
So that, when Vespasian and then Titus besiege Yerushalayim ir hakodesh, the Jews inside the besieged city were more intent on killing one another than they were killing the enemy outside. And if you really want to be shocked, read Josephus’ account, The Jewish War, on how terrible and deep were the divisions in the Jewish people. And because of that, the Second Temple was destroyed. And because of that, one of the worst tragedies ever happened in Jewish history. And what then becomes the primary imperative after this tragedy? One and only one imperative must hold, that somehow the Jews who remain must find ways of being at peace with one another, otherwise yet more tragedies will happen to them. And look at what has now happened, the Rabbis themselves, the leaders of the Jewish people had just come to a point where they were so divided that they deposed their own leader, Rabban Gamliel. At that particular Pesach, the entire future of the Jewish people was at the edge of be abyss. If Rabbis could not learn from the tragedy of the destruction of the Second Temple, if they were so unable to resolve their conflicts that they had to force their own leader to resign, then heaven forbid, an entire history of endless tragedy lay ahead of them.
So one imperative ruled that particular Seder night as it has never ruled before and never ruled since. That Seder night, the one in which Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is the Gadol, the senior person there, you will see his number two sitting next to him is his Av Beis Din, Rabbi Yehoshua. On the other side is the greatest Sage of their time, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Akiva is sitting on his other side because Rabbi Akiva was the Rav of Bnei Brak where this was taking place. And on the outer side were the two Sages, the elders, the zekeinim, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Tarfon. Now, that particular night when Rabban Gamliel was missing, because he was no longer Nasi, the only year in his life, when he was not Nasi, he was missing, and there had to be, something very fundamental had to happen. That night there must be no machloket.
Now I want you to imagine, as the Seder is about to begin, there’s one very real question, which is, we know kol hamarbeh lesaper biyetziat mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach, right? “The more you tell the story, the more praiseworthy you are,” the question is what is the shiur? How long does it extend? How long may you tell the story of the going out of Egypt? Do you know the answer?
Well, the answer is very simple. We know that there is a very clear statement on this and it actually appears in the Haggadah. It says vehigadeta levincha, “you shall teach your child,” yachol mirosh chodesh, “when are you supposed to do it? Maybe you should do it from Rosh Chodesh” when the preparations already began, talmud lomar bayom hahu, “the Torah says on that day,” meaning the day of Pesach itself, ee bayom hahu yachol mibe’od yom, “maybe you should already start doing it on the eve of Pesach” when you’re actually sacrificing korban pesach, talmod lomar ba’avur zeh, “therefore the Torah says ba’avur zeh,” loh amarti elah besha’ah sheyesh matzah umaror munachim lefanecha. “Ba’avur zeh means you must be able to point to the pesach, the matzah, pesach at the time when the Temple stood,” pesach matzah umaror. So the question “until how long do you tell the story of the going out of Egypt?” is equivalent to the question “until when could the korban pesach be eaten?” Are you with me? Because they are bounded by the same time zones. Now I want you to read a Gemara and you are going to see the terrible catastrophe that was about to happen that night. Have you got it? It’s the one before the end, Talmud Bavli Maseches Brachos Daf Tes Amud Aleph (Brachot 9a).
Hekter chalavim …ilu achilas pesach loh katanei, “it doesn’t mention eating the pesachim,” ureminhi krias shema arvis vehallel beleilei pesachim va’achilas pesach mitzvasan ad sheya’aleh amud hashachar. “So there’s a beraisa that says that saying Shema at night and Hallel on Pesach night and eating the korban pesach is all night until dawn.” Amar Rav Yosef loh kashia ha Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah ha Rabbi Akiva. ”One view is the view of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, the other is the view of Rabbi Akiva,” detanya, “as it says in a beraisa,” ve’achlu es habasar balaila hazeh, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah omer ne’emar kan balaila hazeh vene’emar kehalan, ve’avarti ve’eretz mitzrayim balaila hazeh, mah lehalan ad chatzos af kan ad chatzos. ”Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says you can eat korban pesach until midnight but not later,” amar lei Rabbi Akiva, vehaloh kevar ne’emar bechipazon, ad she’as chipazon, “you can eat the korban pesach until the time of the haste.” When is the haste? When did the Israelites leave begin leaving Egypt? When dawn broke and the morning began. So now we have an argument between Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva until how long can you eat the pesach? Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says until midnight Rabbi Akiva says until dawn.
And it then turns out that there is another set of Tannaim who have the same disagreement, as it says, sham tizbach es hapesach ba’arev kevoh hashemesh mo’ed tzeischa mimitzrayim. Rabbi Eliezer omer ba’erev atah zove’ach uchevoh hashemesh atah ochel umo’ed tzeischa … atah soref, “you offer the korban pesach in the afternoon, you eat it as night falls, and in the morning you burn it.Rabbi Yehoshua, ba’erev atah zoveach, “you sacrifice it in late afternoon,” kevoh hashemesh atah ochel, “when the sun sets you eat it,” ve’ad matai atah ochel veholech ad mo’ed tzeischa mimitzrayim, “you can eat it until the moment the Israelites began leaving Egypt, which is until dawn.”
Now go figure, until when can you eat the korban pesach? Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva disagree, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua disagree. According to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Eliezer, you can eat it until midnight and not later. According to Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva, you can eat it all night and therefore you can tell the story all night. This one year when they had to avoid a machlokes, they were about to sit down and have the grandmother of all machlokot. Two of the five Rabbis there hold you can only tell the story until midnight and the other two hold you can tell it until dawn. One of them doesn’t have an opinion. We are into machlokes territory and this is the one night of all nights they have to avoid a machloket.
