J-BOM: JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, Pt. 1

It’s March and on a dozen blogs in the MJ blogosphere, in MJ synagogues all over, and with no doubt participation from others who are not in an MJ synagogue, we are all reading together. It’s the Jewish Book of the Month Club, or J-BOM. At the bottom, I’ll list the other blogs participating. Look for updates and reviews on all of the blogs to enhance your reading. The March selection is The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah.

Prelude: Getting Ready for Passover
I hope many of you will consider Messianic Jewish Musings as a place to learn about and prepare for Passover. It’s my favorite subject and March will be filled with Passover goodness. Are you a beginner? Perhaps you’re Jewish and Passover is something you’re not comfortable leading in your home. Perhaps you’re Christian and you want to celebrate Passover. If you want Yeshua integrated well into the traditional Passover, you need to pre-order the Vine of David Haggadah which is available here (get several if your family will use it). I’ll have articles ranging from beginner information to advanced study of the haggadah to exploration of texts in the New Testament about Yeshua’s crucifixion and Passover (new articles, not repeats from previous years).

Getting Started with the JPS Commentary
Reading the first part of the JPS commentary, I tried to think how this reading would feel for people who are relatively new to studying Passover and the haggadah. It may be for some this first part will seem obscure and detailed in its exploration of the history and meaning of the Passover foods. Perhaps some will have little patience with this section or not understand what it so significant about it.

Those who have been using haggadahs for years and who have wondered about the many details will find this a long-needed explanation of the confusion and obscurity of the haggadah and the Passover meal.

One thing you learn: the modern haggadah is a mess, a glorious, sticky, history-laden mess filled with compromises, changes unaccounted for, and traditions inserted without explanation.

Key points for understanding the Passover according to the haggadah include:

(1) The origin of many Passover customs in Greco-Roman dining customs and in the symposia, dinners at which intellectuals (e.g., Socrates) engaged in discourse after the meal.

(2) The sometimes poorly incorporated changes that occurred in the Passover rite after the destruction of the Temple when there was no more Paschal Lamb (especially in the four questions).

(3) The history of development which quite interestingly includes a long-lost Eretz Yisrael tradition not reflected in modern haggadahs (the modern haggadah developed from the Babylonian version — if you know Jewish history, you’re familiar with the ascendancy of Babylonian Jewry over Israeli Jewry during Talmudic times).

(4) The Passover Seder has very early sources, such as Jubilees, Qumran scrolls, the New Testament (which the JPS commentary neglects, in my opinion), Philo, and Josephus. Wine was a part of the Seder very early and by the time of the Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.), four cups of wine and readings from texts are the skeleton of the Seder.

(5) Passover customs continued developing into the late Medieval period (I think later he will show customs that were added even later as well, especially in the songs after dinner).

(6) Charoset is a pretty early part of Passover as well, probably because apple dishes were common desert in Roman times and explanations were added later (the consistency is like clay reminding us of brick-making in Egypt and wine is added symbolizing blood).

(7) Maror was originally lettuce (and still is in some Passover traditions, though I learned maror as prepared horseradish). Lettuce was thought to be bitter and hard on the stomach so that the charoset served to make it easier on the palate and the stomach.

(8) The four questions were originally three, one of them was about eating the Paschal Lamb, and the answer used to be contained in Rabbi Gamaliel’s statement about matzah, maror, and the Paschal Lamb. Now the four questions are not clearly answered because no one bothered to update the text to answer them as they were reformulated.

Did the early sections of the JPS commentary (pages 1-16) answer any long-held questions you have had? If so, what were they?

What do you think of the three periods of major change in Passover customs (the first Passover in Egypt, Passover until the Temple was destroyed, and Passover after)?

In your tradition, what food items have you put on the Seder plate and how did you understand each item? I ask this because I have seen so much variation. I will discuss this in a comment myself.

Other J-BOM Bloggers
FFOZ Blogs – http://ffoz.org/blogs
Judah Gabriel – http://judahgabriel.blogspot.com
Yahnatan Lasko – http://gatherthesparks.blogspot.com
Ovadia – http://orgadol.wordpress.com
Rabbi Russ Resnik – http://rebrez.wordpress.com
Seth – http://judeoxian.wordpress.com
ChidusheiYeshua.wordpress.com (Michael Murray)
HeavenIsNear.wordpress.com (Cliff Carlson)
TalkingSynagogue.blogspot.com (Dustin Koch)
LiterallyMessianic.wordpress.com (Wanda Shepherd)
ArlineLovell.wordpress.com (Arline Lovell)


About Derek Leman

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

6 Responses to J-BOM: JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, Pt. 1

  1. I am interested in the question of which foods people use on the Seder plate. Most haggadahs evade this question and are vague about it. I find little mention of horseradish and especially prepared horseradish in books that do discuss the foods. I learned Passover with horseradish as the maror. I notice that stores stock up on horseradish for Passover, suggesting to me that it’s use is near universal, though perhaps some use it as something other than the maror.

    I used to be very confused when I was told to dip the maror into the charoset. How do you dip prepared horseradish into anything? Our custom became dipping a piece of matazah with horseradish into the charoset. It seems the original maror was lettuce (hardly bitter and definitely not able to induce tears). I know many people use lettuce today.

    So, any thoughts? How do you use prepared horseradish at Passover? What is the maror to you?

    Also, do you put a chazeret in the Seder plate? Customs vary. If so, what do you use? I use green onions for the chazeret (I love to joke with people new to Passover and make them think we all have to take a huge bite of onion).

    • judahgabriel says:

      My family has been celebrating Passovers since the ’80s. As far back as I remember, we’ve had matzah, parsley, homemade charoseth, homemade bitter herbs (usually a mix of hot horseradish and strong spices), salt water for dipping the parsley. Oh, and the leader’s plate has always had a lamb bone.

      My mom takes pleasure in preparing the most bitter herb dish imaginable; it will really turn you red.

      We’ve never had lettuce, actually this blog post is the first I’ve heard of the use of lettuce in Passover! An odd choice for bitterness, I’d say.

      A few years back, some in attendance were surprised we did not have eggs on our seder plate. Since then we occasionally have eggs.

      An amusing Passover anecdote (I might have told this one before): a couple years ago, I took my son to his first Passover. (I adopted my son when he was 4). He must have been 5 or 6 at the time. He is an outgoing guy. We sat down at the table before the meal started, just getting settled. He immediately spotted some tasty-looking white stuff in a bowl on the table — he must have thought it was pudding or something. He immediately reached a spoon, and gobbled a big gloop of the white stuff. Suddendly, his eyes started watering and his face turned red. It was the bitter herbs, where just a tinch of the stuff will burn your mouth and clear your sinuses. I wish I would have snapped a photo of his reaction, pure shock and horror.

    • judahgabriel says:

      Unrelated: Derek, you forgot to append the “http://” to those last 5 J-BOM blogs. Thus, clicking them will result in a 404 not found.

  2. Thanks, Judah. I fixed the links.

    Say, besides horseradish, what can she put in the bitter herbs to make them worse?

  3. judahgabriel says:

    Good question!

    She always lets us know her new bitter herbs are even stronger than the previous year. But I don’t know what she puts in them, just that it burns and will drain your sinuses. :-) Perhaps some pepper powders? I’ll ask her.

  4. Pls add me to the list, Derek. Better late than never.


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