From Slavery to Freedom
Yahatz and Ha Lachma Anya
On the seder table you’ve placed a stack of 3 matzahs, often termed “Cohen, Levite and Israelite.” Remove the middle of the three (the Levite) and break it in half. Breaking the middle matzah is termed Yahatz. The larger half, wrap and hide as the afikomen, the last food eaten after the seder meal, in remembrance of the long banished Passover lamb sacrifice. Replace the other half in the stack. You will eat it later when we recite the special matzah blessing before the meal.
Ha Lachma Anya: Lo, this is the Bread of Affliction
The Hebrew “Magid,” like “haggadah,” means the telling of the story. They originate in the same Hebrew root. From this first reading until the blessings before the meal, we will recite the story of Passover, our Hebrew ancestors’ exodus from Egypt. The recitation fulfills the commandment (mitzvah), “And you shall explain to your child on that day.” (Exodus 13:8) The seder focuses on passing the root experience of the Jewish people, our single most important story, on to the next generation. We calibrate the seder to keep the attention of the children.
The seder readings open in Aramaic, the language of the Jewish people in the first century b.c.e. and after. Aramaic, a cognate language of Hebrew, was the lingua franca of the middle east for more than a millennium. Our sages composed this first recitation in Aramaic probably so the women and children, who likely no longer spoke Hebrew, would understand it’s meaning without translation.
Ha Lachma Anya, “Lo, this is the bread of affliction,” is comprised of three separate statements in one paragraph. The first sentence is simply an explanation to the children of matzah. “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt.” We hold it up and tell everyone that this unleavened bread reminds us of slavery. Purposely made tasteless, the Bible gives two reasons for matzah: it’s the bread of haste to leave slavery and the bread of poverty. Basically, if it tastes good, you can’t use it for the seder. Nothing that might improve the taste, like honey or spices, may be added to the flour and water. Like in Leviticus 5:11, 1/10th of an ephah (just under one cup) suffices for the poor man’s sin offering, making atonement affordable for all, no matter their wealth. The “poor man’s bread” of the seder is the same measure of grain, and reminds us that God accepts and loves all people regardless of economic status.
While many seder goers interpret the second line as inviting the hungry to come and enjoy the seder, that interpretation makes no sense. Our guests are seated at the table already, and no one but invited guests hears the proclamation. Kiddush has already been recited. Rather, our seders open with an aspiration that all will he fed adequately. Indeed, anticipation of this reading provides an impetus to invite those who have no other seder invitations to our homes to celebrate the seder with us in community.
The third line, “This year we are here; next year in the Land of Israel. This year we are slaves; by next year may we all be free,” anticipates the final famous messianic line in the seder, “By next year may we all be in Jerusalem.” (Marc Michael Epstein's translation, and Menachem Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, p 112) Thus, the story telling of the seder is bookended by a single thought: as we now celebrate the night of our original redemption, may we in the next year celebrate the final redemption when all will be free!