This article originally appeared in Destiny, Melbourne


In a well-known passage from the Passover Haggadah, the Jewish sages are discussing the obligation to speak about the exodus from Egypt at night. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah observes that he was unable to locate a source for that obligation until his colleague Ben Zoma came up with a clever bit of scriptural exegesis to prove that the Torah does indeed contain such a requirement.

Deuteronomy 16:3 explains that that we were commanded to eat only unleavened bread during Passover in order "...that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life." Ben Zoma reads the wording of the Hebrew verse with midrashic precision: "the days of your life" might have referred only to the days, but the addition of the extra word "all" must come to teach us that the obligation extends to the nights as well.

The passage's inclusion in the Haggadah seems to imply that Rabbi Eleazar ben Aazariah and Ben Zoma were conversing about the obligation to speak about the exodus on Passover night, at the seder. This reading is reinforced by its placement immediately following the account about the great Jewish sages who were reclining (the prescribed posture for the Passover meals) in B'nei B'rak, one of whom was indeed Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah.

Nevertheless, those of us who are more familiar with rabbinic literature will recognize that our text is actually a separate citation from the Mishnah, and that its original context has nothing directly to do with Passover. It is taken from the tractate Berakhot and deals with an issue involving the weekday liturgy.

The question that occupied the rabbis in this passage related to the structure of the morning and evening liturgies. It is customary to follow up the recitation of the morning and evening Shema sections with a blessing related to the theme of the Egyptian exodus, focusing on the song of Moses and climaxing in our confident acknowledgment that God will continue to act as the "redeemer of Israel."

Now the inclusion of this theme was understandable for the morning service, where the Shema concluded with a reading of Numbers 15:37-41, which speaks about the commandment to attach zizit, ritual fringes, to the corners of garments. The section concludes "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God." This biblical allusion to the Egyptian exodus invites a natural segue to the liturgical blessing that develops that idea.

However, no such obvious transition existed for the evening service. In the ancient rite of the land of Israel it was not customary to include the zizit paragraph as part of the Shema, because the obligation was not deemed to apply at nighttime (or at least to night-clothes). Under the circumstances, what grounds were there for inserting the blessing about the exodus into the evening prayers? Ben Zoma came to the rescue with his ingenious exegetical insight that was so satisfying to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah.

The precise translation of Rabbi Eleazar's statement in both the Mishnah and the Passover Haggadah is: "Behold, I am now as one who is seventy years old, but I was never able to demonstrate that the exodus should be mentioned at night." Those ever-precise sages of the Talmud could not quite swallow the sloppiness of his phrasing. Was the good rabbi seventy, sixty-nine, seventy-one...or what? Why equivocate with a Hebrew idiom "ke-ven shiv'im shanah" that carries the connotation of "like, seventy" or "seventy-ish" or some other expression that is more appropriate to a teen chat-room than to a learned compendium of religious law?

Our sages could not resist the temptation to link this passage to a tradition about a famous incident from the rabbinic politics of the late first century CE. At that time, the academy of Yavneh was headed by the Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel II. When Gamaliel was ousted for his public humiliation of his colleague Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, the sages turned to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah to serve as his replacement, at least until the dispute was resolved. The Talmuds report that Rabbi Eleazar was only a teenager at the time when he was drafted to the prestigious office of the Nasi, charged with presiding over the reconfiguration of Jewish religious life in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple: a mere sixteen years old according to the Jerusalem Talmud, eighteen according to the Babylonian.

The story in the Jerusalem Talmud implied that the shock of hearing about his appointment caused his entire head to fill with white hair. The Babylonian version of the story put a more positive spin on the developments. Rabbi Eleazar's wife initially balked at the invitation that her spouse serve in such an important position, fearing that the elders would not submit to the authority of such a young colleague. Subsequently, a miracle was performed for his benefit when eighteen rows of his hair turned white, lending him a mature appearance that was suitable to the dignity of the office.

The Babylonian rabbis saw in that episode the key to understanding the vague-looking wording in the Passover Haggadah. Rabbi Eleazar uttered the sentence around the time of his appointment at Yavneh, and what he meant to say was "Behold, my white hair has given me the appearance of a seventy-year-old, even though I am still of a youthful age."

In its discussion of the mishnah dealing with the mentioning of the exodus in the evening service, the Jerusalem Talmud inserted the following observation about Rabbi Eleazar's reference to his age: "Even though he acceded to a high office, he nonetheless went on to live a long life. This suggests that high office [normally] shortens a person's days."

This remark only makes sense if we assume that the number seventy was intended literally (even if not precisely). If Rabbi Eleazar was sixteen years old when he was appointed to the leadership at Yavneh, somewhere around 80 CE, then he would have been about 70 in the mid-130s, during the turbulent years of the Bar Kokhba uprising--a ripe old age by the standards of the ancient world. It was at that advanced age that he submitted his observation concerning the mentioning of the Egyptian exodus at night.

According to this reading, he chose to round off his age as an alternative to referring to something like "sixty-eight and two thirds" whose mathematical exactitude would have been superfluous and distracting for the point that he wanted to make at the time.

Though most historians seem to lean towards accepting this chronology, some express their puzzlement that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah does not in fact appear as a colleague or interlocutor with any of the prominent rabbis of the second century whose teachings and discussions are so extensively documented in rabbinic literature.

As for the whitening of his hair--this is a well-known medical phenomenon known as "poliosis," diagnosed as a decrease in melanin that can be attributed to a broad range of causes. The Jerusalem Talmud seems to associate Rabbi Eleazar's transformation with a sudden psychological trauma, and this evokes similar tales that attach to figures like Marie Antoinette or Thomas More whose hair reportedly turned white overnight as the consequence of their sudden imprisonments. Those cases are dismissed with much skepticism by modern medicine--certainly when it comes to claims of an instantaneous or overnight transformation, which is simply impossible given the gradual rate of hair growth, so that white roots would not become visible for at least a few weeks. Nevertheless, some concede the existence of an obscure condition called "diffuse alopecia areata" that could produce similar effects under highly unusual circumstances.

Most commentators follow the Babylonian Talmud's lead in interpreting Rabbi Eleazar's condition as an outright miracle intended to enhance his dignity as a scholarly leader. However, some of them prefer more naturalistic explanations. Maimonides, for example, argues that the young scholar threw himself into a frenzy of uninterrupted study by day and night, until he became enfeebled and his hair turned white, so that he now appeared to have aged beyond his actual years.

There might be a valuable cautionary lesson here for those of you who don't know enough to take an occasional respite from your labours.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons

For Signs and for Seasons

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  • First Publication:
    • Destiny: Quarterly Magazine of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Melbourne, Australia, Issue 5 (Nisan - Elul 5770 / March - September 2010), p. 21.
  • For further reading:
    • Friedmann, Meir. 1895. Me'ir 'Ayin 'al Seder Hagadah Shel Lele Pesah. Vienna: Moritz Knepfelmacher.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. 1941. A Commentary on the Palestinian Talmud. Vol. 1. 4 vols. Texts and Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 10. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
    • Lieberman, Saul. 1955. Tosefta Ki-Feshutah. Vol. 1. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
    • Rosner, Fred. 1995. Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud: Selections from Classical Jewish Sources.