How do you avoid a machloket between Rabbis without relying on miracles? There’s a very, very interesting Gemara, listen to it, have you got it? The last one, Talmud Bavli Maseches Rosh Hashanah Daf Kaf Tes Amud Beis (Rosh Hashanah 29b). Mishecharav beis hamikdash hiskin Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos, do you blow shofar or don’t you blow shofar? The answer is you don’t blow shofar except in one place, the Beis Hamikdash. So the question is, the first time Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, do you blow shofar or not? The Bnei Beseira said, “no, you only blow shofar on Shabbos in the Beis Hamikdash and we have no Beis Hamikdash anymore.” Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said, “ah, but we have Yavneh and Yavneh is the functional equivalent of the Beis Hamikdash, and therefore in Yavneh you can blow shofar on Shabbos.”
So listen, what happens, tanu rabanan pa’am achats chal Rosh Hashanah lihyos beshabbos, “once it happened, and this was the first time it happened after churban bayis sheni that Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbos.” Vehayu chol he’arim miskansin amar lahem Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai livnei Beseira niska. And Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to the Bnei Beseira who served in the Temple, “let’s blow shofar, the Temple’s destroyed, but Yavneh’s still here,” amru lei nadun, “they said, no, we don’t agree, it was only in the Temple, so let’s discuss,” amar lahem, Rabbi Yochanan proposed a compromise, niska ve’achar kach nadun, “let’s blow shofar and then we’ll discuss.”
They said, “well, that sounds like a reasonable compromise,” le’achar shetaku amru loh nadun. So they blew shofar, and then the Bnei Beseira said, “right now let’s discuss,” amar lahem kvar nishm’ah keren beYavneh v’ein meshivin le’achar ma’aseh, the shofar has already been blown, what is there left to discuss?”
That is how you solve an argument between chachamim. So what did they do? They said let’s create a fact on the ground, a ma’aseh, because you can argue about what is the halachah if all you’re doing is discussing halacha, but once a ma’aseh has happened, it’s happened, v’ein meshivin le’achar ma’aseh “and you can’t contradict it once it’s happened.” So what did they do? The two people who held, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva, that you tell the story all night, what did they do? I’ll tell you what they did, they were mesaprim beyetziat mitzrayim, “they talked about the going out of Egypt.” They did those things, you remember, how many plagues, if there were Ten Plagues in Egypt, how many was at the sea and you know, all that kind of stuff that you know. And so beautiful was their Torah that the two Rabbis who held that you can only tell the story about midnight were so enthralled in the Torah, in the stories that they completely forgot the time until higiya zeman shel shacharis, and nobody wanted to look at the clock because they didn’t have clocks in those days anyway, until the talmidim came along and said, “guys, it’s time to daven.” That fixed the halachah that you can tell the story of Egypt until dawn, vechol hamarbeh lesaper beyetzias mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach applies until dawn.
And now we can answer all the questions about the difference between this one and the other story in the Tosefta about Rabban Gamliel. We now know exactly when this conversation took place, the one year in which temporarily Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was Nasi and Rabban Gamliel was deposed. We know that this gathering of Sages took place at Bnei Brak, because that was the home of Rabbi Akiva who is the elder statesman in the absence of Rabbi Yehoshua. And they were out of, in the absence of Rabban Gamliel, out of respect for him, he should have been Rabban Gamliel’s replacement, so out of respect for him, they went to Bnei Brak, which was his place.
We now understand exactly how the seating arrangements were organised. We now know why Rabban Gamliel wasn’t there, because that was the year that he was deposed. We now know exactly what they were doing. They were resolving disagreement without creating a new machlokes. We know exactly why they kept going so deliberately to lose track of time. And we know now why they were discussing it sippur yetzias mitzrayim, and not like they were in Rabban Gamliel’s Seder when they were asukim behilchos Pesach. If they had done like Rabban Gamliel was doing, they were studying hilchos Pesach. They would go slap bang into the machlokes, that’s why the one thing they didn’t discuss that night was hilchos Pesach, they simply told the story. Friends, I want to say, for me that was a Seder night that changed history. It showed that you can use Torah as a peaceful methodology of conflict resolution. And simply by learning Torah, in that community of scholars telling the story of yetziat mitzrayim, they were able to resolve a halachic dispute without machloket. And I have no doubt that when Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah finally woke up to what they’d done to him, he couldn’t help smiling.
Friends, that really was a rabbinic way to resolve disputes and therefore let me leave you with this prayer at this zman geulah, that we use Torah as a means of conflict resolution, not as a means of conflict creation and conflict intensification. Let us remember the Gemara (Kidushin 30b) that says afilu ha’av uvenoh harav vetalmido sheyoshvim ve’oskin baTorah … na’asim oivim zeh lazeh”, “when father and son or master and disciples sit and discuss Torah, they have different views,” but “einam zazim misham ad she’ohavim zeh et zeh”, but they never leave off until they become friends and beloved to one another, shene’emar at vehav besofah yesh ahavah besof.”
If we study Torah with real love of Torah, that is what creates peace between scholars. When there is peace between scholars, there is peace within their disciples. And when there is peace in the Jewish world, we will finally pray for and achieve peace in the world at large bimheirah veyameinu Amen.