Guess Who Isn't Coming to Dinner
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Guess Who Isn’t Coming to Dinner*

We all know that Passover is devoted to the commemoration of our exodus from Egyptian slavery.Central to this purpose is the recitation of the Haggadah. The hero of the story, as it is recounted in detail in the Torah, was Moses.

From all this it follows naturally that Moses should occupy a position of honour in the Passover Haggadah. All this makes irrefutable sense.

And of course it is not true.

Moses’s name is resoundingly absent from the pages of the Haggadah—an absence that has inspired considerable discussion among scholars.

To be precise, the prophet’s name is not completely forgotten. It shows up in one spot, in a discussion where various rabbis tried to outdo each other in calculating how many miracles were performed in Egypt and at the Red Sea. Rabbi Yosé the Galilean, in order to show that the splitting of the sea is designated as a “hand” and therefore was five-times more miraculous than the divine “fingers” that were evident in the Egyptian plagues, adduced the scriptural proof-text: “and Israel saw that great ‘hand’ which the Lord did against Egypt: and the people feared the Lord, and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” That quotation, however, is missing in several manuscript versions of the Haggadah.

Now, I am not altogether certain that it is proper to look for literary or theological consistency in the Haggadah, a work which is, after all, a compilation of diverse rabbinic passages spanning several centuries. And even if we should choose to regard it as a unified document, it is possible that Moses’s exclusion was not intentional, but it just so happened that there was no occasion to mention him.

In keeping with a widespread convention of rabbinic expositions, the Passover Haggadah is not constructed as a direct commentary on the book of Exodus where Moses's life and personality are described at length. Instead, the Jewish sages chose to expound two different scriptural passages that contain concise summaries of Israel’s deliverance from the lowliest depths to the heights of freedom. One of these passages (from the book of Deuteronomy) is the thanksgiving speech recited by pilgrims when they come bearing their first-fruits to the Temple; while the other is from Joshua’s last charge to the nation. Both these texts survey Israel’s history tracing it back to the days of the forefathers, and they present the exodus from Egypt as a work of God rather than the achievement of any mortal leader. Viewed in this light, it becomes more understandable that the authors of the Haggadah might have inadvertently skipped over Moses’s role in the exodus.

Though this explanation might sound plausible, it must be noted that the Joshua passage does in fact contain a verse in which the Almighty says, “I sent Moses and Aaron.” The fact that this text is neither cited nor expounded in the Haggadah suggests a conscious intention to leave Moses out of the story.

And it is not just a question of omissions. There is another passage in the Haggadah that appears as if it were intended to minimize Moses’s role in the Passover saga. Commenting on the verse in Deuteronomy, “the Lord brought us forth from Egypt,” the Haggadah infers: “not by means of an angel, not by means of a seraph, not by means of a messenger—but rather the Holy One by himself.”

No messenger indeed? What was the point of the encounter at the burning bush if not the appointment of Moses as God’s agent for bringing the Israelites out from Egypt?

Most current texts of the Haggadah confine the "not by means of a messenger" line to the specific context of the slaying of the Egyptian first-born; but this was not the reading in some older versions according to which no messenger or agent was involved in any stage of the process of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.

This emphasis on the Almighty’s direct personal role in rescuing his people was also in evidence in the ancient Greek version of Isaiah (63:9) where the Masoretic Hebrew text reads “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them”; but the Greek has: “out of all their affliction not an agent, nor an angel, but he himself saved them.”

In instances like this, when texts seem to be going out their way to introduce novel interpretations, scholars often try to explain the anomalies by introducing historical considerations. In the sectarian milieu of ancient Judaism, this often leads to the hypothesis that our sages were trying thereby to preclude unacceptable theological or exegetical positions that were current at the time.

In that spirit, a theory that once enjoyed popularity was that the rabbis were lowering Moses’s profile as a reaction to the Samaritans who reputedly elevated the great prophet to supernatural or quasi-divine stature.

And as long as we are worried about groups who were deifying humans, then why not argue that the Haggadah’s authors were worried about Christianity? Scholars had no difficulty assembling quotes from early Christian writings—including such famous episodes as the “Transfiguration” narratives—that placed Jesus in the company of Moses, and might have provoked the editors of the Haggadah to keep Moses out of the narrative.

