Passover: Stories, Customs and the Haggadah

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Passover Judaica
Passover, or Pesach (15-21 Nissan) is one of — if not The — most important Jewish festival(s). It marks the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and commemorates their flight from Egypt. Family members gather for the Passover seder, a special meal with special foods. The Haggadah — a book used at the Passover seder, containing the liturgical recitation of the Passover story and instructions on conducting the ceremonial meal — is a central part of the holiday.

Passover generally begins on the fifteenth day of first Jewish month (in March or April) and can last up to seven or eight days depending on the practices of individual denominations. The most important Jewish holiday, it commemorates the night of the Tenth Plague when God killed the first born children of Egypt — which claimed the pharaoh's oldest son — but “passed over” the homes of the Israelites and allowed Moses to lead the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land 3000 years ago.

Passover is sort of like a pilgrimage festival combined with Thanksgiving and marks both historical and religious events. Intended to be a profound celebration of God’s faithfulness to all who believe him, it usually takes place around Easter (Jesus's last Supper, before his crucifixion and resurrection, is said to have taken place on Passover) and is intended to make the celebration of God real and direct. Some Jews have said that Passover is a time when even the most secular, non-religious and non-Jewish Jews want to be Jewish. This perhaps so because it is a family time and one that Jews look back on with fondness the same way Christians do with Christmas.

Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Passover takes place from the 15th to the 22nd (in the Diaspora from the 15th to the 23rd) of Nisan, the seventh month after Tishri. The Hebrew name for the holiday, Pesach, denotes the lamb offered on the even of the festival during the time of the Temple. With a change in one vowel, the name becomes the past tense of the verb pasach (to pass over), alluding to God's having passed over the houses of the Children of Israel when he slew the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:13). After the destruction of the Second Temple, the principal ritual focus of the holiday was transferred to the prohibition against eating leavened bread, with matzo becoming a symbol of affliction and poverty. A seder, or festive meal and religious service, is held in the home on the first night of Passover in Israel and for the first two nights in the Diaspora. At the meal the Haggadah relating the story of the Exodus, along with legends and homiletic commentaries on the Passover ritual, is recited. [Source:Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s,]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish Museum London ; Jewish History: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; ; Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish

History of Passover

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Angel of Death and the First Passover
Passover has been celebrated by Jews since about 1300 B.C., following the rules laid down by God in Exodus 13. Passover, it is said, begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which typically falls in March or April of the Gregorian calendar, sometimes around the same time Easter. In 2016 it started on April 22 and ended on April 30. On the first two days and the last two days, Jewish people light holiday candles at night and prepare special meals. Most try to refrain from working or driving during this time. During the middle four days, Chol HaMoed, most forms of work are permitted. The Last Supper of Jesus is said have taken place during Passover. [Source: BBC, International Business Times, April 22, 2016]

Scholars believe that Passover has it origins in two ancient Middle Eastern festivals: the Ceremony of the Paschal (Sacrificial) Lamb still practiced today by Bedouins and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which celebrated the barley harvest. In Israel, shops are closed and transportation is limited at the beginning and end of Passover and during much of the holiday. Some shops are open only a few hours a day and some buses run reduced service in the middle of the holiday.

Passover began as a ceremony celebrated in the home, but once the Jews settled in Jerusalem they constructed the Temple and the celebrations moved there. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Passover celebrations returned to the home. Today, Passover celebrations continue to be focused on the home. This makes Passover the most popular Jewish holiday. Families travel great distances to be together at Passover.

