I run into confusion all the time about Passover. People ask me, “Where is the parsley in the Bible?” Or people ask, “How do Jewish people today slaughter the lamb and do they still put blood on the door?”
For starters, people should know that there are several eras of Passover development. The most basic understanding should include: (1) Passover in Egypt (blood on the door), (2) Wilderness period (possibly no Passover), (3) ancient Israel (lamb slaughtered at sanctuary, festival at sanctuary), (4) Diaspora (Israel dispersed in the nations, see more below), (5) Second Temple period (huge attendance at Temple, lambs offered at Temple), (6) Post-Temple, the time when the traditions of the Seder developed to replace the Temple festival.
So, when you read the Passover haggadah, and no doubt many parts of it seem strange, you should have some idea where it came from. This post is an introduction to the subject and should help you this Passover to increase your understanding.
David Arnow, in My People’s Passover Haggadah, Vol. 1, cites Philo of Alexandria (a contemporary of Paul) from Special Laws II:148:
And each house is at that time invested with the character and dignity of a temple, the victim being sacrificed so as to make a suitable feast for the man who has provided it and of those who are collected to share in the feast, being all duly purified with holy ablutions. And those who share in the feast come together not as they do for other entertainments, to gratify their bellies with wine and meat, but to fulfill their hereditary custom with prayer and songs of praise.
Translation: in the diaspora (outside of Israel) in the first century people slaughtered a lamb in their town, had washings with water, sang songs, and recited prayers at a ritual meal. This sounds like an early Passover Seder. Where there was no Temple, the Passover took on a sort of replacement-for-the-Temple feel. The idea of handwashing (possibly what he means by ablutions) and singing and praying goes back a long time.
Josephus, on the other hand, describing Passover in Israel (Jewish War 6:9:3), tells of large crowds coming to the Temple in Jerusalem, forming groups of ten to twenty to share a lamb, and holding a great festival all around the Temple.
No one mentions telling the Passover story in this early phase.
The Last Supper of Yeshua and the disciples in Mark, Matthew, and Luke has elements of Passover, including blessings over bread and wine, dipping into a bowl, reclining, and singing hymns after dinner.
The Tosefta is sort of the writings that did not make it into the Mishnah. Some parts of the Tosefta are thought to be earlier than parts of the Mishnah and the Passover ritual in the Tosefta is, arguably, earlier (says David Arnow).
Both the Tosefta and the Mishnah tell us a bit about how Passover was celebrated after the Temple was destroyed (in 70 CE). Being written down about 200 CE, the Tosefta records traditions that developed between 70 and 200.
Passover in the Tosefta includes: four cups of wine; reclining; eating matzah, bitter herbs, and charoset; reciting the Hallel psalms (113-118); making the children and wife happy with wine and playing games with matzah to keep the children awake; and an all-night Torah study about the Passover offerings.
A slightly later form of the Seder (arguably), the Mishnah adds one important thing: the question and answer method of telling the Passover story. This is an earlier form of the Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah) now very familiar to Passover celebrants. The Mishnah says that the telling of the story should begin with lowliness and end with glory (a rule which has influenced the unusual stories and rituals of the haggadah as we now know it). Further, the Mishnah specifies that the storytelling include the “my father was a wandering Aramean” section (Deut 26:5 and following). This remains a major part of the haggadah with more than one midrash on Deuteronomy 26 included today.
Written down about 500 CE, the Babylonian Talmud further specifies issues about the proper foods for the Seder. I don’t know much about this stage of development, but as far as I can tell, there is not much development of the storytelling aspect so much as discussion about differing customs for the foods.
The Oldest Haggadahs
The haggadah as we have it today developed from the Babylonian tradition. But we do have one very ancient haggadah from the land of Israel (found in Egypt in the Cairo Geneza and dating to about 1000 CE). This Eretz Yisrael version of the haggadah is slightly different and was part of a complicated historical dispute between the rabbis and the Karaites, causing the Babylonian authorities to outlaw any version other than the one developed in Babylon.
The earliest complete haggadahs that we now possess are of the Babylonian type. Joseph Tabory (The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah) notes there is controversy about the genuineness of the manuscripts, but possibly we have the haggadahs of R. Amram Gaon (died c. 875 CE) and R. Saadiah Gaon (died c. 942 CE).
Versions of the haggadah developed within three traditions: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Yemeni. But the differences in the text of the haggadah between these traditions is, according to Joseph Tabory, minor. Opinions of Maimonides, Rabbenu Tam, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, Isaac Luria (with mystical or kabbalistic ideas of Passover), and the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Karo added to the developing haggadah tradition.
But from the time of Amram and Saadiah Gaon on the traditional text of the haggadah has been relatively fixed except for the addition of songs at the end.
The idea of special variations of the haggadah, such as Zionist haggadahs relating the ancient traditions to the struggle of the Jewish people to find a homeland, is a modern phenomenon. The traditional text has been endlessly modified and there are numerous specialty haggadahs representing many interests and points of view.
Questions for Further Consideration
Why doesn’t the haggadah tell the simple Exodus story, but instead uses midrashic readings based on Deuteronomy 26:5 and other scriptures? Why is Moses not mentioned in the haggadah (except in one place)?
Plenty of posts coming on understanding the haggadah, having a creative Passover Seder, and correlating the death and resurrection of Yeshua with Passover.
Haggadahs to Buy
My two favorite haggadahs are listed below:
The Vine of David Haggadah (Messianic/Judeo-Christian). Fully traditional but with additions from the perspective of faith in Yeshua. It is not currently available but they should make it available any week now for this Passover. I will announce it as soon as I know it is available for order (last year they sold out in a few weeks and their popularity was overwhelming). Check here for availability.
A Passover Haggadah: As Commented on by Elie Wiesel (Traditional). For availability, beauty of fonts and drawings, and beauty of commentary, this is my favorite traditional haggadah. See it here on amazon.