The Pesach Seder of the “First Mishna”


The Lubitows' Haggadah 1960. Matt DeTurck cc 2.0 flickr

 R. David Zvi Hoffman’s Approach to m. Pesahim 10

Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a pioneer of critical rabbinics scholarship, argued that the Mishnah as we now have it preserves an ancient core of pre-70 C.E. traditions – the “First Mishnah” – which can be uncovered through careful textual analysis.[1]  In an earlier piece, I detailed Hoffman’s method for determining what in our Mishnah’s strata was the ancient “First Mishnah” nucleus, and what is a later addition. Here I will explore some of Hoffman’s critical work on m. Pesaḥim 10, concerning the Passover Seder.

A Two-Pronged Method

Since Hoffman believed that the basic characteristics of the “First Mishnah” were anonymity and a lack of disputation, he would first strip mishnayot of material containing the name of a sage or a debate. What was left was the “First Mishnah” core – in Hoffman’s view, a product of Second Temple times collected by the Houses of Shammai and Hillel. Subsequently, he buttressed his claim with sources from formative rabbinic literature like the Tosefta or the Talmudim, and from textual evidence in early Mishnah printings and medieval commentators.

Although Hoffman’s method is out-of-date by today’s standards, we can appreciate the once groundbreaking nature of his analysis, which developed critical tools still employed in the academic study of rabbinic literature. In addition, some of Hoffman’s readings remain thought-provoking to this day.

The Passover Meal: m. Pesaḥim 10:3

Hoffman’s central claim was that the original text, or “First Mishnah,” of m. Pesaḥim 10 describes the Passover practices as they were observed when the Jerusalem Temple still stood. The goal of his analysis was to reconstruct this early stratum of the Mishnah, and to demonstrate how later Sages living after the Destruction interpolated their views into this “First Mishnah.”

Below is m. Pesaḥim 10:3 as it appears today. The text highlighted in bold print is what Hoffman held to be the “First Mishnah.” The italicized material is what he considered to be additions into that stratum:

הביאו לפניו מטבל בחזרת עד שמגיע לפרפרת הפת
They brought [vegetables][2] before [the leader of the Seder]. He would eat lettuce until he reached the breaking of the bread (for performing the mitzvah of eating the matzah).[3]
הביאו לפניו מצה וחזרת וחרוסת ושני תבשילין אף על פי שאין חרוסת מצוה רבי אליעזר בר צדוק אומר מצוה
[Then] they brought before him matzah, [bitter] lettuce, and ḥaroset and two cooked dishes, even though ḥaroset is not required. R. Eliezer ben Zadok said: It is required.
ובמקדש היו מביאים לפניו גופו של פסח:
And in the Temple they would bring before him the body of the Passover offering. [4]

“Two Cooked Dishes” – An Addition to m. Pesaḥim 10:3

Hoffman claimed that m. Pesaḥim 10:3’s reference to two cooked dishes is an addition to the “First Mishnah.” He substantiated this by noting that

  1. The words “two cooked foods” are missing from the Yerushalmi’s version of the Mishnah;[5]
  2. This phrase also does not appear in a host of medieval Talmud commentators’ Mishnah text;
  3. These words do not even show up in early printed editions of the Mishnah.[6]

This indicates that the “First Mishnah” as it was formulated in Temple times dealt only with matzah, bitter herbs, ḥaroset, and the paschal offering, and did not include any reference to two cooked dishes.

The Source of “Two Cooked Dishes”

Hoffman pointed out that the phrase “two cooked dishes” does, however, appear in a baraita preserved in the Yerushalmi:

ירושלמי פסחים י:ג (לז ע”ד) תני: ובגבולין צריכין שני תבשילין אחד זכר לפסח ואחד זכר לחגיגה.
y. Pesaḥim 10:3 (37d) It was taught: And outside of Jerusalem people need two cooked dishes, one as a remembrance of the Passover, and one as a remembrance of the festival offering.[7]

This baraita explains that those who could not bring their Passovers sacrifices to Jerusalem were required to eat two cooked dishes at their Sedarim in order to recollect the Jerusalem practices being observed that night. What started out as a means of remembering Temple practices for those forced to spend the holiday outside of Jerusalem, later became the norm for everyone once the Temple was destroyed.

Question of Historicity

While Hoffman’s dissection of m. Pesaḥim 10:3 into the “First Mishnah” and later additions to it is plausible, a broader, more fundamental question needs to be asked: Is m. Pesaḥim 10:3 a true description of a Second Temple observance and therefore a contributor to a reconstruction of the history of the pre-Destruction era; or is the Mishnah’s reference to the Passover meal in Temple times, a later rabbinic invention that gives their Passover practices authority but produces no historical information about actual Second Temple times. Currently, most scholars view the Seder as a post-Destruction rabbinic reworking of the Greco-Roman symposium rather than a Second Temple observance.[8]

Three Questions of the Mah Nishtanah: m. Pesaḥim 10:4

A common name for the מה נתשנה – the questions that spark the discussion at the Seder (like the questions posed at the Greek symposium) – is “The Four Questions.” Hoffman’s analysis of m. Pesaḥim 10:4 demonstrates that in fact, there are only three questions:

משנה פסחים י:ד מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל אביו ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה הלילה הזה כולו מצה שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין שאר ירקות הלילה הזה מרור שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל הלילה הזה כולו צלי שבכל הלילות אנו מטבילין פעם אחת הלילה הזה שתי פעמים….
m. Pesaḥim 10:4 They mix a second cup (of wine) for him (i.e., the leader of the Seder). Here the son asks his father (questions). If the son lacks sufficient astuteness (to ask) his father instructs him (regarding questions as follows): Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we eat leavened and unleavened (bread), but on this night we eat only unleavened (bread). On all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter (vegetables). On all other nights we eat roasted, preserved, or boiled meat, on this night (we eat) only roasted (meat). On all other nights we dip (vegetables) only once, on this night twice….

