Maybe it is appropriate that books created by the People of the Book are just as complex and varied as the people themselves. Our Torah contains multiple versions of the same stories. In the Talmud, interactive commentaries spiral out from original texts. Our prayer books feature several languages, and we have a sage (Rashi) who has his own script. For the linear 21st-century mind, it can be hard to take in.
But the story of the Exodus from Egypt, a story we are commanded to retell on the holiday of Passover, seems to lend itself to a straightforward, simple text. After all, the ritual is called seder, or order. As it is set forth in Torah, there are only two parts to the mitzvah: Make a sacrifice, tell a story. (You know the one: Let my people go, cross the sea, women dance with timbrels and dayenu.)
Yet every year, when I open the book placed in front of me on the table, I am reminded of how easy it can be to lose my way in the haggadah. The collection of excerpts from the Bible, Mishnah and midrash, interpolated with instructions for ritual — not to mention illustrations and quotes on civil rights, feminism and climate change — can be daunting. Whether the text is hand-compiled or Maxwell House, one of the Four Questions should be:
Which page are we on?
The oldest haggadah still in existence was part of a 10th-century prayer book, but there is evidence that haggadot were separate books earlier than that. Almost from the start, they were seen as personal objects, less subject to the rules of the community and more amenable to the expression of personal taste.
In the Middle Ages, well-to-do families commissioned artists to create personal haggadot. Illuminated and beautifully decorated, many of them were also illustrated, a practice that was allowed — despite the belief that the second commandment regarding graven images forbade it — because they were thought to be educational.
As soon as there was printing, there were printed haggadot, and today we are inundated with beautiful and intriguing versions of endless variety. Based on the number of versions, the Passover haggadah may be one of the most popular Jewish books, just as the seder is one of the most observed Jewish rituals.
But in all that time, they didn’t get simpler.
The form of our Passover ritual is generally believed to have been lifted from a Greek gathering called a symposium. There were three parts to the evening: a banquet, set speeches and discussion. Turns out the symposium had its literature, too, which shaped our haggadah, and reflects teaching methods that were considered best practice thousands of years ago.
Rabbi Adam Schaffer, religious school director at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, suggests that the haggadah is more like a lesson plan than a storybook, and handing them out is a little like giving lesson plans directly to the students. There are a multitude of discussion topics. It’s the job of the seder leader to bring coherence to the evening, to help create an experience — as if you were there — as well as to pass on the story of our ancestors.
But if the haggadah is like a big lesson plan, Schaffer amends, it is also like a jazz score, a basic melody with themes that the people at the table are meant to riff on.
That’s us. Our task. At the table where there are so many guests — living and dead, each with a voice — the telling of the story of the Exodus is just one part of the conversation.
Of course not all seders are so perfectly led, and not all leaders have the time or the inclination for elaborate preparation. If you find yourself looking into this complex text, unable to find meaning or your way, Schaffer suggests seeking someone on the page to talk back to. Be the second child, ask questions of tablemates and the haggadah. You are meant to ask, what does this mean to us? It is essential.
Best practices — then and now.