Passover’s Rupture and Reconstruction

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Yosef Lindell


On Seder night, we tell our national story.[1] The Haggadah voices the Jewish tale of deliverance—from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land. But Pesah night was not always this way. Long ago, the holiday focused not on a story, but on a sacrifice—the korban pesah. Although Jews in Temple times may have told the story of the Exodus too, it was far from the centerpiece of the evening. The Haggadah, a text which developed over a period of centuries, grew up in the absence of a Temple.

But there is some tension in telling our story of leaving Egypt when we are in exile. Relying in part on the work of the Israeli scholar Dr. David Henshke, I will examine rabbinic sources suggesting the possibility of an alternative Seder, one focused on Halakhah and the missing korban pesah. Although this version of the Seder was rejected, I will show that the Haggadah is more concerned with the absence of the Temple than it might seem at first. From a literary perspective, one can read the structure of the modern-day Haggadah—which bookends the story of the Exodus with calls for redemption in the paragraphs of Ha Lahma Anya and Hasal Siddur Pesah—as addressing the dissonance in celebrating a Pesah without the korban pesah.

The Rupture
Imagine a time when the Temple stood and pilgrims ascended to Jerusalem. Imagine the bustle and clamor of the markets where the travelers purchased sheep for the Passover sacrifice and formed small groups to consume its meat as prescribed. Josephus estimates that 3 million people participated in the sacrifice in 65 CE. The Talmud (Pesahim 64b), in a similar vein, calls one year the “Passover of the crowded” and suggests that there were “twice as many as who left Egypt” in Jerusalem. Then, imagine the sacrifice itself, or if you can stomach it, watch a video of the Samaritan rite still performed today. Sacrifice is ancient spirituality at its thickest—a ritual of fire pits and wood smoke all slippery with blood.

Needless to say, the Passover of long ago evoked different feelings than the one of today. As Dr. Henshke explains in his magisterial work Mah Nishtanah? Leil ha-Pesah be-Talmudam shel Hakhamim, the ancient holiday focused not on the past, but on the present.[2] When the people brought the sacrifice, they were reenacting the pesah brought in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus, but now as a redeemed nation. When the Temple stood, remembering the Exodus was tinged with the living state of redemption. Each year, the Jews reinitiated themselves into an unbroken covenant with God.

Thus, when the Temple was destroyed and the Passover sacrifice was no more, the holiday lost its central element. How could the Jewish people celebrate their redemption from Egypt when they were again in exile?

This was in fact one of the questions that animated rabbinic Judaism: what was to be done with a religion centered around a place—the Temple—when that place was gone? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls the shift that transpired “one of the great, if quiet, dramas of history,” in which “a succession of scribes, scholars, and sages began to reshape Israel from the people of the land to the people of the book.” “Prayer took the place of sacrifice,” he writes. “Repentance became a substitute for the great ritual of atonement performed by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies.”[3]

Sans a Temple, Yom Kippur and Passover shared the same problem. Yom Kippur had been focused around the Kohen Gadol’s Temple service, or avodah, and the absolution it would provide. There was the bringing of the incense in the Holy of Holies, the sacrifices, the scapegoat, and, according to one opinion, a scarlet strand that turned to white (Mishnah Yoma 6:8). How could the Jewish people gain forgiveness when the avodah was gone? Passover too, lacked its sacrificial centerpiece. How could the people reaffirm a covenant with God that seemed like it had been shattered?

Models of Reconstruction: Law vs. Narrative
Yom Kippur and Pesah were both transformed, but ultimately not in the same way. The Talmud (Taanit 27b) explains that God declared to the patriarch Abraham that his descendants need not fear when the Temple is gone, because “I have already enacted for them the order of offerings. When they read them before Me, I will ascribe them credit as though they had sacrificed them before Me and I will pardon them for all their transgressions.” In the mind of the Sages, recounting the order of the sacrifices is akin to offering them. Therefore, on Yom Kippur, in addition to engaging in repentance (as Rabbi Sacks notes), we recall the sacrifices. We can no longer perform the avodah, so we say the avodah. The core of the synagogue liturgy on Yom Kippur is a detailed poetic litany based on the Mishnah’s account of the High Priest’s service culminating in his entry into the Holy of Holies.

The Sages further suggest that whenever anyone studies the laws of a particular sacrifice, it is as if they offered it (Menahot 110a). So, Henshke wonders, maybe Passover should be the same as Yom Kippur.[4] Since we cannot offer the pesah sacrifice, we should instead learn its laws. Storytelling should perhaps take a back seat to studying the Mishnayot in the latter half of Pesahim that detail how the offering was brought.

