The Passover Hag­gadah: A Biography

  • Review
By – March 30, 2020

And you shall tell your son on that day….” This sim­ple com­mand in Exo­dus has led to more than five thou­sand ver­sions of the Passover sto­ry. Ochs recounts its life begin­ning with var­i­ous men­tions in the Bible and end­ing with the pro­fu­sion of Hag­gadot today; these vari­a­tions reflect the geo­graph­i­cal spread of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, the diver­si­ty of prac­tice, and his­toric events. For any­one inter­est­ed in the emer­gence and com­plex evo­lu­tion of the Hag­gadah, this biog­ra­phy offers a trove of infor­ma­tion in engag­ing and invit­ing language.

The bib­li­cal men­tions range from the orig­i­nal Passover, pre­ced­ing the flight from Egypt, to the extrav­a­gant fes­tiv­i­ties cel­e­brat­ed at the Tem­ple in Jerusalem under the kings Hezeki­ah and Josi­ah; there are no rit­u­als described for these cel­e­bra­tions. In response to the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple in 70 CE, the rab­bis strug­gled to cre­ate prac­tices that would pre­serve the hol­i­day and its sig­nif­i­cance; their trans­mit­tal was entire­ly oral, but their dis­cus­sions and rit­u­als were even­tu­al­ly record­ed in the Mish­nah and Tosef­ta, which have brief descrip­tions of the home cer­e­monies that took place in the first decades after the destruction.

By the eleventh cen­tu­ry, texts from the cen­ters of Jew­ish learn­ing were con­sol­i­dat­ed in a rec­og­niz­able Hag­gadah and adopt­ed through­out the Jew­ish world — aug­ment­ed by region­al rit­u­al. By the medieval peri­od a Hag­gadah for fam­i­ly use was com­ing into use, and with it the desire to enhance the hol­i­day (hid­dur mitz­vah), giv­ing rise to elab­o­rate­ly illus­trat­ed and illu­mi­nat­ed Hag­gadot com­mis­sioned by rich families.

The advent of print­ing gave rise to a robust mar­ket for Hag­gadot and made it pos­si­ble to own mul­ti­ple copies and replace overused ones. Notable edi­tions fea­tured such attrac­tions as trans­la­tions into the ver­nac­u­lar to accom­pa­ny the Hebrew text, and com­men­tary as well as illus­tra­tions, expla­na­tions, and instructions.

The next major inno­va­tion came in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, when Reform Judaism and the kib­butz move­ment fur­ther ener­gized the cre­ation of Hag­gadot reflect­ing new mind sets and approach­es to Judaism; how­ev­er, this burst of ide­o­log­i­cal­ly inspired Hag­gadot was over­shad­owed by World War II and the Holo­caust. Notable Hag­gadot of the wartime peri­od include the lav­ish­ly illus­trat­ed edi­tion by the artist Arthur Szyk link­ing the Jew­ish slaves in Egypt to the per­se­cut­ed Jews of Europe, and ver­sions cre­at­ed for those who served in the war. The ques­tion of how to memo­ri­al­ize the Holo­caust with­in the Hag­gadah con­tin­ues to be rel­e­vant when cre­at­ing post­war Haggadot.

Which brings us to the pub­li­ca­tion today of Hag­gadot, and the ques­tion of why we keep revis­ing the Hag­gadah after cen­turies of use. In the clos­ing of the biog­ra­phy, Ochs cri­tiques the flaws and the val­ue of the Hag­gadah and con­cludes that the final pages of its life are yet to be written.

The Passover Hag­gadah is a vol­ume in the Lives of Great Reli­gious Books pub­lished by the Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

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