Scientific Haggada

If you're interested in Seder's foundations, Kulp's book is for you.

Schecter haggada 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Schecter haggada 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Schechter Haggadah Translation and Commentary Joshua Kulp Illustrations selected and annotated by David Golinkin Designed by David Harel The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies 290 pages; $40 If you are interested in reading about the historical underpinnings of the major customs of the Seder night and at the same enjoying an astounding collection of Haggada illustrations, then Joshua Kulp's The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary is for you. The hefty Haggada, written in concise, highly coherent English, follows in the decidedly scientific style of Wissenschaft des Judentums and may be a little controversial for the more traditional-minded. For instance, one of Kulp's central assumptions is that the ritual retelling of the Exodus story on Seder night - which is understood by traditional Jews to be a commandment first enacted when God gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai - is in reality a custom that developed after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. According to university scholars of Judaism who are the basis for Kulp's commentary, Jews did not even begin reading the Haggada until well after the destruction of the Second Temple and the demise of ritual sacrifices, including the Pessah offering. Kulp also understands the construction of the rituals surrounding the Seder night as a way that the Jews maintained their distinct identity and avoided assimilation into Greco-Roman culture. At the same time he minimizes the importance of the Greco-Roman symposium on the content of Seder night. And any similarities to the Christian Eucharist or other Christian practices can be attributed to the fact that "both Christians and rabbis attempted to construct meaning in a changed Temple-less and Jesus-less Jewish world." The ideas presented are iconoclastic. For instance, Kulp presents a fascinating theory, developed by Shamma Friedman, for the reason we drink four cups of wine. It has nothing to do with the four languages of redemption, nor is it connected to the four nations under which the Jewish nation has been subjugated or any other "four" reasons given in the midrashic literature. Rather four cups of wine were considered by the rabbis to be the minimal respectable amount that the Jewish community should provide a poor and needy person. This explanation, while deviating from the traditional understanding of the reason for the four cups, is actually much more Jewish. Before you begin philosophizing about all sorts of lofty ideas about the meaning of existential and spiritual redemption, make sure that your poor neighbors have the basics for the Seder. But the scientific, historical commentary offered by Kulp is only half of The Schechter Haggadah's attraction. The book also contains an amazing collection of illustrations. From The Bird's Head Haggada (Germany ca. 1300) and The Barcelona Haggada (ca. 1350) to the Haggada Shel Pessah (Jerusalem, 1925) and the Haggada Yisraelit (Jerusalem, 2004), and dozens more in between, the colorful, beautifully reproduced illustrations are taken from Haggadot that span nearly the entire Jewish exile up until the modern era when the Jewish people returned to the Land of Israel. For the Zionist-minded who view the return of the Jewish people as a form of redemption, the collection of Haggada pictures dating from before the creation of the State of Israel, with all their influences from surrounding cultures, conveys the story of the Jewish people's wanderings among the nations, while the more recent Haggadot, most of them created in Israel, tell the contemporary Israeli story. In contrast to The Schechter Haggadah, which is truly an original undertaking of erudition, The Rebirth of Israel Passover Haggadah is one of a genre of Haggadot that plays on the Zionist theme in the Exodus context. For instance, the part in the Haggada that talks about God's deliverance of the Jewish people from Pharaoh's subjugation is accompanied by an illustration of illegal aliya by sea during the British Mandate. Obviously, David and Haya Harel, who between them designed and edited the Haggada, did not mean for us to think too deeply about this parallel between the Exodus from Egypt and Jews' tragic failure to flee to Palestine from the Nazi regime. Instead, this is a volume with a somewhat kitschy concept and pretty artwork that would make a great gift for someone who has managed to maintain a sentimental warm spot in their heart for everything Israeli.