a)         What is the holiday coming up called? What do these names mean?

A:   See our page “the Many Faces of Passover” coming soon to a homepage near you.

b)         What is Karpas all about and what is the word and why do we dip it and why does it start the meal?

A:  Many interesting and far reaching explanations have been offered for this odd step in the seder, and the unfamiliar choice of words for vegetable –and now I want to share something most dynamic I heard on a tape, in the name of the Chochmas Manoach  (medieval commentator, best known for his writings on the works of the Rambam).
He writes that we have a tradition (one which was obviously muffled quite a bit in the many long centuries of exile and persecutions between him and us), that our dipping the Karpas in salt water is a reminder of the Joseph’s coloured tunic which his brothers dipped in (salty) blood, when they feigned his demise to their father Jacob.  In fact if we open up Genesis, where we are introduced to Yosef’s colourful coat, the Torah uses a new word “pasim’ to describe it.  Rashi, who takes on his shoulders to render a straightforward explanation of the Torah, shows that we have seen this term in another context, in the Book of Esther of all places.   At its very outset the Megilla is describing the lavish palace of Ahashverosh, and uses the word Karpas – which is translated is fine, colourful woo, like Yosef’s coat.
Okay  – what’s going on? What does this have to do with us and our seder?
Well, we have to recall, how did we first wind up in Egypt?  The answer is Joseph’s brothers (whose jealousy were aroused by his coat) sold him to Arabs, and eventually he was resold and brought to Egypt.  This set the stage for the fulfillment of his dreams when years later his family came down to Egypt and bowed to him. In addition, one of the reasons that the family was sentenced with the exile to Egypt and were oppressed there, was measure-for-measure a punishment and correction for what we did to Joseph, who was ultimately our provider and protector when we were strangers in a strange land.   (Interestingly, part of the blood libels that have been historically targeted against our people have been in the name of misdeeds on our part such as the mistreatment of Joseph, and perhaps not coincidentally, we have seen they reach a climax at Pesach time.)
With this we can understand why Karpas comes at the very beginning of the seder, the first thing we eat, and before the story of our slavery, for it commemorates the seeds of the entire episode, and the salt dripping on our vegetable should make us feel a sorrow and bitterness for the way we Jews mistreat each other, and let our petty emotions breed real sorrows.

c)         If reading the hagadda and discussing our redemption from Egypt is a mitzvah in the Torah, why then don’t we make a bracha on it?

A:  This is a classic question, and many have come to give fine answers, here’s a couple to take home:
The Rashba (student of the Ramban – 1200’s, legendary commentator on the Talmud and halacha, and leader of his time), answers that since there is no set amount of ‘retelling’ determined for the mitzvah, it does not qualify for a bracha.
The Maharal argues, claiming that that is not a reason to exclude it from a blessing – in fact Torah study also has no fixed amount and yet it gets a bracha.  Rather, he says,  the reason is that since the fulfillment of recounting our redemption is not determined by one’s actions, but by one’s experience, and internal feeling and devotion is not something the sages ever accorded blessings, but only to clear, set actions (like shaking a lulav, laying tefillin, lighting candles, etc.).  (Note – thus it is very important that one understands the haggada, and therefore it is better to read and discuss in a language that the participants can better understand than to be a ‘traditionalist’ with mere lip service.)
He remarks – you might ask me that Torah study is also a matter of intention and comprehension which is internal, not so the Maharal explains, the mitzvah of Torah study is actually on the physical effort one puts forth, and one fulfills the mitzvah by reading verses even if one does not undertand.  This is precisely how the interpretation of the Bracha on Torah study ‘…who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to engage in words of Torah – the same verb used for occupation is business.  Thus one does his job in the mitzvah of Torah learning by just exerting to make it his business for the time he allots to it, regardless of how profitable it turns out. (note –  with the notable exception of the written law, most hold that the mitzvah is dependant on comprehension).

To defend the Rashba, I heard a neat solution, that by merely reciting a bracha that Hashem took us from Egypt, we have already fulfilled the obligation, and thus we are not making a bracha on anything, for after the blessing we no longer have an obligation to do the mitzvah.

Others answer that the blessing we say in Kiddush, contains mention of our redemption, and can be thereby count as a blessing on the retelling of our Exodus as well.

Now it’s your turn to share some of your answers with us

d)         Where does the author of the Hagadda see that one son is wicked?  (In the Torah the questions are not ascribed to any particular character –and what’s more, the question of the ‘wicked son’ contains the same answer as that to the son who cannot ask.)
A:   Firstly he does not inquire about the aspects of the seder, instead he just calls the whole thing a chore, and leaves it at that.  Secondly, unlike the simple son who asks a similar question, simply from his immaturity, this son  adds the word ‘what is this work ‘to you” – thus excluding himself from the seder and the group.  His question is not so much a question as much as an attack on the religiosity and observance of the others.
We see this also from the fact that the Torah does not write the he asks (as it does by the other sons), but rather that he ‘says’ to you.  Furthermore there is no implication that by this son he is asking ‘in time to come’ (as with the others), rather even at the time of the Exodus, when there is little room for doubt and ignorance, still he is being contrary, and he also blatantly omits any reference to G-d in his ‘question’ (much like all modern Israeli songs of Hannuka and returning to Israel, and other holiday songs, are stripped of any references to divine providence, and unique destiny of the Jews).
The Beis HaLevi explains that the crux of his problem is that he puts the onus on the Torah and its practicioners to justify themselves to him in order for him to come onboard.  In other words, as long as the mitzvos seem strange, and unappealing he is unwilling to do commit to them.  This is not the way of a Jewish people, who merited to receive the Torah by declaring “We will do!’ before “We will understand”.  And this is the answer we give him – for we call the Pesach service a Hok, meaning a super-rational statute, like tzitzis, shatnes (mixing fibres), and the red heffer.  This is in spite of the fact that our traditions give ample reasons for every aspect of Pesach, nonetheless, the lesson that this son must learn, is that all these ideas are well and good, but we are not to found our commitment to Judaism on them, but rather because it is a decree of the King of Kings, and we can never truly grasp why He really commanded us in them (for even the forefathers kept these mitzvos even before the Pesach story ever occurred), and we faithfully do what He asks of us, (and afterwards we can discuss and appreciate what we can about them).
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, (leader of American Jewry until his passing in 1986) astutely notes that in the Torah, all of the sons are referred to in the singular, with the exception of the rasha (wicked), who is in the plural. Thus we must learn to accept and deal with such people, and be thankful that at least they are still showing up to the seder.

