The mandate on Passover is “to tell” the story of the Exodus. But what exactly does this mean? And how can we apply this to other areas of our lives?
Passover is a holiday filled with two of my favorite things: questions and rituals. Both questions and rituals are fundamental building blocks to creating meaning and fulfillment. This is part of a series using Passover as a case study through which to explore the role of both questions and rituals in creating a life of greater meaning and fulfillment.
A necessary prerequisite to exploring the purpose of rituals and questions at the Passover Seder is to define the outcome of the Seder. What result are we after? What are we trying to accomplish? For this, we must look to the core mandate of the holiday.
The Core Commandment of Passover
Our common understanding is that the core mandate of Passover is “to tell the story of the Exodus.” We derive this from Exodus 13:8, which states:
Vehigadeta lebincha bayom ha-hoo, ba-avoor zeh asah Adoni li bezeiti mi-Mitzrayim.
And you shall tell your child on that day: because of this the Lord acted for me when I came out of Egypt.
The word vehigadeta — and you shall tell — shares the same word root as the Haggadah, the name of the prayer book we use at the Passover Seder, and Magid, the section of the Seder in which we tell the story of the Exodus.
The Hebrew language has several words that can mean “to tell.” One of the key tenets about the Torah is that every word is intentional. The use of vehigadeta must convey something specific about the mandate of the Passover Seder that these other words cannot.
What is the specific mandate of vehigadeta?
This is what I want to explore here.
My Intuitive Response
Intuitively, I’ve always understood the phrase vehigadeta lebincha to mean “and you shall teach your children,” even though I know that the word for teach is lilamed. Understanding vehigadeta as “to teach” makes sense in the context of the Seder. The questions we ask facilitate the process of teaching by engaging the children in learning.
If there is something I love more than rituals and questions, its geeking out over words and their origins and meanings. As a writer, I have agonized over word choice to find the word that most accurately conveys the meaning I wish to impart. Word choice is important. So I sought to go beyond my intuition and see what I could learn about the word choice here.
I will address this question from three angles:
- Language: understanding the plain meaning of the words
- Meaning: understanding the etymology of the words
- Context: what we can infer from how the words are used in the story of the Exodus
Language: Lesaper vs Ledaber vs Lomar vs Lehagid
The Hebrew language has four words that can mean “to tell.” Let’s start by understanding their meanings and evaluating how they fit with the context of the Seder.
Of the three words meaning “to tell,” lesaper is most typically used in connection with story. Lesaper means “to relate, to tell (a story), to read” and also “to recount.” The root of lesaper — s-p-r — also gives us sipur, which means “story” or “recounting”, and sefer, which is the Hebrew word for “book” (as in, a book that you read, not the verb meaning “to schedule”; language… so confusing sometimes!).
If you have attended a Seder, you know that we don’t actually “tell the story” of the Exodus, at least not in a linear fashion. We don’t read the story from the Book of Exodus; at most, we refer to parts of the story.
This is in contrast to a holiday like Purim, where we read Megillat Esther to tell the story of how the Jews were saved from Haman’s evil decree. Reading the Megillah is the core mandate of that holiday; we recite a special blessing before the reading, similar to how we recite blessings before engaging in other commandments.
On Passover, we do not recite a blessing specific to telling the story of the Exodus or the reading of the Haggadah. This tells me that vehigadeta connotes something beyond merely “telling the story.”
Ledaber means “to speak.” On the surface, this might not seem to fit so well. But look at the Magid section of the Haggadah: we read about how the ancient Rabbis conducted their Seders, the archetypes of the four sons, and the various elements and interpretations of the Passover commandments. We don’t so much “tell a story” as we “speak about” the topics related to the Exodus and the commandments of Passover.
Yet the mandate on Passover is not vedibarta (a form of ledaber). Assuming that the Haggadah is facilitating our efforts to fulfill the mandate of Passover, the requirement implicit in vehigadeta must transcend the actual words found in the Haggadah.
Lomar is defined as “to say” or “to tell”, although I’ve always understood and used lomar in the sense of to say. It comes from the root a-m-r. This root comes up frequently in the Haggadah and in other prayers in the form of she-ne’emar, which means “as it is said.” She-ne’emar is used in this context as a form of citation; it introduces a quote from an original source following a paraphrase or interpretation.
Lehagid is defined as “to tell” or “to say”. It comes from the root n-g-d, which means “to oppose”. We will discuss this more in the etymology section. As stated above, in the context of vehigadeta I’ve typically inferred it to mean “to teach.”
Lomar vs Lehagid: Distinctions in Modern Usage
Lomar and lehagid are both used prominently in the passages from the Book of Exodus that give us the mandates for Passover, and both mean “to say or to tell” independent of a narrative or story.
It appears that the key to understanding the mandate of vehigadeta lies in discerning the distinction between these two words.
