The Haggadah as we know it is a product of
Diaspora Judaism, written during the Gaonic period (8th-9th century CE) in
Babylon. Based on Talmudic and other sources, its authors compiled an extraordinary document which is followed by Jews around the world and constantly inspires
new interpretations. It has, however, a hidden message.
On a simple level
it tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the origins of the Jewish
people. But it is not chronological and jumps from one episode to another
without a clear line of development. Intended for the Passover Seder
(‘Order of Passover’), it seems not in order.
Full of metaphors and
historical events, it’s strange that the critical figure in the Exodus, Moses,
is missing, along with Aaron. Instead, the Haggadah focuses on rabbis from
the second and third centuries, parables about committed and alienated children
– insiders and outsiders, and Lavan the Aramean – providing our first clue
about why the Haggadah was composed.
The historic center of Aramean
civilization was Babylon, where the authors of the Haggadah lived. Exiled
from Eretz Yisrael in the 6th century BCE, Jews had built there a vibrant and
cohesive Torah- based community which provided critical leadership that lasted
for a millennium. Toward the end of the Gaonic period, however, plagued by
assimilation and threatened with destruction, Babylonian rabbis saw the writing
on the wall and composed a code-book for Jewish survival in immanent and future
The Haggadah provides a compact guide for Jews running for their
lives, unable to carry libraries, often isolated and needing to teach their
children the basics of Judaism. Using stories and songs, focused on family
units, the Haggadah’s deeper message provides concise tools needed to instill
Jewish historical awareness and identity. And, built on a prophetic vision of
Redemption, it is focused on the Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael.
Haggadah reminds us, Jewish history begins in Mesopotamian idol worship and
Egyptian slavery. The Exodus from Egypt not only expresses freedom, but
is also the beginning of Jews as a nation and as a People. The paradigm of
Exile-Redemption provides a context for understanding how Jewish history works:
nationhood is determined by geography, the occupation of space, and peoplehood,
a spiritual/cultural creation, exists in time. Nationhood is building
civilization – political, judicial, economic institutions, civic
organizations; Peoplehood is transcendent, founded on history, memory and a
sense of destiny.
An instruction manual on how to survive as strangers in
strange lands, the Haggadah’s focus is the centrality of Eretz Yisrael and an
understanding of Judaism and Jewish history. Its reference points are rabbis who
led the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple to Yavneh
and through the Bar Kochba rebellion and exile: Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Akiva,
Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Elazar. Quoted through-
out Talmud and in Pirke Avot, their prominence in the Haggadah indicates an
emphasis on the trauma of dispersion and the basics of Jewish
Children’s stories and songs in Haggadah are para- bles
illuminating dark paths of suffering with rays of hope. As individuals and as a
people we are all of the four children, simple, angry, rebellious and
faithful. What unites us is a common belief in One God, as expressed in
the Shema. And this became, in Exile, a simple way of
Reciting the Haggadah with his colleagues, Rabbi Akiva, who
would be martyred as he uttered Shema, is called upon by his students: “It’s
time to say the Shema!” This affirmation of faith is the Jewish beginning and
end, in prayer, in life and death. The Shema, however is not only about
monotheism – God is One – but also about community, “Hear O Israel,” a unifying connection as a People, even in exile. For Jews in Exile, despite
oppression and suffering, often with few Jewish resources, this one phrase
contained identity and purpose.
THE AUTHORS of the Haggadah understood
that under pressure, isolated, without teachers and schools, things had to be
reduced to essentials. Eating matzot requires no belief, but the reason we eat
matzot (and refusal to eat bread) could become a dialogue that leads to study
and commitment. Symbols replaced actions, prayers substituted for Temple
worship, the real thing – the world minimized, but enough.
Matzot is also
a paradox. It represents freedom, yet is the “bread of slavery,” as if to say
that in Exile, we need to move towards Redemption. But how? Eat it, the Haggadah
instructs, with maror, bitter-sweet, and with the korban – the ritual sacrifice
offered in the Temple in Jerusalem – places that might be far away and nearly
forgotten, yet which connect us to God, to the Jewish People, and to Eretz
Amid destruction and chaos the Haggadah asks: Where have you
come from and where are you going? As Jews we remember not only that we are
chosen as messengers of Torah, living examples of ethical monotheism, but our
heritage and our national homeland.
Moreover, Pessah is not an isolated
holiday, but the beginning of a 50-day period culminating in Shavuot, which
celebrates receiving the Torah. It is also a time when the first fruits of Eretz
Yisrael were brought to the Temple in mass offerings of thanksgiving and faith
that resonate throughout the year.
The Haggadah teaches us the history of
Jewish persecution through songs about animals and natural symbols: a goat
bought for two zuzim (a zuz was a silver coin struck during the Bar Kochba
revolt; two were equivalent to a half-shekel which Jews were commanded to
contribute to the Temple every year for purchasing public sacrifices); a cat
(Egypt); a dog (Assyria); a stick and fire (Babylon); water (Persia and Media);
an ox (Greece); the slaughterer (Rome); Crusader, Muslim, Nazi and Soviet
murderers (The Angel of Death) and the final stage, Redemption.
knows One?” teaches about essential elements in Judaism by numbers: the
tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai, three Patriarchs, four Matriarchs, five
books of Torah, Mishnah, Shabbat, brit milah, months required for birth, Ten
Commandments, stars (constellations), tribes, and the attributes of
“Dayenu” (it’s sufficient) is not just about appreciating freedom
and survival in the desert, but highlights (at the end) the purpose: Torah,
Shabbat, Eretz Yisrael and the Temple.
These stories and songs retell the
history of Jews as a People and a Nation, in slavery and freedom, in despair yet
full of hope, scattered throughout the world and home.
reminds us that “once we were slaves,” in Exile, but that’s not where we belong.
Our Seder table is the mechanism for transporting us back into history and
propelling us toward the future.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” the
fulfillment of God’s promise, is ours, too.
HISTORICAL NOTES: There are
references in the Haggadah to traditions which go back to the end of the Second
Temple period when little was written. Some form of the Haggadah may have
existed following the Roman destruction, mostly as an oral tradition passed down
through Tannaim and Amoraim, using whatever texts were available. R. Yehuda bar
Ela’ai (around 170 CE) is the last Tanna to be quoted in the
Around 200 CE Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi (“Rebbe”) organized and
edited the Mishna, which was later elaborated in the Talmud based on written and
oral sources. These sources provided basic halachot
(laws) for observing Pessah
which were incorporated into the Haggadah.
Disputes about the Haggadah
between the leaders of two great Babylonian communities, Rav (Abba) (in Sura)
and Shmuel (in Nehardea) show that different traditions had developed and
The Malbim believed that the arguments were about
interpretation, not compilation, and therefore assigns the Haggadah to
References in Haggadah to Rav Nachman (Pesachim 116a) could refer
to Rav Nachman bar Yaakov, the son-in-law of the Resh Gakusa (head of the nation
in exile) (about 280 CE) or Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak (360 CE).
author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.