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A History of the Haggadah

10 Apr 2024 6:16 PM | Franklin Jester (Administrator)

By Henry Hollander

The Passover Seder is the most widely celebrated Jewish home observance among the entirety of the Jewish people today. Where did the practice come from? The earliest version of the Seder is the meal that God commands the night before the Exodus: “The shall eat the flesh [of the lamb] that same night: they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Exodus 12:8) Sound familiar?

The home ritual became part of Temple worship once the portable sanctuary was built in the desert and later in the first and second Temples. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple we begin to see a Passover Seder that looks more familiar. In the Mishnah an entire book devoted to the observance of the Passover holiday exists. In Pesachim, chapter ten, we find a festive meal that resembles a familiar Passover, complete with the four questions that the child asks (although the four questions nowadays have some differences), and the four cups of wine. 

Many things have been added. The four types of children, Wise, Evil, Simple and Unable to Ask, is not in the Mishnah but is built up out of Mishnaic comments on Torah Verses. The retelling of the exodus story is built up on Torah sources by Rabbis of the Mishnaic era and embellished by the Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud and the later Babylonian Geonim. Dayenu, which I imagined to be later was formed the same way. The Grace after meals and the Hallel that is included afterwards use older blessings, but are products of the Geonic and Medieval periods (700-1450).

The tradition of illustrating the Haggadah began in Medieval times. Dozens of illuminated Haggadah manuscripts still exist. Many are available in Facsimile editions and make great holiday gifts. However, nowadays you would be hard pressed to find a Haggadah that lacks some kind of illustration, such is the gravitational field that the Passover story exerts over Jewish creativity. 

The Haggadah has also become a form and forum for Jews to express their feelings about various other issues that were not explicitly a part of the Passover story. In the 1970s, the plight of Soviet Jewry entered into many Haggadot. The orange on the Seder plate, relate to the role of women in Judaism also entered into the Haggadah at the time. As early as the 1930s the Haggadot of the Workman’s Circle focused a the broad range of social justice issues and on the role of Yiddish culture. At the same time, in the future State of Israel, kibbutzim, most of who were either secularist or militantly secularist, began a tradition of making new Haggadot each year which expressed the values that they brought to the building up of the land of Israel. 

If you are shopping for Haggadot ahead of your Seder there are now many many choices. If a Haggadah looks good to you, give it try. If you enjoy it, come back to it. If not, go head and try again. Variety with Haggadot is a good thing. But, if you feel like you have the time become a part of the tradition and try your hand at making your own. Here’s a helpful online resource: The story continues. 

To learn more the following books are highly recommended:

The Origins of the Seder The Passover Rite and Early Rabbinic Judaism – Barukh Bokser

Polychrome Historical Haggadah of Passover - Jacob Freedman

Hagadat Shekhter. The Schechter Haggadah: art, history and commentary – Josh Kulp

Haggadah and History: A Panorama in Facsimile of Five Centuries of the Printed Haggadah – Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

If you like historical fiction, try:  People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks

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