When Rabbi Shmuel Goldin retired at the end of 2017, after more than 33 years leading Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, he and his wife, Barbara, made aliyah.
But even then, both Goldins knew that once the wild excitement and manic unpacking of the long-desired long-distance move was over, once they factored in the pleasure of being able to see the children and grandchildren they had in Israel and planning frequent trips back to the United States to see the others who remained back home, he’d have to find something else to do.
He’s already finished a five-book set of commentaries on the Torah, “Unlocking the Torah Text.”
So now what?
“Unlocking the Haggada,” like his earlier books published by Gefen and the Orthodox Union, has just come out, in time for Pesach.
Why the haggadah? “Because I have a very strong feeling that people often approach the haggadah with an agenda,” Rabbi Goldin said. “We want the X haggadah or the Y haggadah,” liberation theology or Star Wars or Harry Potter, often (not always) good ideas but likely to date fairly quickly.
He wanted to present an entirely straightforward haggadah, where his understanding of its underlying structure and meaning could be allowed to surface. He wanted the theme, should there have to be one, to be Pesach, and the seder.
“My sense is that I wanted to allow it to speak for itself,” he said. “In classes that I have given on the haggadah over the years, I have discovered that there is a structure to the seder, which often is lost in the myriad of details that the rabbis put into the haggadah eons ago.
“I’m always interested in the big picture,” he added. “In the structure of the evening. In seeing which are the haggadah’s substantive sections, and which are the digressions.”
How old is the haggadah? “By the time of the Mishna, around 200 CE, you already have a recorded structure for it, at least for the maggid part.” That’s the central, story-telling section. “The earliest recorded text of the haggadah seems to emerge at the time when the men of the great assembly convened, from the end of the prophetic era to the beginning of the Hellenistic period, in the fourth to third centuries BCE.
Since then, there have been accretions, additions that make it rich and fascinating, but also whose arabesques, draped in great swathes over the structure, hide it.
“I postulate that there are three ways to approach the evening as a whole,” Rabbi Goldin said.
“One is to take a look at the haggadah as a vehicle for the performance of the six — or for some seven — basic mitzvot of the seder,” he continued. The haggadah sets the structure that allows those mitzvot to be performed not only as discrete actions but also as part of a larger whole. “For example, there is the biblical mitzvah of eating matzah, which is embedded in the seder,” he said. “The second biblical mitzvah is telling the story of the exodus. That’s the haggadah’s maggid section.
“The third mitzvah, which was biblical and then rabbinic, is eating marror,” bitter herbs, and “the fourth mitzvah is saying hallel on the seder evening; there’s debate over whether that’s biblical or rabbinic.
The fifth mitzvah, which is rabbinic, is drinking four cups of wine. “The rabbis took that mitzvah and set the four cups up as signposts in the seder.” That means that by drinking them, you both fulfil the mitzvah and mark your progress through the seder. “The sixth mitzvah, also rabbinic, is reclining.” And then the debatable one, which might be either rabbinic or biblical, is eating charoset.
The rabbis weave those mitzvot into the seder, and Rabbi Goldin marks them in his haggadah.
The second way to approach the seder is “that it is reliving a particular historic moment,” he continued. “Strangely enough, it is not the moment you would expect.” Instead of re-enacting the exodus, we relive the night before, when the Israelites sat at their family tables in Egypt for the last time, ready to go, eating the sacrificial lamb.
“It’s about the importance of family,” Rabbi Goldin said. “God said ‘You are about to create a new nation, so go have a family meal.’
“That underscores the single most important unit in the survival of the Jewish people. The family.” It also acts as the historic connection between the patriarchal period, from the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the national period the Israelites were about to begin.
In the series of essays that are included in the haggadah, “I establish that there are two words in Hebrew for liberty,” Rabbi Goldin said. “One, dror, is liberty, and the other, cherut, is freedom.
“Liberty is granted by someone else; freedom is something you gain for yourself.