e)         Why do we start the seder on such a negative note, discussing how our forefathers were idol worshippers and then slaves – wouldn’t it be more triumphant and joyous to focus on the miracles and salvations and benefits which we received rather than eating marror and recounting our oppressors?

A:   This you can consider and discuss according to your experience on Seder night.

f)          What were all those Rabbi’s doing in Bnei Brak Pesach night?

A:   The historical background of the times was harsh decrees and cruel oppression by our Roman overlords. These five great sages often volunteered themselves to make the undesirable trip to Rome to try to negotiate on behalf of the Jews, and perhaps they had just come from port and did not have time to return to their homes for the Seder.
On a darker note, perhaps they had fled there in escape of the Romans (who often targeted, and would eventually murder many of these pious leaders).  This would help explain why they recounted the telling of the exodus until a student informed them that it was dawn, which they may have not been aware of if they were hiding in a cave.
The author of the Aruch HaShulchan (an updated version of the Code of Jewish law composed a century ago), ties some themes together for us to understand this episode.  He says that these sages knew that there is a mitzvah to be joyful on the festivals, yet there was so much poverty and suffering and destruction bombarding them that they felt incapable of this great and holy task.  Then they recalled that at the sight of the destruction of the second Temple, when these same sages witnessed rodents now infesting what was once the home of the Divine Presence, broke down in anguish. Until that is, they say Rabbi Akiva, who was laughing.  They asked him why are you laughing?  He said back why are you crying. (A Jew always answers a question with question).  They said we are crying because we now see in stark reality the fulfillment of the forebodings and threats of the prophets, and we are lost without our unifying Temple, and the blessing which flowed from there.   Rabbi Akiva responded that is exactly why I am laughing.  You see, I was unclear whether these prophecies would ever come true, but now that I see that the first half of the prophecy has been fulfilled, I am sure that the second half, regarding the ultimate redemption, which will overshadow all the miracles and salvations of Egypt will also come to pass, and that is why I am laughing.
Knowing that Rabbi Akiva was able to see the good in everything, and the strength of his faith, they decided that this year the only way they would be able to properly celebrate Pesach with its deserved joy, would be to go up to Bnei Brak to join Rabbi Akiva for seder night.

g)         Why do we drink four cups of wine (and pour a fifth)?

A: The Torah employs four different terms to describe our redemption from Egypt. The Meshach Chochma (a.k.a. Ohr Somayach) has a beautiful essay in his commentary on the Chumash explaining what each term means, and then he brilliantly demonstrates how each cup in the seder properly embodies its appropriate aspect of redemption.  What is more, each aspect offers praise to our people, for in order to be worthy and able to receive each aspect we must have been sufficiently noble and unassimilated – and so too for those who wish to have personal salvations in the various aspects of their lives must be careful to maintain a certain level of virtue and Jewishness.

And for the fifth -, there is a fifth word used for Hashem’s promise to bring us into His palace, Israel, G-d’s country. When Eliahu comes to drink the fifth cup, we will be able to properly celebrate this aspect of freedom and redemption as well.

h)         How many years were we in Egypt?

A: 210 – and only 116 as slaves.  But didn’t Hashem tell Abraham that his descendants would be strangers there for 400 years?   The classical answers consist of  beginning the count from the birth of Isaac.  This is not for convenience, but we see that he never had peaceable settlement in Israel, always finding himself being hassled by others peoples, and this is reflected in the language of the Torah, which refers to his travels as ‘sojourns’ – the same word as for stranger.
The other classical solution is that the intensity by which the Egyptians treated us multiplied the quality of our time as strangers there.  (If you multiply the years by a factor every time the Torah writes that they increased our burdens – you’ll find it works out to a tee!)   Rabbi Yakov Kamenetsky writes that because Hashem saw that we were in danger of totally assimilating, He caused the Egyptians to overwork us in order to quicken the fulfillment of the 400 year decree, so we could still be able and merit redemption.

i)          Which mitzvos of seder night are from the Torah? Which are rabbinic? Which are neither?

A:   Reading the haggadah and eating an amount of matza (roughly volume of a small egg in a short time) are from the Torah.  Korech (the sandwich), the four cups, leaning, the Afikoman (although some, including the Rambam hold that it is with the Afikoman that one fulfills the Torah obligation of eating matza, and not our initial partaking during ‘motzee matza), saying Kiddush, having a nice meal (perhaps specifically with meat), singing Hallel (a minority view claim that this Hallel is unlike any other time we say Hallel and is actually a Torah obligation),  and all the blessings are rabbinic – with the exception of the grace after meals which is perhaps the only blessing from the Torah.  All the other recorded customs – like giving candies to the kids, breaking the Afikoman and hiding it, Charoses, etc. of the night are also part of our tradition – and that gives them a certain status like a mitzvah.  Of course many seders include activities which are neither, some for better some for worse.

l)  List as many out of the ordinary things as you can, that can be part of a traditional seder?