A Haggadah without women?

On a popular Haggadah that is so committed to eliminating female characters it rewrites biblical texts
Illustrative: The seder involves multiple senses such as touch, smell and taste. (Shutterstock, via JTA)
Illustrative: The seder involves multiple senses such as touch, smell and taste. (Shutterstock, via JTA)

The ArtScroll Children’s Haggadah, by Shmuel Blitz, systematically eliminates women’s stories and their names from the telling of the Exodus and the history of the Jewish people. To accomplish this, the Children’s Haggadah bowdlerizes Torah and Talmud, consistently changing stories to remove female characters. In this way, it alters Torah to fit ArtScroll’s sensibilities while contradicting the word of God and the truth.

Needless to say, changing the Torah to fit one’s personal opinions is forbidden. A main point of Torah is that God tells us what the Torah is, not the other way around. In this case, the Children’s Haggadah also contradicts the Gemara, which declares that women are obligated in all mitzvot of the seder because “they too were part of the same miracle” (Pesachim 108a-b, Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berurah Orach Chayim 472:14).

Falsifying the Torah is wrong. But this kind of falsification is also pedagogically disastrous. It undercuts our efforts to teach our daughters that Jewish tradition values them equally with our sons. It undercuts our efforts to teach our sons that their sisters are equal members of the Jewish people. It is frightening that this haggadah has been a standard resource in Jewish homes and schools for 17 years without anyone noticing its distortions.

For example: On page 11, one of the reasons for having 3 matzot at the seder is given as: “To remind us of the three measures of flour Avraham used when he baked matzos for the visiting angels.” The problem is that Avraham didn’t bake the matzot (or bread) for the angels; he asked Sarah to do so. Bereishit 18:6 says “And Avraham hurried to the tent to Sarah and he said, ‘Hurry – three measures of fine flour – knead and make cakes.’” The Children’s Haggadah is so anxious to avoid naming women that it changes the words of the Torah. The flour and matzo are put into Avraham’s hands, rather than Sarah’s, so as to prevent Sarah from appearing in the haggadah.

Lest you think this was an innocent error, here are several other examples:

On page 20, the footnote says “Rabbi Akiva didn’t begin learning Torah until he was 40 years old, but still became one of the greatest rabbis who ever lived.” Rabbi Akiva’s wife isn’t mentioned. But for those of us who know the story as told in Nedarim 50a and Ketubot 62b, it is not possible to tell this story without the dramatic self sacrifice and love of Rabbi Akiva’s wife, which is intricately entwined with the telling of Rabbi Akiva’s learning. Rabbi Akiva himself says (Nedarim 50a) that all of his learning and all of his students’ learning belongs to his wife. the Children’s Haggadah apparently disagrees.

On page 21, the footnote says “Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah was only 18 years old when he was chosen to become the leader of Israel. ‘I cannot accept,’ he said. ‘I look too young and people will not respect me.’” Here is the same scene in the original story, (Berachot 27b-28a):

[The Rabbis] came and said to [Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah]:

“Would the Master like to be Rosh Yeshiva?”

He said to them:

“I will go and consult with the men (sic) of my house.”

He went and consulted with his wife; she said to him:

“Maybe they will depose you [also]?”

He said to her:

“A man should use a fragile cup for a day, and tomorrow it will break.”

She said to him:

“You have no white [hair].”

That day he was 18 …

The Children’s Haggadah puts the words of Mrs. ben Azaryah into her husband’s mouth in order to make sure that no woman need be mentioned.

On page 31, the footnote says “Moses should have been thrown into the Nile River to be drowned. It was through the hand of Hashem that Moses was saved, and then raised in the palace of the king.” There is no mention of Yocheved, who hid Moshe for 3 months and then built him a boat so he could survive the river. There is no mention of Miriam, who stood guard over Moshe until he was rescued and then arranged for Moshe’s own mother to be hired as nursemaid for him. There is no mention of Batya, who rescued Moshe and raised him as her son. Yocheved, Miriam, and Batya all risked their lives to save Moshe’s life. Yes, the hand of God is visible in this story, as in every story in the Torah (and in human history), but the Torah makes sure we understand that here the hand of God worked through three heroic human women. But again, heroism is only noticeable and laudable in this haggadah when it is performed by men.

On page 49, the footnote says “In the desert Hashem made water flow from a rock so that the Jews would have something to drink and not be thirsty.” This is a reference to the water source commonly known as “Miriam’s well” (Taanit 9a), and yet neither her name nor her personality are associated with it in the Children’s Haggadah. The story of a righteous person whose merit saved the Jewish people from thirst would certainly seem to fit with the other material included in the Children’s Haggadah footnotes. In light of my other evidence, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it is Miriam’s gender that prevents her story from being told and her name from being mentioned. Again, it seems that this haggadah is more concerned with not naming women than with accurately conveying the Jewish tradition.

Footnotes in the Children’s Haggadah mention many men in Jewish history, including Adam, Avraham (mentioned 5 times), Yitzchak (3 times), Yaakov (7 times), Yosef (7 times), Moshe (9 times), Aharon, Yehoshua, David (4 times), Shlomo, Mashiach, Hillel, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Akiva (3 times), and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah. There are a couple of references to “Jewish women”, but not a single mention of any individual girl or woman.

I do not believe that ArtScroll intended to excise women entirely from Jewish history or from the Haggadah. On the contrary, Tova Katz’s illustrations in the Children’s Haggadah frequently include women and girls, and every second footnote is marked by a picture of a girl reading or examining a book with a magnifying glass. This conscious and courageous effort to include women and girls should be acknowledged and praised. Nonetheless, the deliberate exclusion of women from the text is shocking. The failure of parents, children, and teachers to notice it for 17 years is both disturbing and inexcusable.

Our daughters need to know that they are not the first women in Jewish history to have names and personalities. They need role models. They need to read the stories of our tradition and see themselves in those stories. Thank God, those historical women, complete with names and personalities, are present in our tradition, ready and waiting to be looked up to and spoken about by our daughters. To remove them is to alter our holy tradition. Worse, to remove them is to risk that our daughters will turn away from a tradition that seems irrelevant to them. For the sake of our children, for the sake of the Torah, and for the sake of the truth, it is vital that we stop using educational materials that twist and distort Judaism in this way.

This year, find a different haggadah for your children.

Next year, let us demand that ArtScroll put out a new and improved edition.

Note: Before publishing this blog post, I tried to reach both Mr. Blitz and ArtScroll to ask them if the omission of women from the Children’s Haggadah was deliberate and whether there is a plan to put out a corrected edition, but I did not hear back from either.

About the Author
Deborah Klapper holds an AB from Harvard University and a Scholars' Circle certificate from Drisha Institute. She lives, learns, and teaches in Sharon, MA.
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