A comparable attitude is evident in the commentary of Rabbi Elijah the “Ga’on” of Vilna who applauded the Haggadah’s authors for insisting that the redemption had been achieved by God alone, and not turning Moses into some sort of charismatic miracle-worker. The Ga’on had clearly found in this editorial policy a welcome precedent for his own fervent opposition to the wonder-rabbis of the emerging Hassidic movement.

There appear to be no bounds to such historically based conjectures. One theory, for example, traces an anti-Moses sentiment to the political ideologies of the Hasmonean era when there was widespread resentment of the priestly Hasmoneans’ usurpation of monarchic authority that should properly be reserved for descendents of King David from the tribe of Judah. Some of that resentment might have trickled down to Moses, who was both a Levite and the ruler of his people.

However, based on explanations of this sort we might have expected to find a more consistent demoting of Moses’s roles as liberator and miracle-worker. Why was he removed only from the Passover Haggadah and not from other midrashic retellings of the exodus?

One interesting proposal argues that the Haggadah’s authors were not targeting any particular sect or rival religion, but rather they were objecting to a pervasive tendency that they discerned in their own times, the over-readiness of Jews to rally around charismatic messiahs who promised to lead them to victory against Roman tyranny. As long as Moses was being lionized as a heroic freedom-fighter who achieved liberation against an oppressive regime, then the Jews were doomed to repeat their self-destructive cycle of failed insurrections and their demoralizing aftermaths. Thus, by removing Moses from the story, the people were implicitly being urged to wait patiently for divine redemption instead of putting their faith in a mortal champion no matter how eminent.

Well, take your choice. The question of Moses’s absence from the Passover Haggadah remains a mysterious and bewildering puzzle with numerous possible solutions. It would indeed be wonderful if we had a learned scholar at our seder table who could guide us through the maze of competing theories.

For that purpose I can’t think of a more suitable seder guest than our teacher Moses.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 2, 2015, p. 8.
  • For further reading:
    • Arnow, David. “The Passover Haggadah: Moses and the Human Role in Redemption.” Judaism 55, no. 3–4 (2006): 4–28.
    • Avioz, Michael. “Moses in the Passover Haggadah.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 31, no. 1 (2009): 45–50.
    • Daube, David. He That Cometh: Lecture Given October 1966. St. Paul’s Lecture 5. London: Diocesan Council for Christian-Jewish Understanding, 1966.
    • ———. “Two Notes on the Passover Haggadah.” Journal of Theological Studies 50, no. 197–198 (1949): 53–57.
    • Finkelstein, Louis. “The Oldest Midrash: Pre-Rabbinic Ideals and Teachings in the Passover Haggadah.” The Harvard Theological Review 31, no. 4 (1938): 291–317.
    • Goldin, Judah. “‘Not by Means of an Angel and Not by Means of a Messenger.’” In Religions in Antiquity; Essays in Memory of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough, edited by Jacob Neusner, 412–24. Studies in the History of Religions (Supplements to Numen) 14. Leiden: Brill, 1968.
    • Goldschmidt, E. D. The Passover Haggadah: Its Sources and History. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1969. [Hebrew]
    • Heinemann, Joseph. Aggadah and Its Development. Sifriyat Keter. Jerusalem: Keter, 1974. [Hebrew]
    • Henshke, David. “‘The Lord Brought Us Forth from Egypt’: On the Absence of Moses in the Passover Haggadah.” AJS Review 31, no. 1 (2007): 61–73.
    • Kasher, Menahem. Hagadah Shelemah: The Complete Passover Hagadah. Jerusalem: Torah Shelema Institute, 1967. [Hebrew]
    • Meyer, Franz E. “Die Pessach-Haggada und der Kirchenvater Justinus Martyr: aus der Frühzeit der Jüdisch-Christlichen Kontroverse.” In Treue zur Thora: Beiträge zur Mitte des Christlich-Jüdischen Gesprächs : Festschrift für Günther Harder zum 75. Geburtstag, edited by Peter von der Osten-Sacken, 84–87. Veröffentlichungen aus Dem Institut Kirche und Judentum 3. Berlin: Institut Kirche und Judentum, 1977.
    • Shinan, Avigdor. “Madua‘ Lo Nizkar Mosheh Rabbenu BaHaggadah Shel Pesaḥ?” ‘Amudim 39, no. 540 (1991): 172–74.
    • Urbach, Efraim Elimelech. The World of the Sages. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1988.
    • Yuval, Israel Jacob. “Two Nations in Your Womb”: Perceptions of Jews and Christians. Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 2000.