A Passover Hag­gadah: Go Forth and Learn

Rab­bi David Sil­ber with Rachel Furst
  • Review
By – September 13, 2011
Spring has arrived, and with it the lat­est crop of hag­gadot, prompt­ing the first ques­tion: Why anoth­er hag­gadah?

The hag­gadah is the most pub­lished Jew­ish book, with more than 3,000 ver­sions, which speaks not only to the cen­tral­i­ty of the seder in Jew­ish life but also to its vital­i­ty and capac­i­ty to embrace the ever expand­ing inter­ests and back­grounds of the guests gath­ered around the seder table.

So how are these hag­gadot dif­fer­ent from all oth­er hag­gadot?

The three hag­gadot dis­cussed here address three clear­ly dis­tinct groups of seder par­tic­i­pants, and each is designed to add sig­nif­i­cance to their par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence and enrich the mean­ing of Passover for them. It is unlike­ly that any one of them would serve the guests choos­ing one of the oth­ers.

Don­ald B. Suss­wein, a lawyer and stu­dent of Jew­ish stud­ies, address­es his hag­gadah to new­com­ers who are per­haps unfa­mil­iar with the sto­ry of Passover or guests who are trou­bled by the nar­ra­tive — Did the Exo­dus real­ly hap­pen? Did God actu­al­ly talk to Moses? — or just want to dis­cuss anti-Semi­tism begin­ning with Pharaoh. The Hag­gadah for the Fifth Child tells the sto­ry of Passover through Exo­dus 1 – 20 rather than the tra­di­tion­al Mag­gid, along the way ask­ing ques­tions, invit­ing answers, sug­gest­ing con­tem­po­rary par­al­lels. Through its ques­tions and obser­va­tions, the val­ues of Passover are made strik­ing­ly con­tem­po­rary, but the text is some­what stiffly script­ed, a con­trast to the open dis­cus­sion it hopes to start. The final sec­tion of the book is a series of brief, wide-rang­ing essays that explore the top­ics raised in the hag­gadah. The hag­gadah includes all the tra­di­tion­al rit­u­als, in Eng­lish, Hebrew, and translit­er­a­tion. Peri­od pho­tographs enliv­en the text. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes.

For decades Cok­ie Roberts, jour­nal­ist and NPR cor­re­spon­dent, and Steve Roberts, jour­nal­ist and pro­fes­sor at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, have gath­ered a group of large­ly inter­mar­ried fam­i­lies at their seder. Their hagad­dah, based on the 1942 Recon­struc­tion­ist hag­gadah but much revised and updat­ed, is com­fort­ably tra­di­tion­al but retains the uni­ver­sal out­look of the orig­i­nal; par­tic­i­pants may join in We Shall Over­come and Michael, Row the Boat Ashore as well as chant Hal­lel. One par­tic­u­lar­ly attrac­tive fea­ture that empha­sizes the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of Passover is the oppor­tu­ni­ty, after the sec­ond cup, for guests to read quo­ta­tions from non-Jews that under­line the mes­sage of Passover. Our Hag­gadah also tells the Passover sto­ry through Exo­dus rather than the tra­di­tion­al Deuteron­o­my Mag­gid, but this hag­gadah also has all the tra­di­tion­al rit­u­als in Eng­lish, Hebrew, and translit­er­a­tion. Per­son­al intro­duc­tions by both hus­band and wife open the hag­gadah and set the tone. Com­ments, recipes, and help­ful hints make this hag­gadah a use­ful guide for both inter­faith fam­i­lies and any­one host­ing a large multi­gen­er­a­tional seder. Illus­tra­tions, sources, web­sites.

A Passover Hag­gadah is based on the lec­tures of Rab­bi David Sil­ber at Drisha Insti­tute, founder and dean of Drisha Insti­tute for Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. Tak­ing the Mishnah’s instruc­tion that engage­ment with midrash is the major activ­i­ty of the seder, A Passover Hag­gadah uses rab­binic method to expand and enrich the seder text, but the strength of the book are the eight open­ing essays. Rab­bi Silber’s midrashic method is deeply knowl­edge­able but nev­er freight­ed with exces­sive ref­er­ence. The expla­na­tion for the tra­di­tion­al Mag­gid is orig­i­nal and con­vinc­ing; the essay on the plagues shows how var­i­ous numer­i­cal group­ings can illus­trate an equal vari­ety of bib­li­cal points. This is a hag­gadah to study, slow­ly turn­ing over the lit­er­ary links that allow one part of the Tanakh to talk to anoth­er. Robert Alter’s trans­la­tion is used for the Torah and the Psalms. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, sug­ges­tions for fur­ther read­ing.

