Haggadah – Two Views

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The very word הגדה (Haggadah) conjures up wonderful memories of Sedarim past, reliving the story of the Exodus with family, friends and students. It’s used to refer colloquially to the booklet — a compilation of texts and commentaries — read at the Seder, but the word itself actually contains a wealth of information about the way in which a truly memorable and effective Seder should be conducted. Allow me to share some ideas:

According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen, the way to discover the core meaning of a Biblical word is to look at the first time it appears in the Torah. In the case of הגדה, the root word first occurs in the story of Adam and Eve. When God addressed Adam after the Sin, we find the following dialogue:

The Lord God called to Adam and said to Him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard your voice in the Garden and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.’ [God] said, ‘Who told (הגיד) you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’ (BeReishis 3:9-11)

Rashi explains that God’s question is to be understood in the following way:

How do you know? What shame is there is standing naked? (Rashi ad loc.)

Before the sin, Adam and Eve wore no clothes but were not ashamed (BeReishis 2:25); however, they subsequently acquired a sense that there was something embarrassing about being naked.

It can be seen from this that the word הגיד means to acquire new information. This has an interesting implication for Seder night: the story must be told in a way that is new and exciting for the participants. One cannot fulfil the requirement of הגדה (which is primarily directed at one’s children) by merely reading the text or presenting a stale version of the Exodus. Instead, one must find a new angle on the story each year and create interest and fascination by finding new nuggets of information and by telling it in a refreshing way: one that will grab the imagination and retain peoples’ attention well into the night.

Based on ‘Hegioney Halachah’ Haggadah by Rabbi Yitzhok Mirsky

The Avney Nezer of Sochaczew pointed out that an accurate reading of the word הגדה can be derived from the Aramaic Onkelos translation of the word:

And you shall tell (והגדת) your son on that day as follows: because of this that God did for me in bringing me out from Egypt. (Shemos 13:8)

And you shall point out to your son… (Onkelos ad loc.)

It seems that the word הגדה means to show or to demonstrate that something is true, rather that merely tell a story. This fits with the Rambam’s version of the text of a key paragraph of the Haggadah:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself (לראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt… (standard text)

In every generation, one is obliged to show oneself (להראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt… (Rambam’s text)

While the standard text suggests one’s mindset during the Seder, the Rambam’s text (supported by the Targum) regulates one’s behaviour by re-enacting aspects of the Exodus. The Seder should demonstrate the facts of the Exodus and present them in a tangible and accessible way such that leaving Egypt becomes a real, rather than purely intellectual, experience for the participants.

In fact, the text of the הגדה itself indicates the use of props to turn the Seder into a demonstration, rather than a purely intellectual process. We may only tell the story when the illustrative ‘props’ are in place:

One might have thought (that one should begin telling the story) from Rosh Chodesh (Nissan), so the verse writes, ‘on that day’ (only). But perhaps ‘that day’ means while it is yet daytime (of Erev Pesach), so the verse writes, ‘because of this’. One can only say, ‘because of this’ (by pointing towards something tangible) when the Matzah and Maror are present.

This could be considered the original multi-media presentation: one can only properly fulfil one’s obligation of הגדה by turning the occasion into an experiential show.

Based on the Haggadah of the Shem MiShmuel of Sochaczew

With a little thought over the remaining hectic days until Pesach, it should be possible to plan for a Seder that incorporates both of these ideas: telling the story from a new perspective, and bringing it to life for the participants.

May we be blessed with inspirational Sedarim, the impact of which will remain with us throughout the year. Chag Kosher VeSomayach.

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1 Response

  1. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Over the many years I have made sedarim, both for my family and a couple of times for the Israeli Army, I have seen the incredible power of this finely crafted tool of Chazal to turn an ordinary person into a master educator for one night. This is true if you try, if you make the minimal effort. The person who totally goes through the motions or worse might not make it, but if you try to think about things the least bit and connect yourself with Am Yisrael over the generations, you can get wonderful results. Even if your kids don’t usually listen to you all that much, on this night it works, and there are residual effects.