Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why was Rabbi Akiva's Seder different from all other Seders? More on Lau's The Sages

I know I said my next post about The Sages would discuss Rabbi Dr. Lau's treatment of the famous coup in Yavneh. Sorry. I'd rather do this first. 

During the Seder we say that a wise son should be taught the laws of Pesach, yet when the Haggadah gives us a glimpse of a Seder observed by the Sages we see they stayed up all night discussing not the laws, but the Exodus itself.  I'm speaking, of course, of the Seder in Bnai Brak attended by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon. We read about their Seder every year at the beginning of the Haggadah, and we're told, "they were telling of the exodus all night, until their student came..." Why did these five Sages concern themselves with the story and not the laws?

The question becomes stronger when we consider another account of another Seder attended by other Sages where the laws, not the story, are the focus of the evening.
It happened that Rabban Gamliel and the elders were reclining in the house of Bitos ben Zunon in Lod and they were engaged in the laws of Passover all night until the cock crowed. (Tosefta, Pesahim 10::12)
Lau offers the intriguing suggestion that R. Akiva, who hosted the Bnai Brak seder at his home, enforced his prerogative as host and imposed upon his guests to focus on the story, rather than the laws. He did this, Lau continues, because of his messianic tendencies and his pre-occupation with redemption.

Later in life, this same R. Akiva acted on these tendencies by providing spiritual support and justification for a rebellion against Rome. In the Seder anecdote, however,  he is still a younger man, a sage in training playing host to his masters Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus and Rabbi Yehoshua, the leaders of the generation. But as Lau argues the attitude that later leads R. Akiva to break from his colleagues over the matter of Bar Kosiba can already be seen lurking beneath the surface of his arguments with the Sages about proper Passover behavior*

* In addition to disagreeing about the proper subject of conversation for a Seder, Rabbi Akiva and  his colleagues disagreed about the correct time to eat the Passover lamb and the correct verse to use for the conclusion of the Hallel recited over the sacrifice. In each case, Lau convincingly explains Rabbi Akiva's position as a product of his more pronounced messianism and his view that Israel is responsible for hurrying its own salvation. 

Just how strange was Rabbi Akiva's seder? The oddness of the event is driven home by a comment attributed to Rabbi Elazer b. Azaryah, and quoted by the haggadah immediately following its account of the Benai Brak Seder
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: Behold I am like seventy years old, and I never merited that the Exodus should be mentioned at night*, until Ben Zoma expounded [on the following verse]: "…in order that you remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life" (Devarim 16:3) – "the days of your life" refers to the days, and "all the days of your life" refers to the nights. But the Sages said: "the days of your life" refers to this world, and "all the days of your life" refers to the Messianic era
According to Lau, R. Elazaer b. Azaya is expressing polite surprise about the discussion in which he partook at the Seder we've just read about. At every previous Seder R. Elazaer b. Azaya has ever attended the table talk focused on the laws. Not until the Seder in Benai Brak did he "merit" to discuss the story instead.

* Is it just me or do you hear a slight loftiness and perhaps a touch of amusement in  R. Elazaer b. Azaya's tone? He's not displeased to have spent the night discussing the Exodus instead of the laws but to him the practice seems wrong. Imagine how you might speak, if you wished to speak politely, after seeing an orange on the seder plate at the home of a respected colleague. Decorum would stop you from denouncing it directly, but you might say something like "In all my life, I've never been lucky enough to see such a thing." Lau (and I) hear the same thing in R. Elazer's words. He respects R. Akiva, but thinks his 24/7 focus on redemption and salvation is, well... unusual. The analogy isn't perfect, but R. Akiva is politicizing the seder just as feminists politicize the seder in our own day, and Rabbi Elazer is calling him on it. 

Though the Haggadah truncates Ben Zoma's disagreement with the Sages, Lau provides the rest of the account as it is found in Tosefta Berchot 1:10.  After the Sages say that  "all the days of your life" refers to the Messianic era", ben Zoma protests:  Will we really continue to talk about the Exodus after the Messiah comes? Won't the next redemption replace the original redemption in our liturgy and in our memories? (paraphrase)

The Sages reply that just as Jacob kept his old name after the angle changed his name to Israel, so too will we continue to mention the redemption from Egypt even after we're rescued from Rome. Some things will change, sure, but Jacob was still Jacob.

Do you hear the political correctness in the Sage's words? In their view, we musn't read about the Exodus from Egypt at night, and being rescued from Rome will never be considered important enough to replace the Exodus from Egypt. In both of these comments, I hear caution. Their warning is: Don't say or do anything that might make Rome think we consider them as evil as Pharaoh. Don't say or do anything that makes it seem like we want God to visit upon Rome the same terror He visited upon Egypt. Rome and Egypt are not the same. No Sirree. Not even close. And  don't talk about the escape from Egypt at night, when we're gathered together around the Seder table. Someone might misinterpret you.

[Related: Josephus is famously reluctant to call Chanka by its familiar name. Instead he calls it "Lights" Many understand this as a manifestation of his community's desire to keep Rome from drawing the wrong conclusions about the point and theme of the holiday. Not coincidentally, the messianic Christians do not share these concerns. They call the festival "Chanuka" ]

Akiva on the other hand sees thing differently and  the man who will later cast his lot with Bar Kosiba is already here. Akiva wants to discuss the Exodus at night -- damn the consequences -  and he expects the eventual victory against Rome will be remembered and celebrated in the same terms as the defeat of Egypt.  In Lau's telling the Sages are playing down their "problem" with Rome and concealing their hopes for the future, while Rabbi Akiva, with his study partner Ben Zoma, is doing the very opposite.

Search for more information about Rome at 4torah.com

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