In this series we’re helping you get ready for Passover early and thoroughly. It’s important to get out your Haggadah and study early. Too many people (including me in previous years) go through the Haggadah with little understanding. It’s not as simple as it seems.
After all, couldn’t Passover just be a series of symbolic foods, bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and stories to remember Passover? I guess it could. But tradition has brought down to us the Haggadah with its layers of tradition from different periods. And the Haggadah cannot be understood without some commentary and history.
If you don’t have a Haggadah or don’t have a good one, I recommend for families Family Haggadah: A Seder for All Generations by Elie Gindi, available at amazon.com or from behrmanhouse.com
If you want to understand your Haggadah, I recommend Creating Lively Passover Seders by David Arnow available here.
In his third chapter, Arnow says exactly what I feel:
A few minutes after the Seder starts, many people begin to feel lost. We make kiddush, wash our hands, dip parsley in salt water, break the middle matzah and set part of it aside for the afikomen. We continue with the four questions and avadim hayinu l’pharaoh b’mitzrayim . . . we were slaves in Egypt. So far, so good. But soon the confusion begins.
The Haggadah then goes into some weird places. There’s a story about five rabbis debating Passover. Then there is a reading about four kinds of children with relation to Passover. Then there is a story of how the Patriarchs started as idolaters, came into covenant with God, and went into Egypt in the days of Jacob.
What’s going on with these layers of tradition?
In Part 4, we’ll talk about the Five Rabbis. In Part 5, we’ll talk about the Four Children.
But for now, it is important to understand something: The Haggadah goes in two directions following the preferred interpretations of two different rabbis: Rav and Shmuel.
Arnow gives a wonderful explanation of an early stage of the development of the Haggadah. It goes back to Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (the Prince), whose family lived in the Galilee in Sepphoris (Tzippori) and who survived the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132-135 C.E.). R. Judah emerged as the leader of Judaism for his generation. About the year 200 C.E., R. Judah wrote down the traditions and discussions about the law that were current in his day. We call this the Mishnah.
There is a line in the Mishnah about the Passover that says, “He begins with disgrace and concludes with praise.”
Two of R. Judah’s colleagues, Rav and Shmuel disagreed about what this meant. Shmuel believed the disgrace was Israel’s slavery. Rav believed the disgrace was the idolatry of the Patriarchs before the covenant with God. Both had scriptures from the Torah to back their opinions.
So here is a key to understanding why the Haggadah flows as it does. The Haggadah, as Arnow puts it, is two Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) in one. The Haggadah first follows Shmuel’s opinion. The Four Questions (see Part 2) deal with Israel’s slavery, according to Shmuel’s opinion that this is the disgrace spoken of in the Mishnah. It continues with a reading that begins, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”
Then the Haggadah follows Rav’s opinion. It tells the story of the Patriarchs, beginning with their days of idolatry before the covenant and ending with Jacob going into Egypt.
So, get out your Haggadahs many times in the upcoming weeks leading up to April 19. Study and think about the words and traditions of the Haggadah. This little book is a treasure. It is a memorial of Israel’s history and culture.