Haggadot for Sons, and Daughters

Ralph Amelan elaborates on the story of the four sons, what it means to be a daughter at the seder table, and Haggadah traditions from around the world.

1947 Seder in Cyprus (photo credit: Courtesy: American Jewish Joint Distribution Commi)
1947 Seder in Cyprus
(photo credit: Courtesy: American Jewish Joint Distribution Commi)
IF THE SEDER NIGHT IS ABOUT family, the Haggadah reminds us that not all families are ideal. Round our table gather the Four Sons. There is the Wise Son (or, let’s be realistic here, the smart-aleck know-it-all), the Wicked Son (no better behaved than the other three, when you really get down to it), the Simple Son (to whom everything has to be explained, three times at least), and the Son who does not know how to ask (so you have to read his mind to find out what he wants, and that takes a while).
Your first thought is: why could you not have had four daughters instead? And your second thought is, how are you going to keep them from tearing you, and each other, apart all evening? Well, let’s try to match son with Haggadah, giving each a book that will absorb him fully, and ensure the evening finishes without any major incidents. At least we have a wide choice. A scholarly bibliography compiled in 1961 estimated that 2,717 different stand-alone Haggadot had been published since the invention of print, and that number has probably doubled since then.
For the Wise Son, your best bet is a work that is not altogether new. In 1998, the father and son team of Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, both academics specializing in Jewish history of the Second Temple, Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, published the “Haggadah of the Sages.” This was an ambitious, scholarly work, which aimed to reconstruct the historical evolution of the Haggadah from the time it came into being after the destruction of the Second Temple as a means of preserving the historical memory of the Exodus.
Two years ago, the English version of the book made its appearance, sadly without the guiding hand of Shmuel Safrai, who had since passed away. I say ‘“version,” because according to the introduction, some parts of the Hebrew original do not appear in translation, and other passages have been revised.
But what we have is a deft and impressive handling of the development of the Haggadah, taking into account the legal, social and historical factors that shaped it.
The Safrais pour cold water on the theory that large parts of the Haggadah were shaped by a rabbinical reaction to Christianity: the new messianic religion was simply too weak a force at the time of the text’s original formation for this to be a factor.
What they do bring out, though, is the transformation of Passover. While the Temple stood, it was a festival marked by sacrifices and rituals in Jerusalem, and festive meals elsewhere. The sages of Yavne, the Tannaim, by compiling the original Haggadah, created a family-based teaching tool for perpetuating the memory of the Exodus without priestly pomp and circumstance, to be observed in more or less the same way wherever you were. They reached back into history in order to forge something new. This is innovation disguised in the best possible way: as tradition.
The “Haggadah of the Sages” in this serviceable translation is unabashedly aimed at the intellectually curious: your cocksure little (I mean wise) son will bury himself in it quite contentedly. The rest of us can just mine the text in advance of the meal for cute “did you knows” that can be deployed at the table to impress the unwary of your scholarly prowess.
I SUSPECT THE PUBLISHERS OF “In Every Generation: the JDC Haggadah” are not going to thank me for writing that their book is what every Wicked Son needs, but bear with me on this. Firstly, I don’t see this somewhat misunderstood lad as being entirely bad. If he was really sunk in sin, then why would he be at the Seder anyway? But, for whatever reason, he cannot forge a connection with the festival. How can one get through to him? Forget sweet reason and history lessons.
The way to break through is using pictures, not words. Well-composed, emotionally powerful, strong photographs can get messages across very effectively, and this Haggadah has quite a fair selection of them, drawn from the archives of the Joint Distribution Committee, more popularly known as “The Joint,” and illustrating its relief work.
Unsurprisingly, this book is as much a celebration of the Joint as it is of the Seder: the Haggadah text is traditional and interspersed with accounts of the Joint’s endeavors.
But it is the photographs that make this book something special. Families in distress clutch their gifts of matza at communal Seders. Refugees stumble on to Israel’s unfamiliar shores. Age-worn hands are clasped over eyes in prayer.
Not every picture is of exhibition quality, and the layout looks a little random. Some really magnificent pictures (like the one adorning the cover of this issue) are squashed, while lesser works get more prominence. And the grateful munchkin motif is seriously overdone.
Yet, taken together, these pictures create a warm and attractive world of tradition, family, and the comforting embrace of Jewish concern and assistance at its best.
The usual reply to the Wicked Son’s question is to tell him, in effect, to go away. This is wrong: he’s your son, right? Your reply should be to give him this Haggadah, so he can see what he is missing, and be drawn into the celebration. That way, this book will really have a happy ending.
NOW WE TURN TO THE SIMPLE Son’s question: “What’s this?” This looks like the query of someone completely bemused by the proceedings, demanding the essential reason for celebrating this special night. The Haggadah duly tells him: With a strong hand, God freed us from slavery in Egypt. But that was long ago. How can this be made more immediate for him? Recounting the dramatic aliya of Ethiopian Jewry over the last few decades is one way. The “Ethiopian Haggadah” does not hesitate to underline this connection with the Exodus, calling it a modern Jewish redemption tale. Edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who has worked for many years with the community, this book aims to make their world more accessible to a wider audience by interleaving the Haggadah text with fascinating, even moving, details of their beliefs and history.