In fact, initially, some of the Sages contemplated a Pesah Seder along these lines. Tosefta Pesahim 10:11-12 declares: “A person must engage in the laws of Pesah all night, even if it is just him with his son, even if it is just him by himself, and even if it is just him and his student.” It then cites a story supporting this position: “Once, Rabban Gamliel and the elders were reclining in the house of Boethus ben Zonin in Lod, and they were occupied in studying the laws of Pesah all that night, until the cock crowed. They lifted the table, made themselves ready and went to the house of study.”

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it is quite similar to the one in the Haggadah about the five rabbis in Bnei Brak who “were telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt that whole night, until their students came and said to them, ‘The time for the morning Shema has arrived.’” But in the Haggadah, it is those that discuss the story at great length who are praised, not those who learn Pesah’s laws. The Haggadah thus makes its rejection of the Tosefta’s position rather explicit.

There is but one echo of the Tosefta’s position to be found in the Haggadah, in a portion of the text paralleled in the Mekhilta. The wise son asks: “‘What are these testimonies, statutes, and judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?’ (Deuteronomy 6:20) And accordingly you will tell him about the laws of the Pesah sacrifice, ‘We may not eat an afikoman after the pesah.’” The Mekhilta and the Haggadah’s answer to the wise son focuses—like the Tosefta—on sacrificial laws, not the story of the Exodus. But the rest of the Haggadah is along different lines. In fact, fascinatingly, a beraita quoted in Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:4 seems to reject the Mekhilta’s formulation. According to the Yerushalmi, when the wise son asks about the laws of Pesah, you simply respond, based on Exodus 13:3, “With a mighty Hand God took us out of Egypt from the house of servitude.” The Yerushalmi seems to be saying: The laws of pesah offering are not what a wise son needs to know on Seder night. He needs to know how we left Egypt.[5]

Some in fact do recite compositions before the Seder patterned after the piyyutim of the Yom Kippur avodah that discuss the sacrificial order of the korban pesah in some detail.[6] But they are not a standard part of the Seder. The question is: Why not? How come we don’t follow Yom Kippur’s model and study the laws of the korban pesah as a way of reenacting it?

I think the most straightforward answer is that the Torah places particular emphasis on telling the story of the Exodus on Passover itself. On what appears to be the very day the Children of Israel left Egypt, Moses commands them to eat matzah for seven days in perpetuity at this time of year, and then says, “And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8). (In fact, the Haggadah uses this verse to derive that the Seder and its storytelling must take place on the night of the 15th of Nisan.) Further, the Exodus is a foundational narrative of the Jewish people throughout Tanakh. In addition to the command for an individual to retell the story when bringing first fruits to the Temple (Deuteronomy 26:5), the story is retold to the people at crucial moments in their history (see Joshua 24, I Samuel 12, I Kings 8, Nehemiah 9).

But I also think that the reason we do not talk more about the korban pesah is because telling the story of the Exodus is actually a meaningful way of putting the Temple front and center. In other words—and Henshke suggests this briefly as well—we focus on the story on Seder night precisely because we are now in exile and telling about the miracles of the Exodus gives us hope for the future.[7] Surely, if God redeemed us once, He can do it again. Focusing on the story instead of the korban does not diminish the Temple’s centrality. Far from it—the story of deliverance from Egypt gives us hope that we will return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. We could recite the laws of the korban pesah, substituting our words for sacrifice, but then we might not feel the night’s redemptive potential in the same way.

Viewing the Haggadah through this lens provides a different perspective on the way it tells the story of yetziat mitzrayim, one that is focused not just on the past, but also on the future. The Mishnah in Pesahim, which provides the basic framework of the Haggadah, recounts that Rabbi Akiva concluded telling the story of the Exodus with a blessing expressing the hope that we will return to Jerusalem to eat from the korban pesah (Pesahim 10:6). Having adopted Rabbi Akiva’s view, we conclude Maggid by blessing God for having “redeemed us and redeemed our ancestors from Egypt,” and praying “so too, Lord our God … bring us to other appointed times and holidays … joyful in the building of Your city and happy in Your worship; that we shall eat there from the offerings and from the Pesach sacrifices.” This linkage between our redemption from Egypt and the ultimate redemption is already present in the earliest Haggadot.

