Ha Lachma Anya – A redundant invitation?

A short set of statements in Aramaic plays an essential role in laying out the foundation for the evening ahead.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The first four steps in the Seder are complete, and it is now time to settle in for the Magid, the core component of the Haggadah. The Magid begins with a short set of Aramaic statements, a daunting start to the evening ahead. “Ha lachma anya” has been a source of confusion for many, as its rationale in being the introductory part of the Magid is quite difficult to ascertain.

The text reads as follows:

“This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Paschal lamb (korban Pesach). This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.”

A common explanation offered for the objective of these introductory phrases focuses on the expressions of generosity. We are announcing an invitation to those who are unable to afford the Pesach Seder. Yet the offer certainly seems disingenuous. Is sitting at our table an effective way to invite the poor? Why the additional invite for the korban Pesach?

A minority of commentators endorse the above interpretation, with the Abarbanel writing how one should call out to invite the poor to join the Seder (he adds that if one lives among non-Jews, best not to engage in such a practice). Many others, though, take a much different approach. Rashi explains that the announcement is being directed to the members of the household. We first reference the matza, the bread of affliction. One’s family has been avoiding any indulgence in food throughout the day. Consuming matza has been out of mind, as it is forbidden. We must enter the Seder experience with a healthy appetite for the matza. Thus, the invitation is for those in one’s home who have been “fasting” to now join the Seder, as the matza will be consumed in due time.

Of course, this is an odd reading of the phrases. For one, kiddush has been made, karpas eaten, things have been moving along quite nicely (depending on whose Seder you are attending). Why would a formal invitation of this sort take place when everyone is already together? Why are we focusing on the commandment of matza, rather than just referencing the entire Seder experience? One other problem emerges when we turn to the second invite. Rashi offers a different explanation when discussing the korban Pesach. The Jewish people would invite each other to join a chaburah, a linking together to one korban Pesach. One should look at himself as dependent on others, and not seek out a solitary korban Pesach experience. Rather, the individual should find others, and join them in consuming the korban Pesach. While this sounds like a noble aspiration, how does this tie in to the first invite? And again, this suspiciously sounds like another disingenuous invitation.

It is interesting to note how Rashi focuses much of his attention on the state of hunger of the various attendees, and how the focus should now be on the matza. The matza is emblematic of the commandments of this unique night. There is the technical aspect to the commandment, the consumption of the aforementioned food. With the onset of night, the obligation to consume the matza comes into existence, the earliest opportunity to rid oneself from the hunger. There is another critical aspect to the matza: its role in the retelling of the Exodus. The Seder phenomenon is all about the recounting and discussion of the enslavement-to-redemption narrative. The matza is not “merely” a food item we must eat; it is a component of the story of the night. The announcement to the household is the dedication of the matza to this very objective, its role as implement of story now being actualized. It is not quite time to eat the matza, but it is the time to take the matza and bring it into its idealized form. Therefore, speaking of the matza at the start of the Magid is bringing to attention its unique role.

How do we understand this concept alongside the invite for the korban Pesach? Rashi seems focused on the concept of the national nature of the korban Pesach. A person cannot partake from the commandment as an individual; rather, he must unite with his fellow Jews in its performance. Why is this critical to emphasize now? As the Seder experience gets underway, the story combined with the obligatory foods of the night, every individual must approach the event with two mindsets. The first is as an individual, seeking to study and understand the wonders God promulgated onto the world during this epoch of Jewish history. On one level, it is a personal experience, engaging and gaining from the Seder. The commandment of matza falls on each individual, a pathway of solitary involvement. There is another mindset that is necessary for the evening ahead. The individual comes as a member of the Jewish people, united with his fellow brethren. The Seder night is an expression of the Jewish nation, coming together in a most profound manner. The commandment of the korban Pesach personifies this mentality, a commandment that can only be done through a group. The individual must reflect on his part of the whole, as the nation reclaims its identity on this special evening.

The above explanation helps elucidate the content and placement of the introduction to the Magid section of the Haggadah. Before we jump into the core themes of the night, we require a moment of preparation. When we reflect on the two mindsets required, that of individual and member of the nation, we are ready to immerse ourselves into the critical ideas and themes of the night. While a small Aramaic set of statements may at first seem a peculiar way to being the Magid, we can see how in fact they play an essential role in laying out the foundation for the evening ahead.