The “Obligation” of the Three Symbols – Educational Challenges and Opportunities

By Rabbi Reuven Spolter, OTS Amiel BaKehila Director

Rabbi Reuven Spolter

This year, when our children ask us, “Why is this night different than every other night?”, a number of unique questions will surely present themselves. “For on all other Passover nights we first pray in the synagogue. On this Passover, we pray at home. For on all other Passover nights, we celebrate with our grandparents, aunts and uncles. On this Passover, we celebrate alone.”

Without a doubt, the night of the Seder will be a unique experience for many, if not most of us. At the same time, while our current reality presents challenges, it can also be a unique, educational opportunity.

As we near the conclusion of Maggid and can almost taste the matzah in our mouths, we recite a famous statement from Rabban Gamliel, which is actually a direct quote from the Mishnah in Pesachim (116b):

Rabban Gamliel used to say: Anyone who did not speak about three things did not fulfill his obligation. And they are: Pesach (the Paschal lamb), Matzah, and Maror.

What “obligation” does one fail to fulfill should he not mention the three elements? Where do we find such an obligation? Ramban in his commentary on the Talmud explains that one who fails to mention these three elements does not properly fulfill his obligation to eat the three foods on the night of Pesach. While the Torah commands us to eat, Rabban Gamliel adds that eating is not enough. One must also speak about them, understand them, and place them in the context of the story.

Through his profound statement, Rabban Gamliel was expressing a critical educational idea. On the first night of Passover we confront two very different types of commandments. The first is academic and intellectual: “And you shall tell your child” the story of the Exodus from Egypt. At face value, telling a story is a theoretical exercise, as we recount the historical tale of our ancestors’ exit from slavery. Anyone who has ever been stuck in a boring history class can attest to just how irrelevant names and dates can be. The second type of commandment is action-oriented. Judaism requires that on this night we eat. We must taste the simplicity of the matzah, the bitterness of the Maror, and the richness of the Passover offerings.

According to Rabban Gamliel, if we allowed these two elements to remain separate and disconnected, we would fail both not only in our telling of the story but also in our eating of the food, as we would have neglected to focus on the critical connection between the learning and discussion and the tastes associated with that story. Rabban Gamliel reminds us that our Sages designed the different elements of the Seder to complement each-other. The study and action go hand-in-hand, each building upon the other to create a complete educational experience.

Rabban Gamliel’s Lesson must also influence all of us as parents. This year, as we have spent the past weeks hunkered in our homes, we have become both parents as well as teachers. We’ve surely learned that education is a tricky thing. On the one hand, in the purest sense, learning is an academic, intellectual pursuit. But it can be dry and theoretical, devoid of any real-world meaning. At the same time, practical education without underlying thought, analysis and study leaves students with a shallow, peripheral understanding of the material. Without the deeper meaning, contemplation and reflective analysis academic study demands, a child’s understand is cursory at best.

On the night of Pesach, Rabban Gamliel reminds us that our children’s education must be comprised of both academic knowledge and practical meaning. It must combine the story and facts of the Exodus together with the tastes of the Pesach foods. Only when we, as parents and teachers, combine these two critical elements together, can we rest assured that we have indeed fulfilled our educational obligation to our children.

Download the OTS Amiel Bakehila Passover Reflections booklet (PDF)


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