The part of the Seder that is most vivid for me – being obsessed with Talmud- is the scene of a few “founding fathers” holding a Pesach Seder at Rabbi Akivah’s house in Bnei Brak. Their conversation about leaving Egypt was so engaging that they nearly missed the time for morning Shema, loosing all track of time. This story proves statements made in the haggada: “even the wise have a responsibility to talk about the Exodus, the more the better” and “we all must feel as if we ourselves were leaving Egypt,” for the telling of the past was more real than the actual sunrise and the present responsibility to pray.
Interestingly, there is another story about a seder of Rabbis who are so immersed that they too almost miss Shema; this Seder is lead by Rabban Gamliel. The Tosefta records an interesting detail: these Rabbis were not discussing the national story of our leaving Egypt, as Akivah was, but rather were talking about the laws of performing the Korban Pesach- the Sacrifice of Passover.
I wonder at the philosophical debate that is being waged by these two texts - story vs. law, a divide that also seems to appear in the questions and answers offered by and to the four sons. The wise son asks about the laws and is answered with the minutia of halakhic information, while all the other sons receive answers that focus on the story of leaving Egypt and its importance.
I want to suggest that Rabban Gamliel’s choice to focus on the sacrifice reappears later in the haggada as well. Towards the end of Maggid, we read: Rabban Gamliel says anyone who does not say the following three things did not fulfill their responsibility: Pesach, Matza and Maror. The Hagadda goes on to explicate these three elements in relation to the Exodus story: Pesach is the sacrifice that the Jews gave on the night before they left, Matzah is the bread they made in a rush as they left Egypt, and Marror represents the harsh labor of their enslavement.
But knowing that at Rabban Gamliel’s seder they discussed the laws of the korban and not the story of Exodus, I would suggest that this part of the haggada is a gloss. (In fact Rabban Gamliel’s original short quote appears in the Mishna without the explication.) The original meaning of his exhortation is a desire to bring to our seder night the elements of the sacrifice, which we are no longer able to perform. After all the elements of Matzah and Marror were part of God’s original command for how to eat the Korban Pesach even before the Jews leave Egypt, before historical fate forces them to make Matazh, and before they are free from the servitude, which the Marror will eventually represent.
Raban Gamliel is placing the emphasis on the Korban, and only the later gloss sides with “Rabbi Akiva’s seder,” turning the Korban into representative elements that connect back to the story of leaving Egypt. In our own time, we are so distant from the culture of sacrifices that we can’t understand why these two positions – focus on the Korban and focus on the Exodus – should stand opposed to each other. Surely the Korban is only relevant in so far as it represents and teaches us about the Exodus! But the existence of these two parallel Seders, told in the same literary form, suggests to me that they are either opposed or complimentary but not identical.
One binary that we may draw is that Rabbi Akivah tells a national story while Rabban Gamliel tells a religious story. Some suggest that Rabbi Akivah was discussing the Bar Kochba revolt with his fellow Rabbis who had all just returned from a trip to Rome to lobby on behalf of the Jews. The National story of Exodus- rather than the details of law- inspired their own rebellion for independence from the political slavery of Roman rule. However, I worry that presenting their opinions as a strict binary insinuates that while Akivah ran a current and relevant Pesach seder, Rabban Gamliel was detached from the present reality of the Jews, and chose to be busy with the irrelevant details of a sacrifice that was never to return.
But as we examined Rabbi Akivah’s historical moment, we also must understand Rabban Gamiliel’s. Rabban Gamliel is one of the founders of the project of Yavneh, which is at its heart a religious rabbinic pursuit. Its founding is literarily tied with Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s leaving of Jerusalem, the choice to pursue religious sovereignty and national survival over physical political sovereignty. However, religious pursuit is not by necessity detached from reality. Rabban Gamliel may be interested in the sacrifice first and foremost because the temple is destroyed in his lifetime and the pain and loss of the korban is too fresh to imagine a full seder where the sacrifice plays a purely representational role.
At the beginning of his reign as Nasi of the Sanhedrin there probably was no formal Seder, because when the korban was offered in the Mikdash the bringing and eating the sacrifice itself was all that was needed to fulfill the commandment to feel as if you were leaving Egypt. In the most tangible way possible, by eating the Korban Pesach with Matzah and Marror, a Jew could actually act out the moment of Exodus, and relive the sense of declaring National Unity (separation from the Egyptians) with their sacrifice. When the temple stood, the seder was improvisational theatre, whereas only afterward it became storytelling. It would have been insensitive not to mourn the passing of the korban at this point in the Jewish trajectory.
More importantly enactment of the korban encapsulates within it several important values; therefore Rabban Gamliel’s choice to talk of the details of the sacrifice was not a hollow act of halakhic nitty gritty. Korban Pesach is the one sacrifice that all Jews do at the same time, yet individually. On Yom Kippur and other holidays the koahim sacrifice one korban in the name of the entire nation, while individual sacrifices were brought when one sinned or had something specific to be thankful for. Korban Pesach is the one sacrifice that all of Israel individually part of a national ritual.
Because of the simultaneous individual and national nature of the korban, there are other special laws. Jews are allowed into the sanctuary to offer this korban in concert with the kohaim. He is even allowed to do the shchita. On the other hand, the meat of the may be eaten in all of Jerusalem, not only in the walls of the sanctuary as with ordinary sacrifices. The ordinary Jew is allowed into the Mikdash, and the kodesh is allowed out side of the Mikdash.
Lastly korban pesach models the creation of smaller communities within the national whole, in which every individual counts. Several families would join together in order to ensure that the sacrifice would sufficiently feed those who gathered to eat it and meat would not be left over or wasted. Men and women need to be counted ahead of time to a given group, so that every individual is included in the korban at the time of the sacrifice. This magnificent law again highlights the importance of the individual in the community within the nation. Each person is included in a smaller community, counted in that community, while circles upon circles are huddled into the walls of Jerusalem all taking part in the Korban.
If these were the laws of Korban Pesach that Rabban Gamliel wanted to discuss, it seems to me that he too wants to talk about nationality and community, the importance of the individual to the whole, and the ability to import the holiness of the temple into the walls of Jerusalem and beyond, into the actions of each individual.
The korban may have been the most appropriate vehicle to discuss the issues of community building in the wake of the destruction, the task of his generation. While for Rabbi Akivah the need to throw off the yoke of political slavery was better served by returning to the story of leaving Egypt without intermediary of the Korban.
I think that both of these stories are embedded in our seder, though the further we get from the time sacrifices the less relevant it seemed to the framers of the seder and to us us. However the value of joining the individual and community in partnership to extend the umbrella of holiness and memory is still relevant and perhaps should be reemphasized in our seder as well.
As modern Jews we tend to privilege aggada- story telling and narratives, which teach values- over law, which we often assume is meaningless in its details. But in truth the two work together, and just as we act to emphasize the values of our religion, we must work to unveil the importance of halakha rather that dismiss it as misguided and empty.