The Seder: Halakha and Aggadah

The text used at the Seder on Passover is called the Haggadah, which roughly translates as “the story.” Though the sole Haggadah used to be a standard, traditional, commentary free Haggadah published by Maxwell House, today there are a plethora of options for Haggadahs. There are Haggadahs of all flavors—ones with the traditional text, ones with contemporary spins, social justice supplements, feminist Haggadahs, and Haggadahs with commentaries by various rabbis, thinkers, and communal leaders. Some people have the practice of reading from a new Haggadah each year, something that is not too challenging with the variety of options out there.

The Jewish People have come to own the holiday of Passover unlike any other holiday. It is well known that more Jews attend the Seder than any other Jewish occasion. More inspiring than the quantity of Jews attending the Seder is the fact that each Jew comes to the Seder with his or her own Haggadah, each with his or her own story. There is something very personal about our holiday of freedom. It is a day in which each and every Jew can express his or her individualism in Judaism. Even for those who use the traditional text, the interpretations to this text can be very lucid. In fact, the text itself says “and all that elaborate on this text are praised!”

In addition to the preponderance of interpretations of the story of Passover, there are many laws particular to the Seder. Law plays a large role in Judaism, particularly in Orthodox Judaism. Many Jews believe that God commanded us to perform certain actions, such as eating Matzah on Passover. However, the laws of Passover seem ancillary to the story. I get the feeling that if somebody were to just go through the motions—eat the bitter herbs, the Matzah, and the meal—that their Seder would somehow seem deficient, as if they are missing the point. Though this point may seem obvious, it is actually quite radical, in my opinion. Excluding the Hasidic traditions, which often adopt Kabbalistic understandings, in the Orthodox tradition Halakha is often conceived of as being the be-all-and-end-all. I am sure that everybody would agree that it is preferable to think about God’s providence when shaking my Lulav on Sukkot, but this idea is not emphasized. The most important thing is that I pick up the Lulav. On Passover the Matzah cannot just be eaten, it must be engulfed in story.

Passover teaches us both about the beauty and the limitations of the laws. Just as you cannot come to your Seder without Matzah, so too you cannot come to your Seder without your own story, your own Haggadah. On Passover the Halakha and the Aggadah complement each other. The Mitzvot of the Seder are intertwined with the story. The story provides a framework for the laws.

Sometimes Aggadah and Halakha seem to conflict. Halakha does not always line up with our values or life’s story. The Haggadah embraces this conflict. We are told of a group of the great Rabbis who were participating in a Seder in Bnei Brak. This Seder went late, as the rabbis spent the entire night into the next morning discussing the Exodus. Suddenly, their students entered and proclaimed: “Our rabbis! The time for the morning Shema prayer has already come!” What is most interesting about this episode is the lack of conclusion. It does not say that the rabbis got up and went to pray. The story abruptly ends after the students’ proclamation. Did the rabbis abandon their important discussion to fulfill their technical obligation of Shema in time? We will never know. By leaving this story open-ended, the Haggadah is teaching us a lesson in the interplay between Halakha and Aggadah.

I believe that the Passover Seder is a model for Jewish life in terms of integrating Halakha and Aggadah. The rituals and traditions are needed to concretize the Aggadah, to make our story into something tangible. However, just as the Aggadah does not exist in vacuum, so too Halakha cannot exist without keeping in mind our greater story and values as a religion and as a people. And like the Passover story, there are multiple versions and interpretations of the greater Jewish story, all of which should be respected. Embracing the tension between Halakha and Aggadah, and respecting the different ways of settling this tension, will enhance all of our lives as Jews.

About the Author
Daniel is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and resides in Washington Heights, Manhattan. He graduated from the Honors Program at Yeshiva University where he studied Psychology and Jewish Studies and served as the Managing Editor and Senior Opinions Editor of The Commentator.
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