Ha Lahma Anya as a Reality Check
The Haggadah’s attention to the loss of the Temple only increased as it developed over the ensuing centuries. I would argue that in fact, the modern Haggadah, which opens and closes with prayers for redemption, is framed around the loss of the korban pesah and our desire for its renewal. Consider Ha Lahma Anya, the Aramaic-language and Geonic-Era opening to Maggid, which states:

This is the bread of poverty our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let anyone who is hungry come and eat. Let anyone who needs come and make Pesah (yaitai ve-yifsah). Now we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year may we be free.

Commentators have long struggled to understand this puzzling opener. In addition to its questionable placement at the beginning of the Haggadah, there are other well-known difficulties with the paragraph. Why it is in Aramaic when the rest of the Haggadah is in Hebrew? Why is matzah referred to as poor bread eaten in Egypt when Rabban Gamliel later explains that it symbolizes redemption? Why are we inviting guests when the Seder has already begun? Why, on this night celebrating the Jewish people’s redemption from Egypt, do we mention that we remain in exile and that Jerusalem is unredeemed?

To answer these questions, one can approach the paragraph historically, as Dr. Simcha Gross did in an article that explored how and why it made its way into the Haggadah. But from a literary perspective, the paragraph may preserve the tension of a Passover devoid of a paschal sacrifice and put participants in the right mindset for telling the story in a way that emphasizes the loss of the Temple. Written in the Aramaic vernacular of Babylonia, it is a reality check before we begin telling the story. “Here is the matzah—the Egyptian bread of poverty,” we declare, for conspicuously absent from the table is the meat of the pesah sacrifice. The matzah is all we have left. “Everyone who is hungry come and eat,” we sigh. Guests can still come—even now that the Seder has begun—because without the korban pesah, there is no longer a requirement that groups to eat the sacrificial meat be set up ahead of time (see, e.g., Mishnah Pesahim 5:3).[8] “Everyone who needs come and be yifsah,” we say, using a word derived from pesah to harp on the irony that there is in fact no more korban pesah at all. And in the concluding verses we note that this year we are in exile, not the land of Israel, so we cannot bring the sacrifice. Next year, we pray, will be different.

Ha Lahma Anya thus sets up our retelling of the Exodus. Even though Passover is missing its sacrificial centerpiece, by telling its story of deliverance in the pages that follow, we give flight to our own dreams of redemption. By viewing ourselves as having gone out of Egypt, we reinforce our belief in the ultimate restoration. During the course of the evening, the matzah is transformed from the bread of affliction to the bread of redemption. Ha Lahma Anya, the reality check that acknowledges what the modern Passover is missing, puts us in a mindset to retell our deliverance from Egypt with an eye to God’s promises for the future.

In this manner, the Haggadah becomes the “master-narrative” of slavery and freedom, a retelling of the highs and lows of all of Jewish history.[9] That’s why one finds throughout the Haggadah other instances of oppression and redemption: the foiled plans of Lavan (tzei u-lemad), the declaration that there are enemies of the Jews in every generation (vehi she-amdah), and our prayer that God pour out His wrath on evil nations (shefokh hamatkha). It might also explain why we say be-khol dor va-dor, which declares that in every generation, we must see ourselves as having left Egypt. The Seder is structured as a template for future deliverance. By weaving together past, present, and future, and by making us participants in the story, the Haggadah is forward-looking. Its storytelling turns an eye to an upcoming restoration in a way a more backward-looking litany of sacrificial laws could not.

The Transposition of Hasal Siddur Pesah
Given all that we’ve said so far, it is fitting that not just Maggid, but the entire Seder, ends with Hasal Siddur Pesah, another prayer for the return to Jerusalem. The Seder is thus bookended by recollections of the Temple and the acknowledgment that without it, we are missing the sacrificial cornerstone of the holiday.

But there is another layer to Hasal Siddur Pesah, because it wasn’t written for the Seder at all, and by reciting it at the end of the Seder, we change its original meaning in a manner consistent with the themes we have been developing. Hasal Siddur Pesah is the last lines of a piyyut said as part of the yotzrot for Shabbat Ha-Gadol that begins “avo be-hil le-hityatzvah.” (The yotzrot are medieval poems written to be recited on special shabbatot throughout the year. The number of congregations in the United States that recite them is diminishing.) Written in 11th century Germany by R. Yosef Tov Elem, the poem—said right before kedushah—recounts in detail the laws and procedures of Pesah such as searching for hametz, eating matzah, kashering vessels, and the order of the Seder. The lines of Hasal Siddur Pesah make perfect sense in this context:

The Seder of Pesah is completed according to its law—according to all its judgements and statutes. Just as we have merited to arrange it (le-sader oto), so too, may we merit to do it. O Pure One who dwells in heaven, raise up the congregation too numerous to count. Soon lead the firm saplings, redeemed, to Zion, in song. (Next year in Jerusalem!)

