The Parasha-Page for Shabbat HaGadol has been dedicated by Stephen Flatow of West Orange, New Jersey in memory of his daughter, Alisa M. Flatow -- Chana Michal Z"L bat Shmuel Mordechai v'Rashka. Her first yahrzeit is 10 Nisan, 5756.
Passover (Pesach) 5756
WHY IS THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT
It once happened that Rebbi Eliezer, Rebbi Yehoshua, Rebbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rebbi Akiva and Rebbi Tarfon were celebrating the seder in Benei Berak, tishaand they discussed the exodus from Egypt throughout that entire night (*Oto Halaylah*).In Hebrew nouns are classified as either masculine or feminine. Masculine nouns must be qualified by masculine adjectives and pronouns, while feminine nouns are qualified by feminine adjectives and pronouns. Although there is no fixed rule to determine the gender of a particular noun, there is one principle that always holds true: When a noun ends in the vowel "Kamatz" followed by a silent letter "Heh," that word is of feminine gender.
The Sh'lah, in his commentary "Matzah Shmurah" on the Passover Haggadah, asks why the author of the Haggadah uses the masculine form for the pronoun "that" (Oto) in the above selection. Since the word for "night" (Laylah) has the Kamatz-Heh ending, it should be considered a feminine noun and should be preceded by the feminine form of the pronoun -- *Otah*. The Sh'lah points out that the same question may be asked concerning the text of the Torah itself, where it says, regarding the night of the Exodus, (Shemot 12:42), "It (Hu) is this (Zeh) night that was reserved by Hashem...." The Torah twice uses masculine words (Hu, Zeh) to describe night.
To answer these questions, the Sh'lah quotes a Midrash (Shemot Rabba 18:11) that says that during our future redemption, in the Messianic era, the nighttime will be lit up as day. The Zohar (2:38a) adds that the night of our redemption from Egypt, too, was lit up as bright as day. During that time of miraculous redemption, night "became day." In order to allude to the unusual quality of this night, the word Laylah [= night] is treated as if it were Yom [= day], which is a masculine noun. (See also Gan Raveh, Parashat Bo, to Shemot 12:42.)
The Vilna Gaon, in his Haggadah commentary, expresses a similar thought in connection with the most famous of all Passover questions: "Why is this night (*HaLaylah HaZeh*) different from all other nights?". Night, he says, is feminine. The question of the Haggadah is why the night (i.e., of Passover) can be modified by the word "Zeh," a masculine pronoun. Should it not be referred to as "HaLaylah *HaZot*," with the feminine pronoun?
In fact, notes the Gaon, the night is feminine in its very essence. It is for this reason, the Gaon explains, that many positive commandments ("Thou shalt...," as opposed to negative commandments -- "Thou shalt not...") must be performed exclusively during the daytime. (Examples of these are blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, holding the four species on Sukkot, wearing Tzitzit and Tefillin, etc.) This is in accordance with the "feminine" nature of the night. Just as women are exempt from fulfilling these positive commandments (see Mishnah Kiddushin, 29a), so too, the night, in its role as "female," is "exempted" from all those Mitzvot. The exceptions to this general rule are the Mitzvot performed on the seder night: the eating of Matzah, Maror [= bitter herbs] and (in former -- and future -- times) the paschal lamb; and relating the story of the Exodus. The Torah earmarks these commandments to be performed *exclusively* at night. (It may be noted that the Mitzvot of the night of Pesach apply to women as well, even though positive commandments that are holiday-related generally do not apply to women -MK.)
This, asserts the Gaon, is the deeper meaning of the Haggadah's question: Why is this night (HaLaylah) "masculine" (HaZeh) in its properties, being laden with positive Mitzvot, whereas all other nights are feminine in nature? (The four questions can be seen to correspond to the four positive Mitzvot of Pesach night -- see the Mishnah's version of the four questions, in Pesachim 116a -MK.)
If this is the intention of the Haggadah's question, then what is the answer to this question? The Gaon does not elaborate on this. Perhaps the answer given by the Sh'lah could be applied here as well. The reason that the night of Pesach is imbued with such a masculine character is that it commemorates the night of the Exodus, which was lit up as bright as day. This is why the Torah, which usually assigns positive Mitzvot to the daylight hours, makes an exception in this instance. On this night, the Torah designates the nighttime for the performance of such Mitzvot.
(Some grammar experts go so far as to suggest that the Kamatz-Heh rule does not even apply to the word Laylah. Because the the accent of the word Laylah is on the penultimate, rather than the ultimate, syllable, the Heh at the end of the word may be seen as an "extra" Heh, tagged on to the "real" root, which is "Layil." If so, the Kamatz-Heh ending is not really part of the word, and need not classify the word as feminine -- cf. Shoftim 14:18 "HeChar'sah," and Tehillim 124:4 "Nach'lah." However, the anomaly of Laylah does not seem to lend itself to such an explanation. In the references from Shoftim and Tehillim cited above, the Heh is truly an added letter, and not part of the natural root. For this reason, the plural form of these nouns always ends in the masculine, "...im" suffix. In the case of Laylah, however, the plural form ends in the feminine "...ot" suffix, proving the Heh to be a "feminine Heh," rather than an added letter. Laylah is truly a unique exception to the Kamatz-Heh rule -MK.)
This problem is raised by the Torah Temimah in his Haggadah commentary, among others, and it has puzzled talmudic researchers for many years. It should be pointed out that the Vilna Gaon was a grammarian of note, and even wrote a treatise on the subject of Hebrew grammar. It is out of the question to consider this as a mere oversight on his part. I would like to suggest here a number of ways to clearly and convincingly explain the intention of the Vilna Gaon.
