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Re'haz: an answer in search of a question.


Re'haz, the second step of the Passover Haggadah, the washing of the hands without a blessing, has always held a special fascination for me. It goes back to the time when I was in grade school and received two alternate interpretations of re'haz. Both interpretations bothered me, as shall be explained, and it was only many years later that, by accident, in pursuit of an answer to a completely different question, I stumbled upon two possible interpretations of the purpose of re'haz. As it turns out, both ultimately relate back to that which I had been taught in my childhood, only it had taken me thirty years to understand the lessons of my teachers.

The Two Classic Interpretations

In grade school, I had been given the two classic (and differing) interpretations of the function of re'haz. The first was that it was in the Seder in order to prompt questions from the children.(1) Certainly, the goal of the evening is to prompt questions.(2) However, if the function of re'haz is only to prompt questions, why is it the washing of the hands that is used to prompt questions? Why not throw matzoh crumbs into the air? In other words, what specific question is re'haz meant to prompt?

The second classic explanation also puzzled me. Re'haz precedes the next step in the Seder, karpas (the dipping of a vegetable in a liquid, usually salt water, to commemorate the tears that were shed in Egypt). The reason for this, I had been taught, is that in earlier times, when Jews were more rigorous in the observance of laws of ritual purity, one did not eat a wet fruit or vegetable absent a ritual libation of the hands.(3)

However, this explanation troubled me, as well. We are taught that on Passover night we are to feel as if we are on the next to the lowest level of tum'ah (moral contamination). We are to believe that had God not reached out and taken us from the fleshpots of Egypt, we would have been irretrievably lost to history.(4) And, if this is so, why are we faking it on Passover night? Why are we observing a law of ritual purity that we do not observe on any other night? Why are we pretending to be frum at this early juncture in the evening's tale?

Why Is There No Blessing Over Maggid?

Many years later, analyzing a completely different question, the possible meanings of re'haz came to me. The question that I was working on was as follows: Why is there no blessing over the commandment to tell the Exodus tale on the night of Passover? Why do we not begin maggid, the telling of the story of the Exodus, by reciting the following blessing (or something akin to it): "Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who made us holy with His commandments and instructed us to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt?"

There are opinions to the effect that the very first step in the Seder, kadesh, the recitation of the blessing over the wine, which makes reference to the Exodus, constitutes the blessing over the Haggadah.(5) The problem with this answer is that the kiddush which we are reciting that evening is identical to that of other holidays, with only a change in the reference to the name of the holiday. Additionally, it is the same kiddush that is said on the last day of Passover, when there is no commandment to retell the story of the Exodus.

An alternate answer is equally wanting - that there is no blessing on a mizvah which has no measure - she-eyn lo shi'ur,(6) e.g., honoring one's parents. The problem with this answer is that another commandment which has no measure (i.e., no maximum), the obligation to study Torah, does have a blessing (which is recited every morning in the Shaharit prayers).

There is an opinion which holds that the concluding blessing of the maggid portion of the Haggadah constitutes the blessing for the mizvah of maggid.(7) And this is the answer that ultimately satisfied me.

In that blessing at the end of maggid (which precedes the blessing over the second of the four cups of wine that we drink in the course of the evening), we bless God Who redeemed us and our ancestors. We pray that God will enable us to worship Him in Jerusalem at the Temple. And we conclude the prayer, "Blessed are You, God, Who redeemed Israel."

There are two difficulties in presuming that this paragraph is the blessing with respect to maggid. First, there is no reference made to the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus. Reference is made only to the fact that God is our redeemer. Second, we normally recite a blessing in advance of the performance of a mizvah. Nonetheless, I believe that both objections can be answered, and that one can conclude that the blessing of "God Who redeemed" is a blessing over the mizvah of maggid.

As this blessing occurs after the story has already been told (and it shall shortly be explained why this blessing must come at the end of the storytelling and not, as would occur normally, preceding the fulfillment of the mizvah), it makes sense that the blessing is being made over the theme of the story - that God is our redeemer. To make a blessing at the end of a story that simply acknowledges our commandment to tell the story, would be to admit our failure to understand the point of the story, namely, that God has a special relationship with the Jewish people and that He has been (and will function as) our redeemer. Having already told the tale, merely to bless the action of storytelling would be to insult God by failing to acknowledge that which He has been trying to teach us. Therefore, the blessing refers not to the story, but to the theme of the story - that God is our redeemer.

