Avadim Hayinu – We Were Slaves

Avadim Hayinu – we were slaves. Based on this passage in the Haggadah, we will discuss the story of slavery in Egypt and the experience of freedom, noting the relevance of slavery throughout human history.

Resource Ages: 9-11, 12-14


“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Adonai, our God, brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. If the blessed Holy One had not brought our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

From the Passover Haggadah

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם

וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה

וְאִלּוּ לֹא הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם

הֲרֵי [עֲדַיִין] אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם.

“Now there arose a new king over Egypt […] And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal wisely with them, in case they multiply, and in the event of war they might join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” […] So the Egyptians made the children of Israel perform hard labor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage—in mortar, in brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. All the work they did was performed through hard labor.”

Exodus 1:8-14

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם… וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ: הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ. הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ, פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ. … וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ. וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה בְּחֹמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים, וּבְכָל עֲבֹדָה בַּשָּׂדֶה. אֵת כָּל עֲבֹדָתָם אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ בָהֶם בְּפָרֶךְ.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What can we learn from different generations?
  • What does it mean to be “free” in Judaism?
  • How is the Torah story my story?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What does slavery mean? What does freedom mean?
  • What examples of slavery have there been over the generations?
  • What tools do people need in order to become free?
  • In what ways has freedom been an important issue for my community over recent decades? How did the ideas of Pesach and liberty become connected together for us?

Background for Teacher

According to the Book of Shemot (Exodus), the Children of Israel who had moved to Egypt due to the famine in the Land of Israel multiplied there and came to pose a threat to Egypt (1:8-14). In order to control them and prevent them...

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According to the Book of Shemot (Exodus), the Children of Israel who had moved to Egypt due to the famine in the Land of Israel multiplied there and came to pose a threat to Egypt (1:8-14). In order to control them and prevent them from revolting, the Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel. The section Avadim Hayinu – We Were Slaves – in the Haggadah is based on a verse from Deuteronomy (6:21): “Then you shall say to your son: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.’” This section expresses the underlying approach of the Haggadah – that it was not an obvious or trivial thing to come out from slavery to freedom, and that if Moses had not brought us out of Egypt, we would have remained there as slaves for many generations. Elsewhere in the Haggadah we read: “In every generation, every person must regard themselves as if they had come out of Egypt.” This belief shapes the experience of freedom we celebrate at Pesach – the value of being a free human who is not enslaved to anyone. The story of the exodus and the liberation of the Children of Israel has provided cultural inspiration for various struggles throughout human history, including the struggle of the Blacks in the US for freedom from slavery, and the struggle of the Jews of the USSR to leave a totalitarian regime.

Over recent decades, many countries – including several in Eastern Europe – have successfully struggled to free themselves from control by another people, thereby achieving political independence and a life of freedom.

