How Old is the Haggadah?

For those unfamiliar, the Haggadah is a sort of drama contained in a book handed down over many generations for celebrating Passover. We sit around the table and read the Haggadah and surround ourselves with the symbols of Passover.

The Haggadah is not a straighforward telling of the Passover story. Many traditional readings and interpretive discussions have been added from generation to generation. There are the four questions, which have changed over the years. There is a reading called the four sons (wise, wicked, simple, unable to ask). There is the arithmetic of Rabbi Yose the Galilean, whos says Egypt was hit with 50 plagues at the Sea.

How old is this Haggadah? How old are the ceremonies of Passover?

For starters, the celebration of Passover goes back to the time of Moses (c.1400 B.C.E.). That celebration is a much simpler one. There are no four glasses of wine, four questions, or four sons. There is simply a lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.

By the time of the Mishnah, written down about 200 C.E., we read of four cups. There are also questions, but only three.

Some of the Passover customs can be traced back further. Eating celery or parsley or lettuce near the beginning of the Seder comes from Roman times. It was customary at formal Roman meals to have hors d’oeuvres prior to the main meal. Fresh greens dipped in vinegar or brine would be familiar.

The New Testament is a source in which we see early Passover customs prior to any other sources. For example, Yeshua dips at the table. He says, “The one who dips with me into the bowl, it is he who will betray me” (Matt. 26:23). Yeshua makes special use of a cup “which comes after the meal” (Luke 22:20), perhaps indicating that there were multiple cups as in the modern Seder. Yeshua and the disciples reclined (Luke 22:14), which is a Passover custom, though admittedly it was also a Roman custom. And Yeshua and the disciples finished their Last Supper singing a hymn (Matt. 26:30), which is still the custom today.

So the Haggadah or at least the Passover ceremony grew from a simple meal of lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread into something more. There is one part of the Hagaddah that would seem to go back even earlier. The Hagaddah has a saying that Laban the Aramean (Syrian) was more dangerous than Pharaoh in Egypt. How can the Hagaddah say that? The answer is, “Pharaoh decreed only the death of the males, but Laban sought to destroy all.”

How does that part of the Haggadah help us to define a date? It does because there is one period in history in particular where Jews would want to speak more favorably of Egypt than Syria. There is one period of time that fits the bill. It is in the period when the Ptolemies (Egypt) and Seleucids (Syria), the heirs of Alexander’s empire, were fighting over Israel. This portion of the Haggadah could go back to the 200’s B.C.E.

How old is the Haggadah? Some parts go back to Moses (bitter herbs and unleavened bread). Some parts go back to the era of Ptolemies and Seleucids (the Laban text). Some parts go back to Greco-Roman dining customs (reclining). Some parts are at least as ancient as the Gospels (dipping, singing hymns after the meal). Some parts are at least as ancient as the Mishnah (four cups, asking questions).

The ultimate answer, though, is that the Haggadah is about 1,000 years old in the form we have it today. Little has changed in that 1,000 years. As we recite the Haggadah at Passover, we connect generations. We have some parts recited by Jews in the era of the Ptolemies and others added from the Middle Ages. Generation after generation, Passover continues and it will until Messiah sets up his Passover table and puts on it the final touches.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Messianic Jewish, Passover. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How Old is the Haggadah?

  1. Carl K. says:

    Nice overview, Derek. By laying out the history you help avoid the confusion that ‘since Yeshua celebrated (what seems like) a seder in his time, what we’re doing today is the same thing.’

    An interesting article on the timing of the transition to a formalized seder can be found online. It is Judith Hauptman’s “How Old is the Haggadah” at http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0411/is_1_51/ai_85068465

    Also, there’s a fine academic work that goes over the early history, giving due emphasis to the Besorot:

    Bokser, Baruch M. The Origins of the Seder: The Passover Rite and Early Rabbinic Judaism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

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