Pesach – halachah and aggadah: questions and answers

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

When asked, many Jews respond that Pesach is their favourite festival.

Pesach is a festival that is primarily celebrated at home and not in synagogue. The seder on the first night of Pesach (many have sedarim on the first and second nights) is an occasion to which everyone looks forward. It is replete with ritual, and vigorous discussion and debate is encouraged. Indeed the ritual begins days before as we clean our homes ridding ourselves of any chametz, culminating in the ritual of bedikat chametz on the evening before Erev Pesach. After the preliminary blessings and the ritual of Yachatz (dividing the middle matzah), the relaying of the story of Passover begins with the Arba Kushyot (the Four Questions) asked by children. Not only is this ritual a chance for the younger members of our household to shine, but it also teaches a profound lesson: Judaism encourages critical analysis of, and debate about, life, our sacred texts and even God.

The Haggadah provides guidance on how to answer questions posed by four different kinds of children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask. While answers are provided by the liturgy to the question of the meaning of Passover observance, the questions posed by the Ma Nishtana formulation are not directly answered. Questions are more important than answers. An answer is definitive and represents one view while questions are open ended and allow for different interpretations and understandings. While many may argue that not providing definitive answers will lead to religious anarchy, Judaism has always been a religion and culture of openness and debate, one only has to study the Talmud and Midrash.

Halachah certainly requires definitive answers and the rabbinic writings illustrate the democratic nature of the legal process. Debates and discussions are meticulously recorded, and the final answer stated is that of the majority. What is fascinating, however, is the fact that the redactors of the Mishnah and Talmud chose to include the minority opinions as well. The decision not to ignore divergent opinions is illuminating and unique in the history of religion. I like to think that the decision to document divergent voices was made with a deliberate eye to the future. Even though halachah has to be definitive, the sages recognised the dynamism of life and the world and understood that different times and circumstances need different solutions. Acknowledging opposing views leaves the answers given by halachah slightly ajar, allowing for new answers when times and circumstances require new understanding.

It is for this reason that aggadah (stories, anecdotes, parables and arch narratives) is as equally important as halachah for a Jewish understanding of life, the world, Torah and God. The narratives of the Torah and the rest of the Tanach and the midrashim of the rabbinic and medieval periods and the modern era assist us in understanding the motivation and thought processes of our scholars and sages. This rich collection of tales and philosophical insights supplement the halachah that governs our everyday lives in this physical, quantifiable world. The aggadah, both classic and modern, allows us to question and to search. Just as halachah guides us in our relationship with God as we go about our daily, pragmatic lives, so aggadah is a vehicle for our spiritual connection to our Creator. This beautiful synchronisation between Jewish law and Jewish lore is clearly illustrated in the Pesach Haggadah that combines midrash and halachah and leaves room for discussion as we retell and re-enact the story of Y’Tziat Mitzrayim, “the Exodus from Egypt”.

Wishing you Chag Kosher v’Sameach

Temple Israel

• Published in the print edition of the March/April Pesach 2021 issue. Download the March/April 2021 issue PDF here.

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