In my research, I found that this topic is extensively and passionately debated in various online forums. See, for example, here, here and here. This appears to be an evolving issue in modern Hebrew usage. After culling through the forums and other language sites, I discerned the following usage distinctions:
- Active vs Passive: Compared to lehagid, lomar is a passive version of “to tell.”
- Tenses: According to the Hebrew verb conjugation website Pealim.com, Lomar is typically used in past and present tenses and Lehagid is used in the future tense, infinitive, and imperative.
- Strength: Lehagid is considered to be a stronger word for “to tell” than lomar. In the forum discussions, people refer to it as being more “forceful.” Some people note that lehagid is used more frequently when the speaker is under stress.
Say vs Tell
The distinction between lomar and lehagid might be similar to the distinction between say and tell in English. Of course, one of the challenges in translating words into English is that we’ve lost our precision with the English language.
Are say and tell distinct?
I believe they are, and that the distinction lies in the listener. To say something does not require that anyone hear what is said. This doesn’t mean that nobody heard or listened. But it’s not implicit in the meaning of say that someone else heard it.
In contrast, the use of the word tell implies that another person was present when the speaker communicated the message. We tell something to someone; it’s not just words in the ether. To tell implies that another person was told. (This doesn’t address whether such person heard or listened, but I’ll leave that distinction for another time.)
I would offer that this is the distinction between lomar and lehagid. Although both can mean “to say” or “to tell,” I would be more rigorous with the distinction: Lomar means “to say” and lehagid means “to tell.”
But we are still left with the question: what does it mean “to tell” — vehigadeta — in the context of the Passover Seder?
Meaning: Etymology of Lehagid
David Curwin, who writes the fascinating Hebrew language etymology site Balashon, explains the etymology of lehagid in the context of his discussion of the relationship between Haggadah and Aggadah:
The verb הגיד higid comes from the root נגד. [Ernest] Klein [says] that the ultimate meaning of this root is “to rise, be high, be conspicuous.” So the verb higid, meaning “he made known, announced, declared, told”, originally meant “he placed a matter high or made it conspicuous before somebody.” This same root gives us the word neged נגד – “opposite”, which again originally meant “that which is high or conspicuous.” (link to article, emphasis and italics are mine)
This concept of “making known” fits with my intuitive understanding of vehigadeta in the sense of “to teach.” I would argue that the intended outcome of teaching something is to instill knowledge, or “to make it known.”
Also, understanding lehagid as “making something conspicuous” fits with the prominence of the rituals we perform at the Seder. The word conspicuous means “standing out so as to be clearly visible; attracting notice or attention.”
Passover stands out among all the holidays because of the rituals associated with the observance of the holiday. Even before we get to the holiday itself, the preparation involved — taking out the separate dishes used only for this holiday, cleaning out and selling chametz — “make it known” to members of the household, including small children, that Passover is coming. The rituals we perform at the Seder make the holiday stand out among the others, and bring a special attention to the story of the Exodus; no other story in the history of the Jewish people receives this much attention.
Another part of the book of Exodus, not directly about the Passover observance, offers us insight into the distinction between lehagid and lomar. In Exodus 19:3, within the chapter of Yitro, God uses both words in instructing Moses about how to communicate to the people:
“Thus shall you say (tomar) to the house of Jacob and tell (tagid) to the children of Israel.
The fact that this sentence uses versions of both lomar and lehagid tells us that these words have distinct meanings. Understanding the distinction in this context allows us to extrapolate it to our context of vehigadeta.
Rashi, the renowned biblical commentator, helps us out here. Rashi explains that tomar means
in this (the Hebrew) language and in this form of words.
In contrast, according to Rashi, tagid means
explain to the men the punishments and the details of the commandments in words that are as hard (distasteful) as wormwood.
Ok. This seems a bit strange. What does it mean to explain the details in “words that are as hard (distasteful) as wormwood”?
To me, it suggests communicating in a manner that will evoke an emotional response. It’s not so much about the force of the words or the speaker, but the effect that they have on the listener. Lehagid means to tell in such a way that the listener remembers.
Putting it Together: What we Learn from Vehigadeta
Putting all of this together, I offer that the mandate of vehigadeta requires more than merely speaking about or telling the story of the Exodus. Vehigadeta is a mandate to transcend the words of the story and bring the story to life in a visceral way, to evoke an emotional response.
To me, this speaks to the concept of teaching. The outcome of teaching is to instill knowledge in others. Knowledge, in the biblical sense, is not merely cognitive, it is embodied: it involves intellect, physiology and emotion. It lives within you.
The commandment of vehigadeta is an imperative to teach the story of the Exodus so that your children will know it, in the fullest sense of what it means to know something: they will embody it and internalize it.
What is the role of the Seder rituals in this process? I’ll explain that in a future article.
This is an excerpt from a larger work (in process) in which I’m exploring the role of rituals and questions in the learning process, using Passover as a case study. To get updates, please subscribe to my list.