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Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach 5756

Seder Night Customs and Linguistic Forms in the Aggadeta D'pischa (Haggadah of Passover) in the Tradition of the Jews of Yemen

Zemach Keissar

Department of Hebrew Language

The Yemenite - Jewish community has preserved many ancient customs in various aspects of religious practice which trace their origins back to ancient times and sources. Among these are many ancient customs relating to the Passover Seder night, some of which originated in Eretz Yisrael, a fact which was already been noted by a number of scholars. It is also well-known that many examples of linguistic features which are characteristic of the language of our Sages are preserved in the Yemenite Haggadah. The following is a brief presentation of several customs observed on the Seder night and several unique linguistic forms (Hebrew and Aramaic) which found their way into the Passover Haggadah (or are related to the Passover holiday) according to their traditional Yemenite vocalization.

A. Seder Night Customs

1. "Tibul Rishon" - Dipping "Karpas" into "Charoset"

According to the Gaonim,[1] Maimonides[2] and other authorities the "karpas" should be dipped in "charoset". Therefore the blessing "borei pri ha'adama (Creator of the fruits of the earth)" is recited, the karpas (for which many Yemenite use parsley leaves) is dipped in Charoset and eaten. This is the custom of most Yemenites,(especially those who follow the halachic rulings of Maimonides), with the exception of those who have accepted the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch (usually those who pray according to the "Shami" custom which is equivalent to the Sephardic custom). The latter, following Rabeinu Tam and the Rashbam, hold that the karpas should be dipped in vinegar. The custom of dipping karpas in Charoset finds expression in most of the versions of the Yemenite Haggadah, ancient as well as modern[3]. Today the common practice of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews is to dip the karpas in vinegar or salt-water, following the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.

2. Recitation of "Ma Khebar" by a Young Child

After the recitation of the "Mah Nishtanah" - the four questions - there is a custom among Yemenites, even today, that the smallest child present rises and recites (often by rote) the passage "ma kebar hada eleila" [= what is the meaning of this night ][4]. The passage , written in Arabic and found in Yemenite Haggadah texts as early as the end of the 16th century (in several versions) contains an abridged form of the entire Haggadah and was intended for the women and children who did not understand Hebrew. If there are several young children they recite it together or one after the other. In Yemen a child who recited "Ma Khebar" properly was rewarded with an egg (in addition to the one he would receive during the meal)[5].

3. Recitation of "Terumah Havdilanu", "Attah Ga'alta" and other passages - According to Rav Sa'adiah Gaon

In the Yemenite Haggadah as we know it there exist several additions which do not appear in Maimonides' text of the Haggadah but were taken into the Yemenite text from the prayerbook of Rav Sa'adiah Gaon[6]. These include:

A. "Teruma Havdilanu" which is recited within the Kiddush itself (without concern for an improper interruption in the blessing).

B. several passages which are recited before that which begins with the words - "Rabban Gamliel": "Rabbi Yose Hagolili Omer" "Rabbi Eliezer Omer" "Rabbi Akiva Omer"[7] "Kamah Ma'aloth" (the poem - "Dayenu") "Uminayin shenothan lonu eth mamonom" and "Al achath kama wekhama".

C. the poem "Atta Ga'alta" which in the Yemenite Haggadah is found in the "Birkath Hageulah" (blessing of redemption), before the drinking of the second cup of wine. It is noteworthy that in the prayerbook of Rav Sa'adiah Gaon all these additions can be found - after Birkath Hageulah and the drinking of the second cup and that Rav Sa'adiah Gaon does not make their recital obligatory but says that "it is permitted to recite them" (See Siddur Rav Sa'adia Gaon, p.131).

