Understanding the Passover Haggadah: Part 1

wolf_haggadah_avignon_provence_final_decade_of_the_14th_centSo, you want to celebrate Passover in a traditional way. You pick up a Haggadah, a Passover manual, and you think it will be simple. Passover is a ritual meal with a few symbolic foods and the story from Exodus, right? But as you read the Haggadah it seems anything but. What’s going on?

It makes no difference if you are Jewish and have some experience at this or if you are a non-Jew trying to learn. Just because you are Jewish and had Passover at your uncle’s house growing up doesn’t mean you understand the Haggadah. And if you are a Christian seeking to add Passover to your spiritual life, don’t think the problem you are having understanding the Haggadah stems from your lack of Jewish background.

I’ll let you in on a secret: no one completely understands the Passover Haggadah just as no one completely understands the Bible.

The Passover Seder, according to the Haggadah, is not a straightforward symbolic meal with the Exodus story thrown in. You might notice some oddities as you read through the Haggadah. The first and most glaring: Moses is not mentioned at all (except in one scripture reference). How can Passover be about the Exodus story and not mention Moses? And the Haggadah doesn’t follow any outline from Exodus at all, but is all over the place with four questions and rabbis having an all-night discussion and four sons and even a song about a goat.

At Messianic Jewish Musings we want to help you be spiritually and intellectually prepared for Passover this year. You will find here leading up to Passover numerous articles for understanding Passover. I would call it “Passover for Dummies,” but I’m afraid I would get sued by the people who own that trademark for a series of books. Besides, it ain’t just dummies who have trouble grasping Passover, its historical layers, the Haggadah, and even the best way to lead a family or group in a Passover Seder.

So, in lesson #1, I want to explain some of the Biblical roots of the Passover Haggadah:

The Passover Haggadah is Less About Exodus and More About Deuteronomy 26:5-10
Judaism is a religion of halakhah, a word which means roughly “walking out the commandments.” Thus, commandments usually take precedence over narratives in Jewish practice. This does not at all mean stories (aggadah, or Haggadah) are unimportant. It just means commandments are even more important.

Thus, the Passover Haggadah is the eventual result of the rabbis and sages considering God’s commandments to Israel concerning the night of Passover and the family table.

Much of what you read in Exodus 12 is actually about the first Passover. While Exodus 12 does have material about the continuing observance of Passover, it is much more in Deuteronomy that we read God’s commandments and institutions for later generations.

Deuteronomy 26:5-10 is a script or a narrative of what the Israelite must say when he brings the firstfruits of his grain as an offering to the priest at the sanctuary. The firstfruits offering for barley occurs during the week of Passover on the day after the Sabbath.

In other words, in Deuteronomy 26 we have a commandment about telling the story of Israel each year during Passover. It is a sacred script, very similar to the command in Exodus 12:25-27 in which God gives a script for the parents to respond to their children’s question about the Passover meal.

And the rabbis chose to focus on the sacred script from Deuteronomy 26 as the basis of the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah is a series of midrashim (expansive and sometimes fanciful interpretations of Biblical texts) on Deuteronomy 26:5-10:

And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O Lord, hast given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God.

The Four Sacred Scripts in the Torah
Deuteronomy 26:5-10 is one of four instances of a sacred drama or script in the Torah. The first comes right from the Exodus chapter itself, Exodus 12:25-27:

And when you come to the land which the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.

Similarly, Exodus 13:14-15 is a sacred script for explaining to children the ritual of redeeming the firstborn of animals:

And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem.’

Finally, in Deuteronomy 6:20-25 there is a sacred script explaining to children why the family keeps all of God’s commandments and statutes:

When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’

The Haggadah is an extended midrash, with stories, rituals, and questions and answers based on Deuteronomy 26:5-10 and influenced by the four sacred scripts in the Torah. Lawrence Hoffman, writing in My People’s Passover Haggadah, calls the Haggadah a sacred drama:

Liturgy in general is a sacred drama–sacred because of the way it is “performed” and the personal stake the performers have in performing it. It is clearly “theater”: people play roles (getting an aliyah, opening the ark), they wear costumes (tallit and kippah), and they have assigned roles to chant or read out loud. . . . The Haggadah is the Seder’s dramatic script. But scripts come relatively open or closed. . . . Open scripts give over the play to the interpretive capacity of those who plan and play it. . . . The Haggadah presents the foundational story of how we got here, and as its problem, it asks, implicitly, why it matters if the Jewish People continues. Each year demands its own compelling solution. That is why its script remains open and why, also, we have to reenact it every year. If it comes out exactly the same as the year before, we have failed our dramatic duty.

Conclusion: Let the Confusing Outline Be a Guide, Not a Closed Script
So, if you are somewhat confused about the Haggadah, here is some perspective that may help:

(1) The Haggadah is a reflection honed over many generations (actively growing for a period of at least 800 years). It is the end-product of a complex tradition of rabbinic discussion about the commands to tell the story, especially centered on Deuteronomy 26:5-10.

(2) Don’t expect a simple meal and a story, but a meal with parts for people to play and multiple stories centered on the story of Israel emerging from Mesopotamia (“my father was a wandering Aramean”) and being set free by God from bondage to enter a land of promise.

(3) Understand that the emphasis on children’s questions and even the strange passage about four sons (wise, wicked, simple, and stuck-for-words) are midrashim or expansions of the Torah’s commands about telling the children the story.

(4) Don’t simply read every word of the Haggadah and neither fail to add words to the Haggadah. There is a lot of room for creative assigning of roles, abridging the text, and adding modern reflections. Ask yourself, “What can I say this year about God, freedom, and the future that I have not said before?”

Of course, this is just a beginning and not enough to help you understand the Haggadah. But it is an important step. Read the Haggadah well in advance of Passover (I will suggest a few Haggadahs that are readily available in a future article). Especially if you are the leader of the Seder, be educated in advance and know that you will learn something new every year.

In future articles I will continue explaining the Passover Haggadah, largely with the help of My People’s Passover Haggadah edited by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow. By Passover, I hope to help you (and myself) understand its flow and have ideas for leading and ideas for participating in this ancient, ever-changing festival of freedom.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Holidays, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Passover, Talmud and Tradition, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Understanding the Passover Haggadah: Part 1

  1. heavenisnear says:

    i look forward to this series of posts because of what you mentioned. i plan to lead our first in-home seder this year, and it’s more than a little over-whelming.

  2. jonboze says:

    Educational as always. I’ll definitely be referencing this for our passover this year.

  3. Pingback: Understanding the Passover Haggadah: Part 2 « Messianic Jewish Musings

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