On the Seder plate, there is a designated section for an egg. All the sections have a more obvious role; but the egg’s place is less clear.

The Ishbitzer teaches that the egg is symbolic of the nascent Jewish nation; like an egg requires nurturing and warmth to hatch, so the newly formed nation was, on its way to “hatching” at Mount Sinai, upon receiving the Torah.

The Rema says that this is the very same egg as on 9 Av, and points out that the fast of 9 Av will always be on the same day of the week as the first night of Pesach. But there is more to it than that.

Avraham was told his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt. When they left Egypt, the Torah recounts how וּמוֹשַׁב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָשְׁבוּ
בְּמִצְרָיִם שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה – the settlement of the Jews in Egypt lasted 430 years (12:40). Not commonly cited, is that “only” 86 of the years spent in Egypt were spent in slavery, which Miriam’s birth marked (hence her name, meaning “bitter”). The early departure was forced because the Jews were mired in the depths of decadence, the 49th level of impurity, beyond which they could not be saved. They had to leave early, if they were ever to leave.

But this means that only one fifth of the prophesied 430 years of slavery was spent in actual slavery. This is slightly hinted to when Yosef interpreted the butler’s dream, where he described how he’d squeezed grapes for Paroh. In the dialogue, the word כוס appears four times. Figuratively, Yosef announced that when the cup was squeezed into, he would walk free, and the same with the Jews in Egypt, that when they were “squeezed” into the כוס – 86 – they walked free. That only one fifth of the time was served is one the explanations of the bizarre word וחמושים – also a source that many Jews did not live to escape Egypt, perishing in the darkness.

The deficit in time is 344 – the word כוס multiplied four times, the numerical value of שמד – disaster. On 9 Av, the Torah portion we read berates us and says שָּׁמֵד תִּשָּׁמֵדוּן – we owe for our early, forced departure from egypt. And on the eve of 9 Av, we eat an egg, in memory of the destruction and imperfection of the world.

As the Rema says, this is the very same egg as on 9 Av. We left early, but leaving Egypt was not the perfect redemption, which we still await. We remind ourselves of this with the egg we eat before 9 Av.

We begin the story telling aspect of the Seder, Magid, with a short prayer, הא לחמא עניא – This is poor man’s bread… But next year, may we have liberty in Jerusalem.

It is classically understood that angels gather prayers and transport them to Heaven. This particular prayer is not in the usual Hebrew, but in Aramaic, and this presents a thorny issue. It is similarly understood that angels do not relate to Aramaic, and so cannot present or transmit prayers in Aramaic; as such, prayers are not meant to be said in Aramaic. Why then, is this portion in Aramaic?

Perhaps there is a way around this issue. There are times when an emissary is not required. There is a Gemara that teaches that Hashem’s presence is manifest in the room of an ill person. Prayers are more effective – there are no angels required; Hashem is right there.

The Shaagas Aryeh points out how the same is true on Yom Kippur – the Kohel Gadol goes into the Kodesh HaKadashim, and utters a prayer in Aramaic. How is that the prayer can pray in Aramaic? It is because he is in the Kodesh HaKadashim, in front of the Ark, where Hashem’s presence is most manifest. No angels necessary.

Most of the year round, we are subject to the influence of the Satan. But not all year – השטן has a value of 364, a year, less one day – that is one day per year that the Satan does not influence us – Seder night; it is a Leil Shimurim. When we are enjoined to keep Pesach, we are told that וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת הַחֻקָּה הַזֹּאת לְמוֹעֲדָהּ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה – the word ימימה is very odd; this is it’s only appearance in the Torah. It has the same initial letters as the second part of Tehillim 93:3 – כִּי הוּא יַצִּילְךָ מִפַּח יָקוּשׁ מִדֶּבֶר הַוּוֹת – Hashem Himself will save us, ימימה. This is why there is no Satan on Seder night – Hashem is there. We don’t say Shema for this reason.

Just like on Yom Kippur. Which is one reason for a kittel. But it goes deeper – the animal used for the korban Pesach is set aside on the tenth of the month, the tenth of the month that Yom Kippur is. ימימה is a 24 hour day, but it is not the same day.

