Rav and Shemuel on Redemption

The mishnah in Pesachim requires that in telling of the Pesach story at the seder, “we begin with degradation, and end with glory.” There is a debate between Rav and Shemuel over what this applies to. In practice, our Haggadah contains both. (Probably because, as the Haggadah itself says, “whomever [says] more, behold he is praiseworthy.”)

According to Shemuel, the focus of the haggadah is the physical slavery and physical redemption. To fulfill his notion of beginning with degradation, meaning lowliness on a material plane, we have the part of the Haggadah immediately after Mah Nishtanah – “Avadim hayinu — We were slaves to Par’o in Egypt, and G-d took us out.”

Rav instead stresses the spiritual side of the holiday. This is where we say “Bitechilah, ovedei avodah zarah — At the start, our ancestors were idol worshipers. And from the days of Terach’s idolatry, we make our way to Sinai and our spiritually redeemed.

It would appear, though, that this debate isn’t only over the proper way to conduct a seder, but part of a larger debate about redemption in general. In describing the messianic era, Shemuel holds, “There is no difference between now and the messianic era except the subjection to [foreign] rule alone.” (Berakhos 34b) To Shemuel, the messianic redemption as well is about Jewish autonomy, a physical freedom. Perhaps, Semuel insists that only man can save himself spiritually. Rav apparently sides with Rabbi Chiya bar Abba’s quote from Rav Yochanan, that redemption involves a literal implementation of all the promises of all the prophets — lions would stop eating lambs, the end of war, the moon will shine as bright as the sun, etc… Redemption is a change in the world on a supernatural level. And that is how he frames his haggadah.

There is a third dispute that I think is related (Gittin 38a). A slave-owner declares his slave hefqer, ownerless. Shemuel says that once the slave is no longer owned, he is fully a freeman. No shetar shichrur, writ of freedom, is required.  Rav says that the servant still needs a writ. After all, a freeman is not only someone who lacks an owner, but is now a Jew fully obligated in all the mitzvos. And this requires a special rite, involving a shetar shichrur.

It would seem that Shemuel says that a person can only be freed physically. Therefore, to him, the freedom of Egypt is the physical redemption. Once a person is freed from physical constraint, spiritual redemption falls to the person himself. Rav, however, focuses on the need for Hashem’s help even in spiritual redemption. Being freed physically isn’t the final roadblock before spiritual liberation. And this shows in his understandings of the laws of slavery, the haggadah, and the final redemption.

Thus the two approaches to the haggadah might well tie into how we view our job in life and our covenant with the Almighty on a day-to-day level. How much do I focus on my work on self-refinement, and how much to I turn to G-d for His Enlightenment and providing me contexts that make such work trivial (or at least easier)?

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  1. Bob Miller says:

    It’s hard to imagine a just-liberated slave quickly shedding his prior slave conditioning, unaided.

  2. micha says:

    But I don’t think the writ will change his mentality overnight either.

    I was referring to whether a slave who is not so much declared free as much as declared ownerless is countable toward a minyan and the other halakhos of full membership in the tribe. In other words, do we consider him on the same road as other Jews, not whether he is in the same place on that road.

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