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    Pesach & the 5 rabbis

    "At the Rabbi's", painting by Carl Schleicher (c. 1859-1871)

    “At the Rabbi’s”, painting by Carl Schleicher (c. 1859-1871)

    Five rabbis stayed up all night in Bnei Brak talking about the Exodus, and the Haggadah features the incident as if it were something unique.

    Some say that it was a covert national security meeting and though the words were about going out of Egypt, the underlying subject was the campaign to release the people from the oppression of the Romans.

    If this is what happened, the fact that the rabbis’ disciples were outside keeping watch makes sense, because otherwise any good student should have been inside talking part in the discussion.

    It also makes sense when we hear that the disciples came in at dawn to tell the rabbis to say the Sh’ma. Rabbis surely need no prompting about starting their morning prayers on time, but what the disciples were doing was to warn their masters that once it was light they ran the risk of being discovered.

    Why did the gathering take place in Bnei Brak? Because that’s where Rabbi Akiva lived, and Akiva was one of the leaders of the revolt against the Romans.

    Without this political explanation the whole incident remains a puzzle. Staying up to talk Torah at night is, after all, part of being a learned Jew, rabbi or layman; the Bible tells us we should meditate in God’s word day and night (Joshua 1:8).

    The S’fat Emet asks why the Haggadah heaps such praise on a group of Jews who merely carried out a long established duty. It suggests that the all-night study session had a particular significance on Pesach.

    As the Israelite slaves had gotten no sleep on the night of 15 Nisan, busying themselves with getting everything ready for their Exodus and then actually departing from Egypt, so the five rabbis were re-enacting the experience of their forefathers.

    One can see in this explanation an echo of the advice the Haggadah itself gives, that “in every generation a person is obliged to see himself as if he personally emerged from Egypt”.

    If this is the case, why emphasise that it was rabbis and not ordinary people who were involved in this incident?

    Possibly in order to create a precedent and provide an example for the rest of the community to remember and follow on every succeeding Pesach.

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