The Four Ques­tions from the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script cir­ca 1350

As sure­ly as cro­cus­es bloom in the spring, so too does a new crop of Hag­gadot. In her sprite­ly biog­ra­phy of the Hag­gadah, Vanes­sa L. Ochs, a pro­fes­sor of reli­gion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, notes that many con­tem­po­rary edi­tions have reworked the text, and sev­er­al 2020 Hag­gadot nice­ly illus­trate that trend. These Hag­gadot, as well as Ochs’ his­to­ry, will enrich any seder with top­ics rang­ing from the Exo­dus from Egypt to today’s head­lines, thus empha­siz­ing the endur­ing mes­sage of Passover.

The Passover Hag­gadah: A Biography

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.

The Essen­tial Seder: A Con­tem­po­rary Haggadah

The Hag­gadah is com­piled by Deb­o­rah Gross-Zuch­man, a painter whose col­or­ful illus­tra­tions enliv­en the text; Gross-Zuchman’s Hag­gadah is framed as a short and mean­ing­ful seder, with fresh lan­guage and a con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ty that empha­sizes social jus­tice. It fol­lows the order of the seder and the bless­ings and oth­er famil­iar sec­tions are in Hebrew with Eng­lish translit­er­a­tion, the body of the text is in Eng­lish. Dis­cus­sion, prompt­ed by ques­tions about free­dom and jus­tice, is the din­ner table con­ver­sa­tion. For those brought up on the tra­di­tion­al text, the updat­ed lan­guage may be a a fruit­ful change, or a bit dis­ori­ent­ing. The Four Chil­dren, for exam­ple, are cast as dif­fer­ent aspects of our inner selves; the Magid is a notable depar­ture, cen­tered on Moses, who does not appear in the tra­di­tion­al telling.

The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah

Not every Hag­gadah comes with an endorse­ment by the envi­ron­men­tal­ist Bill McK­ibben, but this edi­tion cel­e­brates the nat­ur­al world and its sig­nif­i­cance in our lives as we come togeth­er to cel­e­brate Passover. It is intend­ed for both knowl­edge­able and unfa­mil­iar par­tic­i­pants. The tra­di­tion­al text, large­ly in Eng­lish, is print­ed in green; eco­log­i­cal com­men­tary, con­text, and side­bars, empha­siz­ing nature and the land, are print­ed in black and are intend­ed to encour­age dis­cus­sion. An inter­est­ing inclu­sion in this Hag­gadah are the last two vers­es of the Magid (Deuteron­o­my 26:9 – 10), omit­ted in the tra­di­tion­al text: Adonai…gave us this land,” a sig­nif­i­cant mes­sage for this eco­log­i­cal retelling. In a brief dis­cus­sion the author explores the rea­sons for the omis­sion and the impor­tance of their inclu­sion here. The illus­tra­tions by Galia Good­man enrich the texts.

The Koren Youth Haggadah

This love­ly Hag­gadah from Israel beau­ti­ful­ly ful­fills the com­mand, And you shall tell your child on that day…” Edu­ca­tion­al in the finest sense of the word, on each page the Hag­gadah has the Hebrew text and an age-appro­pri­ate trans­la­tion; a live­ly full-col­or illus­tra­tion; an instruc­tion to explain what is hap­pen­ing; an activ­i­ty; an idea or quo­ta­tion to reflect on; and a ques­tion for dis­cus­sion. Along the bot­tom of each page is a nav­i­ga­tion bar indi­cat­ing where the read­ers are in the ser­vice. A Par­ent and Edu­ca­tor Com­pan­ion is avail­able on the publisher’s web­site; it not only takes the leader through the Hag­gadah page by page, expand­ing the expla­na­tions and sug­gest­ing answers to the many ques­tions the Hag­gadah pos­es, but also explains many of the illus­tra­tive and icon­ic ele­ments. Even with all the activ­i­ty on each dou­ble-page spread, the Hag­gadah is very well designed, and the pages are open and inviting.

The Passover Hag­gadah: An Ancient Sto­ry for Mod­ern Times

The sub­ti­tle describes this Hag­gadah per­fect­ly. It is the most tra­di­tion­al of the Hag­gadot reviewed here — the com­plete Hebrew text, both trans­lat­ed and translit­er­at­ed — with a thought­ful and wide-rang­ing intro­duc­tion and three reflec­tive essays. And all this served up with the Tablet edge — tra­di­tion laced with ques­tion­ing, sly humor, and an ultra-con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ty. A good exam­ple is the seder plate, illus­trat­ed with a clas­sic set­ting accom­pa­nied by a bar along the bot­tom of the page sug­gest­ing six pos­si­ble addi­tions rep­re­sent­ing every­thing from the just-about- tra­di­tion­al orange to a pine cone for crim­i­nal jus­tice reform. There are four daugh­ters to com­ple­ment the four sons (three of whom are old enough to sport a mus­tache). If a leader finds the text lag­ging a lit­tle, there are occa­sion­al alerts on how to skip ahead or try a diversion.

The Lom­bard Haggadah

The Lom­bard Hag­gadah takes its place in the col­lec­tion of out­stand­ing fac­sim­i­les of rare medieval Hag­gadot. The first stand-alone Ital­ian Hag­gadah — one that is not part of a sid­dur — it dates to the four­teenth cen­tu­ry. Repro­duced in a hand­some large-for­mat vol­ume for study and appre­ci­a­tion, it includes essays by lead­ing schol­ars on Jew­ish life in Lom­bardy, the artis­tic sources and inspi­ra­tion of the Hag­gadah, and the mean­ings and ambi­gu­i­ties in the illus­tra­tion. For the lay read­er the del­i­cate­ly beau­ti­ful art, appear­ing on almost all of the sev­en­ty-five pages, are reward enough, show­ing the dress, envi­ron­ment, house­hold life of the Jew­ish Lom­bard com­mu­ni­ty, and influ­ence of Chris­t­ian art. The entire Hag­gadah is repro­duced in the clos­ing sec­tion; in addi­tion to the seder, the vol­ume includes a few sto­ries from Gen­e­sis and Exo­dus, and a cat­a­logue of month­ly labors akin to a book of days.

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.