Thoughts on the Seder: Ha Lachma Anya


         One of the first pieces of liturgy in the Seder is the paragraph entitled Ha Lachma Anya. It is traditional to hold up a piece of matza and say: “Ha Lachma Anya”, This is the bread of affliction or of poverty. 

         The paragraph serves as a reminder of why we gather at the Seder. The Seder is supposed to begin with the sad part of our history in Egypt and proceed to the redemptive episode of the Exodus. By holding up the Matza and saying these words, we are reminded that Matza, unleavened bread, served both as the bread eaten in Egypt and the bread eaten on the night of the Exodus. It is both the bread of affliction and the bread of freedom and here it is referred to as the former, a proper way to begin the telling of the story. 

         The fact that the same “bread” was eaten both before and after redemption teaches us that freedom is not necessarily reflected in a change in our physical lives but rather on spiritual, emotional terms. Our people might have eaten the same bread after the Exodus as during slavery but the bread tasted different. It tasted of freedom. 

         We are also reminded by the instruction to hold up the Matza that the Seder was designed to be a learning experience. It is an educational exercise first and foremost, to be aimed at the youngest child who can understand what is happening. While serious text study, discussion, debate is certainly appropriate for the Seder, the main objective of the evening is to explain the significance of the Exodus to the youngest children present and thus, the “show and tell” aspect of Ha Lachma Anya becomes particularly important.  

         It is interesting to note a variant reading of this paragraph noted by the Dubner Maggid. He pointed out that during times of freedom and security, the opening phrase would be Ki-ha Lachma Anya: “Similar to this was the bread of affliction”. 

         This seems to reflect the fact that while we can imagine ourselves as having been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, it is impossible for anyone who has not had this experience to imagine what it really was like. Thus, the commentary seems to suggest that we should take a step back from feeling like we can truly identify with the experience of affliction and oppression. This is an interesting thought to consider throughout the Seder. Can we really say: “we look at ourselves as if we were redeemed from slavery”? Could we really imagine what that would feel like?

The paragraph Ha Lachma also serves to welcome all to the Seder. Let all who are hungry come and eat! Let all who in need of companionship celebrate the Pesach Seder!

         These words reflect an important aspect of this section of text. Ha Lachma Anya is written in Aramaic, not in Hebrew. It is assumed that this is because Aramaic was the vernacular of the time and if the invitation of welcome is to be sincere, it needs to be understood by the person who hears it in order to be an effective and sincere invitation. 

         So, when we say these words, we should be sure to say them in English. In fact, a nice thing to do at the Seder is to have everyone gathered express that invitation in any language they can speak. 

         The invitation brings up an obvious question. What could it possible mean to say these words at the Seder when the only people who could hear it are those gathered around the table already?

In this context, it is appropriate to consider this statement from the Talmudic tractate of Ta’anit. There, we read that Rav Huna would open up his door before he sat down to eat and say (these very words): “Let all who are hungry come and eat”.

         The tradition of saying them at the Seder comes back from the time when, presumably, people would actually open the door at this point in the Seder and welcome anyone in. We can assume that over the centuries, it became unwise under many circumstances to open the door in this way so we say it with the door closed. 

         However, knowing that we will say these words at the Seder inspires us to be proactive in insuring before the holiday that whoever desires to be at a Seder will be invited to one or given the necessary resources to have one in their home. It is difficult to imagine saying these words with sincerity if we have not taken the steps to insure that all who wish to be are sitting at a Seder on Pesach night. 

         Finally, since the Seder should also be an opportunity for a bit of levity, I want to share with you my favorite commentary on this section.  

         The commentator Abarbanel explained that the Ha Lachma was said in Aramaic for the reason that I presented above. But, before he expresses this idea, he mentions that there were some who believed that it was said in Aramaic so that evil spirits wouldn’t pay attention to the invitation since they don’t understand Aramaic.

         Abarbanel’s answer to this is classic. He says that for this to be true, you would first have to assume there are such things as evil spirits. Then you have to accept the fact that they don’t understand Aramaic. Finally, you have to assume they are so polite that they would not invade our Pesach Seder without an invitation. 

         I love his refutation of this tradition regarding evil spirits. . Among other things, it reminds us that sometimes the simplest explanations are the most accurate. 

         Hag Sameach! 

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