4. Reciting a Blessing over One and a Half Matzot

In contrast to the custom prevalent among Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, who recite a blessing over two and a half matzot, Yemenite Jews[8] recite it over one and a half matzot[9] both on the Seder night and all other nights of Passover (Shabbat and weekdays alike). Maimonides (Hilchoth Chametz Umatzah, 8-6) specifies: "He takes two sheets (of matzah) places the halved one within the whole one and recites the blessing "hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz" (Who brings forth bread from the earth).[10] Rabbi Y. Kapach, adds the following commentary: "Our Rabbi (Maimonides) did not differentiate as to blessing over one and a half (matzot) between the night of the fifteenth (Seder night - 15th of Nissan) and the night after it, whether it is a weekday or Shabbat, whether a Shabbat or holiday or an intermediate day (Chol Hamoed)... therefore we carry on the tradition of our ancestors from the earliest generations to recite the blessing (hamotzi...) all during the Festival of Matzot on one and a half matzot. And this can be learned simply from the language of our Sages of Blessed Memory in the Talmud in Berachot (39.b): 'All agree that on Passover he puts the halved piece into the whole one and recites the blessing, What is the reason for this ? because it is written - bread of poverty (lechem oni)[11]."

5. The Absence of the Custom of Stealing the Afikomen

In the Talmud - tractate Pesachim 109.a the following source appears: "We learned, Rabbi Eliezer says matzah is snatched[12] on Passover night so that the children will not fall asleep". It is very possible that this is the source of the custom which became common in many communities that young children steal the Afikomen and refuse to return it until it is "bought back" for a price. This custom was never practiced in Yemen and Rabbi Y. Kapach states[13] clearly: "It was not custumary to "steal" the Afikomen since stealing is forbidden even as a joke or for amusement and even for the sake of a commandment". Elsewhere[14] he saw fit to add: "There is no custom to steal the Afikomen".

B. Selected Hebrew and Aramic Words from the "Aggadeta D'pischa"

It is a well known fact that the Passover Haggadah does not come from one uniform source. It contains Biblical verses, sections from the Mishnah from chapter 10 of tractate Pesachim, tannaitic exegeses (from the Mechiltoth), an ancient Aramaic selection (Ha Lachmo Anyo הא לחמא עניא), poetry of the Gaonim (Terumah Havdilenu, Attah Ga'alta) and songs and poems which have been added to it in later periods. Notwithstanding, it has already been pointed out[15] that most of the Haggadah (with the exception of the Biblical selections, Aramaic sources and late poetry) was written in Rabbinic Hebrew and it is obvious that linguistic materials and lines of formation definitely attributable to our Sages of Blessed Memory were absorbed into it, both in grammatical forms and lexicography. The following are but a few of such examples according to their vocalization in the Yemenite Haggadah:

1. She'einu Yodea Lishal (who does not know how to ask)

In the Yemenite Haggadah the word "einu"(אֵינוּ) has a shuruk rather than a cholam (eino). As we know the form eino appears in contemporary printed Haggadah texts and is common in spoken language (perhaps due to the influence of the form "yeshno") . Einu is the pronunciation common in Yemenite Rabbinic language and can be found in most superior (non-Yemenite) manuscripts of the Mishnah[16].

The form lishal (לִשְׁאַל) can also be found in Aggadic material. It is a verb in the simple conjugation (Heb. binyan kal), the root of which is shin-alef-lamed שאל, in the future tense (lishal in the sense of yishal). Superior sources of Rabbinic Hebrew often contain this form both in complete verb construction and others as in the following examples: livtal לִבְטַל, lilbash לִלְבַּשׁ, likach לִיקַח, liga' לִיגַּע, lita' לִיטַע and many others [17]. Needless to say that in most of the printed Haggadah texts the form used is lishol (לִשְׁאל).

2. Doukeh (דּוּכֵּהּ)

. This word is not found in the Haggadah itself, but in the instructions for the making of charoset which precede the Haggadah. Yemenite Jews (men and women alike) call charoset Doukeh (in some regions of Yemen it is pronounced Doukah). This name, which is found only among Yemenite Jews, is very ancient, appearing once in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10-c) as follows: "Why is it called doukeh, because she grinds (dochah) it with him"[18], that is the grinding of the "Doukeh" (charoset) is done by women and men together. The term is used by Yemenites in spoken as well as in written language (especially in Arabic)[19], especially where the process of making charoset in the Haggadah[20] in prayerbooks of Yemenite origin is described.

