Pessah around the world

New Haggadot offer insights for adults and kids alike.

haggada 88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
haggada 88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
On Saturday evening, April 19, Jews all over the world will mark the beginning of Pessah. They will commemorate the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt by observing the Seder, the oldest and most widely celebrated ritual in Jewish homes. Guided by the Haggada, which contains instructions for conducting the Seder, they will read the story of the Exodus. Each year, new Haggadot are published, adding to the existing editions which are said to number 5,000. Why so many? There are Haggadot to serve the various Jewish denominations. Others introduce new commentaries; some are art books for collectors or for gifts. Some are designed for children; others are for Ashkenazim or Sephardim. There are Haggadot in different languages and different translations. Some Haggadot advance a point of view such as vegetarianism, feminism or environmentalism; others advertise a product. Haggadah Illuminated By Even Caredio, illustrated by Guglielomo Bigi Benaja Pelican Publishing Co. 96 pages; $19.95 This all-Hebrew edition is beautifully decorated with illuminations, following the medieval tradition of adding decorations, songs, illustrations and commentaries. These early Haggadot were made possible in the 13th century when the Haggada was separated from the daily siddur, opening opportunities for the artistic creativity banned from the prayer book. Since there were no Hebrew printing presses until the end of the 15th century, these Haggadot were copied by hand on vellum and carefully illustrated. The few that have survived are found in libraries and museums, including the Washington Haggada in the Library of Congress, where it is catalogued as Hebrew Manuscript #1. The Sarajevo Haggada is the subject of a recent novel by Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book. She tells the remarkable story of how the Sarajevo Haggada got from Spain where it originated in the 14th century to its present display case in Bosnia's National Museum. Haggadah Illuminated is a modern version of the old techniques of beautifully decorating medieval manuscripts. The author, Caredio, and the illustrator, Benaja, were both born in Italy and they studied the art of illuminating in Siena. Although the result of their effort is quite attractive, it has limited utility for English speakers since there is no English translation; it can be enjoyed as a fine example of an old tradition. Ten years ago, a similarly titled version, The Illuminated Haggadah was published. Edited by Michael Shire, an American-educated scholar who lives in London, this Haggada has more than 100 illustrations meticulously reproduced in full color from medieval hand-painted Haggadot in the British Museum. Contemporary presenters of illuminated Haggadot emulate their early predecessors in not misinterpreting the second commandment ban on "graven images." They recognize that depicting animals or humans was objectionable only when used for idol worship. Accordingly, they gave free rein to including human figures in their Haggadot. The Eybeshitz Haggadah By Shalom Hammer Devora Publishing 225 pages; $24.95 With no illustrations and with an English translation, a completely different approach is to be found in The Eybeshitz Haggadah. Yehonatan Eybeshitz was an 18th-century rabbi in Hamburg, Germany, where he wrote, taught and led the Jewish community. His commentary on the Haggada has been translated by Shalom Hammer, an American rabbi who moved to Israel 18 years ago. He is a radio broadcaster, a teacher, and a lecturer. His comments on the text amplify those of Rabbi Eybeshitz. A background in Torah learning will be useful in studying this Haggada since it contains what Hammer refers to as "complex and intertwined ideas." The material is sometimes difficult to follow, as is also true of the seven essays that conclude the book. My People's Passover Haggadah Edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman and David Arnow Jewish Lights 624 pages; $24.99 each volume Both editors of this two-volume Haggada are outstanding scholars. Hoffman is a rabbi who teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of a number of well-received books. Arnow is a psychologist who is devoted to helping Jews to use the Seder as a creative opportunity to wrestle with ideas and to confront issues affecting Jews in Israel and the US. His approach was set forth in a 1997 pamphlet, Celebrating the Feast of Freedom and elaborated in Creating Lively Passover Seders, published by Jewish Lights in 2004. After an unhelpful preface, misleadingly titled "How to get the most out of this book," the two volumes open with nine essays on Pessah, six of which were written by the editors. They deal with such subjects as the Haggada, Christianity and the Seder, the Seder plate and the American Seder. The convoluted presentations require concentrated attention. The three essays that conclude this section were written by two professors at HUC-JIR. They discuss feminism and the Haggada, denominations among American Jews and the widely used Maxwell House Haggada. In the rest of the two volumes, the actual Haggada is presented, using the talmudic format of Hebrew text in the center of the page with commentaries and translations around it. Those unaccustomed to this structure will find it difficult to follow. Persistent readers will learn more about the Haggada than they might wish to know. Though these two volumes are called a Haggada, they cannot be used for the Seder, nor are they intended for that purpose. However, they contain a wealth of information that constitutes a resource for understanding all aspects of the Seder. Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? By Ilana Kurshan Schocken Books 60 pages; $16) Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? focuses on the famous four questions the Haggada answers, following the biblical injunction in Exodus 13:8, "You shall explain to your son on that day." In a novel approach, the four questions are presented in 23 languages, followed by a brief history of the countries where the languages are spoken. For each place, there is an appropriate picture and a useful statement as to its present Jewish population. The material is plainly written by author Kurshan, a resident of Jerusalem who works for a literary agency and studies Talmud. The book is introduced by Joseph Telushkin, well known for his humor and his scholarship, both of which are on display here. He lightheartedly makes the claim that many parents do not know the answer to the four questions and so he offers his version of the responses as his "Passover gift to Jewish parents." The entire book is an appropriate and inexpensive present for Seder guests to give to their hosts. The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.