According to the BBC: “Passover is also called The Festival of Freedom and is a celebration of freedom, not just in Biblical times, but its importance to the individual today and throughout history. Jews believe freedom to be one of the basic human rights. Readings about contemporary slavery or oppression to show solidarity with the oppressed may be included in some traditions (although not in Orthodox Jewish households). Jews living under oppression often use Passover to express their own desire for freedom. Passover can be called the Festival of Spring and was an agricultural festival which marked the beginning of the cycle of production and harvest during the time the Jews lived in ancient Palestine. It symbolises hope and new life and the importance of starting afresh. Passover is also a pilgrim festival. It is one of the three occasions in the year when, according to the commandments of the Torah, Jews were to go to the Temple in Jerusalem. [Source: BBC, July 9, 2009 |::|]

Passover Customs

According to strict Jewish law, all work, including school, is forbidden on the first two and last two days of Passover (or just the first and last day in some traditions). In the United States, most Jews do not strictly observe this law. It is customary for most Jews to take some time off from work or school to prepare for the Seder, a long and complicated process of cooking food and cleaning the home, especially the stove and refrigerator, which come into contact with leavened products. The Seder meal itself is a complex ritual consisting of at least fifteen parts, including a variety of blessings. At the center of the seder meal is the maggid, a retelling of the Exodus story, and the youngest person. [Source:]

The first two days and nights of Passover are the most important. The first two nights are celebrated with a traditional feast ("seder"), in which many of the foods have symbolic meaning. The holiday coincides with Biblical barley harvest and spring festivals. The service opens with the announcement: “All who are hungry...let them come in and eat...All who are needy...let them come on and celebrate the Passover.” At ancient Jewish feasts, food was given out freely to rich and poor alike.

The Haggadah, the story of Exodus, is read to children during the meal and the symbolism of the traditional Passover foods is explained. Jews regard the Exodus from Egypt as something that happens to all Jews not just the tribes who followed Moses. One rabbi wrote: “every man in every generation should consider himself as if he had gone out of Egypt.”

The reading of the story begins when the youngest person at the table ask the oldest why this night is different than others. Within the story are four sons: the wise one who asks the meaning of the laws, the wicked one who denies his Jewishness, the simple one who wonders “What is all this?” and the last one who does not know how to ask. The reading s usually takes place before and after the seder. It is often broken up by personal comments and discussions on different parts, often as they relate to current events. Some families follow a selected program that includes songs and passages from other texts that have been carefully selected for the occasion.

Passover Religious Practices

Mitzvot (Jewish Laws) Related to Passover
P 43 — The Pesach Additional Offering
P 55 — Slaughtering the Pesach Offering
P 56 — Eating the Pesach Offering
P 57 — Slaughtering the Pesach Sheini Offering
P 58 — Eating the Pesach Sheini Offering
P156 — Removal of chometz on Pesach
P157 — Recounting Exodus from Egypt on first night of Pesach
P158 — Eating Matzah on the first night of Pesach
P159 — Resting on the first day of Pesach
P160 — Resting on the seventh day of Pesach
N323 — Not to work on the first day of Pesach
N324 — Not to work on the seventh day of Pesach

According to the BBC: “In the synagogue there are special readings for each day of the festival. On the first day of Passover the story from Exodus is told. On following days, readings tell of the celebrations after the Children of Israel had crossed the River Jordan; of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments and God's covenant with the Israelites; of the resurrection of the valley of dry bones symbolising the spiritual rebirth of Israel; of the departure from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea; and a summary of the laws and rituals for Passover. On the last day of Passover a passage from the Book of Isaiah is read which tells of the Messianic era or 'Passover of the Future'. [Source: BBC, July 9, 2009 |::|]

Jews believe that the Messiah will reveal himself around the time of Passover. A cup of wine is left out for Elijah who is supposed to herald the arrival of the Messiah. The Passover Seder ends with words “Next year Jerusalem.”

Passover Story

Jennifer Kapel wrote in the International Business Times: “According to the Book of Exodus in the Torah, Moses called for the pharaoh to free the Israelites, warning that Egypt would be struck by plagues if he refused, with the last plague being the death of every Egyptian first-born male. The pharaoh refused to free them in the face of plagues of frogs, flies, the death of livestock and total darkness. To avoid having their first-born males killed, Moses urged Jews to mark their doors with lamb's blood to spare, alerting the angel of death to not kill the Israelites inside. The word "pesach" comes from the Hebrew root Pei-Samekh-Cheit, meaning to "pass over". After this the pharaoh gave in, allowing the Israelites to leave Egypt. [Source: Jennifer Kapel, International Business Times, April 22, 2016 ^^]

