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.
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.