Who Walks In? Thoughts on Pesach in Memory of Niot Watzman z”l

From the Tzav-Pesach 2017 issue of Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz Veshalom. The Hebrew version can be foundon the Oz Veshalom website

Haim Watzman

Each Seder night, at the beginning of the Maggid, the telling of the story of the Exodus, we declare “Ha lahma anya,” “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” We then make another declaration: “Kol dikhfin,” “Let all come eat, all who are needy come and partake of our Pesach offering.” The first mention of matzah is followed immediately by an invitation to anyone who may be passing by to join us, not just for the holiday meal but also to participate in fulfilling the commandment of telling the story of the Exodus and eating the Pesach sacrifice. The “all” of “kol dikhfin” are at poor people who do not have the means to conduct a Seder themselves. (While most English translations render “Let all who are hungry come eat,” the “who are hungry” is an interpretive gloss not present in the Aramaic.)

A question immediately arises: why do we make this declaration on Pesach, as part of the ritual? After all, on every holiday, indeed every day, we are subject to the commandments of charity and hospitality.

This invitation to the hungry to sit down at our Seder table caused a measure of discomfort among commentators on the Haggadah. According to the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, a person cannot simply be asked to partake of a particular Paschal lamb. The Torah commands: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat” (Exodus 12:4, New JPS). The Sages learned from this verse that the Pesach sacrifice “is not eaten except by those subscribed to it” (Mishnah Zevahim 5:8). A person needs to have been included in a company of people who have subscribed to the same lamb before it is sacrificed; if he has not, he many not eat its meat at the Seder in fulfillment of the laws of Pesach. If that is the case, how can a person be brought into our Seder at the last minute, after the sacrifice has been made and we are sitting and reading the Haggadah?

To get around this contradiction, the classic commentators proposed somewhat forced explanations that try to get around the simple meaning of the declaration and its context. Rashi, for example, says that the invitation is directed at the company itself, arguing that “a person is required to be hungry on Pesach eve, so that he will eat matzah with ardor.” The hungry who are being invited to partake of the festive meal are, in other words, already sitting at the table. To my mind, this is not the right way to respond to the problem. Instead, we need to understand why the contradiction is an inherent part of the Haggadah and the Seder.

That requires, first of all, looking at the laws of the Pesach sacrifice as they appear in the Torah. Though the verse I cited above can be understood to address people who lack the means to buy a lamb for the sacrifice, that is not the only and perhaps not the principal reason why a partnership between families or unrelated individuals might be necessary. Soon after the previous verse comes another one: “You shall not leave any of it over until morning” (Exodus 12:10). An individual or small family might not be able to eat all the sacrificial meat, raising the concern that they might violate this precept by leaving some of it uneaten still the next day. In such a situation, people should join together to make a company. This is the source of the requirement to be “subscribed” to a particular Paschal lamb.

But what sort of subscription is this? The term does not appear in connection with other offerings. While there can be a partnership in animals offered for other kinds of sacrifices, the partnership derives from joint ownership at the time that the animal is sanctified, meaning the moment that is is set aside for this purpose. Once the animal has been sanctified, no other partner can be added. In contrast, subscription to a Paschal lamb does not have to be in the form of a share of the ownership. Furthermore, he may be brought into the company after the lamb is designated for the sacrifice, up until the time it is slaughtered on the fourteenth of Nisan, a few hours before the Seder. He must be a member of the company at that time, however—the sacrifice must be made in his name.

Of course, we do not partake of the meat of the Pesach sacrifice today as part of our Seder, and therefore adding another person to our Seder table at night, after the time of the sacrifice has passed, is not a violation of this law. Nevertheless, at the Seder we symbolically reenact the eating of the Pesach sacrifice, and therefore the invitation at the beginning of the ceremony remains problematic. What is this dissonance mean to tell us?

On the face of it, the story of the Exodus, that story we are about to tell when we call on kol dikhfin to join us, draws sharp lines between those who are part of the miracle and those who stand on its opposite side. The slaves are the Children of Israel, the Egyptians are their tormentors. The plagues are directed against the Egyptians and the Israelites are not harmed. The Israelites leave Egypt; the Egyptians stay and justice is done to them. The God who takes the Children of Israel out of Egypt is the God of their ancestors.

Yet a closer reading of the story shows that these lines are not clear at all. They are blurred from the start, when Joseph is placed at the head of the Egyptian government, and again later when Moses, the human redeemer of his people, grows up in Pharaoh’s palace under the protection of Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved his life in disobedience to her father’s order that all Israeli male babies be killed. On top of this, when the Children of Israel leave Egypt, they do not do so in their own guise. On the contrary, they wear garments they have borrowed or taken from their Egyptian neighbors. Neither do they leave alone, but rather in the company of a mixed multitude of foreigners.

Against this background, the laws of the paschal sacrifice offer another take on this blurring of the self and the other, “us” and “them.” The prohibition against leaving any of the sacrificial meat until the morning, and the requirement that it can only be eaten by those who have subscribed to it in advance, encourage and even compel us to break down the boundaries that separate between individuals and between families.

When we declare “Kol dikhfin,” “May all come and eat,” we carry that dissolution of barriers one step further. The minute we open the doors to our homes, there is no way of knowing who will enter. Whoever it is, it will certainly not be someone who has subscribed in advance to our paschal lamb. It might be a beggar, perhaps a mixed multitude, maybe an Egyptian or some other non-Jew—even though the Torah also enjoins that “no foreigner may eat of it” (Exodus 12:43). Today, it may also be a refugee, a slave in body or soul fleeing her home, fearing death. This person becomes part of our company contrary to the law but in keeping with the spirit of the deeper strata of the story of the Exodus. When we declare “Kol dikhfin” we take the outside in; the “all” becomes “us.”

Please consider a donation to The Niot Project, an educational program we have set up in Niot’s memory.

From previous years:
The Missing Center

The Question of Questions

The Bitterness of Egypt

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