Party for five

It’s one of the most famous episodes in the Haggadah, but why were all of those famous Rabbis gathered in Bnei Brak together?

By: Robert Sussman

The Haggadah famously speaks of the five Rabbis who gathered in Bnei Brak for the Pesach seder – Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon – and who spent the entire night discussing the going out from Egypt, until their students came to inform them that the time had come for the morning reading of the shema – meaning that they had fulfilled their obligation of talking about the going out from Egypt to the fullest extent possible and, now, a new obligation, ie. the reading of the shema, had begun.

Rebbe Eliezer[1] and Rabbi Tarfon[2] resided in Lod and Rebbe Yehoshua resided in Peki’in[3], so why were they all sitting far from their own homes on Pesach in Bnei Brak, where Rebbe Akiva resided[4]?

Furthermore, Rebbe Eliezer and Rebbe Yehoshua were the teachers of Rebbe Akiva, so surely it would have been more appropriate for Rabbi Akiva to have been a guest at one of their homes, rather than the two of them spending Pesach at his home.

And the question can be made even stronger if we consider that Rebbe Eliezer famously held[5] that it’s prohibited to go out from one’s house on the festivals. The gemara even tells a story of Rebbe Eliezer being in a different city on a festival and questions how it could be possible considering his own ruling, and concludes that it was not, in fact, a festival, but rather Shabbos when he had been in the other city. Accordingly, how is it possible that Rebbe Eliezer spent Pesach at his student’s home, and not in his own home? What could have compelled him to be there? The commentators offer different answers.

Missing the boat

The Be’er Miriam answers that we find, for example, that Rabban Gamliel, who was the Nasi (lit: Prince; the leader of the people) and, as such, would have resided in Yavneh[6], would often sail overseas for the needs of the community, with others in his company. In fact, Rabban Gamliel and those who accompanied him once returned on a boat from one of their trips on an erev Pesach[7]. The midrash also notes[8] occasions when Rabban Gamliel and others, including some of the above-named Rabbis, made trips to Rome.

Based upon this, it’s possible that on this particular Pesach on which the incident recorded in the Haggadah took place, Rabban Gamliel and his entourage had arrived back in the port of Yaffa on erev Pesach and did not have sufficient time to return to their homes for Yom Tov. Therefore, they chose to spend Pesach in the city of Bnei Brak, which is next to Yaffa, because it is the place where Rabbi Akiva resided and, since Rabbi Akiva would have likely travelled together with them on the boat, his home would be the obvious choice to spend Pesach. In fact, it’s likewise entirely possible that Rabban Gamliel was also with them in Bnei Brak, as Yavneh would have been too far for him to get back to, but that he did not sit together with the others at the Pesach seder because they would not have been able to recline in front of him out of respect. Therefore, the Haggadah specifically emphasises that “they were reclining”, to teach that, since Rabban Gamliel was not present with them, they were all able to recline as required, as one would normally not recline in the presence of a great Talmud Chochom or, in this case, the Gadol HaDor (leader of the generation).[9]

The question then becomes how Rabbi Akiva was able to recline in front of his teachers, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, as ordinarily the halacha is that a student does not recline in the presence of his teacher, even if the teacher is not his primary teacher, unless the teacher gives him explicit permission.[10] Some suggest[11] that, perhaps, Rabbi Akiva was considered a Talmid Chaver of his teachers – which Rashi defines[12] as someone who is a chochom (learned) like his teachers, but that he learned from them one thing or more – and from this episode we see that a Talmid Chaver is obligated to recline before his teacher. Others maintain[13] that Rabbi Akiva did not recline and that the intention of the statement that they reclined was not regarding him, as the primary purpose of relating the incident of the group staying up all night discussing the going out from Egypt had nothing to do with their reclining.

Another approach

The Aruch HaShulchan suggests an entirely different approach, explaining that we can arrive at a possible answer to why these Rabbis were at the house of Rabbi Akiva by looking at the end of Mesechta Makos[14]. The gemara there tells of a couple of famous incidents involving Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva, beginning with the following: They were once traveling together and they heard the noise of Roman crowds from a distance of 120 mil away (one mil is equal to approximately one kilometre) and they began crying, but Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him, “Why are you laughing?” He said to them, “Why are you crying?”

They said to him, “These non-Jews bow down and burn incense to idols and they dwell in safety and tranquillity and we, the House (the Beis HaMikdash, Temple), which is the footstool of our G-d, is burned in fire, and we shouldn’t cry?” He said to them, “For this [reason] I’m laughing. Just as this [safety and calm] is so for those who go against His will, how much more so it will be those who do His will!”…They said to him these words, “Akiva, you have comforted us, Akiva, you have comforted us.”

Just what comfort?

It’s hard to understand what comfort he provided them. The Romans were living with ease and tranquillity despite their having destroyed Hashem’s House, whereas Israel was depressed and burdened with suffering. And, if Rabbi Akiva’s intention with his words of comfort was regarding Olam HaBah (The World to Come), it’s even more difficult, because surely the other Sages knew this already and, nevertheless, they cried on the great suffering of Israel in Olam HaZeh (This world) – so we must say that Rabbi Akiva’s words which had comforted them were regarding Olam HaZeh, so what exactly was this comfort?