“An unleavened bread called matzah is traditionally eaten in commemoration of the Jews fleeing Egypt. It is believed they escaped in such a rush that their bread did not have time to rise. Jews try not to consume any chametz – food or drink that contains leavened grain. This includes bread, sweets, pasta and most alcoholic beverages. On the first night of Passover, Jewish families gather together for a dinner called a Seder, During the meal, the story of the exodus from Egypt is retold using a special text called the Haggadah, while four cups of wine are drunk at various stages of the narrative. An extra cup is left for the prophet Elijah, who is believed to reappear and announce the coming of the Messiah.” ^^

Passover Story and the Plague of the First Born

According to the BBC: “The Tenth Plague was the plague on the firstborn An avenging angel would go from house to house killing every first-born son. Israelite children would not be killed and thus God would show that they were his chosen people. So that the angel would know which houses were Israelite homes, the Children of Israel were to follow very specific instructions: 1) Each household was to take an unblemished, male lamb, look after it, and slaughter it at twilight four days later. 2) Blood from the lamb was to be brushed on the door frames. This would tell the avenging angel that it was an Israelite home and to 'pass over'. 3) Then the families were to roast the lamb and eat it with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Every bit of the lamb had to be eaten and any remaining bones burned. 4) The Israelites were to perform this ritual dressed for a journey. |::|

“At midnight every Egyptian firstborn - from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the prisoner in his cell - and even of the livestock - was struck down by the angel. The Egyptians were terrified and demanded Pharaoh banish the Israelites there and then. Pharaoh summoned Moses and ordered him to get his people out of Egypt immediately. The Egyptians were so glad to see the back of the Israelites that they gave them silver and gold and other valuables to encourage them to go. The Israelites took their unleavened dough with them - they hadn't had time to add the yeast - and lived on this for the first few days of their Exodus. |::|

According to Biblical story, God decreed the death of every first-born male in Egypt, both humans and animals. Candida Moss, Liane Feldman, Daily Beast, In the case of this plague, colloquially known as the plague of the first-born, God says that he cannot distinguish between Egyptian and Israelite in the darkness, even though he is somehow able to single out first-borns. Because the plague is meant to be punishment for the Egyptians, God commands the Israelites to mark their houses with a sign and to be sure not to step outside until morning. Moses explains to the Israelites that this is so that “when the Lord goes through to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the lintel and two doorposts and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the destroyer enter and strike down your home.” [Source: Candida Moss, Liane Feldman, Daily Beast, April 8, 2020]

The plague, carried by an entity called the Destroyer, can enter homes and kill its inhabitants. This is why God tells the Israelites to mark their doorways with blood, to set apart their homes as different from those of the Egyptians. Scholars understand the blood-marking ritual to function apotropaically, which is to say that the ritual serves to ward off evil spirits and demons. Call it chlorox for the ancient dwelling: in order for the Israelites to protect themselves from the plague sweeping Egypt, they had to mark their homes to ward off this Destroyer and they had to be sure to stay inside in order to be protected by that marking.

What did the Israelites do as they waited out the plague? Like many of us today they cooked. In the story of the first Passover in Egypt, we are told that these Israelite households each roasted a lamb — or divided a lamb with their neighbors if they couldn’t eat a whole one. While locked inside their homes they cooked and ate the meal and waited out the passing of the plague. After the passing of the plague, the Israelites were told to pack up in haste and leave Egypt. In the story of their departure, we are told that they had no time to let their bread rise, so they ate unleavened bread. This story provides the origins for the seven-day period during which Jews cannot eat leavened bread. Instead, as is widely known, they eat unleavened products like matzah.

Passover Story from Exodus

10th Plague of Egypt, the firstborn of the Egyptians are slain

The story of Passover is told in the Book of Exodus. The Children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for 210 years. God promised he would release them from slavery, but not before Pharaoh had refused their release and God had visited ten plagues on Egypt to demonstrate his power.