(Laylah appears with a modifier in relatively few places in the Mishnah -- aside from those times that it is referring to the night of Pesach. In Berachot 16a it is feminine; in Berachot 16b it reverts to the masculine, however Dikdukei Sofrim ad loc. has it as a feminine noun there as well. In Zevachim 55a and 56b, Laylah is treated as a masculine noun in most texts, however Shitah Mekubetzet (Zevachim 56b) appears to have had a feminine modifier there, too -- see also Tosafot Yom Tov ad loc. In Niddah 64b the Mishnah associates feminine modifiers with the word Laylah three times. The fourth time, where a masculine modifier is used, can therefore be taken as a printer's error -- note as well the way this Mishnah is quoted by the Gemara in Ketubot 6a. In Keritut 7b Laylah does appear with a masculine modifier.)
The text of the Haggadah was formulated at some time during the Rabbinic period. (The "Mah Nishtana" actually appears in a Mishnah in Pesachim 116a.) Perhaps this is what prompted the Gaon and the Sh'lah to call attention to the use of masculine modifiers for the word "Laylah" in the Haggadah. Since the Haggadah is written in Rabbinic, rather than Biblical, Hebrew, is should have treated Laylah as a feminine noun.
A source for the Gaon's words that the night is feminine in nature can be found in a Midrash HaZohar. The Zohar (B'reishit 20b) asserts that daytime is when *men* are actively providing for the family's livelihood, as ther verse says, "The sun shines... and men go out to do their work until evening" (Tehillim 104:22-23). The woman, on the other hand, provides for her family at night. As the verse puts is, "She arises while it is still night, and she prepares sustenance for her household..." (Mishlei 31:15 -- During the daytime, while the children are awake, she presumably doesn't have the time to do so -MK). In the words of the Zohar, the man "rules" during the daytime and the woman "rules" during the nighttime. This comment of the Zohar, like all of the Zohar's comments, still requires much explanation. Undoubtedly, a basic understanding of the concepts of Kabbalah is needed before the deeper messages of this passage can be appreciated. Neverthelesss, perhaps we can attain at least a simple, non-Kabbalistic understanding of the Zohar's words.
The Gemara in Yevamot 77a tells us that it is characteristic of women to be less conspicuous than men. Several Biblical sources are adduced to show that it is considered proper for a woman to remain, whenever possible, withdrawn and private. This, perhaps, is why "the woman rules during the nighttime" -- when her activities are less conspicuous. And for the same reason, the night itself, hiding her every action in a cloud of blackness, can be seen as feminine. During the nighttime, objects and events are hidden and obscured.
Why, then, is this question being asked on this particular night? There is no need to discuss Hebrew grammar at the Pesach table! The answer to this question is made evident by the continuation of the Mah Nishtanah: "On all other nights we eat Chametz and Matzah, but on this night we eat only Matzah." On the night of Pesach, we find four positive commandments that are designated to be performed specifically at night -- in contrast to nighttime's usual feminine character. What makes this night so "masculine?" Intuitively, we realize that this evening's masculine character must somehow be related to a much broader question. Why does the word Laylah, in general, display a certain duality? Although it has the feminine Kamatz-Heh ending, it is consistently described using masculine modifiers.
The answer to the question of Mah Nishtanah -- Why is Laylah different from all other Kamatz-Heh words? -- according to the Gaon may be explained as follows. The trials and tribulations of our exile are compared to the night (see Yeshayah 21:11, Zechariah 14:7; see also Chagigah 12a), while the radiant, joyful period of the world of the future, the Messianic era, is compared to the day. The reason for this metaphor is that in the present world we are often blind to Hashem's presence in, and control of, the world. We see so much injustice and suffering where it appears to us to be uncalled for, and our perception of the hand of Hashem guiding the world is blurred. It is as if Hashem is "hiding His countenance from us" (Devarim 31:17). In this sense we are truly living in a period of (spiritual) darkness and night. In the Messianic era, however, when Hashem will make His majesty clear for all to see, all events that occur will be clearly understood as being only for the best. This is the reason for the comment of the Mechilta (quoted in Tosafot, Pesachim 116b): "All songs of praise in this world are called Shirah ("song," in the feminine form), while the song to be sung at the future redemption is called Shir (the masculine form)." In this world our appreciation of Hashem's goodness is only with a "feminine" perspective -- it is blurred, hidden, elusive. In the World to Come Hashem's presence will be completely manifest, and our song to Him will be with the open, conspicuous, "masculine" view.
Although in our present world of exile we sometimes have trouble discerning the hand of Hashem, we realize that in reality it is there, and that all the troubles and misfortunes that befall us are somehow for our own benefit. (See Parasha Page, Metzora 5755, where the idea is mentioned that exile is a form of atonement. See also P. P. Vaetchanan 5754.) At the dawn of the Messianic era this will become even more clear to us, and we will more fully appreciate this point in retrospect. This is the meaning of the Rabbis' statement that in the future redemption night will become day -- the tribulations of the Exile, which are compared to the darkness of night, will be revealed as having been as bright as day in truth. On the night of the Exodus, as the Sh'lah pointed out, we caught a glimpse of this phenomenon, when we realized the import of our enslavement to the Egyptians in light of the final redemption process from there.
But it is not only the *concept* of nighttime that may be compared to the way Hashem rules the world in our times. The very grammar of the word points to the same idea. It has the *appearance* of being feminine, but is in reality masculine. We are sometimes under the impression that our Exile is "feminine," that the conduct of Hashem is hidden and inexplicable. But the real truth is that it is plainly there, and there are unique times in history, such as the night of the Exodus from Egypt, when we can reveal the true "masculinity" of the long, bitter night of Exile.
May we soon merit the experience of witnessing the ultimate manifestation of Hashem's Glory and the end to all suffering in our days!!