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Is Ha Lachma Anya a Farce?

The Pesach Seder’s section of Maggid – the storytelling part – begins with a declaration in Aramaic, the spoken Jewish language in ancient times. It states:

“This is the bread of poverty (lachma anya) which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and partake of the Pesach sacrifice (ve-yifsach).”

First, we define the matzah as lachma anya, which can be translated as bread of affliction/oppression or bread of poverty/destitution. The latter seems preferred by commentators. This matzah is connected historically to the Jewish experience in Egypt.

Next, we invite people into our homes. First, we invite hungry people to come and eat. Then we invite the needy to come and partake of the Pesach sacrifice. Both invitations pose difficulties. The first because our doors are closed so no one can hear this invitation. Rav Tzidkiyah Ha-Rofei, a thirteenth century Italian doctor, quotes Rav Yishayah Di-Trani (Rid) as pointing out this difficulty (Shibolei Ha-Leket, no. 218). The Rid suggests that everyone is hungry on Pesach night because we refrain from eating much during the previous day in order to develop an appetite for the Pesach sacrifice. Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern, a nineteenth century Lithuanian scholar, expands this brief point. According to the Rid, the invitation is to our hungry family to eat, i.e. calling everyone to the table for Maggid while food is on the table (Haggadah Zeicher Yehosef, p. 4). Of course, this is only one of many explanations, none of them fully satisfying.

The second invitation also requires explanation. If we invite people to join in eating the Pesach sacrifice – today we do not offer the sacrifice. Additionally, even in the times of the Temple when the sacrifice was brought, walk-ins could not join the eating. You have to be part of the group at the time the sacrificial process begins – when the animal is slaughtered in the previous afternoon. Rav David Abudraham explains that ve-yifsach literally means, “and make Pesach.” In this context, rather than referring to the Pesach sacrifice, it means eating the required foods of Pesach – matzah, maror and wine. This is an invitation to needy people who can afford food for sustenance but not the extras for religious practice (Abudraham, Seder Ha-Pesach U-Feirusheha). Although this runs into the difficulty facing the first invitation unless the needy, also, refer to the family members.

Rav Shlomo Wahrman (She’eiris Yosef, vol. 4, Kuntres Ha-He’aros, no. 61; Oros Ha-Pesach, no. 38) takes these invitations in a completely different direction. Rather than struggle to interpret them in a way that is relevant to current practice (or to practice as it has been for centuries), he puts them in a different category. Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 472:2) says about Pesach night:

“You should set your table with nice utensils, according to your ability, and prepare your seat to recline in a free manner (derech cheirus, like a free man).”

Mishnah Berurah (ad loc., 6) quotes the Magen Avraham’s comment that throughout the year we should diminish a little the quality of our regular dishes and tableware in memory of the Temple’s destruction. However, on Pesach we should use as many and as nice utensils as possible. Mishnah Berurah adds that this is part of derech cheirus, exhibiting our freedom from slavery. We use our nice dishes like someone truly, completely free, not like a people remembering their exile.

Many of the night’s unusual behaviors are intended to display this sense of freedom. So, too, suggests Rav Wahrman, is the invitation of Ha Lachma Anya. In the times of the Temple, people would truly invite people to their meals – albeit early enough to join with the Pesach sacrifice. At the Pesach Seder, we recite this invitation as well, not as a disingenuous offer but as a reflection of how a truly free person should act. Yes, it is too late to invite guests. Generally speaking, no one in your neighborhood is outside waiting for an invitation. Rather, Ha Lachma Anya is guidance to us on how we should act if we fully internalize the message of the Seder.


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