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Festival Of Faith

On Seder Night, we cross the bridge from Egypt to Shema


Open your siddur and you’ll find, right after Shacharis, the Ani maamin’s, the Thirteen Principles of Faith. Piskei Teshuvos (1:132) notes that “many have the custom to say them” and brings sources in the footnotes. The ArtScroll Siddur (page 178) declares their recital as “a commendable practice.”

The Klausenburger Rebbe (Ki Sisa 5740) describes their daily recitation by his great-grandfather, the Divrei Chaim of Sanz: “He would say them b’lahav eish kodesh, with holy flames of fire, until it seemed like the walls of the house were trembling. Each phrase was translated into Yiddish. Ani maamin — ich gloyb! When all 13 were completed, he would repeat them all a second and a third time with equal devotion.”

Apologies if I’ve made you feel a little guilty for not saying them on a daily basis. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who does. Why not, though?

These are the principles in which we believe, to the point of willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. Being prepared to die for something is what makes us truly alive. A major cause of anxiety and depression is not seeing a compelling reason to get up in the morning.

But a Jew attached to his faith always has a reason. His belief is the ultimate anchor, a reminder that his story begins with Adam Harishon and Avraham Avinu and Yetzias Mitzrayim, forging a fiery path all the way to the Melech HaMashiach and beyond to the World to Come. It only makes sense that we should declare these beliefs once a day.

Roots and Branches

The idea of 13 ikarim, principles, is sourced in the Rambam (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10). Ikarim creates a picture of tree trunks, from which branches and twigs emerge organically. The imagery is powerful, but raises a fundamental question. Explicit in the Rambam’s own writings (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:8) is that anyone who denies even one letter of the Torah is considered a kofer, an apostate. From where did the Rambam conceive that these 13 precepts have a special status and are considered as tree trunks, while the rest of the Torah are merely branches? And why is it important to divide our faith into two categories?

The Torah itself reminds us that our faith was created through an ikar, a foundation, upon which everything else is built: Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah mentions this many times, including the third paragraph of Shema that we recite twice daily, which concludes with, “I am Hashem, your G-d, Who has taken you out from the land of Egypt to be a G-d to you.”

All 13 principles are found in Yetzias Mitzrayim (Rav Moshe Chagiz, Eleh Hamitzvos, Mitzvah 21). When Hashem revealed Himself at Har Sinai, He declared, “I am Hashem, your G-d, Who has taken you out from the land of Egypt, the house of slavery” (Shemos 20:2). The first commandment was to accept the Jewish faith, anchored in the Thirteen Principles of Faith revealed at Yetzias Mitzrayim (see Rambam, ibid).

A Night Of Emunah

On Seder night, we reexperience Yetzias Mitzrayim. This is the perfect time to inculcate our progeny with ikarim, the fundamentals we live and die for. We literally pass over (pun intended) everything that’s truly meaningful to the next generation.

The ikarim are transmitted heart to heart. It’s experiential on the simplest level, through telling the story, through interactive questions and answers, and through the momentous mitzvos of the night. It’s also experiential on the most exalted level imaginable. By following the 15 steps of Seder, we can achieve a sense of clarity in faith that echoes the absolute clarity that we had at Har Sinai, and in our mother’s womb.

The centrality of ikarim on Seder Night is highlighted in how we respond to the four sons:

The chacham is taught the ikarim through their ultimate source, the power of Torah. “Hafoch bah v’hafoch bah, d’kulah bah — delve into Torah and continue to delve into it, for everything is in it (Avos 5:26).” We take our wise son on a halachic journey that builds up to a triumphant crescendo with the rabbinic laws of the afikomen. Fascinatingly, matzah is defined in the Zohar as lachma d’heimnusah, bread of faith (2:183b). The chacham is ready to comprehend the esoteric concept that by eating matzah we ingest ikarim, so that emunah literally becomes part of us.

