This is part of a series, with participation on a dozen MJ blogs (see end of post for links), about our Jewish Book of the Month selection, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah.
The April selection will be Visions of the Fathers by Abraham Twerski, a commentary on the Pirkei Avot, a traditional text read during the Omer. You can find Visions of the Fathers here.
The Order of the Evening
Readers of Joseph Tabory’s commentary should be forgiven if they find some of the writing tedious and unclear. Although excellent in research, Tabory’s prose could use some work in places. I found myself on more than one occasion reading a sentence four or five times and asking what it was all about. His language is at times imprecise.
Also, he is dealing with the complex changes and alternative readings of traditions over hundreds of years. Thus, he is rarely discussing one thing at a time, but layers within layers of interpretations and texts. When he decides to provide an outline, the clarity level rises. I could wish he had made more outlines and less torturous prose.
For example, he has an outline on page 17 that shows the symmetry of the Seder, with two cups in the first part, two in the last part, and many corresponding elements. And the chart on page 27 could revolutionize many people’s understanding of the complex and puzzling Maggid section of the Seder:
A. QUESTIONS ABOUT FOODS
1. First version of the Exodus story (avadim hayyinu: Deut 6:21).
a. The way the Seder was conducted by the sages.
b. The way the message is to be explained to the four children.
2. Second version of the Exodus story (mitehilah ovdei avodah zara: Josh 24:2).
a. Mention of the covenant of Abraham.
3. The bikkurim story of the Exodus and its midrash (arami oved avi: Deut 26:5).
4. A recapitulation of God’s grace (Dayenu and al ahat kamah vekhama).
B. RABBI GAMALIEL’S EXPLANATION OF THE FOODS.
The biggest thing many will learn in reading Tabory’s commentary on the order of the Seder is that nearly every jot and tittle of the Haggadah has been through a process of change, compromise between opposing interpretations, and accommodation to changing circumstances.
Heard of the four questions? They used to be three, and they were about matzah, maror, and the Passover lamb that was eaten.
Heard of the yahatz, the breaking of the middle matzah? It’s origin as a custom is of old, but the breaking of the middle matzah was not in Saadiah Gaon’s haggadah and was unknown to Maimonides. There are two explanations for the custom. One is that broken bread is a better symbol of the bread of affliction. The other is that a blessing over a broken piece is more fitting with customs of blessing than over a whole loaf. Tabory says it also arouses the curiosity of children.
Ways Tabory’s Commentary Excels
Although the writing is unclear in places, the commentary is a resource of value, even in the twisted, tortured turns of Tabory’s tale of Passover customs through time.
If you have patience and don’t mind reading and rereading sections here and there, you can determine how early and for what reasons various parts of the Seder came to be and why they look the way they do in modern haggadahs.
Though far shorter than My People’s Passover Haggadah by Lawrence Schiffman and David Arnow, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah answers all the most pertinent questions about the Seder. Most people will find it simpler and more accessible than the longer two-volume set by Schiffman and Arnow.
And like the haggadah itself, Tabory’s commentary is worth reading every year to remember the intricate details of the Seder, their origin, transformation over time, and rationale for the Seder in our time.
Noteworthy Posts by J-BOM Bloggers
Russ Resnik is someone we would all do well to listen to, a pioneer of Messianic Judaism and a solid exegete of Jewish and biblical texts. He discusses the haggadah as incorporating secular customs, a practice that is usually controversial when it is done (such as using rap to tell the Passover story on youtube) but which becomes the norm once a tradition is old. Check it out at here at rebrez.wordpress.com.
Wanda at Literally Messianic talks about the long wait for her JPS Commentary to arrive in her country (is she in England? Her blog does not day). So, she bought the electronic version while waiting and writes a piece about the foreword as well as including a video by Toby Janicki clowning around about a hypothetical experiential Seder. Check her out here on Literally Messianic.
See all the J-BOM bloggers here:
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)
Becky at Hollands Home Book Review