“Think of the drama of the Jewish people, sitting, the night before the exodus, when they still are slaves, not yet at liberty, proclaiming their freedom. How many times throughout history have we had to relive that scene, proclaiming our spiritual liberty in the darkness of the night? Because the truth is that you can be at liberty and not free. God is saying to us that in the final analysis, your freedom is going to depend not on Pharaoh but on yourself.”
The third level “is what I call the experiential perspective,” Rabbi Goldin said. “That’s the ultimate goal. The seder is trying not only to relive a particular moment or perform these mitzvot” — as the second and first levels allow — “but to inject us into the historical process.
“But it’s even more than that. You can see that initially the deeper level comes in when you look at the maggid section, and you can see it in the structure of the seder.
“It’s very strange,” he said. “The meal is placed not only in the middle of the seder, but in the middle of Hallel,” the praises that begin with the second cup of wine, before any of the mitzvot leading to the meal. “Wouldn’t it have been more logical to eat and then have the seder? Or to have the seder and then eat?” But there is logic and structure hiding behind the exuberance of the language and rituals. “Everything before the meal in the haggadah deals with the past,” Rabbi Goldin said. “Everything after the meal deals with the future. And the meal is the present
“You are eating a meal like no other. You are surrounded by Jewish history, and you understand that you are part of the flow.
“All the three levels are interconnected. So what I do in the Haggadah is that before we even get to the seder, I have a series of essays that set the stage for these experiences, and I urge people to read them.”
Rabbi Goldin’s haggadah is color coded, with running titles that show users where in the evening they are. “It is important to me to show how each section of the seder fits into the flow, and is part of the structure.
“There are certain places where the seder digresses from the primary flow. I shade that section, and introduce it as a digression. Sometimes it’s some of the most famous sections, like the story of the four sons. That’s a major digression.
“I know that it sounds complicated, but I hope it’s really the opposite, that it simplifies the experience by showing the structure.
“The maggid section is broken into three sections. They are, first, historical awareness; second, historical participation in that flow of history; and third, historical perpetuation, as we are injected into the process.
“So, again, instead of looking at the seder and saying okay, it is a conglomeration of disparate pieces, we could see that there is a real structure to it. Remember that the word ‘seder’ means order. There is an ordered structure to this entire process. It’s just hard to find, because every detail of the evening is so rich that you can lose the forest for the trees.
“The form that the haggadah takes is typical of rabbinic literature, and particularly of the gemara and the Talmud. It’s conversation in suspended animation. It’s like you sat at the Shabbes table for two hours and then tried to recreate the conversation later. You would have bopped all over the place you’d realize. The Talmud does that. It wants to retain the flavor of oral law and therefore records it as oral law.”
For example, he suggested, look at the maggid section, which “consists of two answers to the Mah Nishtanah,” the classic four questions about why this night is different from all other nights. “In the middle of those answers, the Haggadah digresses,” he said. “Basically it gives one answer, and then says ‘Now let us make sure that we understand what we’re doing,’ and it asks procedural questions, and then it goes back to the second answer to Mah Nishtanah. The first answer is that we once were slaves, and the second answer is that we originally were idolators. One of them is specific — we were slaves in Egypt — and the second takes us back to the beginning of history, and says that this story is part of a larger context. And just as context matters in other settings, it matters at the seder.
“I am trying to return to the roots and have the Haggadah speak for itself,” Rabbi Goldin concluded, asking his own four questions. “What is it all about? Why is it structured as it is? What is it trying to accomplish? What is the thrust of all of this?”
His haggadah — hard covered, rectangular, heavy, color-coded, with blocks of English and Hebrew text and English essays broken by charming pastels by his daughter-in-law, Shifra Goldin — is carefully structured, like the haggadah text at its core, but unlike the haggadah its structure is clear. Rabbi Goldin hopes that his work will permit the structure at the heart of the haggadah also to become clear on seder nights.