In one sense the title of this book is a misnomer: the Haggadah, like the Mishna and the Gemara, was unknown to the Jews of Ethiopia. Instead on Seder night the priests, or kesim, would slaughter a sheep as the Passover sacrifice and relate the story of the Exodus to the community: special prayers were said at home. We are in a world close to that of the Second Temple described by the Safrais. This observance, like other aspects of their religious world, is changing with their challenging absorption into Israeli religious and everyday life, and Waldman does not make light of their difficulties in their new land.
But the Haggadah is a celebration of success.
“Do not forget us, our brothers!” wrote one community member in 1905, and their aliya was, ultimately, the sign they were not forgotten. In addition, there is a generous helping of traditional artwork, illustrations and photographs: the book is an aesthetic treat as well. There is no English edition, but the publishers hope to bring one out in the future.
NOW TO PERHAPS THE TOUGHEST nut of all, the Son who does not know how to ask. He takes in what is going on, but cannot deepen his knowledge because he does not know how to go from there. In the past, there was the Exodus. In the present, there is the Seder commemorating the Exodus. And what happened in between? Where is the link between then and now? “The Generations Haggadah” aims to fill that gap. It takes an unusual form: a narrow oblong book holding the text in an accordion arrangement with the service up to the meal printed on one side, and the rest of the text on the other, all secured by magnetic clasps. A timeline runs at the foot of each page of the Hebrew and English text, with important dates in Jewish history from the Exodus to the establishment of the State of Israel. The idea is that as the evening progresses, each participant gradually follows the links in the chain connecting then with now. Pictures of Jewish art works are interspersed throughout.
The general effect is pleasing enough, and I quickly got used to the accordion arrangement. The timeline is a little capricious: sometimes the year is mentioned because of the birth of a famous Jewish personality and sometimes because of his or her death. By its nature, vital context that would enable deeper historical understanding goes missing.
The narrow pagination does cause one problem: both the English and Hebrew typefaces are compressed from the sides.
The English font, which has a clean, modern appearance, survives the process: the words are clear enough. But I found the Hebrew font very uncomfortable to read. It would have helped if the designers had used a more modern, less ornate font than the unfortunate mock Torah scroll style they adopted.
But grasping the chronology is the first step towards mastering history, and “The Generations Haggadah” should help this Son to get the questions flowing.
SO WE HAVE, WE HOPE, FOUR satisfied customers. Yet what do we give our daughters? It would be comforting to suppose that they were omitted from the text because the sages thought that girls defied such ready categorization as wise, wicked, and so on, but the real reasons are less comforting. In any case, we have to make good this gap. And “Barbie Makes Seder For Ken” really won’t do.
There is no such thing of course, as a single Haggadah that will attract all girls. Nor is there a reason why there should be one: most will be very happy with the ones we have chosen for their brothers. But if you have a daughter who demands something different, something artistic perhaps, “The Washington Haggadah” may just appeal to her.
This is a color facsimile edition of a Haggadah that is now in the possession of the Library of Congress (hence its name) but originated in late 15th century Europe. The scribe and artist who wrote and decorated it in 1478, Joel ben Simeon, was prolific and in demand: he prepared it in advance of finding a wealthy customer, from which it follows that he was confident he would make a sale.
Looking at the reproduction, it is easy to see why. This is not one of the most spectacular of the illuminated Haggadot still in existence, but anybody can appreciate the assured treatment of color and decoration throughout. The illustrations of contemporary Jewish life in the margins of the text draw one back into a lost world, shifting between medieval and modern. Even after all these years, the text is remarkably readable, but I am not sure whether you would want to use it at the seder table. Wine stains are the sign of a beloved and well-used Haggadah, but you may prefer not to have them on this book.
David Stern, Professor of Classical Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania provides a concise and enlightening introduction to the development of the Haggadah and ben Simeon’s work, while Professor Katrin Kogman Appel, Associate Professor of the Arts at Ben-Gurion University, reveals a sharpeyed attention to detail in her examination of the Washington Haggadah itself and its place in the context of the artistic development revealed in other Haggadah manuscripts of the time.
Both contributors point out that our scribe had traveled extensively in Italy, and that, as a result, this Haggadah displays an unusual mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi / Italian influences. One intriguing aspect of this and other contemporaneous Haggadot is the portrayal of the Son who does not know how to ask as a jester, something new to me.
But the quite extraordinary feature of this folio, apparently unknown in any other Haggada, is the image opposite the part of the text which asks, “This matza that we eat: what was the reason?” There, sitting on a cushion and holding a large round matza, is the unmistakable figure of a monkey.
Nobody knows why our scribe put it in. Revenge against a purchaser who cheated him in some way? Unlikely. But, perhaps, one can imagine a little girl stretching her hands towards a man busy with pots and pigments, saying, “Draw me something funny!”
So he did.