None of these hag­gadot are gen­der neutral.


Found­ed in 1979, Drisha Insti­tute for Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion is a lead­ing cen­ter for the study of clas­si­cal Jew­ish texts and has pro­found­ly affect­ed the lives of thou­sands of stu­dents through­out the Unit­ed States and abroad who have tak­en class­es and learned with its excep­tion­al fac­ul­ty. Drisha pro­vides stu­dents of all ages and back­grounds with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to encounter texts in a seri­ous, intel­lec­tu­al­ly rig­or­ous and inclu­sive man­ner. Founder Rab­bi David Silber’s vision is to cre­ate a more reflec­tive and com­mit­ted com­mu­ni­ty.” For more infor­ma­tion about Drisha, vis­it www​.Drisha​.org. Below Rab­bi Sil­ber fur­ther explains his new work, A Passover Hag­gadah: Go Forth and Learn, and his meth­ods of study. 

What about this hag­gadah makes it spe­cial? 
The focus of this hag­gadah is the Bib­li­cal texts that ground it and the Rab­binic midrash which inter­prets or rein­ter­prets the texts. This hag­gadah con­sists of eight essays that ana­lyze the Bib­li­cal texts that serve as the roots of the hag­gadah and con­tains, as well, an under-the-line com­men­tary of the hag­gadah itself that focus­es on the struc­ture of the seder and the use of Rab­binic midrash. 

What can we learn from study­ing texts and how they inform each oth­er? 
Bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives in gen­er­al play off each oth­er. If we con­sid­er a string of texts, text #4 is play­ing off texts #1, #2, and #3 — which, in turn, recall each oth­er. The task of the inter­preter is both to try to under­stand the main line and also to hear the echoes, res­o­nances, effects and allu­sions that are present to assess their sig­nif­i­cance and what they are telling and teach­ing us. That, in my view, is a large part of what clas­si­cal midrash is doing and what the present day student/​interpreter attempts as well. It is an excit­ing chal­lenge. The eight essays of this hag­gadah, sep­a­rate but relat­ed to each oth­er, demon­strate a way to begin to look at the core texts of the seder. The pur­pose of these essays, beyond sug­gest­ing spe­cif­ic inter­pre­ta­tions, is to open up paths of pos­si­bil­i­ties and to encour­age the read­er to delve more deeply. 

What makes study­ing about the seder and the text of the hag­gadah so cen­tral and impor­tant? 
The seder is the core rit­u­al of the Jew­ish tra­di­tion. The composer/​editor of the hag­gadah, in effect, makes the claim that to under­stand Judaism one must under­stand the seder! So the hag­gadah is a great place to begin to exam­ine the Jew­ish tra­di­tion, and the Torah is the best place to begin. One of my core assump­tions is that the Rab­binic midrash address­es issues, prob­lems and dif­fi­cul­ties that are present in the text and it behooves us to exam­ine their inter­pre­ta­tions very care­ful­ly. In addi­tion, as I say in the intro­duc­tion, the very idea of midrash pre­sup­pos­es a text with vir­tu­al­ly lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ties which invites us to ask our ques­tions and search for our answers. As such, it is the per­fect vehi­cle for an evening that claims that in each gen­er­a­tion we should see our­selves as leav­ing Egypt. 

The hag­gadah is, in fact, the inter­weav­ing of rit­u­al and study. The hag­gadah makes cer­tain claims on us. One such claim is, I think, that study should gen­er­ate reflec­tive prac­tice and that our prac­tice should play out our deep­est val­ues. It argues as well for informed behav­ior — first, we under­stand and then our prac­tice will be more mean­ing­ful. In effect, then, the study and prac­tice strength­en each other. 

Anoth­er claim is that the rit­u­al of the seder is a mod­el of com­mu­ni­ty. We affirm a com­mon past and express our hopes for the future; we share a spe­cial meal; we study togeth­er wel­com­ing all ques­tions; we speak in the deep­est way of includ­ing the oppressed. The Rab­binic tra­di­tion under­stands study to be essen­tial to com­mu­ni­ty and knows that there are many kinds of ques­tions and ques­tion­ers. So the seder is, in effect, an edu­ca­tion­al mod­el. 

What was your goal in cre­at­ing this hag­gadah? 
I think that the key mes­sage I would like to get across is that there is more to learn. Through this hag­gadah, I hope to encour­age the read­er to explore the texts more deeply. It is, in effect, an invi­ta­tion to go back to the sources in an attempt to dis­cov­er new mean­ings. If this hag­gadah inspires read­ers to seek fur­ther, to agree or dis­agree with my think­ing, I will con­sid­er it a great success.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions