Although Jews have been retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt at the Pesach Seder for millennia, the Haggadah as we know it was compiled during the Gaonic period (8th – 9th century CE) in Babylon, with additional songs written by Jews probably during the Middle Ages.
Based on Torah, Mishna and Talmud, its editors, leaders of the Jewish community in the Diaspora, sought to provide a compact guide for Jewish survival. With few precious hand-written texts available, often running for their lives and unable to carry volumes, Jews needed to teach their children the basics of the holiday and Judaism.
Using stories and songs, focused on family units, the Haggadah provides concise educational 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.
The Haggadah, however, is not chronological; it jumps from one episode to another without a clear line of development. Full of metaphors and historical events, it’s strange that the critical figure in the Exodus, Moses, is mentioned only once, in passing; Aharon and Miriam are missing entirely. 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 that we use was compiled.
Aramean civilization began in what is now northern Syria and became part of the Assyrian and later Babylon empires. After the destruction of the First Temple, Jews were exiled and taken to Babylon where they built a vibrant and cohesive Torah-based community. Towards the end of the Gaonic period, however, their communities plagued by assimilation and threatened with destruction, Babylonian rabbis assembled a code-book for Jewish survival that could be used in impending and future exiles.
The Haggadah reminds us that Jewish history begins in Mesopotamian idol worship, exile and Egyptian slavery. The Exodus from Egypt, however, not only demonstrates God’s power and expresses human freedom, but is only the beginning of the story; in a generation, Jews became a nation and a people, and went on to conquer and inhabit Eretz Yisrael and build the First Jewish Commonwealth.
The paradigm of Exile and Redemption, therefore, provides a context for understanding how Jewish history works: nationhood is determined by geography, a homeland; peoplehood is spiritual/cultural existence in time. Nationhood is building a civilization — political, judicial, economic institutions, civic organizations; Peoplehood is transcendent, founded on history, language, memory and a sense of destiny.
An instruction manual on how to survive as strangers in strange lands, the Haggadah focuses on the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in Judaism and Jewish history. It is filled with stories about 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. These rabbis were responsible for the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people; they are the heroes who gave up their lives to teach Torah.
Children’s stories and songs in the Haggadah are parables that illuminate dark paths of suffering with rays of hope. As individuals and as a people we are all of the four children, simple, curious, rebellious and faithful – but involved. What unites us is the belief in One God expressed in the Shema, a simple way of connecting.
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 at death. The Shema, however is not only about monotheism — God is One — but also about community, “Hear O Israel,” a unifying solidarity as a People. For Jews in Exile, despite oppression and suffering, often with limited Jewish resources, this one phrase contained identity and purpose.
The editors of the Haggadah understood that Jewish communities in the Diaspora, under pressure, isolated and with few texts or schools, needed to reduce things to essentials. Eating matzah requires no belief, but the reason we eat matzah (and refuse to eat bread) could become an inquiry that leads to study and commitment.
Matzah 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 matzah, the Haggadah instructs, with maror, bitter herbs, and sweet haroset, and remember the Pesach sacrifice offered in the Temple in Jerusalem — a place that might be far away, desecrated, ruled by others and nearly forgotten, yet which connects us to God, to the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael.
Amidst destruction and chaos the Haggadah asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” Pesach reminds us not only that we are messengers of Torah, living examples of ethical monotheism, but of our heritage and our national homeland.
Moreover, Pesach is not an isolated holiday, but is the beginning of a 50-day period that culminates in Shavuot, celebrating receiving Torah. It is also a time when the first fruits of Eretz Yisrael were brought to the Temple in offerings of thanksgiving and faith that resonates throughout the year. It’s about the Jewish people in its homeland.
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 zuzim were equivalent to a half-shekel which Jews were commanded to contribute to the Temple every year to purchase public sacrifices); a
cat (Egypt); a dog (Assyria); a stick and fire (Babylon); water (Persia and Media); an ox (Greece); the slaughterer (Rome); Crusaders, Moslems, Nazi and Soviet murderers (The Angel of Death) — and finally, Redemption.
“Who knows One?” teaches essential elements in Judaism by numbers: God is one, two tablets of Moses , three Patriarchs, four Matriarchs, five books of Torah, six tractates of Mishnah, the seventh day, Shabbat, brit milah on the eighth day, nine months of pregnancy (family), 10 Commandments, 11 stars (constellations), 12 tribes, and 13 attributes of God.
“Dayenu” (it’s sufficient) is not just about appreciating freedom and survival in the desert, but, at the end, highlights the purpose: Torah, Shabbat, Eretz Yisrael and the Temple.
These stories and songs reflect the history of Jews as a People and a Nation, in slavery and freedom, times of sadness yet full of hope, scattered throughout the world, in exile and home.
The Haggadah reminds us that “once we were slaves,” dispersed and in exile, but that’s not where we belong. Pesach transports us back into history and propels us towards our future in Eretz Yisrael.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” the fulfillment of God’s promise, is ours too.