3. M'ssubin / Meissabin (מְסוּבִּין)

In the "Mah Nishtanah" in some Yemenite Haggadah texts the two forms Messubin (מְסוּבִּין) and Meissabin (מֵיסַבִּין) both appear in the following sequence: "bein yoshvim uvein m'ssubin" בין יושבין ובין מסובין (whether sitting or reclining), "wahalaylah hazeh kulanu meissabin" והלילה הזה כלנו מיסבין (but this night we all recline). In other texts the form m'ssubin appears twice as it does in the versions of Rav Sa'adiah Gaon and Maimonides. One Yemenite scholar - Rabbi Yechiya Bashiri who lived in the 16th century - saw this differentiation in form as a definite semantic difference, as well. He noted: "m'ssubin" (מסובין) – "they assembled, and "meisabin" (מיסבין) - in the sense of "reclining," since it was the custom of the sons of the kings to recline on their left sides. This Yemenite scholar interpreted "m'ssubin" (מְסוּבִּין) to mean "coming together,"  and "meisabin" מֵיסַבִּין as "reclining" (from the Hebrew "hasibah"הַסִּיבָּה ), or sitting at the table in a slightly reclined position, in the manner of a free man.

Both of the forms in question come from the root samoch - bet - bet סבב in the "hiphil" construction. The form m'ssubin מסובין[21  should have been m'ssibin      מסיבין (as in the root qof - lamed – lamedקלל : meikelמיקל  / m'kilimמקילים ) How then did the form m'ssubin actually come into being? What we have here is a distinctive linguistic - phonetic phenomenon called assimilation,[22] accordingly the chirak (ִ) in the letter samoch (ס) becomes a "u" sound in order to assimilate to the labial consonant which follows it immediately [ב=bet]: missibin > m'ssubin.[23]

The form meisabin (מֵיסַבִּין) which is found in the Yemenite Haggadah may possibly be explained as another example of the preservation of a basic vowel form[24], specifically, the vowelized singular from meisav מֵיסַב (as it appears in the Yemenite tradition, as opposed to meiseiv מֵיסֵב as it is pronounced by other communities ) was left in its place in the plural form, as well (and not replaced by a shva) thus producing the form meisabin.

4. La'afawyey (לַאֲפַוְיֵי) / Lavashawley ((לְבַשַּוְלֵי / L'atmawney (לְאַטְמַוְנֵי) / L'adhlawkey (לְאַדְלַוְקֵי)

These four forms (infinitive forms of the p'al, pael and afel constructions) appear in the Aramaic formula "bahadhein 'eiruva" (בְּהַדֵין עֵירוּבָא) – "with this eruv" (similar linguistically to Babylonian Aramaic), which is recited after the blessing "al mitzwat eruv" (על מצות ערוב) – "about the commandment of eruv", when the holiday falls on Friday and an "Eruv Tavshilin" is necessary. The uniqueness of the pronounciation of these forms lies in the fact that all four are pronounced with the central dipthong "aw": afawyey, bashawley, atmawney, adlawkey, as opposed to the common pronunciation: labisholey, l'adlokey, etc., with an "o" sound; or libishuley, ladlukey etc. with a "u" sound (without in any way wishing to diminish the importance of any other tradition of pronunciation). This Yemenite pronunciation, in this and in other instances, reaches back far into ancient sources and, in fact, reflects a linguistic reality which existed in Babylonia. It provides eloquent testimony to the excellence and exceptional value of the Aramaic spoken by Yemenite Jews, including Aramaic sections found in the prayerbook. Without doubt, this accurate tradition of the Aramaic language used by the Yemenites, is a result of their tradition of exact reading of the "Targumim" (translations of the Torah into Aramaic - such as Onkelos, Yonatan and Targum Megilloth) and the reading of the Aramaic in the Babylonian Talmud.[25]

