PASSOVER: Myriad Ways to Tell an Ancient Tale
Every haggadah has a story, its own story, beyond that of the exodus from Egypt. Depending on illustrations, design, typesetting, additions, where the edition is printed and who commissioned its creation, each version is a marker of Jewish history. In some cases, the wine stains on the pages tell stories too; they appear as family emblems, carrying generations of memories.
New Editions of Old Favorites
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s splendid book, first published in 1975, “Haggadah and History” (Jewish Publication Society) is now back in print. The book is scholarly, intriguing and beautiful, an aesthetic timeline of Jewish history and culture. Featured are 200 facsimile plates, depicting haggadah pages from the early days of printing in the 15th century to the 1970s, with explanations of their context.
As Yerushalmi — the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture, and society at Columbia University, who specializes in medieval and modern Jewish history with an emphasis on Spanish, Portuguese and German Jewry — notes, the haggadah is the most popular and beloved of Jewish books.
“Scholars have meditated upon it, children delight in it,” he writes in the book’s introduction. It has been reprinted more often than any other classic text, and is the most frequently illustrated.
A haggadah printed in Poona, India in 1874, with text in Hebrew and Marathi (the language of the Bene Israel) opens with a full-page illustration showing women in saris, flowers in their hair, preparing and baking matzah, seated in classic Indian positions familiar from Hindu painting. The illustrations are modeled on an earlier version of the haggadah printed in Amsterdam, although they are Indian in tone and detail.
Other highlighted editions include the earliest illustrated haggadah, with decorative woodcuts. Its place and date of origin are unknown; it may have been printed in Spain or Portugal in the last decade of the 15th century before the expulsions, or by Sephardi exiles in Salonika or Constantinople. Also included is a version reproduced by mimeograph in North Africa in 1942 by the Palestine Jewish Brigade.
Selected from the collections of Harvard University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the haggadahs featured here are only a small percentage of the number of editions that have been published. Since Yerushalmi wrote his book, many new versions — with folk art designs, environmental themes and computer-generated illustrations — have been created.
Also new this season is “Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah” by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav), including 10 essays drawn from the writings of the late scholar and leader known as “the Rav,” who died in 1993. This volume, part of the series MeOtzar HaRav, was edited by Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler, prepared from handwritten manuscripts and tapes of the Rav’s lectures.
The first essay, “An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night,” begins on a personal note, as the Rav recalls his childhood fascination with the nights of the seder and of Kol Nidrei. He felt “entranced by these two clear, moonlit nights, both wrapped in grandeur and majesty.” Enveloped by a “strange silence, stillness, peace, quiet and serenity,” he would “surrender to a stream of inflowing joy and ecstasy.” On those nights, he sensed the presence of God; the commonality of the two is man’s encounter with God. In this and the other far-ranging philosophical essays, he goes on to explore the experiential and intellectual dimensions of the seder and the major themes of Passover.
New Haggadahs on the Shelf
“Touched by the Seder” by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, with an introduction by Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Artscroll) is a haggadah featuring inspiring stories and commentary, compiled by the author of the “Touched by a Story” series. The book includes the Artscroll translations and seder instructions. The selected stories — whether about Jews baking matzah in the Warsaw Ghetto, families showing great strength in the face of tragedy, two friends caring for a third friend immediately after he is wounded in battle while fighting in the Israeli army or Rav Chaim Berlin’s experience on Yom Kippur in the late 1800s — are a vehicle for emphasizing the teachings of the holiday
“The Chazon Ish Haggadah” (Artscroll) features the traditional haggadah text, highlighted with the writings and teachings of the late Maran Hagaon Harav Avraham Yehaya Karelitz, who was known as the Chazon Ish and died in 1953. During his lifetime, much of his work was anonymous, unsigned commentaries, and here Rabbi Asher Bergman compiles his rulings and customs regarding the seder.
An introductory section that lists the halachic rulings and practices of the Chazon Ish on preparing for the holiday notes that he ruled that “one must search books for the possible presence of crumbs.” He would set aside the books he planned to use on Pesach and, beginning several days before the holiday, would check them page by page.
On the page of text with the words “Whoever is hungry — let him come and eat,” Bergman illustrates the generosity of the Chazon Ish, who comforted and helped many Holocaust survivors who came to Israel. With money sent to him from Jews all over the world, he married off more than 100 orphan girls to young Torah scholars. He himself lived in poverty, while channeling money to Torah institutions and to the poor and sick.
“The Liberated Haggadah” by Rabbi Peter Schweitzer (Center for Cultural Judaism) is different from other haggadahs in its humanistic approach, geared to secular and cultural Jews. This haggadah acknowledges early on the author’s view that of the Exodus story as mythical rather than historical. Schweitzer, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, recasts the story as a humanist parable, highlighting contemporary relevance.
Rituals are connected not to the historical Hebrews, but rather to an ancient springtime celebration. In addition to the traditional Four Questions, he offers translations in Ladino, German, Yiddish, Russian, French and Arabic and a set of modern questions, framing contemporary issues. He asks, “Why can we get people to the moon but we can not get the homeless adequate shelters?”
He also offers discussion questions for after the meal, raising timely issues including immigration, modern-day sex slavery and forced labor. Included are traditional and new songs, with touches of lightness and humor.
Also available this year is the “Internet Hagada” by Rabbi William Blank. The text is an edited version of the traditional text, set in contemporary English that reads well, with some Hebrew and transliteration. He also pays attention to page design, creating an attractive haggadah.
Here, the traditional four sons are four students: “One is diligent, one couldn’t care less, one is uncomplicated, one is too overwhelmed to ask questions.” Blank explains that there are no external themes imposed on the traditional material as many modern editions do; he emphasizes the universal values and deeply resonating spirituality of the seder.
Blank, who lives in Sacramento, says that he grew up Orthodox, was ordained as a Reform rabbi and now belongs to a Conservative synagogue. He is the author of “Torah, Tarot & Tantra: A Guide to Jewish Spiritual Growth” and “Soon You Will Understand the Meaning of Life.”
This haggadah, suitable for groups where participants are at different levels, is available only through the Internet. Readers are required to buy one (in .pdf format) and then can make as many copies as they need.
Haggadahs for the Kinder
“Max’s 4 Questions” by Bonnie Bader, illustrated by Bryan Hendrix (Grosset & Dunlap) tells the basics of the Passover story through the adventures and questions of Max, the youngest of four brothers who lives in a chaotic house, where they host a joyous seder crowded with relatives. The youngest seder attendees might enjoy the stickers included for decorating the book’s seder plate.
“More Than Matzah: A Passover Feast of Fun, Facts, and Activities” by Debbie Herman and Ann Koffsky (Barron’s) is designed to engage, teach and keep young kids busy.