Passover’s 2 Themes 

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Howard Salamon

“Consecrate to Me every male firstborn; human and beast, the first [male] issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine” (Exod. 13:2).

Why doesn’t Moses immediately communicate this law to the Jews. Instead, Moses first commences an elongated intro:

And Moses said to the people,“Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how God freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten. You go free on this day, in the month of Abib. When God has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which was sworn to your fathers to be given you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall observe in this month the following practice: 7 days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the 7th day there shall be a festival of God. Throughout the 7 days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory. And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt. And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead —in order that the teaching of God may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand God freed you from Egypt. You shall keep this institution at its set time from year to year.’”

Then Moses gives God’s command: 

And when God has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as [God] swore to you and to your fathers, and has given it to you, you shall set apart for God every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be God’s. But every firstling ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every male firstborn among your children.  And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, “What does this mean?’” you shall reply, “It was with a mighty hand that God  brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, God slew every [male] firstborn in the land of Egypt, the firstborn of both human and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to God every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every male firstborn among my children. And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand God freed us from Egypt.”

Maimonides teaches that the obligation to retell the miracles and wonders—“Sippure Yetzias Mitzrayim”—is derived from the above first quote, line 1: “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt”  (Exod. 13:3). This verse is Moses’ response to God's command to instruct the Jews to redeem the firstborns. Why is retelling the Exodus derived from the command to redeem firstborns? What’s the connection? 

We must trace back to the first instance of the firstborn’s significance; it was during Moses’ prophecy of the burning bush. Exodus 4:22,23 is God’s directive to Moses to warn Pharaoh: 

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says God, Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your firstborn son.’  [1]  

Ibn Ezra comments:

 The ancestors of this nation were the first to serve Me. I therefore take pity on this nation as a father pities a son who serves him. You took him for a perpetual slave. I will therefore kill your firstborn son.

God’s message to Pharaoh is that Egypt has the wrong concept of who is prized. Egypt prized their elite’s firstborns, onto whom Egypt projected inherent elevated status, excluding firstborns of lower class citizens. But God said it was the Jew who is prized, as they serve God. Unlike Egyptians, the Jew is monotheistic, he is God’s chosen to teach mankind. As Egypt wrongly enslaved the Jew, God threatened Egypt that without releasing them, God would kill the firstborns to underline their error. God would also kill the firstborn of Egypt’s lower-class to show Egypt that there is no distinction between elite firstborns or lower-class firstborns [2]. God’s plan was to elevate the firstborn Jew as teachers of truth, opposing Egypt’s firstborns spread of idolatry. Therefore, the role of the firstborn is integrally tied to teaching monotheism. 

Howard Salamon explained why Moses responded to God’s command of redeeming firstborn with the command of retelling the Exodus: redeeming firstborns targets the spread of monotheism, and this is the core lesson of the plagues and the Exodus. Therefore, once commanded in redeeming firstborns, Moses told the nation to spread the Exodus story yearly, which teaches God’s unity; He is the sole power of the universe, and Egypt is wrong. This is the most vital concept and the role of firstborns is to teach this. Thus, as the goal of redeeming firstborns is that they spread Torah, when Moses received God’s command to redeem firstborns, he tied it to retelling the Exodus.

Moses continued...he recalls God’s “mighty hand3 times. He both opens and closes with that phrase. And he commands us in Tefillin too due to God’s mighty hand. This might expressed in killing firstborns resulted in our freedom; the previous 9 plagues did not free us. God positioned Himself as the sole, unopposed power in the universe. It was the killing of the firstborns that launched the Exodus. Our perpetual redeeming of firstborns is an eternal reminder that we owe God great thanks. For if God did not free us, today we would be slaves to Pharaoh, as we recite on Passover. But we need more frequent reminders than when we rarely have firstborns. Therefore, here, Moses also commanded us in Tefillin; these words above are written inside Tefillin. God’s freedom granted to us established God as the only force in the world; no Egyptian god stopped God’s plans. This the most crucial lesson to mankind—God’s mighty hand—disproved Egypt’s belief in multiple gods. 

But we wonder: What is the unique feature in that final plague of firstborn Egyptian deaths? This question is compounded as this is the only plague to which the Jews must respond with thanks to God, namely by redeeming firstborns.

