Haggadah: A survival guide for Jews in Exile

Cryptic messages in Passover text provide links to national history, homeland for "strangers in strange lands".

rare haggadah from bar ilan (photo credit: Courtesy)
rare haggadah from bar ilan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 exiles.
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.
As the 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 education.
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 attachment.
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 Yisrael.
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.
“Who 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 God.
“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.
The Haggadah 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 Haggadah.
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 remained unresolved.
The Malbim believed that the arguments were about interpretation, not compilation, and therefore assigns the Haggadah to Rebbe.
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).The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.