Exodus 11:6 And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more. 11:7 But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast: that ye may know how that the LORD doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel. 11:8 And all these thy servants shall come down unto me, and bow down themselves unto me, saying, Get thee out, and all the people that follow thee: and after that I will go out. And he went out from Pharaoh in a great anger... [Source: King James Version of the Bible,]

...12:1 And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying, 12:2 This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you. 12:3 Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house: 12:4 And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb. 12:5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats: 12:6 And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.

Biblical Basis of Passover in Ancient Times

Candida Moss and Liane Feldman wrote in the Daily Beast. When we look at the ancient celebration of Passover, we imagine a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple to slaughter the Passover lamb and observe the holiday. By the Second Temple period (6th century BCE onwards) Passover was considered one of three festivals in which ancient Jews were supposed to travel to Jerusalem and visit the Temple (it’s the reason that the city was flooded with people both when the itinerant teacher Jesus of Nazareth was executed and, tragically, when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem at the end of the First Jewish-Roman War in 70 CE). Pilgrimage practice has biblical basis: the book of Deuteronomy, for example, explicitly forbids slaughtering the Passover lamb at home and mandates that everyone travel to the temple. In this set of laws the original context of the first Passover event in Egypt gets overwritten by its later adaptation into a temple-based ritual. [Source: Candida Moss, Liane Feldman, Daily Beast, April 8, 2020]

Yet there are other passages in the Bible that suggest that not everyone in ancient Israel agreed that the Passover should be celebrated in public at the temple. In the book of Leviticus, for example, there is a clear separation between the Passover offering and the feast of unleavened bread, much like the distinction made in the story of the first Passover in Egypt. In Leviticus, God decrees that on the night of the fourteenth of Aviv, there will be a Passover to the Lord. Importantly, the word “sacrifice” is never used, and the absence of this label suggests that the Passover commemoration need not happen at the temple, but rather can happen in individual homes.

The text goes on to describe the festival of unleavened bread and is quite explicit about the requirement for the celebration of the first and last days of that festival to take place at the temple. Indeed, this separation of Passover from unleavened bread is also reflected in another early biblical law code in the book of Exodus. This law code speaks only of the requirement to observe three festivals at a temple, among which is the festival of unleavened bread. It makes no mention whatsoever of the Passover. It is only in later traditions within the Hebrew Bible, and later interpretations of the biblical text itself that the commemoration of the Passover was combined with the festival of unleavened bread, and the original home-based context of the Passover seems to have been lost.

Passover in Greco-Roman Times

Paula Fredriksen of Boston University told PBS: In Judaism, described in the Bible, there are three pilgrimage festivals. One is in the fall, and two are in the spring. The biggest holiday that would bring in pilgrims from all over the known world is the holiday of Passover. It resonates historically with the liberation of the children of Israel from Egypt. So it has a tone of national liberation. There's a political aspect to the holiday. But also, Jews everywhere, if they chose to, if they were pious, would put aside part of their income. It's sort of like the way Christmas Clubs operate now. You'd put aside tithing money ... and that money or whatever it is from your property that you would put aside was explicitly to be spent having a party in Jerusalem. And you would spend that saving[s] when you went up to celebrate a pilgrimage holiday. [Source: Paula Fredriksen:, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“People from all over the Empire went to Jerusalem on Passover. It's one of the most populated times in the whole city. And there are certain things that would be required if you wanted to go and be at the Temple. You'd have to eat your Passover lamb in a state of purity, which would require certain things, for example, if you were a woman in a family who were traveling and you happened to get your period,... you couldn't actually go into the Temple area. But your husband would really be the person required to show up in the Temple area, because he would be the one who would have to sacrifice the Pascal lamb that would be the center of the meal that you would have with your family. You'd go up, probably a week beforehand, to make sure that everybody would be in a state of purity. Purity is not an ethical metaphor in first century Judaism. Purity is a state. It's almost like a physical state that has metaphysical consequences. If you are menstruating, for example, or for a man, a common way of contracting impurity would be through ejaculation ... semen transmits impurity. There's nothing morally wrong with you. It just means that while you're in that state, you shouldn't enter a zone of holiness. So pilgrims frequently went a week before Passover actually started so that they could undergo certain rituals of purification, and take part in the slaughter of the lambs for Passover that happens the night before Passover begins. And and then go back with people living in tents or people in outlying villages.