This plague demonstrated God’s complete knowledge of every member of mankind: He knows who is firstborn. And by sparing Jewish firstborns, God demonstrates the principle of reward and punishment. God further teaches that He operates outside natural law, as no natural law selects firstborn Egyptian deaths. Natural laws are physical, whereas the order of offspring is not determined by nature. God determines which soul enters which body. Death of firstborns is similar to death of all people who wrote on paper “AB” and not “BA”; health is unrelated to the order of events, and is also unrelated to the order of birth. Nothing natural is shared by all firstborns. The lesson is that God alone controls life, and nature. Here we are required to offer thanks. God controls in a manner outside our observation or reasoning. This is God’s “mighty hand.” Might refers to unparalleled power; God is mighty as opposed to imaginary gods. God controls nature and does not work within its confines. This is the death of firstborns. 

Pesach, Matzah & Maror

Our obligation to retell the Exodus miracles and wonders is one mitzvah, derived from “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt” (Exod. 13:3). But Maimonides speaks further: 

Whomever does not speak of 3 matters on the evening of the 15th does not fulfill his obligation, and these are they: the Paschal sacrifice, matzoh, and bitter herbs. Sacrifice is due to God passing over our forefathers’ homes, the bitter herbs because the Egyptians embittered our lives, and matzah is due to our salvation. And all these matters are called Hagaddah (Laws of Chametz and Matza 7:5).

Maimonides derives this obligation from Exod. 12:26,27:

And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this practice you perform?”

You shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to God, Who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our homes.” 

As Maimonides already told us that retelling the miracles and wonders is on the 15th, telling us this date again indicates these three matters are a different obligation. This is supported by him citing a different Torah verse, and also by calling these 3 matters “Hagaddah,” a term not applied previously to the discussion of miracles and wonders. Thus, we have 1 command of retelling the miracles and wonders, and another obligation, a discussion of Pesach, matzah and bitter herbs. 

Maimonides says “Whomever does not speak of 3 matters on the evening of the 15th does not fulfill his obligation.” To which “obligation” does he refer? It cannot refer to retelling the miracles and wonders, as he uses a different verse. It must mean the obligation of “eating” these 3 foods. However, eating these foods alone does not fill the command; it must be accompanied by an explanation. The rest of the year, commands of eating—like sacrifices or sabbath meals—require simple eating, and that is the fulfillment of the command. But on Passover the command is not fulfilled by mere eating, but by discussing the mitzvahs’ reasons. On Passover, eating forms part of communication:  Whomever does not “speak” of 3 matters.

Thus, Passover contains 2 themes: 1) communicating God’s “mighty hand” through retelling the miracles and wonders, and 2) God’s commands.  In other words, we were 1) freed through His might, to 2) fulfill Torah commands. We were not freed for freedom alone, which the Jews wished to express by baking bread. God retarded the dough from rising precisely to avert the Jews from expressing identification with their Egyptian oppressors who enjoyed the luxury of soft bread. Carrying the dough out of Egypt on their proud shoulders [3] planning to bake bread, the Jews intended to identify with free Egyptians. But this expression of unqualified freedom was not God’s plan. Therefore, God thwarted the Jews’ plan to bake bread: rushing them out of Egypt the dough could not rise and became only matzah. The restriction of eating leaven reminds us of the Jews’ mistake to enjoy freedom detached from God. We were freed with the objective to follow God and Torah. Chametz and matzah are the reminders.

[1] In Moses’ initial meeting with Pharaoh, he communicated God’s message to free the Jews, or suffer death of the firstborns, without mentioning the other 9 plagues. We can surmise that this was the goal of the plagues: to share monotheism by removing Egyptian firstborns spreading idolatry, and establishing firstborn Jews as teachers of monotheism. All other plagues had this as their goal and it was unnecessary to specify them at this first meeting.

[2] In similar fashion, God afflicted Egypt with boils, which did not distinguish between the astrologers and the common folk, for the same purpose of rejecting any inherent “powers” claimed by the astrologers. They could not remove the boils. With the 10 Plagues, God rejected all Egyptian claims of polytheism, powers, astrology, and deities.

[3] Exod. 12:34