It is the combination of the evening of Seder and Yom Kippur day that Hashem is in front of us, and therefore we wear a kittel and pray in Aramaic.

There is a concept called hidur mitzva, which means that we enhance mitzvos we do to make them beautiful. Examples of this principle include using beautiful esrogim on Succos, using larger tefillin and arranging for a megillah to be written by the best scribe.

The basic mitzvah of Chanukah is that the householder will light one candle each night on behalf for all the residents. The next stage is where another candle is progressively lit as the holiday progresses. The ideal method of performance is where each resident lights progressively

The Brisker Rav quotes the Rambam as codifying the act of lighting in the singular, indicating his view that there is no such step as the final one mentioned above, and that therefore the best mitzvah one can do is for the householder (but not each member of the house) to light progressively, which Sefardi Jews do.

This is at odds with the Rema, whom Ashkenazi Jews tend to follow, who maintains that each person lighting is ideal.

What is the disagreement over?

The Gemara in Shabbos discusses a Bris Milah, where the Mohel realises afterwards that he has left a small piece of skin. There are two possibilities with this surgical error; one that leaves the baby considered uncircumcised, and the other does not matter, meaning the mitzvah has been fulfilled. The Gemara concludes that there is no need for the Mohel to repeat the Bris if it is the type which does not matter.

Rashi explains that it is only when the circumcision takes place on Shabbos that the Mohel does not return, but that on weekdays he would. The Rambam disagrees, and says the Mohel would not perform the operation again even on a weekday.

The Brisker Rav sheds light on the issue: after the time of the mitzvah has past, the mitzvah cannot be improved. There is no doubt that this is the case on Shabbos, where there is universal agreement that one does not break it for the hidur of removing the leftover skin, but the Rambam says that once the Mohel has finished the Bris, he cannot make it any more beautiful than it was, as the mitzvah has been completed and therefore gone.

The Rema and Rashi disagree, and say that yes, you can! This is the same difference with regard to lighting menorahs. The Rambam says that once the householder has lit, there is no further possibility for the rest of the household to perform a hidur, as the basic mitzva was already completed when the householder had lit the first light, so the hidur stops once he has lit additional lights. Any further attempts at beautification by doing more, eg everyone else lighting, are after the mitzva has passed, so are redundant.

Ashkenazim follow the opinion the Rema and Rashi, that we can enhance something after the main mitzvah has been completed, which is why each of us lights our own menorah.

When it was clear that they would be unable to have children, Yitzchak and Rivka prayed:

‘וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה’ לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִו וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה –  Yitzchak begged the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and He conceded”. (21:25)

We classically understand that God wants our prayers, yet the Torah says that God “conceded”. Why was the prayer unwelcome?

R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld explains that out of respect for Avraham’s honour, he would  live long enough to see his eldest son Yishmael repent (25:9), but die before his grandson Esau became a murderer (25:30). But the earlier Esau was born, the sooner Avraham would die! The “concession” of וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה  tracks precisely this tension. There was never any doubt that Isaac would have children; his father had been promised “nations”, through Isaac. Rivka would certainly be their mother as she was the one deemed worthy, as evidenced by the miracles Eliezer witnessed. It was just a matter of time then. Literally.

There was never any doubt that Yitzchak would have children; his father had been promised “nations” through him. Rivka would be their mother as evidenced by the miracles Eliezer witnessed. It was just a matter of time.

It just wasn’t the right time in their lives. But they begged, and Hashem conceded.

Each day we pray that רְצוֹן-יְרֵאָיו יַעֲשֶׂה; וְאֶת-שַׁוְעָתָם יִשְׁמַע, וְיוֹשִׁיעֵם – He fulfils the desires of those who fear Him; He hears their cry, and saves them. These are not separate and are not out of order. Hashem fulfils desires to placate cries, but sometimes it’s our desires that make us cry. we don’t know what’s best for us. It’s about saving us from ourselves.

We don’t know always what’s best for us. We may want for the wrong thing. Part of the gift of prayer is that it can save us from ourselves.