Hoffman argues that the fourth question, “On all nights we dip once; this night we dip twice,” was not originally part of the “First Mishnah.” He supports this view by citing a passage in the Yerushalmi in which R. Shimon b. Lakish claims that the last question originally appeared only in Bar Kappara’s collection of tannaitic traditions – and not in the Mishnah.[9]

Rabban Gamliel’s Required Statements— Answers?

Hoffman also noted that Rabban Gamliel’s required explanations of the three essential foods used in the Passover meal in m. Pesaḥim 10:5, were parallel to the three questions about those items in m. Pesaḥim 10:4.

רבן גמליאל היה אומר כל שלא אמר שלשה דברים אלו בפסח לא יצא ידי חובתו ואלו הן פסח מצה ומרור
Rabban Gamliel was wont to say: Anyone who does not explain these three matters on Passover fails to fulfill his obligation, and these are they: the Passover offering, matzah, and bitter herbs.
פסח על שום שפסח המקום על בתי אבותינו במצרים
The Passover offering, what does it symbolize? It symbolizes how God passed over our houses of our ancestors in Egypt.
מצה על שום שנגאלו אבותינו במצרים
What does matzah symbolize? It symbolizes how our ancestors were redeemed in Egypt.
מרור על שום שמררו המצריים את חיי אבותינו במצרים
What do the bitter herbs symbolize? They symbolize how the Egyptians embittered the lives of our forebears in Egypt.

In other words:

  1. The question about why we only eat roasted meat is answered with an explanation about the pascal lamb symbolizing God’s “passing over” the Israelite homes during the climactic plague of the first born;
  1. the question about why we only eat unleavened foods is answered with reference to the redemptive significance of the matzah;
  1. the question of why we eat bitter herbs is addressed by referring to the embittering of our lives under the Egyptian taskmasters.

The Temple Seder According to Hoffman

Whether or not it is entirely historically accurate, Hoffman’s understanding of the mishnayot in m. Pesaḥim 10:3-5 presents a picture, likely imaginary,  of the Seder in Second Temple Times. His reconstruction looks like this:

  1. The Seder’s leader would recite Kiddush over a mixed[10] cup of wine.
  1. A vegetable, perhaps a bitter one, would have been brought to him. He would eat this until breaking bread, i.e., starting the meal by eating matzah, the bitter herbs, ḥaroset, and a portion of the Passover sacrifice.This order of events at the Seder would be the reverse of our practice, which is to eat the Passover meal after retelling the Passover story.
  1. A second cup of wine would be mixed. If a bright child observing all the odd behaviors at this meal would ask about the strange activities taking place this would provide an opening for recounting the events of the first Passover and Exodus. If no questions from a child were forthcoming, the pater familias would instruct his child to recite three formulary questions related to the essential foods of the Passover meal. The leader’s answer was structured in such a way that he would begin by relating something embarrassing or disgraceful in our history, but he would end with praise. According to Hoffman, he also used a fixed midrash of Deut 26:5-8 to expound on the Passover narrative.[11]
  1. as discussed below(see excursus), if the “response to the three questions” was the work of Rabban Gamliel I it is likely that it too was part of the late Temple period Seder.[12]

 “The Order of the Passover is Concluded”: A Summary

By separating the strata of the Mishnah, Hoffman believed he could reclaim a picture of how the Temple operated when it stood in those mishnayot that dealt with Temple observances. For him, this was true of Yom Kippur, other Temple rituals, and the Passover Seder.

Today the scholarly consensus has shifted. Overwhelmingly, academics who deal with the Seder and Haggadah now regard m. Pesahim as fully tannaitic and descriptive not of Temple ritual, but as an imitation of what the only truly free people in late antique Palestine, the Romans, did –they ran celebratory symposia. Still, Hoffman’s careful textual analysis – especially regarding the correspondence between the questions and Rabban Gamliel’s required statements – remains intriguing.

Historical Excursus

1. Which Rabban Gamliel?

If the author of the “responses to the three questions” was Rabban Gamliel I who died twenty years before the Temple’s destruction, then this formula may have been used even in Temple times. If, however, the author of this “response to the three questions” was Rabban Gamliel II (c. 90 CE-120 CE), the grandson of Gamliel I, then the formula became part of the Seder only at the beginning of the post-Temple tannaitic period, and essentially imagined what should have been said during a Temple era Passover meal.

2. Hoffman’s “Additional” Question

Hoffman’s position is that the question about dipping vegetables twice was a later addition to the three questions. What prompted the addition of this question? The answer is that, contra Hoffman, this question was likely not an addition at all.  According to our best Mishnah manuscript witnesses – which were not available to Hoffman[13] – this question appears to be older than the question about bitter herbs.[14]



Prof. Rabbi Michael Chernick holds the Deutsch Family Chair in Jewish Jurisprudence and Social Justice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He received his doctorate in Rabbinics from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and his semicha from R. Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Chernick’s area of expertise is the Talmud. He focuses on early rabbinic legal interpretation of the Bible and is the author of A Great Voice That Did Not Cease.