Obligation to Tell the Story of the Exodus


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An Elusive Source

It is hard to imagine the first night of Pesach without a verbal retelling of the story of the Israelites' enslavement and exodus from Egypt.  However, finding a Biblical source for such an obligation is not as easy to find as one might expect. Many verses have been put forth as possible candidates, but each falls short in some manner:

  • Shemot 12:26-27: " וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם. וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַי"י " – This verse speaks of telling the story in a case in which a child asks about the Pesach service.  Would the same obligation exist even if no child were present?
  • Shemot 13:3: "זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים" – While this verse addresses the entire nation (and not only children) it only mentions remembering ("זָכוֹר") the Exodus.  Must this commemoration be done via speech, or is an internal remembrance sufficient? Alternatively, might the command be fulfilled via actions, such as the refraining from chametz or eating matzah mentioned later in the passage?
  • Shemot 13:8: "וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה י"י לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם" – This verse, like Shemot 12:26-27, is limited to a scenario in which a child is present.
  • Shemot 13:14: "וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאׇלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מַה זֹּאת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ י"י מִמִּצְרַיִם" – Also this verse speaks of answering a son, and the context of this text is not even Pesach, but rather the obligation to redeem firstborns. As such, one cannot necessarily learn anything from this directive regarding the obligations of Pesach night.
  • Devarim 6:20-21: " כִּי יִשְׁאׇלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים... וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה " – This verse, too, limits the obligation to responding to children, and its context is not specifically connected to Pesach.
  • Devarim 16:3: "לֹא תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ... לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם" – This text, like Shemot 13:3, only refers to remembering the events in Egypt, making it unclear whether any speech would be required.  Moreover the commemoration is worded as a reason for performing other commandments rather than as an independent obligation.

To summarize, none of the verses above is an obvious source for the obligation to verbally retell the story of the Exodus.  Some (Shemot 13:3 and Devarim 16:3) only mention a "commemoration", others (Shemot 12:26, Shemot 13:8, 14, Devarim 6:20) ) limit the directive to telling/responding to children, while still others (Shemot 13:14 and Devarim 6:20) do not focus on the night of Pesach.  As such, different commentators reach very different conclusions regarding what is expected that the nation do on the evening of Pesach.