“It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben-Azarya, Rabbi
Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the
Exodus from Egypt all that night, until their students came and told them: ‘Our
Masters! The time has come for reciting the morning Shema!’”
This story, which
Jews everywhere read from the Haggada just a few nights ago, is a personal
favorite. At first blush it is the simple tale of five rabbis who get carried
away retelling the story of the Exodus until their students need to gently
Yet, upon closer examination, we shall soon see that this
tale is anything but simple and is actually riddled with questions and problems.
The first problem is the absence of the families of these sages. If the main
mitzva of recounting the Exodus from Egypt is to tell the next generation, where
are the wives and children of these great scholars? If one wants to make the
argument that this was a special “elite” Seder, not only would this violate
tradition, but then where are the students? The great sages would hardly have
given over any Torah without their students there to listen and record. If a
sage gives over Torah and there is no one to hear it, it is like a tree falling
in the forest with no one to hear it; you have to question whether it made any
sound at all. Why do the students have to come in from the outside to tell the
rabbis that the time of kriyat Shema, the reading of the Shema prayer, has
arrived? Why not just look out the window and see the dawn break themselves? Yet
another issue is that Rabbi Akiva was the junior member of this distinguished
group and a student of some of these men; how can he recline? Does not the
Halacha state that one is not allowed to recline in front of his master? And
finally – so what? What’s the big deal that these great rabbis spent the whole
night telling of the Exodus on Seder night? Isn’t that what one is supposed to
do? THIS ODD story does not appear anywhere in the Talmud or Midrash, yet it
appears in the Haggada. Some scholars offer the explanation that this story
isn’t describing a Seder on Passover night. Rather, this meeting took place on a
different night during the Bar-Kochba rebellion during the years 132-135 CE. The
story was preserved by memory and not in the holy books until it was finally
included in the Haggada.
The Bar-Kochba rebellion was an attempt by
Shimon Bar-Kochba to end the Roman occupation of Palestine and reestablish
Jewish sovereignty over the land. In the beginning he was very successful, and
none other than the great sage Rabbi Akiva himself declared Bar-Kochba to be the
This explanation would offer an answer to all of the questions
we asked above.
Rabbi Akiva may have been the junior member of the group,
but he was the spiritual head of the Bar-Kochba rebellion. This explains why
they were meeting in Bnei Brak; it was Rabbi Akiva’s home town and thus, as
spiritual head of the rebellion and as mara d’atra (halachic authority) of Bnei
Brak, he would have then the right to recline.
This also explains why the
wives and children weren’t present; it was simply too dangerous.
the students, they stood guard outside and had to inform the rabbis who were
meeting in a dark concealed place, perhaps an attic, basement or cave, hiding
from the Romans, that the time for kriyat Shema had arrived. There were no
windows in their hiding spot.
These rabbis met to discuss the Exodus from
Egypt because it was the “Granddaddy” of all subsequent Redemptions. They hoped
that discussing the Exodus would awaken other mystical, spiritual aspects of the
Redemption and help them in their present situation. More importantly, it would
THE REBELLION ultimately failed and its consequences were
disastrous for the Jewish people; yet this story of hope survived and is
recounted every year along with the Exodus from Egypt. Why? Upon an even closer
look at the story, we discover that Rabbi Akiva was a descendant of converts to
Judaism. Rabbis Tarphon, Eliezer and Elazar Ben-Azarya were all kohanim (members
of the priestly line). Rabbi Yehoshua was a Levite. According to tradition, none
of their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. Nevertheless, they retold the story
as though they were once slaves themselves This is an example of shared Jewish
We share a common fate and destiny and this is the source of our
sense of Jewish peoplehood.
We were all slaves in Egypt and together we
stood at Sinai. With Solomon we built the Temple and together with Zedekiah we
watched it burn. We all joined the caravans to return to Jerusalem and rebuild
the Temple, and we were all taken into Roman slavery upon its conquest. We were
all expelled from Spain and all suffered in the Holocaust. And once again, with
our shared sense of Jewish destiny, we held our breath when the UN counted the
votes to partition Palestine in 1947.
Jewish history is not a spectator
Passover, whose last day we observe tonight, is an invitation to
take an active role in the Jewish story. These men met to reinsert themselves
into Jewish history, and that is why their stories are forever connected to the
penultimate story of redemption, that of the Exodus.
The writer is a
doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many posthigh-
school yeshivot and midrashot.