Da Vinci's Last Supper, in which it is believed that Jesus ate a Passover meal

“There's reminiscences of this in the gospel writings. Jesus enters with with the flock of pilgrims going into Jerusalem the week before Passover. That's what the triumphal entry is staged as in the gospel. And he teaches at the Temple in the week before Passover. The reason everybody's there is because everybody, I assume Jesus, too, is undergoing the ritual purification that's required so people can be in the correct state. Not not just morally or religiously, but actually with purity. So that they can eat the Pascal lamb as God mandated it when he spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.

Passover Celebrations

According to the BBC: “Every year, Jews celebrate the Feast of Passover to commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel, as commanded by God in Exodus 13. The celebrations last for seven or eight days, depending on where you live. In Israel, Passover lasts seven days - the first and seventh days are observed as full days of rest (yom tov), and the middle five as intermediate holidays (hol ha-moed). Outside Israel, Passover lasts eight days and the first two and last two days are observed as full days of rest. The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days, but Jews in the Diaspora lived too far away from Israel to receive word as to when to begin their observances and an additional day of celebration was added to be on the safe side. [Source: BBC, July 9, 2009 |::|]

“Before celebrations can begin the house must be cleaned from top to bottom to remove any traces of chametz (leaven) from the home. This commemorates the Jews leaving Egypt who did not have time to let their bread rise, but also symbolises removing 'puffiness' (arrogance, pride) from their souls. The day before Passover begins there is a ritual search for chametz in every home. The children usually join in with great enthusiasm.A Jew may not eat chametz or derive benefit from it during Passover. He may not even own it or feed it to animals. Any chametz in his possession, or utensils used to prepare food with chametz, have to be temporarily 'sold' to non-Jews. They can be bought back after the holiday. You can even sell your chametz online! |::| “Children are central to Passover proceedings and symbolise the continuity of the Jewish people. Customs are designed to hold their attention. There's the hunt for the afikomen, where a piece of matzoh is hidden which children have to find and hold 'ransom' until a reward is given.The day before Passover begins the Fast of the Firstborn is observed. All first born males fast on this day to celebrate their escape from the Plague of the First Born. |::|

Seder– the Passover Meal

A typical seder meal includes lettuce, lamb bone, charoset, horseradish paste, celery, beetroot paste, and roast egg. Charoset paste is made with walnuts, wine, cinnamon, honey and apples Dark red paste is served with romaine lettuce and horseradish root. To fulfill the three types of herbs requirement: horseradish, whole horseradish root or beetroot paste and lettuce is eaten.

According to the BBC: “The highlight of Passover observance takes place on the first two nights, when friends and family gather together for ritual seder meals. Seder means 'order' in Hebrew and the ceremonies are arranged in a specific order. Special plates and cutlery are used which are kept exclusively for Passover. |[Source: BBC, July 9, 2009 |::|]

During the seder “Four Questions” are asked. “The Four Questions are: 1) Why do we eat unleavened bread? Unleavened bread or matzo is eaten to remember the Exodus when the Israelites fled Egypt with their dough to which they had not yet added yeast. 2) Why do we eat bitter herbs? Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, are included in the meal to represent the bitterness of slavery. 3) Why do we dip our food in liquid? At the beginning of the meal a piece of potato is dipped in salt water to recall the tears the Jews shed as slaves. “4) Why do we eat in a reclining position? In ancient times, people who were free reclined on sofas while they ate. Today cushions are placed on chairs to symbolise freedom and relaxation, in contrast to slavery. Usually the youngest person present will ask the questions and the father will respond. The paradox of this is that these four questions should be asked spontaneously, but celebrations cannot happen unless they are asked! |::|

