Rabbi Azarya Berzon
Former Rosh Kollel in Toranto


“And even if we are all wise, we are all clever, we are all old, we all know the Torah, there is a mitzvah for us to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt…” (From the Haggadah)

In order to understand this statement, let us examine the words of the Gemara:

“Ben Damah, the nephew of R’ Yishmael, asked R’ Yishmael, ‘May someone like me, who has learned the entire Torah, study Greek wisdom?’ [R’ Yishmael] read to him this verse, ‘“This Book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth, and you shall contem- plate it day and night.” (Yehoshua 1:8) Go out and find a time which is neither of the day nor of the night, and during [that time] study Greek wisdom.’” (BT Menachot 99b)

Ben Damah believed that the mitzvah of talmud To- rah (learning Torah) is all about knowing the Torah, and thus one who knows the entire Torah is exempt from this mitzvah. However, R’ Yishmael replied that there are two distinct mitzvot: learning Torah and knowing the Torah. Talmud Torah is a mitzvah in and of itself – regardless of whether or not one knows the Torah. Moreover, the mitzvah of talmud Torah is a mitzvah temidit (a perpetual mitzvah): one must learn Torah during the day and the night.

But Ben Damah assumed that one’s learning is defined by one’s knowledge. As the Torah says:

“And these words… shall be upon your heart.” (Devarim 6:6)

The Torah must be inscribed upon a person’s heart. In other words, one must know the Torah. Chazal explain:

“‘And you shall teach them’ (Devarim 6:7) – That the words of the Torah should be sharply honed in your mouth. That if a man asks you [about] a matter, do not stammer and tell him. Rather, tell him immedi- ately…” (BT Kiddushin 30a)

Therefore, Ben Damah thought that he was exempt from the mitzvah of talmud Torah and thus was per- mitted to study Greek wisdom.

However, R’ Yishmael responded that learning Torah is an additional chiyuv (requirement or obligation) in its own right – even if one already knows the entire Torah. Furthermore, this is a perpetual chiyuv, both during the day and during the night.

Similarly, one might assume that the goal of sipur yetziat Mitzrayim (recounting the Exodus from Egypt) is to learn about the miracles and wonders which HaKadosh Baruch Hu performed for us. Hence, the Haggadah teaches us that the mitzvah’s foundation is the sipur (the recounting) itself – re- gardless of whether or not one knows about the mira- cles.

Indeed, the very next section of the Haggadah is the story of the great Tana’im who held their Seder in Bnei Brak. Although they certainly knew all about the miracles, they nevertheless spent the entire night discussing the Exodus, because sipur yetziat Mitz- rayim is a mitzvah in its own right.