Of course, the principal problem is that the blessing over maggid should have occurred before the storytelling commenced. And to understand why it was impossible to have the blessing before the storytelling occurred, it is instructive to review the three exceptions to the normal rule that a blessing should precede the action which constitutes the mizvah. On Friday nights, one first lights the Sabbath candles and then says the blessing, because once one has said the blessing, it is considered the Sabbath and it would then be forbidden to kindle the lights. Therefore, one must first kindle the lights and then say the blessing.

Shortly thereafter, after the sanctification of the wine, we first wash our hands and then say the blessing over the washing of the hands followed by the blessing over the bread. The washing of the hands precedes its relevant blessing because the washing purifies the hands. As one's hands might have become impure (if, for example, one had touched impure parts of the body), it was deemed more proper first to purify the hands before saying the blessing."(8)

Neither of these particular exceptions is instructive as to why the blessing over maggid must come at the end, but the third exception is very relevant. When one converts to Judaism, one first immerses in the mikvah (the ritual bath) and, only thereafter, does one bless "God Who has commanded us to fulfill the commandment of immersion." One cannot say a blessing which makes reference to the obligation to fulfill commandments until one has become obligated n the commandments.(9) Before one is Jewish, which occurs only with the completion of the ritual of immersion, one cannot refer to God as having commanded one in those mizvot which pertain only to Jews.

Similarly, until our redemption from slavery, we were not yet free to fulfill His commandments. In the re-enactment of the Exodus which is to take place on Passover night, we are all to feel, at the beginning of the evening, that we are still slaves in Egypt. It is only at the end of maggid that we are to feel redeemed and free to worship our God. In the "docudrama re-enactment" that constitutes the Seder, it would be incongruous to begin the tale referring to a God Who has commanded us in a mizvah to tell the tale of the Exodus. Such a blessing can occur only after the redemption has been re-enacted. Thus, the blessing over maggid only can occur after we have re-enacted the attainment of our freedom.(10) And, as was explained previously, to make the blessing over mere storytelling would be an admission of our failure to have understood the point of the story. Therefore, the blessing with respect to maggid deals with redemption.

The Reason for Re'haz

About a year later, having felt that I had pinned down the problem as to why there is (ostensibly) no blessing over the commandment of maggid, I felt that I finally understood what re'haz was all about. At last I understood the question that was to be asked concerning re'haz.

It occurred to me on Passover evening of 1988. Everyone had finally been seated and arranged around the table, each child next to the child he or she wished to be next to, each adult duly seated according to social proprieties and preference. Finally, the kiddush was recited. And then bedlam again reigned, as we all got up from the table (since it is our custom for everyone to perform re'haz) and I realized that this bedlam was the same as on any normal Friday or holiday evening when we all get up to wash our hands and bless God Who commanded us to perform the libations over the hands, prior to the mozi (the blessing over bread).

The function of re'haz, I realized, was very simple. On Passover,just as on every other Sabbath or holiday meal, after kiddush, the children were going to wash their hands and say the appropriate blessing. But, on Passover, the leader of the Seder should be saying to the children, "How can you be washing your hands and talking of a God Who has commanded us to perform mizvot? On this night we are to feel as if we are slaves in Egypt. We have no freedom to perform the commandments. We have not yet entered into a special relationship with God."

The function of re'haz, to wash the hands without a blessing, is to underscore that we are not yet free to be commanded to perform mizvot. It is precisely because this night is different from all other nights, that we do not wash our hands and then say the blessing referring to God Who commanded us to perform His mizvot. Indeed, it is only after redemption that we can be commanded and we are able to fulfill His commandments. And it is precisely after the attainment (by re-enactment) of freedom, only after the completion of the mizvah of maggid, that we can refer to a God Who commands us.

I contend that it is no accident that none of the blessings prior to maggid make reference to "God Who has commanded us," and that the very next act in the Seder, after completing maggid, is the washing of the hands with a blessing. It is only after redemption that we can make reference to a God Who commands us. And so, immediately after maggid, we return to that commandment which we had "skipped" (or, more accurately, delayed) earlier - the washing of the hands with a blessing.

This, therefore, explains that which my grade school teachers taught me. Rehaz is there to prompt inquiry. I am merely suggesting that the question which the children should be asking is, "Why can't we make a blessing which refers to |God Who has commanded us'?"(11)

A Problem With My Thesis

As enamored as I am of this particular explanation, I have since discovered a serious flaw in it. My entire approach presumes that the reasons for washing the hands over the vegetables related to the reason for the washing of the hands preceding the eating of bread. Unfortunately, two completely different reasons animate these rituals. The washing of the hands before eating bread is for us to remember the rules of ritual cleanliness that were of importance when the kohanim (priests) ate terumah (the priests' one-fiftieth share of agricultural produce in Israel), which was forbidden to be eaten in a ritually unclean manner. The Rabbis had decreed that the kohanim wash their hands before eating the terumah so that they would not make it unclean when they touched it. Lest the kohanim should forget to wash their hands, the Sages decreed that all Jews wishing to eat bread be required first to wash their hands. The reason why bread was singled out was that most terumah was eaten as bread.(12)

