The Roots of the Haggadah
German Haggadah, c. 14th century, Wikimedia
The Haggadah is arguably the most popular Jewish book read by Jews. Literally thousands of editions have been published, catering to every imaginable taste, and it has appeared in every language ever spoken by Jews, and even in some that are not spoken at all, such as Klingon and Lawyerese.
Like the holiday for which it is the chief prop, the Haggadah celebrates the Exodus, the central Jewish story of redemption, when God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert, into a covenant, and ultimately into the Promised Land. On a basic level, the Haggadah serves as a guide for the Seder, a ritual meal held in most Jewish homes during Passover.
Today---and in the past---Jewish men, women, and children assemble around an elaborately set table for a complex meal, which commemorates the Exodus and the importance of freedom from slavery. Everyone participates in this ritual, with the youngest child being assigned the special role of asking the traditional Four Questions. Whether the child asks the questions in Klingon, English, Yiddish, or any other language depends on the home.
A traditional Haggadah is made up of three parts: a lengthy section recalling the Exodus and its meaning, the actual meal with symbolic foods, and a number of after-dinner songs that praise God, although many less observant Jews skip the latter part.
Traces of the earliest version of what we know today as the Haggadah can be found in the Mishnah, the oldest datable rabbinic document which dates back to about 220 B.C.E. but the modern text really took its form during the Middle Ages when books were incredibly costly, and Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) were prized possessions.
Bird's Head Haggadah, Wikimedia
Today, the few surviving medieval Haggadot are silent witnesses of a rich Jewish past that is too often judged from a post-Holocaust point of view. These magnificent books tell us that the authors and users of these texts were very much medieval Europeans who, not surprisingly, used this religious text to assert the superiority of Jewish rituals and beliefs over Christian rituals and beliefs (just as Christian texts often asserted Christian superiority over Judaism).
Surrounded by a Christian majority who celebrated the idea of Christ as a messiah, medieval Jews created a text which clearly rejected the idea of a messiah. Moses, for example, is conspicuously absent from the Haggadah. According to the Haggadah, it was not Moses but “God who led us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.” Rather than assigning Moses a role which might lead some to confuse him with the messiah, the Haggadah emphasized the power of God: Christians, in other words, might have been fooled by a false messiah but Jews were not.
One of the oldest surviving Ashkenazi illuminated manuscripts, the Bird’s Head Haggadah, was created in southern Germany, c. 1300. The book’s illustrations depict the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses receiving the Tablets of the Torah, and the preparation of Passover matzah. In this Haggadah, many of the human figures have bird heads. Adult bird-men are shown with conical hats, officially required Jewish clothing in some parts of Germany throughout the Middle Ages.
While the depiction of humans with animal heads was wide-spread in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Germany and France, the exact meaning remains unclear. Many scholars believe that the bird heads reflect medieval Jews’ literal interpretation of the second biblical commandment against representational art depicting humans.
Other scholars suggest that these images may have been created by Christian illustrators who chose particularly repulsive animals in order to express anti-Jewish feelings that would have eluded their Jewish patrons. If this were the case, this Haggadah would contain a strange contradiction: a text that stressed the superiority of Judaism over Christianity, illustrated with images that assert the superiority of Christianity!
Miriam, Sarajevo Haggadah, 14th cent. Wikimedia
Whether illustrated or not, the Haggadah is a text unlike any other Jewish book: It contains rabbinic texts, but it is not studied like other rabbinic texts. It is liturgical, but it is not prayed as liturgy. It includes beloved songs, but it is not a concert. Finally it is full of dramatic acts, but it is not a show to be watched passively.
The Haggadah stresses active involvement over the passive absorption of text. In the best case, a Seder crafted by the Haggadah is a multi-media event that involves all of its participants’ senses. The rabbis interpreted the biblical commandment “you shall tell your children (about the Exodus) on that day” (Exodus 13:3, 8) to mean that “one is required to view oneself as if one had personally left Egypt.”
The great thinker Moses Maimonides (c. 1135/38–1204 B.C.E.) explained the importance of the performative aspect of this commandment. Pointing out that the ritual of the Seder calls for action, he noted that “in every generation, one is obligated to show oneself as if one had personally come forth from the slavery of Egypt.”
Historically, rabbis have interpreted lots of biblical commandments and provided lots of guidance on a variety of issues. Why has the Haggadah and the Seder, products of medieval society, continued to have such a strong appeal to many modern Jews, including secular Jews respond?
Explaining that “everyone who elaborates on the story of the Exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy,” the Haggadah was created to challenge its readers: What does this liberation mean to you, today? The answers, not surprisingly, are highly individualistic and the text can be easily adapted to address contemporary concerns, with the result that this medieval text still resonates among many Jews today.
Haggadot also demonstrate how Jews through the ages have incorporated contemporaneous ideas and concerns. For instance, after the Holocaust, American Jewish newspapers printed inserts remembering the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, an event that took place on Passover, and many families read these texts at their Seders.
Since then, feminists, gays and lesbians, social justice activists, humanists, and even non-Jews have added new layers to the meaning of the Haggadah and of Passover. The inclusion of Miriam’s cup, a new ritual object, symbolizes the Well of Miriam that was a source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Today, Miriam’s cup supplements Elijah’s cup, and expresses the conviction of many twenty-first century Jews that women ought to be included in a celebration of freedom.
For historians, the frequent incorporation of new elements into the Haggadah provides insight into the changing lives of Jews over time. But these new elements also ensure that a historical document continues to have relevance centuries after it was written.
For Further Reading:
Marc Michael Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative and Religious Imagination
Joel ben Simeon, David Stern (Introduction), Katrin Kogman-Appel, (Introduction), The Washington Haggadah
Katja Vehlow teaches Religious and Jewish Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC.