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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What Time Did You Finish Your Seder? (AKA It's Late! Let's Eat!)

Often, when we come to shul the day after the Seder, the first question people ask is, "When did you finish your seder?" Everyone is rightly proud of how long their seder took, how much discussion took place, and how involved everyone was-- "We finished at two in the morning!" "Oh, we were just starting our meal around that time..." But it is important to remember that while our learned discussion is very important, we should not forget the stars of the seder, our little children.

The Mechaber in 472 says that you should hurry to eat at the Seder so that the children will not fall asleep. The Mishneh Brura there, as in several other places, says that it does not mean to “eat,” because there is no mitzvah to run through the Hagodoh to get to the meal, but rather it means you should begin the Hagodoh without delay so that the children will not despair of getting to the meal, so they will stay awake and participate in the seder.

However, in the Sha’arei Tziyun, in his second pshat, he says that it does really mean to get to the meal quickly (let's eat), because the most important question for the children to ask is one that arises from surprise, wonder, and fascination. This comes from seeing the things we do at and right before the meal, like the tibullim and what we do with the matzos (and the maror-- like watching Zaidy turn bright red from eating a massive kezayis of white lightning, the special horseradish). As one person, Benjamin E., put it,
"If we focus on saying every word of the haggadah and forget that the point is to "narrate our founding story to our children" and ourselves, we've lost out by getting bogged down in "commentary" that is really just supposed to augment our ability to tell the story. When it overshadows the story, there's a problem...."

The Sha'arei Tziyun continues and says that the fact that the Mah Nishanoh is at the beginning of the seder “ein bekach klum,” means nothing at all. The way I understand the approach of the Shaarei Tziyun is this:

There are two dinim in the childrens’ questions. One is that the tzuroh, the definitional format, of 'hagadah' requires that the story be in the form of a response to a question. This requirement is satisfied by the formal recitation of the Mah Nishtanah. The other din of the Seder is that children should be stimulated to ask questions. These are independent dinim, and the second, the one that requires that the children be stimulated to wonder and ask, is at least as important as the first. So while we begin the hagodoh with a pro forma set of questions, there still remains the requirement that the children ask questions that truly arise from wonder and curiosity, and this is best done when they are awake and interested and able to really pay attention to what is going on.

No matter whether we accept the Mishneh Brurah approach or the Shaarei Tziyun approach, it is clear that an important, perhaps essential, element of the Hagadah is that the children should be fascinated by the Seder and ask questions, not just the ones printed in the Hagadah, and not the ones they were overabundantly supplied with at school, but questions that truly reflect surprise and wonder. And let's hope we have good answers!

I spoke to Harav Moshe Brown (of the Agudah Shul in Far Rockaway and Yeshiva Derech Eisan) in March ‘04/Nissan ‘64, and he told me that he said basically the same thing in the Rambam in Chometz Umatzoh 8:2. The Rambam there says that the child asks, and then the Korei Hagodoh repeats the Mah Nishtanoh. The Mishneh Lemelech there says that the Rambam does not pasken like the Gemorah that says “potroson milomar mah nishtanoh.” Harav Brown explained that the child asks to be mekayeim “ki yisholcho,” and the Korei repeats it because of the “tzuras haseder,” or the “tzuras din sippur,” which requires a question/answer format. Evidently he holds that the question/answer format aspect must be done by an individual that is obligated to fulfil the mitzvah of Hagadah. The child’s question, while it fulfils one din of the Seder, does not fulfil the formal question/answer requirement, which must be done by an adult.

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