Moses in the Haggadah

The Passover Haggadah: Moses and the Human Role in RedemptionIt is commonly but mistakenly thought that Moses is not mentioned in the Haggadah at all. Below, you’ll find a discussion about Moses in the Haggadah. If you want to learn more about this issue download “The Passover Haggadah: Moses and the Human Role in Redemption” in Judaism, Vol. 55, 2006, by David Arnow.

Dating from the early decades of the fourteenth century, the Sarajevo Haggadah is thought to have been created in Spain. It is the most celebrated and perhaps the oldest surviving illuminated manuscript of a Haggadah. This page includes the verse in Exodus (14:31) “and when Israel saw the great hand which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” The two words preceding the illumination at the bottom are u’v’moshe avdo, “and in His servant Moses.” Traditional Haggadot still include this single mention of Moses’ name as well as an allusion to Moses’ rod (Exodus 4:17).

Moses and the Passover Haggadah

A curious myth has grown up about the Passover Seder: that the traditional Haggadah makes not a single mention of Moses. On the web, you can easily find examples that run the denominational spectrum. For two examples, click here and here.

The most common interpretation suggests that the Haggadah wants to teach us that the credit for redemption from Egypt–and by implication from the oppression that besets us today–belongs exclusively to God. The myth has become so powerful that it has blinded even usually astute readers of text to a simple fact: traditional Haggadot do refer to Moses, once explicitly and once implicitly. (For background on the text of the “traditional” Haggadah see The Scholars Haggadah by Heinrich Guggenheimer, Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 1998.)

First, let’s take a look at these two references to Moses and at the historical factors that may have led to minimizing his role in the Haggadah. This lays the foundation for re-appraising the Haggadah’s understanding of redemption. Although the Haggadah clearly accords God the starring role, it also alludes to a human contribution to the redemptive process. In our difficult times, this is not a message we can afford to ignore.

His name appears in the section of the Haggadah that quotes a third-century Midrash (Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. Beshalach 7:113), in which Rabbi Yossi the Galilean proves that the Egyptians suffered fifty plagues at the Red Sea. The Midrash cites the following passage: “And when Israel saw the great hand which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31). As is often the case in rabbinic literature, this Midrash only quotes the beginning of the biblical verse and therefore excludes the name of Moses. Haggadot of the Geonim, (leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community) from the ninth century included this Midrash but did so with its partial quotation from Exodus. Illuminated European Haggadot from the early fourteenth century–such as the Sarajevo Haggadah–routinely included the full verse from Exodus, and with it Moses’ name. Today, all traditional renderings of the Haggadah include this single explicit mention of Moses.

Of note, Maimonides (1135-1204) omitted the Midrash on the plagues from his Haggadah because he believed the Seder should focus exclusively on the events that occurred during the night of Passover and not on what later befell the Egyptians at the Red Sea. But he hardly intended to exclude Moses from the Seder. On the contrary, Maimonides wrote that during the Seder parents should inform their children about “what happened to us in Egypt and the miracles wrought for us by Moses, our teacher” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chametz U’ Matzah, 7:2). Since a number of modern Haggadot have dropped the passage about the plagues at the Red Sea–perhaps following Maimonides’ lead–some will indeed find that Moses’ name has completely disappeared from the story. But this is a recent development.

By the ninth century, and probably much earlier than that, Babylonian Haggadot also included an important implicit reference to Moses. It appears in the Haggadah’s elaboration on the following verse from Deuteronomy (26:8): “The Lord took us out from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents” (Deut. 26:8)… “And by signs”: this is the rod, as it is said, “And take with you this rod in your hand, with which you shall perform the signs” (Exodus 4:17). “You” refers to Moses. The Haggadah quotes the conclusion of God’s instructions to Moses at the burning bush. Indeed, many contemporary translations read, “This is the rod of Moses, adding his name although it does not appear in the Hebrew.

Still, given his prominence in the Biblical Exodus, the Haggadah’s minimization of Moses is certainly striking. Several factors help explain this.

First, at a time when nascent Christianity was constructing a religion that revolved around Jesus as the redeeming intermediary–in the Gospel of John (14:6), Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but through Me”–the Haggadah emphasized redemption through an unmediated relationship between God and humanity. As the Haggadah put it, “‘And the Lord took us out from Egypt’ (Deut. 26:8): not by the hands of an angel, and not by the hands of a seraph, and not by the hands of a messenger, but the Holy One… Himself.”

Second, the Haggadah sought to derail tendencies to deify Moses. Ironically, such tendencies were rooted in the book of Exodus itself which refers to Moses serving both as a god (Elohim) to his brother Aaron (4:16) and to Pharaoh (7:1).

The divinity of Moses was precisely one of the issues of debate in the ancient but long-simmering conflict with the Samaritans, a sect that not only revered Moses as God’s only true prophet, but elevated him to an almost Christ-like position: Moses served as humanity’s intercessor before God and in the future would return to bring the final redemption.

Jewish voices also spoke of Moses’ divinity. In the first century BCE, Philo wrote: “For [Moses] was also called the god and king of the whole nation” (On the Life of Moses, 1:158). Of note, the midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah, 11:4, compiled between the 5th and 9th centuries) preserves ancient Jewish notions about Moses that were remarkably similar: [Moses’] lower half was man (ish), but his upper half was God (HaElohim).

Finally, giving God the spotlight at the Seder may also have reflected a desire to reaffirm God’s redemptive power in the face of the disasters that had befallen the Jewish people in the era of the Seder’s earliest development. The Great Revolt against Rome led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE resulted in the exile of most Jews from Israel. That the great rabbi Akiva endorsed Bar Kochba as the messiah may have augmented the Haggadah’s interest in downplaying the human role in the redemptive process. Excessive attention to Moses might have whetted the appetite for dangerous messianic schemes.

But there’s a big difference between minimizing and erasing Moses. Even in his diminished presence, Moses offers a pointed challenge to the idea that deliverance from Egypt was purely a divine project.

According to the Mishnah (Avot 5:6), Moses’ rod was among the last things God fashioned just before the first Shabbat, when the work of creation ceased. Whatever miraculous properties the rod of Moses may have possessed, it did not walk into Pharaoh’s palace on its own. God chose a human being to bring it there. God and Moses work together to bring about redemption. The presence of Moses’ rod in the traditional Haggadah reminds us of that element of the redemptive process that we hold in our hands.

It’s noteworthy that both verses in the Haggadah that refer to Moses include references to the “hand”–“the great hand that God wielded against the Egyptians” (Ex. 14:31) and God’s instructions to Moses to “take this rod in your hand” (Ex. 4:17). Both God and Moses–God and humanity, in a broader sense–have a hand in the redemption from Egypt. We can never forget the role of human agency in the redemptive process and the importance of leadership–even on the night of the Passover when we celebrate the work of God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm.”