By contrast, one washes one's hands before dipping any item in one of seven liquids, including water, wine and honey. The Rabbis ruled that food did not become unclean from one's unwashed hands, since unwashed hands are classed as being of the second degree of uncleanliness and an unclean article of the second degree does not cause uncleanliness of the third degree to a non-holy article. However, if a fruit or vegetable, for example, is dipped in liquid, the rules of the game change. The law is that when liquid is touched by unclean hands, it obtains uncleanliness of the first degree and, therefore, that water causes uncleanliness of the second degree to the fruit or vegetable. The Sages ruled, therefore, that one must wash the hands before dipping in one of the seven liquids to prevent such liquids from becoming unclean and subsequently contaminating the food with which they come into contact.(13)

So we can now see the problem with my explanation of re'haz. I am arguing that the reason why no blessing is said over re'haz is that we cannot make reference to "God Who has commanded us" before having attained freedom in the reenactment of the Exodus on Passover night. However, since two different reasons animate the washing of the hands before dipping in liquids and eating of bread, my reasoning seems flawed.

Nonetheless, I believe that my argument is sustainable, particularly in view of the position of Maimonides. By contrast with the prevailing majority custom, Maimonides' position is that, for re'haz, one first says the blessing, referencing God Who commanded us to wash our hands, and then one dips the vegetable in a liquid. He also takes the position that after maggid one says the blessing over the washing of one's hands before eating bread, and then one washes one's hands, and then one says the blessing for bread, and then one eats the bread.(14) Thus, in the Seder, Maimonides would twice say the blessing over the washing of the hands and then wash the hands (and the blessing always precedes the act, contrary to the current majority custom). Yet, even Maimonides should have eliminated the second blessing over the washing of the hands because, once one has ritually purified his or her hands, one has purified them - both for purposes of dipping a vegetable into water and for the eating of bread Ideed, because of this, Maimonides makes it clear that the only reason why he requires the second washing is the prolonged period between the washing of the hands for re'haz and for the mozi over the bread. One might have accidentally touched impure parts of the body and have recontaminated the hands during the storytelling. Thus, it is his position that there must be a second ritual libation of the hands before eating the bread.(15) Absent this prolonged period, a second washing would not have been required.

Thus, we see that both re'haz and the washing of the hands before eating bread relate to ritually purifying the hands. Therefore, my reason for re'haz not having a blessing, because we cannot reference "our Lord who commanded us" before the reenactment of the Exodus, still holds; while different motives led the Rabbis to implement these two customs, they both relate to the same matter - ritual purification of the hands. And this ritual purification relates back to the other answer which I had been taught in grade school as to the purpose of re'haz - to commemorate the laws of ritual purity that had been observed in earlier times.

Previously I had pointed out that if the purpose of re'haz is to commemorate this ritual custom, it seems as if we are behaving in too frum a manner on his night (by going the otherwise not observed ritual libation). After all, on Passover night (at the beginning of the evening), we are to feel as if we are on the lowest level of religiosity. There are two answers to this objection. First, the Seder ritual was set in place at a time when this ritual observance probably was more widely practiced. Only in today's less observant environment does re'haz stand out. Second, all of the Seder actions until maggid are "teasers," foreshadowing the story-telling. That we were on the lowest level of ritual compliance is not to be reenacted until maggid commences.

The Evidence of the Mishnah

Another issue remains in our analysis of re'haz. The Mishnah describes the order of the Passover evening. After the benediction over the wine (the kadesh), the Mishnah describes that one takes lettuce, or a similar vegetable, and dips it in a dressing.(16) However, there is no mention whatsoever of the ritual washing. Is the absence of the reference to re'haz due to the presumption by the editor of the Mishnah that the reader was aware of the requirement to recite the blessing? I think so, because the Mishnah also fails to mention the blessing over the washing of hands preceding the eating of the bread. The washing of the hands in both instances was presumed and not mentioned in the text of the Mishnah.