The rasha has made a choice to reject Yetzias Mitzrayim. “V’lefi shehotzi es atzmo min haklal, kafar b’ikar.” Since he has renounced his association with Yetzias Mitzrayim, he, by definition, is a kofer b’ikar, someone who denies the ikarim. He has severed his connection to his people at the roots.

The tam lacks the sophistication to relate to ikarim though the lenses of Torah study. We reach out to him using the time-honored kiruv approach of telling stories. But these stories aren’t fantastic tales of distant history; the narrator tells them with passion and excitement as firsthand experience. Hashem took us out of Egypt! The tam finds himself drawn into the narrative on a personal level. The ikarim become part of his essence.

The she’eino yodeia lishol, the oblivious child, has no chance to find the ikarim on his own. “At psach lo”— take the initiative and open him up. At is feminine, reminding us that it’s usually the mother who opens up the clueless child. My rebbi Rav Shlomo Wolbe ztz”l notes that at the earliest age, a mother instills emunah in her child simply by role modeling. A little girl watches, puzzled, as her mother stands over the Shabbos candles, talking to Someone invisible, with a loving synthesis of reverence and tears. The child is having her first lesson in ikarim.

Daily Declaration

On Seder Night we light a flame of faith. How do we keep it burning throughout the year? And why isn’t saying the Thirteen Ani maamins a more common practice?

The answer is found in the first pasuk of the Shema. Twice a day we declare the Jewish equivalent of the Pledge of Allegiance. It doesn’t contain the 13 ikarim; rather, it’s a synopsis that breaks the ikarim into three major categories.

Let’s take a deeper look.

The Shema begins with the two iconic words, Shema Yisrael. These two introductory words can be understood as, “I’ve made a personal choice, and my choice is intertwined with the destiny of my people.” Shema literally means “hear.” Hearing is the sense most connected to our choices. Usually, we all see things in an identical way. There’s not much room for discussion. That’s why beis din only accepts visual evidence, what the witnesses actually saw, versus what they claim they heard. The meaning we choose to give the words we hear is subjective; it’s too open to personal interpretation, and therefore can’t work as testimony.

The Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 16) makes an intriguing insight. Man is unique in that our natural pose is to stand erect, while the animal kingdom is naturally stooped. The animal kingdom always faces earth, locked into physicality, while we have the choice to look upwards toward the heavens, representing the spiritual world, or downwards to earth, representing the physical world. Our ability to freely choose to look up or down is Hashem’s way of reminding us that we have bechirah, free choice. This defines our humanity.

Our vestibular system helps us maintain our balance. When we are upside down, or going down a speeding elevator, the vestibular system sends messages to the brain reminding us to restore postural equilibrium. And where is the organ of balance, which symbolizes free choice, found? In the inner ear.

The Vilna Gaon notes that the Hebrew word for ear, ozen, has the same root as moznayim, which means balances. Our ability to hear and our unique status as the only creations with free choice are intimately intertwined.

With the word Shema I declare that I believe in the ikarim not because of external pressure, but as a personal choice. With the word Yisrael I add that my unique identity is inseparable from my connection to my people (Maharal, Nesiv Avodah 7). My life story begins with my birth and continues through my life. My life story also begins with Yetzias Mitzrayim and continues until I greet Mashiach.

Can You Hear Me?

The Torah’s narrative of Kabbalas HaTorah is surrounded with two people with opposite Shema reactions. The opening words of the parshah are “Vayishma Yisro,” Yisro heard about Matan Torah. Actually, the whole world heard Matan Torah (Zevachim 116a), so why are we singling out Yisro?

There’s a great Yiddish word, hard to translate, that conveys the idea: deheren. It means not simply to hear, but implies a deep understanding of what you’ve heard. It demonstrates that the words had a profound impact. While the whole world heard Matan Torah, only Yisro “dehert,” only he understood that his life could never be the same. He packed his bags and moved to the Midbar.

