Accompanied by ritual eating of certain foods, the Haggadot recalls the trials and triumphs on the path to freedom for Jews in the ancient world.
It’s the week of Pesach 5783, the annual holiday that commemorates the exodus of the Jews from their bondage in Egypt. “Passover” is the English translation of Pesach, a Hebrew word that means to “omit” or “Passover.” This is thought to be a reference to God “passing over” the homes of Jews when first-born sons were being killed in Egypt.
The high point of Pesach is the seder. A gathering of family and friends to break bread and read the Haggadah (or plural, Haggadot). Accompanied by ritual eating of certain foods, the Haggadot recalls the trials and triumphs on the path to freedom for Jews in the ancient world.
The evolution of the Haggadah is ongoing and continuous. Although oral Haggadot have existed since ancient times, the first printed versions of a Haggadah are thought to have appeared in the 1480s. The oldest extant Haggadah is the famous “Prague Haggadah” that was published in 1526. This was the work of printers and brothers, Gershom and Gronan Cohen.
Two recent articles illustrate the changing nature of Haggadot. Last year, the Jewish Telegraph Agency published an article that announced “Seven New Haggadahs to Brighten Your 2022 Passover Seder” (April 4, 2022). Moreover, it noted that, over the years, “artists, authors, rabbis and even comedians pump out new Haggadahs, the books that guide the seder.” In a recent issue of the JN, Steve Lipman wrote about “New Haggadot for 5783” from America and Israel (March 23, 2023, JN).
I must admit, I am fascinated with the phenomenon of Haggadot development. Although the essential story stays the same in each new version, the telling of the story can be adapted to modern eras and groups. For example, I’ve attended diplomatic and labor seders in Detroit. The Haggadah really seems to be a religious literary device without peer.
Using the search term “Haggadah” raised 1,747 pages in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. In short, Haggadot have been a topic of discussion many times over the past 100 years.
The earliest discussion of a Haggadot that I could find was in the April 2, 1926, Jewish Chronicle. It was a small item about the Prague Haggadah. The April 11, 1953, issue of the Jewish News published “The Origin of the Haggadah,” along with Passover recipes for “sponge cake, matza cake and matzo balls” on the same page.
In 1959, legendary editor Philip Somovitz published a moving Passover editorial. He wrote about “The Universal Ideals of Freedom for All, as They Are Embodied in the Haggadah.” Accompanying his essay was a “Seder Ritual of Remembrance” for victims of the Holocaust (April 24, 1959).
The JN is filled with stories about a wide variety of Haggadot, including the famous Maxwell House Coffee Haggadah. Some cite older Haggadot that were discovered, such as the Sarajevo and Kaufman Haggadot (March 27, 1964). Closer to home, you could get free copies of Haggadot at your local Farmer Jack supermarket (March 30, 1979).
Perhaps an article from April 4, 2020, best captures the spirit of the text for a seder. “Making Passover Personal” is about local families creating their own Haggadot.
The lesson seems to be that, regardless of adaption, the celebration of freedom remains the essential message in every Haggadah. Chag Semeach!
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.