The Haggadah’s Aramaic Portion is Its Most Important Part.

Here's Why.

This Pesach, the question “Why is this night different from all other nights?” feels a little on the nose. It seems easier to list the few ways in which everything is the same. As I’ve prepared with my husband for two little Pesach seders for just us, something that would have been unimaginable to us a few months ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for us to say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesach.” This year, we cannot literally fulfill this imperative, as we are protecting each other by isolating ourselves. However, this promise of solidarity—not only material solidarity, but also communal, emotional solidarity—is more important this year than ever.

For those of you who are in need of physical goods, please reach out to me, as there are many resources that can help you, with which I would be happy to connect you. And for those of you who are in need of something more intangible, all I can promise you is that, even if you feel alone, you aren’t. We can’t celebrate Pesach together, but we can all have each other in mind as we sit at our smaller, quieter seder tables this year.

With this in mind, I want to share something I wrote a couple of years ago about this part of the seder. While I wrote it long before I could have ever thought of a global pandemic, I think it has a lot to say about this moment, and the importance of solidarity, even in the moments we can’t fully understand what others might need. I hope it helps soothe the way for those of us who are anxious about a lonely holiday this year.

A small piece of Pesach Torah:

The magid section of the haggadah, which is the heart of the seder, opens with the famous words of הא לחמא עניא. We say, כל דכפין ייתי ויכל. כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח. Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesach. Until I began studying Talmud, I always struggled through these words, which are in Aramaic, a language even less comfortable for most Jews than Hebrew. However, it seems to me that reading this part only in Aramaic (unless you table is made up of Talmud scholars or Aramaic experts) is a mistake. At the time the Haggadah was written, Aramaic was the vernacular for many Jews. Therefore, the authors are saying: Listen up! This part is important. We are saying it so you can understand. This is the heart of what your seder should be about.

As הא לחמא עניא reminds us, there is no such thing as true freedom for any of us unless we are ensuring that the needs of everyone are met. The bread of affliction that we eat is not just for the individual. Instead, it is for everyone. The authors of the Haggadah want to make sure we remember that. So we change languages and say it in the vernacular. It’s a cue for everyone at the table to wake up and listen up. There is no excuse to pretend that you don’t understand what is happening.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik had a beautiful teaching on this part of the seder. Why do we mention those who are hungry and those who are in need as two separate groups? He explains that it is because there are many whose needs have nothing to do with physical hunger. But they are no less needy than those who need to be invited into our homes for food. And we our liberation is bound up in theirs.

The Pesach seder is about all of us experiencing the journey from slavery to freedom. However, our liberation is tied up in the liberation of all people. We live in a world, and in a time, where too many people are in need. They are scared, they are oppressed, they are victims of discrimination, they are deprived of their basic human rights. There are millions living in refugee camps around the world, and hundreds of thousands who are afraid to even go outside in our own country. We are obligated to hear their cry every day. But at the seder, when we might think we have a night off from worrying about the overwhelming needs of too many, the authors of the haggadah shove us out of this complacency. Rather than being granted permission to forget for a night, we are specifically forced to remember. There are so many who are in need, in so many ways. Are we opening our homes and hearts to them? And if not, can we truly be redeemed?

In general, I’m not one for much English reading of traditional liturgy, but this is a case where I not only think it can be a good option, but I wonder if reading the English is actually mandatory. English is our Aramaic; it is a small shock to our ears after so much Hebrew. It seems to me that we are obligated to understand what we are committing to achieving, or else we cannot truly see ourselves as if we left Egypt. As we sit around our tables, many of which are ornately set and overflowing with more than we could possibly ever need, we should push each other to remember those who are hungry, and those who do not share our physical or psychological security. We should do it in our vernacular, so we cannot pretend we do not understand our obligation. We must remember that we will not be free until everyone is free, until everyone’s needs are met, until we have done all we can to help those who are in need break free of the shackles that confine them.

השתא עבדי, לשנה בני חורין.

Now we are slaves, next year we will be free. This is our prayer, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. May we have the will to make it so.

Chag kasher v’sameach.