The Four Levels of Meaning to the Haggadah

Passover Table 2, by April Killingsworth, from under Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Passover Table 2, by April Killingsworth, from under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The rabbis applied the word PARDES (meaning Paradise) to their interpretations of religious texts, including the Haggadah that we will be using at our Seder events at Passover.

Using the four letters of the word PARDES, Peh, Raysh, Dahlet, Samech, they understood that there were four layers in textual explication and expansion that could be applied to scripture or rabbinic material. These four levels are: Peh for Pehshat or the simplest most straightforward interpretation; Raysh for Remez or that which is implied in the text; Dahlet for D’rash or that which can be gleaned from the text to better our behavior as human beings; and finally, Samech for Sod or the deepest most spiritual meanings of the text. Whereas the goal of textual interpretation does not call for the application of all four levels, as any one can be used and studied, there is something special to the application of all four levels as each brings the student deeper and deeper into the true meaning of the holy text.

Let’s now look at the Haggadah and apply these four levels of interpretation.

Peshat. On this basic level the Haggadah is seen as nothing more than a retelling of the seminal event in our ancestors’ history, the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah does this in a most intriguing way as it goes beyond just telling the story, allowing the exodus from slavery and degradation to freedom evolve through the usage of prayers, stories and foods.

Remez. On the next level, the Haggadah begs us to go forward through the rituals. As we go through the 14 parts of the Seder, which is a word that means order or arrangement, we begin to question what the underlying theme of the book is. As this questioning continues, it might be seen that the theme of this book, that is hinted at in every element of the evening’s events, is that the might of God was the saving power of the Hebrews that enabled them to leave the shackles of Egypt and the strong arm of Pharaoh. In other words, what is hinted at here is that this is not just a history book, but it is a theological description of a Divine power that is able to manipulate nature, people, and armies to bring about certain divinely desired results.

D’rash. This next level calls for the Seder participant to beginning asking the question, “What does all this have to do with me?” In fact, it is the wicked person who asks just that question and is considered wicked because he or she does not see any of this as important to that person. The point of the Haggadah is that it is important to everyone, which is why it states most directly, “Therefore, even if we were all of us wise, all of us people of knowledge and understanding, all of us learned in the Law, it nevertheless would be incumbent upon us to speak of the departure from Egypt: and all those who speak of the departure from Egypt, are accounted praiseworthy.” (Maxwell House edition)

The lessons from the Haggadah for our behavior as Jews are numerous. It teaches about faith. It lets us know about community. It begs us to think about history and God’s role in that history. It calls upon us to consider our lives as Jews who observe the rituals and traditions of our people, not just on Seder night, but throughout the year. It speaks to us about our ties to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. It opens up the possibilities of the future as it ends, not only thinking about the past, but about the future and the Messianic time.

Finally, Sod. This level brings up, what I call, a spiritual cognizance by which our minds now say that there is something much greater here and I must search it out, meditate upon it, and then integrate it in my life. On this level we learn that this is not a story about the past as much as it is a rehearsal of what will happen in the future. We, of course, open the door to welcome in Eliyahu, the biblical prophet who is believed to be the harbinger of the Mashiach, Messiah. There is more, however, in the Haggadah and the rituals of the Seder that point to the Sod, mystery, of the future Messianic time.

We are told that when the Messiah comes there will be a great Seder. At this ritual meal there will be five cups consumed by each participant. In all previous years, the fifth cup has been reserved for Eliyahu, but with the arrival of the Messiah, Eliyahu’s cup can be consumed by all the Seder participants. Also, at that meal, a fifth question will be asked, “Why on this night only can we eat the Paschal, springtime, lamb?” The answer is because with the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, which will occur with the Messianic arrival, the Paschal lamb can once again be slaughtered and then eaten.

Finally, the traditional food, not mentioned in the Haggadah, Gefillte Fish is eaten. This too points to the Messianic time, for at that time there will be a great Seder at which the Leviathan, a sort of fish, will be eaten. As a pre-taste, so to speak, Gefillte Fish is served.

The Sod of the Haggadah and the Seder, therefore, lets us know that all of this is done very year as a warmup for the great Seder that will occur when the Mashiach arrives. This is also alluded to in the well-known concluding words of the Haggadah, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” This final level of the four levels of interpretation will hold the greatest value for the participants when it is reached because it truly opens up worlds of meaning for the lives of those who are able to appreciate it and incorporate it into their minds, hearts and soul. The Haggadah is a marvelous, intriguing and exciting book about communal and individual spiritual redemption that will occur in the future. It is a book about hope and faith.

Happy Passover to all!

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