The Historical Evidence

There can be no doubt that the current customs have evolved over time. For example, consider the following statement of Rabbi Joseph Tabory of Jerusalem:

The introduction of the new type of Haggadah, explaining the meaning of the foods, brought about significant changes in the conduct of the evening. While it had apparently been customary to talk about the Exodus after the sacrificial meal, talk about the food was held as the food was brought to the table - before it was eaten. As a result, the discussions about the Exodus were eventually also conducted before the meal was eaten. The postponement of the meal led to the introduction of a first course which was customary at other festive meals. However, due to the special menu of the evening, the first course was limited to maror - lettuce which was then eaten again as part of the meal . . . In later times it became obligatory to eat any other vegetable but maror for the first course, and one called karpas was commonly used.(17)

Rabbi Tabory, in his doctoral dissertation, provides exhaustive analyses of varying customs concerning re'haz. In addition to the previously mentioned custom of Maimonides to recite a blessing both before re'haz and the eating of matzah, other customs are mentioned. For example, there were those who recited a blessing over the hands before re'haz, but not before the eating of the matzah, while others had the custom of saying a blessing before each of those procedures, but the blessings had slightly variant wordings. Over time, it appears that the custom became to introduce blessings over the ritual purification of the hands and, even later in time, for that blessing to be omitted according to some customs.(18)

All of this is a cautionary reminder that exact historical origins are elusive, and that we are sometimes forced to interpret customs imprisoned by contemporary understandings.

The Final Dilemma

All of this brings us to the final and most practical problem relating to re'haz. It is Passover eve. At long last everyone is settled around the table. By the time we come to re'haz, the children are anxious to get on to their main act, the Four Questions. My wife is worried about the food being overcooked and has given me only so much time to discuss the Seder. How can I possibly raise all of the points discussed herein without incurring the wrath of children anxious to perform and the hostess anxious to please? I am sure that I will figure out how to deal with this problem next year. . . in Jerusalem, a Jerusalem at peace.


(1.) B. Pesahim 114b. (2.) See Exodus 13:14, "And it shall come to pass when your children shall ask you. . ." (3.) See Rabbi Yaakov Culi, Me'am, Lo'ez Haggadah, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Maznaim Pub., 1978), at page 13 (with a citation to Orah Hayyim 473). (4.) Ibid., at page 20. (5.) Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, The Festivals in Halacha, Vol. 3, p. 166 (Mesorah Pub., 1982); also, see Menachem Kasher, Haggadah Shleimah [Hebrew], p. 89 (Torah Shleimah 5727) (which edition was dedicated by my grandfather, Rabbi David Rackman, in memory of my grandmother, Chanah). (6.) Ibid., referencing the Rashba. (7.) Menachem Kasher, Haggadah Shleimah, pp. 89-90, referencing Shibolei Halaket. (8.) Mishnah Berurah, IIB, Sec. 158, Para. 11, Comment 40. Another reason is that the drying is considered part of the act of washing, and the blessing can be said prior to the drying. Ibid., Comments 41 and 42. There is an alternate custom to wash the hands with a blessing prior to kiddush, an analysis of which is beyond the scope of this article. (9.) Tosafot, "On Immersion," B. Pesahim 7b. (10.) It might be asked, according to this approach, why the kiddush makes reference to our fulfilling the commandments? After all, it is before we have reenacted our redemption. My answer is that the kiddush has nothing to do with the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus on Passover night. It is the same kiddush which we recite on every holiday, to sanctify the day, with only the reference to name of the holiday changing for Succot and Shavuot. (11.) Lest an article grow within this article, no inquiry will be made into the purpose of karpas other than to mention an interpretation that has been taught to me by Rabbi Nathan Laufer, who believes that the use of greens is symbolic of the fertility of the Jews in Egypt that Pharaoh found so threatening (see Exodus 1:7 and 9). In accord with this approach (with which this article disagrees), and other variant explanations of karpas, re'haz has a function independent of the karpas requirement. Indeed, Rabbi Laufer contends that the kadesh represents the spiritual preparations, and re'haz represents the physical preparations, for redemption. (12.) Mishnah Berurah, II (B), Section 158, Comments 1 and 2. (13.) Mishnah Berurah, II (B), Section 158, Comment 11. (14.) Mishneh Torah, Zemanim, Hikhot Hamez, u'Mazah, 8:1, 6. (15.) Ibid., 8:6. (16.) Mishnah Pesahim, 10:3. (17.) Tabory "The Passover Eve Ceremony - An Historical Outline," Immanuel 12 (Spring, 1981). Also, consider the possibility that karpas and its antecedent, re'haz, are derivative of Hellenistic and Roman symposia (Baruch Bokser, The Origins of the Seder [U. of Calif. Press, 1984]. One must note with regret the death of Professor Bokser due to cancer at the unfair age of 44). (18.) Tabory, The History of the Order of the Passover Eve [Hebrew], Ph.D. Dissertation (Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, 1977).
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Author:Rackman, Joseph R.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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