After detailing everything we will do to get ready for Pesah, we conclude: Just like we’ve merited to lay it all out in order on Shabbat Ha-Gadol (le-sader oto), so may we merit to do it—meaning, next week on Pesah night, may we merit to eat the matzah and perform the Seder with all its laws.

Hasal Siddur Pesah was transposed to the end of the Seder in the 14th century, and the words “next year in Jerusalem,” began to be added a century or two later.[10] In the Seder, the paragraph takes on an entirely new meaning. We say, “We merited to do the Seder (le-sader oto),” but since we haven’t been able to sacrifice the pesah, “may we merit to perform it”—in other words, to bring the korban in Jerusalem. Thus, the very words that in the Shabbat Ha-Gadol piyyut referred to keeping the laws of Pesah while in exile now refer to our hope that God should enable us to bring the paschal sacrifice as originally intended. In the Haggadah, the poem becomes a conclusion to the evening’s epic narrative arc and a prayer that God fulfill what He has promised: peduyim le-tzion be-rinah—may we be redeemed to Zion in song. It is almost as if Hasal Siddur Pesah has itself been redeemed—the words describing the mundane Pesah of exile celebrated with matzah alone become a prayer describing our hope to bring the korban pesah in Jerusalem.

The Haggadah is a book with no single author, a text shaped by centuries of anonymous accretions and insertions. Perhaps its non-linear development is part of the reason why, as I’ve written,[11] it tells a disorganized account of the Exodus. And yet, the Haggadah that has come down to us still hangs together, possessed by a remarkable literary structure.[12] One of the most resonant examples of this is these prayers for redemption in Ha Lahma Anya and Hasal Siddur Pesah that bookend the Seder. It is here that the Haggadah keeps alive the tension that our Sages had to grapple with centuries ago: How does one reconstruct Passover in the absence of a paschal sacrifice? The answer, our Sages say, is to tell the story of the Exodus. For although our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land has been laced with detours and doubts, by retelling the story, we are reassured that it is far from over.

[1] I would like to thank Ted Rosenbaum for reviewing a draft of this article.

[2] (Magnes Press, 2016), 353-54.

[3] Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah (Continuum Publishing, 2003), 49-50.

[4] Henshke, 365-66 & n.32, 387-89.

[5] Ibid., 370-71. Henshke reads the beraita in the Yerushalmi as disagreeing in principle with the Mekhilta. See also Joseph Tabory, JPS Commentary on the Haggadah (Jewish Publication Society, 2008), 44. It is, however, quite possible that the Yerushalmi’s text is the result of a scribal error. The Yerushalmi does not simply change the answer to the wise son, but reverses it and the answer to the tam, or simple son (in the Yerushalmi he is called the tippesh, or foolish son). It is hard to understand why the tam would get the answer about the afikoman, suggesting a copying mistake as the reason for the reversal of the answers to the two sons. See Joshua Kulp, The Schechter Haggadah (The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2009), 208.

[6] See, for example, “Seder Amirat Korban Pesah,” in Haggadah Shel Pesah: Torat Hayyim (Mossad HaRav Kook, 1998), 3-5, which is taken from the Siddur of R. Yaakov Emden.

[7] Henshke, 389.

[8] There are similarities between my interpretation of this clause of Ha Lahma Anya and Rabbi Elli Fischer’s approach in The Pauper’s Bread,” Lehrhaus (March 30, 2018).

[9] See Sacks, 91.

[10] Kulp, 271-72.

[11] The Seder is Anything But Orderly,” Lehrhaus (March 22, 2021).

[12] For more on the structure and symmetry of the Seder, see Tabory, 16-17.

Yosef Lindell is an editor at the Lehrhaus and a lawyer, writer, and lecturer living in Silver Spring, MD, with his wife and two sons. He has an MA in Jewish history from Yeshiva University and a JD from NYU Law. His writing spans several genres, from science fiction to Jewish scholarship, and he’s published more than 30 articles on Jewish history and thought. In addition to writing for the Lehrhaus, he’s been published by the Atlantic, the Jewish Review of Books, JTA, the Forward, Modern Judaism, Jewish Action, and other venues. Check out more of his writing at