David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

Is the Haggadah merely a text to be read and recited?

When I was growing up, my parents insisted that I stay at the Seder table until after I recited the four questions of the “Ma Nishtana“. After I completed my rendition, I was told that I had fulfilled my religious and familial duties and I was now free to go. As a child that was fine with me, but as I grew older it occurred to me that that didn’t make much sense. After all, why would a child be taught to ask a series of questions without being expected to stay and hear the answers? Thus, I decided that it was important to stay and recite the Haggadah which included, among other things, the answers to these questions.

Later, however, I realized that merely reading and reciting the Haggadah, as if it were a glorified prayer-book, is not adequate either. After all, it takes no more than twenty or thirty minutes (or perhaps a bit longer for those who are not conversant in Hebrew or for those who enjoy singing many of the songs) to finish reading the text, yet the Haggadah itself informs us that “anyone who adds [and spends extra time] in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy” and then includes a story about a group of prominent rabbis from the first and second centuries who spent the entire night telling the story. Thus, it is clear that more is expected of us than the mere reading and reciting of the Haggadah. But what?

One solution is to share insights into the text of the Haggadah from the commentaries in the countless number of Haggadot. Since there are so many commentaries, and since there are new Haggadot published every year, there should be no problem filling an entire evening with such study and conversation. The problem is that this solution assumes that the Haggadah is a text to be studied and analyzed, similar to a chapter in the Torah or the Talmud. But, in reality, the word Haggadah (הַגָּדָה) derives from the Hebrew word lehagid (לְהַגִּיד) which means “to tell” because its essence is the telling of the story of the Exodus, as commanded by the Torah: “And you shall tell וְהִגַּדְתָּ)) to your son on that day…” (Exodus 13:8). And in explaining the details of this Mitzvah (commandment), the Rambam (Maimonides) states the following:

“It is a positive commandment of the Torah to relate the miracles and wonders wrought for our ancestors in Egypt on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan… A father should teach his son according to the son’s knowledge: How is this applied? If the son is young or foolish, he should tell him: “My son, in Egypt, we were all slaves like this maidservant or this slave. On this night, the Holy One, Blessed be He, redeemed us and took us out to freedom.” If the son is older and wise, he should inform him what happened to us in Egypt and the miracles wrought for us by Moses, our teacher; everything according to the son’s knowledge… One must begin with shame and conclude with praise… In each and every generation, a person must present himself as if he, himself, has now left the slavery of Egypt… God commanded in the Torah: “Remember that you were a slave [Deuteronomy 5:15]” – i.e., as if you, yourself, were a slave and went out to freedom and were redeemed (The Laws of Chametz and Matzah, Chapter 7).”

From this description of the Mitzvah four principles emerge: 1. That the Mitzvah is to tell the story of the miracles and the wonders that occurred to our ancestors, 2. That the manner in which the story is told should vary from child to child, depending on the child’s age and intelligence, 3. That the story should begin with Israel’s shame and then continue with Israel’s glory, 4. That every person should feel (and show) “as if you, yourself, were a slave and went out to freedom and were redeemed”.

In other words, what is required, first, is the telling of a story, not the reading or analysis of a text. Thus, to the extent that we read the Haggadah at all, the goal should be to stimulate, not substitute for, conversation. Second, the conversation should vary from family to family, and from year to year within each family, depending on the age and the intellectual capabilities of the children and the guests around the Seder table. This cannot be achieved if the entire evening revolves around the recitation and analysis of a standardized text. Third, the story should begin by discussing the shame and the hardships that our ancestors had to endure and then gradually shift to the focus on their redemption and glory. This means that the evening is not just a festive and joyful celebration of the Exodus but involves a discussion of the hardships that preceded it as well. Considering the challenging times in which we live today it should not be too difficult to reflect on, and evoke discussion of, that dimension of the story. Finally, the Mitzvah is not merely cognitive but experiential as well. If participants at the Seder merely read and recite the Haggadah, and even if they study and analyze it in depth but they do not experience the Exodus as if they were once themselves slaves who had been liberated personally, they do not fulfill the Mitzvah properly.

Based on the above, leaders of the Seder should be aware of the age, background, and intelligence of the participants, consider ways of telling the story that will best resonate with them, and give thought to the appropriate methods that will enable them to experience the events as though they are occurring to them, here and now. Thus, preparations for the Seder should not just involve the food to be served at the table but the content of the conversation around it, and the methods of conveying that content in a meaningful way, as well.

Fortunately, leaders of the Seder today do not have to work very hard to find such content, as there is an abundance of material and resources available online. And in the event that readers of this article seek additional ideas and suggestions, feel free to contact me directly.

A final thought. If there is one statement in the Haggadah that requires no explanation and that resonates as much today as it did back then, it is the following: “And it is this [the divine promise] that has stood for our ancestors and for us; since it is not [only] one [person or nation] that has stood [against] us to destroy us, but rather in each generation, they stand [against] us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.”

Let us hope and pray that, with the help of God, we will soon defeat these nations so that we may celebrate next Pesach in the rebuilt Jerusalem, in freedom and in joy.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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