Why was the Haggada written?

The Haggada was introduced after the fall of the Second Temple and offered the Jewish people a moving solution.

haggadah 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haggadah 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The question how to commemorate the failed uprising against Rome of 67 CE and the tragic destruction of the Second Temple, and yet preserve and enjoy ancient festivals and traditions, preoccupied the best Jewish minds for a number of generations. There was an urgent need for a new way to observe the Passover sacrifice, accompanied by the reading of Hallel (a prayer of praise), while changing it into an orderly, sanctified and satisfactory national festival. The traditional Seder, with its reading of the Haggada, was introduced after the fall of the Second Temple and offered the Jewish people a moving solution. It also provided an answer to a painful ideological and religious controversy - namely whether the Jewish people could still enjoy their festivals, or would they simply mourn forever? The Haggada, which Jews read on the eve of Passover, is essentially a pseudographical treatise; the author or group of authors is not mentioned. But we may guess at who they were. The text recalls how rabbis Eliezer, Joshua, Eleazar ben Azariah, Akiva and Tarphon reclined together all night discussing the departure from Egypt, until their disciples came and told them : "Masters, the time is come to recite the morning Shema!" Then Rabbi Ben Zoma explained to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah why the Seder should take place at night: "In order that thou shouldst remember the departure from Egypt all the days of thy life." The days include the nights as well. And the sages interpreted "all the days of thy life" to include also the times of the Messiah. There seems to be little doubt that during their prolonged Seder discussions the venerable rabbis had spent some time discussing the painful controversy which in the ninth century would divide the Karaites from the main body of the Jewish people. The big and much-discussed issue in those days was how best to observe the Jewish Holy Days, how to construct the interior of synagogues, and how to conduct Jewish daily life after such a gigantic disaster as the destruction of the Second Temple. Was it still possible for the Jewish people to enjoy life after such a catastrophe? Not only the traditional rabbinic sources, but the pseudographical books of Baruch and Fourth Ezra describe in detail the extent of the national trauma, the great pain which followed the war of 67 CE and the fall of the Temple. Thus the question facing the nation was how to continue the event-rich Jewish life, both in Eretz Yisrael and in the already extensive Diaspora, while remembering the glory of the Second Temple and expecting its restoration as part of the ultimate Redemption. There were many Jews who opted for a life of continual mourning and prayers in expectation of the End of Days and ultimate salvation. But the majority believed that life must go on, and sought new ways to live with the suffering. This was also the time of another painful and embarassing split within the Jewish congregations. Christianity, born among Jews, had absorbed an ever-increasing number of gentiles and now claimed that Jesus had predicted the fall of the Second Temple - which was, according to their new canon, replaced by his body. Christians had turned the Passover sacrifice into a commemoration of his crucifixion and their salvation. Rabbinic authorities agreed this created a further urgent need for the preservation of the original tradition, both in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora. Were the new synagogues, which in some ways and customs resembled the Temple, a form of avoda zara ("strange work" or idolatry), as the Karaite religious leaders insisted? Was imitating the Second Temple and observing its ancient rituals in a new manner a sacrilege, preventing the arrival of the Messiah? Should the Jews continue to mourn forever? Or should they lead normal lives and enjoy the biblically sanctified Holy Days and customs, leaving the commemoration of the Second Temple's destruction to the fasts and ceremonies of Tisha Be'Av, and making that the anniversary of the fall of both Temples? THE NEW custom of observing Passover by eating bitter herbs and drinking wine without offering the lamb on the Temple's altar was a tremendous historical and religious development. But it was not sufficient in itself. There was an urgent need to introduce an entirely new system of observance which would be valid, accepted and last for generations. This was the goal of the Haggada which, based on the reassuring and powerful Exodus story, had turned the former Passover Temple sacrifice and reading of Hallel into both a family celebration and a national affair. The new custom of observing Passover with the reading of the Haggada strengthened the family, the community and the nation, both in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora. The new Passover had become the festival of freedom, hope and trust in heavenly Grace. The Haggada tells us what to do and how to fulfil our new obligations: We recite a blessing, wash our hands, recall the matza, or bread of affliction which our ancestors ate on leaving Egypt. We taste the bitter herbs which remind us of the bitterness of slavery. We promise ourselves that this year we are all slaves, but next year we will all be free. We recall the slavery, and how our sages observed the Passover night. The Haggada quotes Joshua's address, citing our earliest patriarchal history to let us know who we are and why we gather on this particular night: "And Joshua said to all the people: 'Thus saith the Lord God of Israel. Beyond the river dwelt your fathers in days of old: Terah, father of Abraham and of Nahor, and they worshipped other gods. But I took your father, even Abraham, from beyond the river, and I set him going throughout the whole of the Land of Canaan; and I increased his seed and gave him Isaac. Then I gave Isaac Jacob and Essau. And to Essau I gave mount Seir for him to inherit, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt'." This introduction, binding us to our past, allows us to recall our own personal history - the continuation of the chain which has held Jews together for millennia. We invite all who wish to share in the Seder ceremony to join us. We thank our ancestors who brought us to the Promised Land from "beyond the river," and all of us who have personally suffered slavery recall the bitter memories of the Nazi extermination and labor camps, as well as the Soviet Gulag. We think that all Egyptian plagues were nothing in comparison to what the Jewish people went through only recently. The Passover Seder reminds us that we are all survivors, the lucky ones, still able to carry the torch. By reading the Haggada we thank the Almighty for all that He has done for us, but we are also reminded of all the dangers we still face. The Haggada tells us that in every generation there arises someone who threatens us and wishes for our destruction. The Haggada reminds us of Ezekiel's warning: "Thy breasts were firm and thy hair grown thick; yet thou was naked and bare." The world is still full of the spilt blood, frogs, vermin, beasts, pestilence, darkness, death and murder. The Haggada makes us experience the very essence of Jewish reality, but at the same time demands that we continue the building of the New Jerusalem.