|THE EVOLUTION OF THE PASSOVER HAGGADAH
by Karen G. R. Roekard
If a measure of Jewish affection for a book were to rest with the number of versions there are of it, then clearly the Passover haggadah is the most popular Jewish book of all time. In the 16th century there were approximately 25 printed versions. This figure rose to 37 in the 17th century and then jumped to 230 versions in the 18th century. In the 19th century the numbers rose by another 1250 and estimates for the 20th century are that there are now over 3000 versions of haggadah.
The Passover haggadah, literally 'the telling,' incorporates passages from the Torah and other Jewish writings including Talmud and Midrash. Although the exact date of its writing is unknown, we do know that the basic elements were available over 2000 years ago. The original haggadot were included as parts of the prayer book; the earliest stand-alone ones come from thirteenth century Spain and were hand-written.
In essence, in compiling the haggadah, our rabbinical ancestors created a tool for bringing on an altered state of consciousness from daily, and even from Sabbath realities. They supported the Jewish attention to the sacredness of time. And within this sacred time, they hoped to create a ritual that would allow the Jews throughout the ages to feel the feelings of our ancestors' enslavement and exodus. Rabbi Louis Finklestein once said, "...judging objectively from results, it is probably the most effective pedagogic instrument ever devised."
A literal interpretation of the second commandment, the one that speaks against crating images, kept Jews from making books that were illustrated with human forms. Because the haggadah was directed at children, a tradition arose whereby it is acceptable for them to be illustrated. Of all the books in Jewish religious literature, this is true only of haggadot.
In the time prior to the printing press, wealthy Jews would hire artists to create illuminated and illustrated versions of the haggadah. The Sephardim would illustrate the entire story of Passover at the beginning of their haggadot while the Ashkenazi's would have pictures throughout. Among the most famous of these early illustrated haggadot is the Sarajevo Haggadah.
Another one of the early haggadot, certainly the best known of the printed and illustrated ones, was the Prague haggadah of 1527. Its quaint medieval woodcuts are probably the most widely reproduced of any haggadah illustrations. A tradition arose of naming a haggadah after the town from which it came: Amsterdam, Nuremberg, Darmstadt, Mantua, etc.
There are other traditions common to haggadot, for example, the writing of a commentary. As Rabbi Levi Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe has said, "The beauty of the haggadah is the fact that it is opened to so many different commentaries. There is no Gadol (trans: luminary within the Jewish world) that did not have a commentary on the haggadah." An examination of European haggadot from the 18th-20th centuries reveals an innumerable number with just a few lines of text surrounded by an entire page of commentary.
A major evolution in the traditional haggadot began at the start of this century; content and translation changes were made. It was hoped that this would stop what a haggadah from 1904 called, "...the derision among the younger generation..." and inspire the participants to "read with interest and reverence."
Ritualistic practices were removed. From the Union Haggadah of 1908: "The attitude of the modern man has completely changed in reference to such matters as these. He can no longer regard rites and symbols with the awe that vested them with mystic meaning or supernatural sanction."
Large amounts of the traditional text were excised and replaced. For example, in this haggadah from 1901, I.S. Moses said: "Nor was this painful lot of our fathers and mothers in Egypt alone, but in all countries of their sojourn during a long series of centuries, the sons of Israel were fated to meet worse than physical death; they were for untold ages, the outcasts of mankind."
Full texted traditional haggadot were still being introduced by the droves. Two forms stand out: (1) the artistically illustrated haggadot, meant as gifts and to entertain and (2) the 'marketing' haggadot: "And so General Foods Corporation, packers of Maxwell House Coffee, whose relations with Jewish people have always been the most friendly, take pleasure in presenting this new, up-to-date edition of the haggadahÉ" (1937)
The 40's and 50's saw the first waves of the next evolutionary step in haggadah history: the move to incorporate political realities. While traditional haggadot expect us to feel as our ancestors felt by looking back in history, the political haggadot believed that it is only through looking at political situations 'right now' that we will truly be able to the historical enslavement and liberation.
Major changes have been made in these haggadot both in content and in language. An early example, the Hillel Council Haggadah gave us "Ten modern plagues: Ignorance of Jewish valuesÉReluctance of Jews to express themselves culturally and religiously in Jewish terms for fear of being thought un-AmericanÉThe misunderstandings and prejudice that still exists between national and religious groupsÉetc." Haggadot emerged that focused on the newly formed state of Israel; some began to speak of the Holocaust and to include prayers of remembrance. In Israel the many kibbutzim came out with radically altered haggadot.
Arthur Waskow's Freedom Seder gave a different form of seriousness to the genre and the 70's, 80's and 90's have seen an outpouring of interest group political haggadot: Environmental, Vegetarian, Egalitarian, Women, Gays, Lesbians, etc. Bookstores have started carrying the political haggadot and so they now find their places on our seder tables.
1991 saw the emergence of the next evolutionary step in haggadah history; it can be called the 'self liberation' mode. Unlike the traditional and political haggadot which focus externally, the belief underlying haggadot in this category is that for us to feel the enslavement and exodus of our ancestors, we have to turn our focus inward. We have to ask and answer the questions: "How do I enslave myself? How do I hold myself back with my beliefs, my obsessions, my repetitive actions, the risks I won't take, the words I won't say?"
To date there is only one widely available version, The Santa Cruz Haggadah which I wrote and published. It follows the traditional order, and has all the required blessings, rituals and songs, in Hebrew, transliteration and gender neutral loose translation. Unlike any alternative haggadah that I know of, it has support right across the Judaic Rabbinic landscape.
There is one more genre of haggadah that must be mentioned: the haggadot that individuals are compiling for their own use. The compiler cuts and pastes, pages or paragraphs, from different haggadot, adds words of their own as appropriate, and thus creates a tailor-made haggadah. This is a practice I strongly support. Each Passover we are a year older, and thus, hopefully, more evolved or mature, and each year we have different attendees at our seders. To have a truly meaningful seder it is important to honor our yearly changes through the creation of an appropriate haggadah.
Haggadot that look backwards; haggadot that look outward; haggadot that look inward; haggadot that we create ourselves. Whichever the haggadah you use, remember to make sure you observe one of the oldest traditions of all: make sure you leave a few wine stains on it. A haggadah that has no wine stains is generally seen as a haggadah that has not 'lived.'
Chag Sameach! Happy Holiday!