5. L'fasach / Vey'fasach

In the ancient "Ha lachmo anyo" (הַא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא) – "This is the bread of poverty" - section of the Haggadah, which is written mostly in Aramaic, the following two words appear: l'fasach (לְפַסַּח) [26] / weefasach (וִיפַסַּח). Without a doubt these two forms are denominatives (words derived from a noun) from the noun pesach / pischa (Passover sacrifice in Hebrew and Aramaic). In the Yemenite tradition both forms are pronounced in the Aramaic construction pael: l'fasach, y'fasach. It would seem, at least in reference to the form y'fasach,[27] that this pronunciation in the Yemenite tradition indicates a tendency to avoid the Hebrew form yifsach,  יִפְסַח,[28] which means to skip (or pass) over (although Onkelos translates the form upasach - w'yeichus = have mercy, have compassion). In other words, we have before us a phenomenon of morphologic separation between the Aramaic form and the Hebrew one (pa'el construction in Aramaic in contrast to kal, or [simple] construction in Hebrew) - for the purpose of a semantic differentiation.

6. Tilmod Lomar (תִּלְמוֹד לוֹמַר)

In the section "Weyigadheta levinkha" (ויגדת לבנך) – "and you shall tell your son", which is found in the Mishnah, the Talmud and the MidRaShYm, the phrase "Tilmodh Lomar" (תלמוד לומר) occurs. Clearly the pronunciation of this phrase in the Yemenite tradition is completely different than that which is customary in other traditions: "Tilmodh Lomar" (Yemenite) instead of "talmud lomar" (Ashkenazic).[29] The form "tilmodh" is perceived as a future form with imperative intent, in the "efoal" construction (usually the root lamed-mem-dalet  למדtends toward the "efal" construction as in "elmad", "tilmad"; the second root letter being vocalized with a patach).

In conclusion it should be noted: In presenting the above - both the material relating to customs of the Seder night and the linguistic topics - I have been no more than as one who "gleans after the reapers" and I have not brought almost anything original of my own. Most of the things mentioned here have already been pointed out by scholars who preceded me. My role has been to present their findings, whether specifically cited or implied, for the benefit of the reader who may not be intimately familiar with the complexities of the Yemenite tradition.


[1] Rav Sa'adiah Gaon in his prayer book points out (p.36): 'He recites the blessing on some species which is not bitter herbs (maror)" borei pri ha'adamah" בורא פרי האדמה (Creator of the fruits of the earth) - dips it in charoset and eats it".

[2] Cf. Hilchoth Chametz Umatzah, 8-2, "and he blesses borei pri ha'adamah, takes some kind of vegetable and dips it in charoset".

[3] See M. Gavra, Mechkarim Bahaggadah Shel Pesach, Kiryat Ono, 1989, p. 163.

[4] See: Aggadita Dipischa" published by Rabbi Y. Kapach (Jerusalem, 1959). In the appendix, three different versions of "Ma Khebar" are presented. Other scholars who also pointed out versions and sources of "Ma Khebar" - are not mentioned here due to lack of space.

[5] See: Rabbi Yosef Kapach, Halichoth Teman, Jerusalem, 1968, p. 22.

[6] On the question of the presence or absence of this or any other addition to ancient or late Yemenite Haggadah texts see: Gavra, op cit., p.108.

[7] On the presence of the exegises of these three tanaim in the Mekhilta see: Daniel Goldschmidt, Haggadah Shel Pesach Vetoldoteha, Jerusalem,1969, p. 47.

[8] Except those who were influenced by the Shulchan Aruch, (See: Rosh, paragraph 475), They recite the blessing on two and and a half matzot.

[9] See summary by Y. Tavori, Letoldot Hilchot Leyl Haseder. (Doctoral Thesis, Ramat Gan, 1977) p. 201

[10] However Rav Sa'adiah Gaon differentiated between the night of Passover, falling on a weekday and falling on Shabbat, saying (in his prayerbook, p.145):"They wash their hands and recite the (appropriate) blessing 'al netilat yadayim', he takes in hand one and a half matzot and recites the blessing 'hamotzi...', and on Shabbat night he should recite the blessing over two and a half (matzot)".