Immediately after Matan Torah, we learn about a Jewish slave who rejects freedom after six years of servitude. He chooses a life devoid of responsibility in which decisions are made for him by his master. The Torah says his ear should be pierced. Why the ear? Because the ear is where we make choices. “Let the ear that heard at Mount Sinai, ‘for the Children of Israel are slaves only to me,’ yet chose a different master, be pierced” (Rashi, Mishpatim 21:6).

As a teacher in yeshivos and seminaries, it’s painful to watch students who spent a year steeped in kedushah return to their homes and slide back spiritually to where they started. They sat in the same classes and beis hamedrash as their friends, hearing the emes of Torah. But they just heard the kolos. Their peers dehert.

When we declare Shema Yisrael, we reject the cowardice of the Jewish slave and identify with the heroic sacrifice of Yisro, who was moser nefesh for his beliefs. We truly hear.

We are now ready to say the word Hashem. With this word, we declare our belief in a Creator who is hayah hoveh v’yiheyeh, above time and space. This is a simplified expression of the first five ikarim.

We then declare that He is Elokeinu, a combination of two words, Eloka and shelanu. With Eloka we declare that Hashem is running the world, hidden yet in total control. Shelanu implies that He has put His people, Klal Yisrael, in the driver’s seat of His plan.

To succeed in our mission, He gave us an immutable Torah, with Moshe Rabbeinu and prophets and gedolim at the helm to ensure that it is transmitted accurately from generation to generation. These are the next four ikarim.

The final four ikarim, our belief in how Hashem will bring the world to its final destiny, are found in Hashem Echad (Rashi, Va’eschanan 6:4).

The Power of Shema

Every morning we wake up with millions of new words in print and online. In a world drowning with words, a Jew clings to six simple words, the first six-word phrase he said as a child, taught by devoted parents in the same way they, in turn were taught by their parents.

It’s the ultimate privilege to return our souls to our Maker at the end of our life’s journey with those same words, surrounded by progeny who have followed in our footsteps. With those words, we connect to every Jew from every land through every era in history all the way back to the declaration of Shema of Moshe Rabbeinu and Yaakov Avinu.

The Shema is repeated at night, a time that represents confusion and uncertainty. We declare in darkness that the ikarim remain unshakable in our hearts. We connect to the martyrs of our people who lovingly gave up their lives with the Shema on their lips. They in turn connect to the ahavas Hashem of Rabi Akiva’s final Shema under the pain of Roman torture.

Six simple words that contain infinite power. Six simple words that define the faith of our nation.

The Bridge From Egypt To Shema

The Rambam maintains that the full mitzvah of the Shema is to say all three paragraphs. He also maintains that the mitzvah to remember Yetzias Mitzrayim twice a day, found in the third paragraph of the Shema, isn’t a separate mitzvah; rather, it’s integral to the mitzvah of Shema (Rambam, Krias Shema 1:3).

On Seder night, we come out of Egypt once again and relive the nissim geluyim, open miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim. On a night of total clarity, our emunah in Hashem and the 13 ikarim of His Torah is fortified and faithfully handed over to the next generation.

The rest of the year, in a world where Hashem seems hidden, we take note that we are surrounded by nissim nistarim, hidden miracles. The Shema, containing the bedrock of our faith anchored in the memory of Yetzias Mitzrayim, expresses our belief that, ultimately, it makes no difference whether we see or don’t see Hashem’s miracles. Our lives have meaning. We experienced the first geulah and preparing for the final Geulah.

We are ready to greet Melech HaMashiach.

Forged with Faith

Fifteen years ago, our daughter spent a year working at the Lauder Eitz Chaim School in Moscow. Many of the students knew nothing about Judaism. Decades of Communist oppression had ensured that the fire of the Avos, Yetziyas Mitzrayim, and Har Sinai were extinguished from their souls. The she'eino yodeia lishol is at least sitting at a Seder table. Who of the precious neshamos of Eitz Chaim had ever heard of Seder Night?

