Off the Shelf: A biography of the haggadah by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

More Jews observe Passover than any other Jewish holiday, although those celebrations vary greatly – from strictly Orthodox to totally secular. What they all have in common, though, is some variation of the haggadah, which provides a blueprint for what will occur during the evening. However, what exactly is the haggadah and why are there so many different versions? Those questions are discussed in the wonderful “The Passover Haggadah: A Biography” by Vanessa Ochs (Princeton University Press). Ochs notes that her book is not an encyclopedic look at the haggadah: “It is personal, partial, and eclectic, and it reflects my being an anthropologist who investigates Jewish ritual innovation in the contemporary era. That means when I turn backward. I do so unabashedly from a twenty-first-century perspective.” 

Ochs begins by discussing the nature of the haggadah. Unlike other Jewish texts – for example, the Torah or the book of Esther – there is no requirement that it be read out loud. In fact, when the Torah offers instructions for the holiday, it mostly focuses on the Temple sacrifice, the eating of unleavened bread and the need to tell the story. There is no mention of the various steps listed in current haggadot (the plural of haggadah) and that includes the four glasses of wine. The seder developed during the rabbinic period as a result of the destruction of the Second Temple. Ochs notes that “rabbinic sages forged new practices, maintaining continuity with the past through encounters with text, seen as a source of ongoing revelation.... The symbolic service of study and ritualized dining that developed was set at a new altar. Not the synagogue or study house, but the home table.” She also explains the changes that occurred over the years, as additional selections were added to reflect changes in the community. 
One chapter explores medieval illuminated haggadot, particularly the Birds’ Head Haggadah, the Sarajevo Haggadah and the Washington Haggadah. These personalized haggadot, which were hand written and hand illustrated, were expensive to produce. Usually only the person leading the seder would have a copy. That changed with the invention of the printing press. The first printed haggadot were small and printed on inexpensive paper. During the 15th century, haggadot became larger, which meant there was now room for rabbinic commentary. Haggadot also began to be translated into many different languages. That gave those who didn’t read Hebrew a chance to understand the text. 

Ochs looks at the wide variety of modern haggadot – from those used to advertise products (for example, the Maxwell House haggadah) to ones published by the different branches of Judaism in the United States. She also discusses the changes that occurred in these haggadot over time. (While she does discuss the two Reform haggadot, she only writes about the first Reconstructionist one. I admit to a prejudice here: my favorite haggadah is “A Night of Questions,” the second Reconstructionist haggadah, which was edited by Rabbi Joy Levitt and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld.) Other chapters discuss Holocaust haggadot, particularly those produced shortly after World War II, and Israeli haggadot, with a focus on those used during the early years of the state.

What interests Ochs is the idea that a text for a religious ceremony could be open to so many interpretations. From her anthropological viewpoint, she suggests three reasons. One is that the haggadah and the seder have never successfully replaced the experience of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Temple sacrifice. That leaves people dissatisfied and looking for ways to improve the experience. Another is that, in order to understand the text, one needs to be knowledgeable enough to grasp all the biblical and talmudic references. This still leaves others at the table to grapple with material they may not understand. The last reason is theological: “The Haggadah poses an overwhelming theological challenge without providing satisfying resources to address it. The Haggadah invites a celebration of a rare joyous moment in the Jewish narrative, when God liberates the Hebrew slaves who cried out. But even in a celebratory state of mind, one struggles to understand why God appears to no longer hear the suffering of the Jewish people or to provide salvation.”

Yet, Ochs sees the haggadah as a vibrant document and believes that its flaws are what keep it relevant. It has been re-imagined by each generation and, in contemporary times, often changed to express the hopes and desires of a particular family or organization. Ochs’ work is a love letter to the haggadah: it encourages readers to look at the text with new eyes and discover ways to make it meaningful. Her small, short book would make a perfect gift, but readers may also find themselves ordering an extra copy for their own library.