The Haggadah

The Haggadah (which means “telling” in Hebrew) is a book that serves as guide, script, and liturgy of the Passover seder. It includes various prayers, blessings, rituals, fables, songs and information for how the seder should be performed. The Haggadah tells in fourteen steps the story of the Jewish experience in Egypt and of the Exodus and revelation of God. As the story of each of the ten plagues is read out a drop of wine is spilt to remind Jews that their liberation was tinged with sadness at the suffering of the Egyptians. The haggadah also contains The Four Question (see seder above). Although modern Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) can vary widely, the tradition of reading a book to guide the seder dates back to the Middle Ages, and some of the elements that make up contemporary Haggadot were used 2,000 years ago. [Source: Jamie Rubin, \=\, BBC]

children's version of The Haggadah

Jamie Rubin wrote in “Most Haggadot begin with instructions for the order of the seder and go on to include rituals like the blessings over the four cups of wine that will be consumed, the custom of washing one’s hands, and an explanation for various traditional items on the seder table including the seder plate, which contains the bitter herbs and other symbolic foods. There is usually a break in the seder for the meal and the Haggadah is picked up again before the seder is completed. Haggadot vary widely in length and outlook. While some Haggadot are printed only in Hebrew and do not stray from the original text, many newer Haggadot explore alternative meanings for common seder symbols or encourage seder participants to reflect on the larger themes of emancipation and redemption and to explore their own personal feelings of persecution and freedom. \=\

“Haggadot usually include the 10 Plagues, the Four Questions — customarily read or sung by the youngest seder participant — and songs about liberation and freedom. “Dayenu” is one of the most recognizable songs in the Haggadah. It is more than 1,000 years old and thanks God for all of the miracles and gifts he has given to the Jewish people. The chorus “dayenu” translates to “it would have been enough for us.”

Why Haggadah Is Important to Jews

Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in the New York Times: “All my life, my parents have hosted the Seder on the first night of Passover. As our family expanded, and as our definition of family expanded, we moved the ritual dinner from our dining room to our more spacious, mildewed basement. One table became many table-like surfaces pushed awkwardly together. I always knew Passover was approaching when my father would ask me to take the net off the ping-pong table. All were covered in once matching, stained tablecloths. At each setting was a Haggadah that my parents had assembled by photocopying favorite passages from other Haggadot and, when the Foers finally got Internet access, by printing online sources. Why is this night different from all others? Because on this night copyright doesn’t apply. [Source: Jonathan Safran Foer, New York Times, April 11, 2012 =]

Sasoon Haggadah

“In the absence of a stable homeland, Jews have made their home in books, and the Haggadah — whose core is the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt — has been translated more widely, and revised more often, than any other Jewish book. Everywhere Jews have wandered, there have been Haggadot — from the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah (which is said to have survived World War II under the floorboards of a mosque, and the siege of Sarajevo in a bank vault), to those made by Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses. Our grandparents were immigrants to America, but natives to Judaism. We are the opposite: fluent in “American Idol,” but unschooled in Jewish heroes. And so we act like immigrants around Judaism: cautious, rejecting, self-conscious, and feigning (or achieving) indifference. In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent. =

“Though it means “the telling,” the Haggadah does not merely tell a story: it is our book of living memory. It is not enough to retell the story: we must make the most radical leap of empathy into it. “In every generation a person is obligated to view himself as if he were the one who went out of Egypt,” the Haggadah tells us. This leap has always been a daunting challenge, but is fraught for my generation in a way that it wasn’t for the desperate assimilators of earlier generations — for now, in addition to a lack of education and knowledge of Jewish learning, there is the also the taint of collective complacency. =

“The integration of Jews and Jewish themes into our pop culture is so prevalent that we have become intoxicated by the ersatz images of ourselves. I, too, love “Seinfeld,” but is there not a problem when the show is cited as a referent for one’s Jewish identity? For many of us, being Jewish has become, above all things, funny. All that’s left in the void of fluency and profundity is laughter.” =