The highlight of the Eitz Chaim calendar is their summer camp, run in partnership with Operation Open Curtain. When I visited my daughter at Machaneh, the camp director, Mrs. Chana Rappaport of Toronto, asked me what I thought should be the camp’s goal. I answered that every student must know the first pasuk of Shema. Not just to declare the words, but to feel the words. To relate to three thousand years of Jewish emunah.

It turns out that the Shema was already a legendary pillar of the camp. Rivki Nissel (an esteemed talmidah, but not a relative), senior counselor at the camp and today a clinical social worker in Brooklyn, shared the following story that had unfolded a few weeks after camp in 2003:

There are some really bad neighborhoods in Moscow, infested with drug-addicted hoodlums who will stop at nothing when they need money for their next fix. The police are notoriously indifferent. Shoshanika, a 15-year-old graduate of Machaneh Eitz Chaim, was home with her father when four thugs burst in. Two of them pounced on her, dragged her into a small room and wrapped her face and body with thick Scotch tape. One of them began to strangle her.

In intense pain and feeling overwhelming terror, Shoshanika realized she had just a few moments left in This World. Then she remembered what had been engraved into her heart at summer camp. She could connect to something infinite, spanning the ages, more powerful than all the evil in the world. A Higher Hand had miraculously arranged a thin gap between the layers of tape, allowing her to scream with all her remaining strength.

Shema Yisrael! Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!”

Her tormentor dropped her, as if he’d seen a demon. He fled, together with the other criminals. Although paralyzed with shock, Shoshanika managed to maneuver herself to a sharp object and set herself free. She found her father unconscious, bruised and beaten, but very much alive.

This brave young lady shared with Rivki her reflections on her ordeal:

“The Shema saved my life. People probably think that what happened has made me sad and depressed. That I live my life in fear. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. I’ve survived the worst possible experience and what did I find? I found how much Hashem loves me. With Hashem so close, why should I be afraid?

And when did this all happen? On Erev Rosh Hashanah, hours before the Book of Life is opened.

Make It Yours

The discerning reader will notice that the way we explained the six words of the Shema reflecting the ikarim is different from the customary explanation of the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 5:1 and 61:6). Here’s an approach to the words that synthesize the two approaches.

At first glance, 16 steps seems daunting, but with twice-daily repetition, the full kavanah can be achievable.


I hear, understand, and accept. I have made a choice that is completely my own


And my choice is intertwined with the destiny of my people


[When I gaze at the word, I think] I declare my belief that Hashem is Hayah, Hoveh, V’yiheyeh, Was, Is, and Will Be, above time and hence above space, who created the world

[When I read the word, I think] And I accept Him as my Master and King


[Elokeinu] I declare that He is Takif, Baal Hayecholes uBaal Hakochos kulam, He runs the world as a Master with unlimited strength and unlimited choices and anything else that seems to have power is an illusion

[Immediately after saying Hashem, I think “Eloka Shelanu”] He runs the world as a hidden King, placing the Jewish People at the center of His plan and giving us the Torah to bring out His plan


[When I gaze at the word, I think] I declare my belief that Hashem is Hayah, Hoveh, V’yiheyeh, Was, Is and Will Be, above time and hence above space, who created the world

[When I read the word, I think] And I accept Him as my Master

[Immediately after saying Hashem, I think] And I believe that at the time of the full revelation of Echad His name Hashem will be fully revealed (Maharal Netzach 42)


[The letter Alef] Hashem is One

[The letter Ches] who is Master of earth and the seven heavens

[The letter Daled] And Master in all four directions, reflecting His kindness (chesed), judgment (din), over future and past

[Immediately after saying Echad, I think] Klal Yisrael accepts Him now as the One and Only King

And after Mashiach comes all the nations will accept him as One (Tzefaniah 3:9), like the unity of an orchestra fully accepting their conductor

And at the End of Days after techiyas hameisim there will be the ultimate revelation of His unity and “Hashem will be One and His Name One” (Zechariah 14:9)

I believe in all these ideas and am mekabel ol Malchus Shamayim, accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, to the point of mesirus nefesh, being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice


Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, bli ayin hara.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 789)

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