The story of the Haggadah

The story of the Haggadah

Temple Beth Tikvah, Wayne, Reform

I love the Passover Haggadah. Each time I find a new edition, I get giddy with excitement. I am proud of my diverse collection of Haggadot (plural of Haggadah), gathered from different eras and from different parts of the world. For example, I have the simple Hebrew Yeynot Karmel Haggadah, a very thin, unimpressive, wine stained Israeli Haggadah (from the 1960s), which served my ultra-secular family in Israel for four decades. I also have the incredibly beautifully illustrated Haggadah created by the great Polish Jewish artist, Arthur Szyk, first published in the 1930s and reissued in 2008.

I have developed a special fondness for Passover Haggadot because they are an unending source of educational materials. Each Haggadah reflects the tradition, struggles, history, and local color of its audience as well as the emotional tenor of the Jewish people at that time, wherever they lived geographically.

Throughout the generations, the Haggadah has given expression to creative Jewish liturgy and is perhaps the most popular Jewish literary work. Everyone can find their own stories reflected in the Haggadah. Each year we are invited to relate to the ancient story of redemption from exile, from both our collective and personal stories of liberation. We also have the freedom to add our stories to a traditional Haggadah or to develop our own version to express them.

No single Haggadah represents all of our people, because Jews are scattered all around the world and the Haggadah reflects the environment that we each live in. Even our children have their own Haggadot. Some are accompanied by toys, which stand for the ten plagues or the little baby Moses in the bulrushes.

One of the strangest Haggadot was given to me as a gift. It is the Tzahal (IDF) Haggadah, published in the 1970s. It contains some of the traditional references to the Biblical story related in the Book of Exodus of the Israelites’ redemption from slavery to freedom in Egypt. However, the Biblical narrative is combined with photographs of Israeli soldiers in tanks, carrying weapons, expressing the current stories of liberation of our strong and brave Israeli soldiers.

One of my most precious Haggadot is called Agada De Pesah, published in 1934 in Istanbul, which is old and falling apart. It belonged to my grandparents, Regina Nassi and Avraham Chasid Z”L, Sephardic Jews whose families originated from Spain and were exiled to Turkey in the 1400s. When my grandparents left Turkey to escape the Nazis in the early 1940s, they packed two Ladino Haggadot, among the few possessions they carried with them when they fled to Palestine. (Ladino is the Sephardic language that combines Hebrew and Spanish.)

Another unique Haggadah that I have is called Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb. It is a vegetarian Haggadah that celebrates compassion for all creatures. Published in 1988, in both Hebrew and English, it has no mention of a lamb shank!

Nanette Stahl from Yale University summarizes the role of the Haggadah: “The Haggadah is a timeless book; it has given voice to the hopes and dreams of Jews throughout the generations. And from medieval times to the present, artists have expressed these hopes and dreams in the magnificent illuminations they created. Text and image maintain an ongoing dialogue… Many artists have specific agendas, be they religious, political, or social. The lack of women in the Haggadah, for example, has become an issue that many current artists address in their illustrations.”

Neither Miriam, nor her brothers Aharon and Moses, are mentioned in the traditional Haggadah, but their roles are integral to and intertwined in the Passover story. Thus, in recent years, combined within the traditional text, particularly for progressive Jewish communities, editors have been inserting additional stories to represent our Biblical leaders, especially the role of women in the story. For example, the Story of the Oppression, in the CCAR Revised Edition of The New Union Haggadah contains reference to the three leaders: Moses, Aharon and Miriam: “…And God brought us forth out of Egypt, with joy and singing, and guided them in the wilderness, as a Shepherd cares for his flock.”

However, given all of these different versions of the Haggadah, how do we determine how old it really is as a liturgical guide at Passover? Various opinions exist, but the most widely accepted earliest historical reference comes from the 10th century, indicating that the Haggadah was part of a prayer book compiled by Rabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon (c. 892-942 CE). Two early known Haggadot, as separate units from the Siddur, were produced in 14th century Spain: The Illuminated Golden Haggadah, in the British Library in London; and the Sarajevo Haggadah, in the National Museum of Bosnia in Sarajevo.

Another intriguing and well known Haggadah is the Birds’ Head Haggadah, the oldest surviving Ashkenazi (German, c. 1300) illuminated manuscript, currently in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Its name is derived from the birdlike human figures illustrated in the manuscript’s margins, exemplifying the Biblical prohibition against creating graven images.

In summary, no one knows exactly who wrote the first Haggadah based on the story in our holy scriptures. The Haggadah is ageless and timeless; it is an evolving story that reflects our individual, as well as collective experiences, as a people and as God’s holy vessels.

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