We can explain this by looking at the words of the Navi (prophet), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) in Eichah (Lamentations), which was written before the destruction of Bayis Rishon (the First Temple): “And I said, my strength is lost; my hope is from Hashem. To remember my sorrow and my bitterness, when I remembered, my soul was bowed low. This I shall recall, therefore I hope: the chesed (kindness) of Hashem has not ended; His rachamim (mercy) is not exhausted.”

Chesed for them, rachamim for us

The Navi speaks in the last sentence quoted of chesed and rachamim. Although they are one subject, there is a difference between them: chesed doesn’t need to take precedence over midas hadin (the attribute of strict judgment), but this is not the case with midas harachamim (the attribute of mercy) which necessarily must take precedence over midas hadin (the attribute of strict judgment), superseding it.

For example, if we say that the king did a chesed with a certain wealthy man, that, for example, he gave him 1000 silver pieces as a gift, we are able to understand this; but, if we say that the king had rachamim upon a certain wealthy man and gave him 1000 silver pieces, this doesn’t make sense because what sort of rachamim is there for a wealthy man when it comes to financial matters? Rachamim only applies in a case where, according to the strict letter of the law, one result would apply – for example, that a poor person is owed nothing by me – but that doesn’t stop me from having rachamim on him and giving him something to which he is not otherwise entitled.

Therefore, when the Navi, Yirmiyahu, saw with ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) the tranquillity of the nation of Bavel (Babylonia), which was responsible for destroying Bayis Rishon, and the distress and suffering of Israel, he couldn’t imagine for himself that there would be a revival and rejuvenation for Israel because how could this small, poor, conquered and depressed people continue to exist among the many wolves of prey (ie. nations of the world), so he shouted, “My strength is lost…”[15], “Recall my distress and my misery…”[16].

But then he changes course and says, “This I call to mind, therefore I have hope”[17] – what does the Navi call to mind that gives him hope? When he again considers the tranquillity of the nation of Bavel, and the tremendous chesed that flows to them from the Master of the World, from this he now takes strength and hope for the salvation of Israel, that Israel will not be destroyed by all of its suffering, because: “The chesed of Hashem has not ended.”[18]

In other words, if the chesed of Hashem has not come to an end for the nation of Bavel to whom, despite their wickedness, Hashem still gives them peace and tranquillity (He gives them a free gift which they are not owed, as with the gift of money given to the wealthy man), all the more so that Hashem doesn’t exhaust His rachamim, His ability to go beyond the strict letter of the law, for His nation Israel, who He certainly will not forsake and who only need His rachamim to save them from any harsh judgment.

All the more so for those who do His will

Our Sages were not pained by the tranquillity of the Romans, rather they were pained by the tremendous oppression and suffering that the Romans had caused Israel. When this incident with the noise of the Roman crowds described above took place, it was, in terms of time, relatively close to the destruction of Bayis Sheini (the Second Temple) and, like the Navi, our Sages found it difficult to imagine that there would be a restoration and revival of Israel – as many Jews likely felt after the Holocaust. Rabbi Akiva succeeded in comforting his colleagues by assuring them that, despite appearances, the eyes of Hashem were still on Israel and that Israel would not be destroyed, arguing that if Hashem showers so much chesed upon the Romans, who transgress His will as much as the Babylonians, how much more so will He shower rachamim on His nation Israel that they should not be destroyed.

So, out of gratitude to Rabbi Akiva for inspiring hope for the Jewish people after the terrible events of the churban (the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem), therefore, all of these Sages travelled to his city and to his house – with the exception of Rabban Gamliel, because he was the Nasi – specifically to speak about the going out from Egypt on the night of the festival of Pesach because the story of the going out from Egypt makes clear the eternity of Israel, that everything was created for Israel and no one will succeed in destroying Israel. So too, the Haggadah is careful to note that they all spoke and elaborated on this subject until “their talmidim came and said, ‘our teachers, the time for the morning reading of the shema has arrived’” because the morning reading of the shema also serves as a source of strength, since, in the brachos after it, we say, “the Helper of our forefathers…Shield and Saviour for their children after them in every generation” and other similar things like this, in which we are promised by Hashem that the Jewish people will exist forever.

Based on Leil Shimurim and the Mesivta Haggadah

  1. Sanhedrin 32b, 68a; Chagigah 3b; Beitzah 5a
  2. Taanis 19a, 25b
  3. Sanhedrin 32b; Chagigah 3a
  4. Sanhedrin 32b
  5. Succah 27b
  6. Rosh Hashanah 31b
  7. See Yerushalmi Maaser Sheini 5:4; Tosafos Bava Metzia 11a d”h isur
  8. Shemos Rabbah 30:9; Devarim Rabbah 2:24
  9. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 472:5
  10. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 472:5
  11. Rabbi Dovid Pardo, Chasdei Dovid
  12. Eiruvin 63a, d”h “Talmid Chaver”
  13. Zachor L’Avraham
  14. 24a and b
  15. Eichah 3:18
  16. Eichah 3:19
  17. Eichah 3:21
  18. Eichah 3:22

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