[11] See also what Rabbi Amram Korach wrote (Sa'arath Teman, Jerusalem, 1954), p. 100. Furthermore the ancient Yemenite sages, including the author of the "Midrash Hagadol" ("The blessing is recited over one and a half". Parashat Re'eh, p. 354) , point out that the blessing must be recited over one and a half matzot.

[12] The word "chotfim" (חוטפים) has been interpreted in its plain sense as "snatched". Other possible interpretations have been suggested: the matzah is eaten quickly, the matzah is grabbed away from small children so that they should not eat, became full and fall asleep.

[13] Halichoth Teman, p.22, note 21.

[14] Aggadeta D'pischa, p.15, note 3.

[15] See S. Sharvit, Lashon Hahaggadah Shel Pesach, L'shonenu La'am. Kovetz L'shnat Halashon, Jerusalem, 1990, p.31. Other scholars who dealt with the language of the Haggadah of Passover include Nissan Berggrin and Ilan Eldar, et al.

[16] Such as Ms. Kaufman , Ms. Parma and in several selections from the Genizah; these have already been widely published

[17] See: G.Hanman, Torat Hatzurot Shel Lashon Hamishnah, p.114 et al.

[18] This version is brought by Rabbi Y. Kapach (HalichothTeman, p.17). In the printed editions of the Yerushalmi the text is erroneous. Rabbi Shaul Lieberman (Yahadut Teman, Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 531-352) brought a somewhat different version based on Ms. Leyden and explaines: "Docheh iman" - grinds with them - meaning he grinds the doukeh with the spice. See : Liebernman , Yerushalmi Kipshuto, p. 520

[19] See: Yehudah Ratzabi, Otzar Lashon Hakodesh Shel Bnei Teman, Tel Aviv, 1978, p.54

[20] See: Ex. In the Tikhlal of Shabazi (photcopied edition of the Tikhlal of Southern Yemen from the middle of the 16th century ) Jerusalem, 1986, p. 276.

[21] Rabbi Yosef Kimchi, Sefer Hazikaron, Berlin, 1888, pp. 66-67, sees this form as being in error; in his opinion the form should be m'ssibin or mussabim: "and what we say in the Haggadah of Passover kulanu m'ssubin - I do not know how such a thing could be ... the copiers wrote incorrectly and wrote m'ssubin".

[22] On the phenomenon in Aramaic - the change of i or a to u before a labial consonant (bet-vav-mem-peh-resh-shin) or after it, Prof. Ze'ev Site Admin. commented many years ago.This linguistic process is also found in Rabbinic Hebrew.

[23] Another example found in several Yemenite Manuscripts: bochashai instead of bachashai. Other examples in Rabbinical Hebrew: kardom>kurdom קורדום; tarwad > torwadh תרווד; tarnegol > turneghol תּוּרְנְגוֹל.

[24] This tendency towards preservation of basic vowel sounds is quite common among the Yemenites: ochalim (אוכלים), boki'in (בקיאין), chameso (חמצו), kareithoth (כריתות), shavilin (שבילין), and many others. In the contemporary Ashkenazic tradition: bizayon-hamet (בזיון המת), chisaron –kis (חסרון כיס), matanat chinam (מתנת חינם), etc.

[25] Prof. Shlomo Morag has already pointed out the connection between the pronunciation of Babylonian Aramaic by Yemenite Jews and that which is reflected in the book "Halachoth Pesukoth" in his work Aramit B'massoret Teman, Jerusalem, 1988, et al.

[26] In the version of Rav Sa'adiah Gaon this word does not appear, and also in many of our printed versions of the Haggadah. It does appear in the Maimonides version.

[27] Also in Siddur Rav Sa'adiah Gaon, p. 136: weefasach (וִיפַסַּח).

[28] Needless to say that in many of our printed Haggadah texts (including photographed versions of ancient texts) we find the form "w'yifsach" (in p'al construction)  וְיִּפְסַח.

[29] For example see Ms. Kaufman of the Mishnah (Avot 3-9).

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