Different Haggadah

Jamie Rubin wrote in “Some Haggadot have become historical artifacts or well-known cultural touchstones. One of the oldest Sephardic Haggadot in the world is known as the “Sarajevo Haggadah,” believed to have been created in Barcelona by Spanish Jews around 1350 and bought by a museum in Bosnia in 1894. The Sarajevo Haggadah was created in the medieval style of illuminated manuscripts. Some of its pages are stained with wine — evidence that it was used at seders dating back to the 14th century. [Source: Jamie Rubin, \=]

Haggadah from Iraq

“While traditional Haggadot focus on the ancient story of the Exodus from Egypt, some Haggadot suggest we can understand the enslavement and freedom of our ancestors only by reflecting on present-day political situations. In the late 1930s, the Polish-Jewish political artist Arthur Syzk created an illustrated Haggadah with watercolor images in which he paralleled the story of Pharaoh’s oppression to the rise of fascism in Europe. After Syzk’s Haggadah, it became more popular to draw connections to modern political struggles. [Source: Jamie Rubin, \=]

“In 1969, the political activist and rabbi Arthur Waskow published the “Freedom seder” Haggadah, which drew comparisons between the slavery and liberation of the ancient Jews to contemporary struggles such as the civil rights movement and women’s movement. The Stonewall Seder is an LGBTQ Haggadah that began as a seder celebrated by the Berkeley Queer Minyan for Gay Pride Weekend. It has been updated and expanded by members of the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York. And because many modern Jews connect the themes of Passover with social justice, a number of social justice Haggadot or supplements speak to various communities and causes that might lie outside the Jewish community like the Black Lives Matter movement, hunger, and labor justice issues. \=\

“Today, seder hosts can choose from a plethora of published Haggadot on the market, as well as a growing number of digital versions now available for free (often as downloadable PDFs) like this one and this one. In addition, some Jews opt to create their own Haggadot. If that option appeals to you, read How to Make Your Own Passover Haggadah.” \=\

Maxwell House Haggadah

The most famous modern Haggadot is the Maxwell House Haggadah, published by the Maxwell House coffee company to market their coffee as “kosher for Passover”. Maxwell House’s Haggadah has been offered with its coffee cans in supermarkets throughout the United States since 1932, and is still offered free with a purchase of Maxwell House coffee. It has been updated over the years and even made it to the White House, where it was used at a 2009 seder hosted by U.S. President Barak Obama. [Source: Jamie Rubin, \=]

Maxwell House Haggadah

Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in the New York Times: “Of the 7,000 known versions, not to mention the countless homemade editions, there is one that is used more than all others combined. Since 1932, the Maxwell House Haggadah — as in the coffee company — has dominated American Jewish ritual. Having confirmed in the 1920s that the coffee bean is not a legume but a berry, and therefore kosher for Passover, Maxwell House tasked the Joseph Jacobs ad agency to make coffee, rather than tea, the drink of choice after Seders. If this sounds loony, note that Maxwell House coffee has always been particularly popular in Jewish homes. [Source: Jonathan Safran Foer, New York Times, April 11, 2012 =]

“The resulting Haggadah is one of the longest-running sales promotions in advertising history. At least 50 million copies have been distributed free at supermarkets, and they are exactly as inspiring as you would imagine them to be. And yet, many people feel fondly toward the Maxwell House Haggadah, for the giddy comfort it evokes. We like it like we like Jewish jokes. The Maxwell House version, is, itself, a sort of Jewish joke — try mentioning it to a group of Jews without eliciting laughter. What’s more, it’s free, and, like the no-frills caffeine beverage it promotes, satisfies a most basic need. =

“If the Maxwell House Haggadah never rose to meet the Seder’s intellectual and spiritual demands, it adequately served the ritualistically literate Jews of a generation or two ago. But the actors no longer know the script. In a further sort of exodus, American Jews have moved: from poverty to affluence, tradition to modernity, acquaintance with a shared history to loss of collective memory.” =

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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