During the time when the Children of Israel were slaves in Egypt, slavery was a common part of life among many peoples. The ancient form of slavery, where people are forced to work without payment, is no longer legal in almost all countries. However, tens of millions of people live in conditions of slavery, without basic rights and freedoms. Most of them are children and women. Modern-day slaves can be found in various areas, including factories, agriculture, domestic service, prostitution, and even in armies, where children are kidnapped and forced to serve as soldiers.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Divide the students into groups. Each group will discuss the question – what is slavery and what is freedom? Each group will suggest words, feelings, and associations relating to each of the two concepts. The students will think of a movement or pantomime action that expresses both concepts based on their understanding as a group. They will present the pantomime they prepared for each concept to the class. Discuss whether certain details or movements were similar in the different groups? What were the differences? What can we learn about slavery and freedom from the way the different groups presented the concepts?
  • If the students have computers, send them a link to a shared word cloud on the Mentimeter website. First ask each student to write down the words they associate with slavery, and then the words they associate with freedom. Each time ask: which words appeared more than once? What can we learn from this about slavery and freedom?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. The story of slavery in Egypt relates to something that happened a very long time ago. Why do you think the Haggadah says that “we” were slaves in Egypt, rather than “they”? In what sense were we also slaves in Egypt?
  2. The Haggadah suggests that if God had not taken us out of Egypt, we would still be slaves there today. What do you think this comment is trying to teach us?
  3. What conditions are needed to escape from slavery? Some people suggest that only someone like Moses, who had not grown up as a slave himself, could take people out of this condition. Try to explain this position. Do you agree with it?
  4. Why is the story of slavery in Egypt still relevant for us today?
  5. For older students: Throughout human history, the story of the exodus from Egypt has been referred to by other people who experienced slavery or were oppressed in other ways, such as African-American slaves in North America in the nineteenth century. Why do they relate to this story? What struggles today could be inspired by the exodus story?
  6. Was my community ever in a state of “slavery” (in my grandparents’ time, or even my parents’ time)? In what way is that connected to my life today?
  • In order to examine the meaning of liberty, show the students works of art on this theme.
    • In Hevruta pairs or small groups, ask the students to list at least three things this sculpture represents as part of the process of going from slavery to freedom.
    • The sculpture uses body movements to express slavery and freedom. Ask the students to use their own bodies to express slavery, on the one hand, and freedom, on the other.
  • For older students: Listen to the song Let my people go. These words are taken from Moses’ demand to Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel leave Egypt. They were used to express the struggle against the slavery of Black people in the US. Ask the students to think about a contemporary struggle that could be compared to the exodus from Egypt. They can learn about it and write a song about it.
  • Suggest that the students hold two interviews with members of the community or relatives. One interview should focus on experiences of slavery and the other on freedom. The students should find people who have relevant experiences now, or had them in the past (or whose own family had them). The students could tell these stories at their family Seder or in class.
  • In order to introduce examples of slavery from throughout history and understand this experience, show the students several pictures.
    Ask the students: How do these pictures make you feel? What do you think all the pictures have in common? What feelings do you think are shared by people in slavery in different periods?
    Ask the students to write a letter to a Hebrew slave in Egypt, or to a slave in another period. What would they like to say to him/her based on what they know about what would happen later? The students could suggest ways to stay hopeful despite the situation. In the case of a modern slave, they could try to think of ways to help them today.
  • Study the section in Exodus 1:8-14 describing slavery in Egypt. What does this passage add to the description in the Haggadah? 
  • Read part of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which describes the slavery of Black people in the US.
    “You haven’t had such very bad times here, that you need be in such a rapture, Tom,” he [St. Clare] said drily.
    “No, no, Mas’r! ‘tan’t that,— it’s bein’ a freeman! that’s what I’m joyin’ for.”
    “Why, Tom, don’t you think, for your own part, you’ve been better off than to be free?”
    “No, indeed, Mas’r St. Clare,” said Tom, with a flash of energy. “No, indeed!”
    “Why, Tom, you couldn’t possibly have earned, by your work, such clothes and such living as I have given you.”
    “Knows all that, Mas’r St. Clare; Mas’r’s been too good; but, Mas’r, I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ’em mine, than have the best, and have ’em any man’s else,—I had so, Mas’r; I think it’s natur, Mas’r.”

    (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Chapter 28)

    After reading the passage, discuss: Why is freedom part of human nature?

  • Read the testimony of Nadia Tauterstein, describing how Jews celebrated Pesach under the Soviet regime.
    It was about a month before Pesach. We wanted to have a proper Seder night, but we didn’t have any Haggadot. Jews were not allowed to hold a Seder or to buy Haggadot. I decided to take a risk […] I dressed up as a priest, went into a church, went to the library, and managed to get a Haggadah.
    How would I get seven more Haggadot? I recruited some friends who were active among the Jewish population and we decided to open a small printing house for Haggadot. It was a huge risk – if we were caught we would be sent to Siberia. […] We’d go into shops and each time buy just two pieces of paper […] If we’d bought more, it would have aroused suspicion.
    We found a printing machine. I told the neighbors that I was going on vacation for a week, then I went into the cellar in my home […] so that no-one would hear the noise of the machine. […] Every time someone knocked on the door my heart missed a beat […]. After a huge effort we managed to print six Haggadot, one for every two families. Holding a Seder was also forbidden […]. We took a risk again, and held the Seder in the cellar. Today in Israel things are very different… 

    Discuss what we can learn from this text about possibilities to experience freedom even in a state of oppression. What conditions and qualities made the experience of freedom possible in this case?