When Sinatra sung at the Seder

From talmudic demonology to kibbutniks in the spring, a new book tells the story of the Haggadah


Not for nothing are we called the People of the Book. When we sit down to the most festive meal of the year, we sandwich it between the reading of a text.

The Pesach Haggadah is the most popular of our prayerbooks, unmatched in the creative variety of the versions in which it has appeared. At the last cataloguing, there were more 5,000, according to Vanessa Ochs in her fascinating, short history of the Haggadah, newly published as part of Princeton University’s series “Lives of Great Religious Books”.

The Haggadah is the script for “a night of dinner theatre,” in her felicitous description of the Seder. Professor Ochs, who teaches a course on it at the University of Virginia, proves a companionable guide as she takes us from gorgeous illuminated medieval manuscripts to the stencilled sheets of early kibbutzniks welcoming spring in their reclaimed homeland.

Early on, she recalls visiting a collector who takes out some of his antique volumes to show her but to her horror, she knocks over a glass of cola. Mopping up, he reassures her, “You cannot treat them as artefacts, or they lose their value.”

The first extant editions of the Haggadah as we know it date from ninth and 10th century Babylonia — although one fragment from the Land of Israel, known as the Dropsie Haggadah, has three rather than four questions. But some of the core elements go back to Mishnaic times; the rabbis instructed recitation of the passage from Deuteronomy, which begins “A wandering Aramean was my father” and goes on to recall the Exodus. (In the Torah, it was actually to be said at Shavuot by pilgrims bringing their first fruits to the Temple).

But an alternative translation is “An Aramean tried to destroy my father,” which some think a veiled reference to the oppressing Romans. The talmudic rabbis debated whether there should be four or five cups — Elijah’s cup was a compromise; but as Ochs points out, four was considered an inauspicious number, being two pairs of two, since pairs were associated with demons.

Whereas in medieval Christian societies the depiction of biblical stories were used to educate the illiterate, the pictorial decoration of Haggadot had a different purpose for Jews, who were assumed to be able to read. For those who could afford it, this represented hiddur mitzvah, to perform a mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible. But these visual adornments act as a social commentary too.

In the famous Bird’s Head Haggadah, it is commonly argued the figures are depicted with animal rather than human heads out of religious sensitivity (stemming from the prohibition against graven images). But she cites the view of another scholar, Marc Epstein, that the heads are those of the mythical gryphon, which represent a noble image of Jews in contrast to their “base depiction” outside.

She relates the near-miraculous survival of another medieval treasure, the Sarajevo Haggadah (originally from Barcelona). When the Nazis came to purloin it in 1941, the courageous Muslim chief librarian of the Sarajevo Museum smuggled it out from under their nose and some 50 years later, during the Bosnian civil war, people again took risks to store it safely in a vault.

It was in the 20th century that Haggadah creativity exploded as Reform Jews, Yiddish socialists, Zionists produced their own take on the Pesach story. The American Reform Haggadah of 1907 — which ran from left to right as an English book — boiled down Mah Nishtanah from four questions to just one (in two parts). Yiddish-speaking American Jews developed the alternative third Seder, which became so big that one was held in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria and Frank Sinatra sang at another.

The “Freedom Seder” Haggadah of 1969, compiled by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, one of the architects of the Jewish Renewal Movement, ushered in a new era of radicalism, succeeded by a multitude of Haggadot — feminist, LGBT, interfaith, ecological and more. Dipping into the origin of that modern emblem of feminism, the orange on the Seder plate, Ochs says it was actually a tangerine.

She ventures a number of reasons why the Haggadah has inspired so many variants. For one thing, as a story-telling vehicle, the traditional text is not terribly clear unless you have a good knowledge of the Bible and midrashic exegesis. “There is insufficient accessible takeaway for those who are not erudite”.

Another problem is theology. Many Jews must have contrasted the celebration of Divine intervention with their own beleaguered situation. She quotes Abarbanel, author of the popular commentary on the Haggadah, Zevach Pesach (“Passover Sacrifice”), who was expelled from Spain in 1492: “What benefit have we in the diaspora today derived from the Exodus in Egypt?”

Sadly, many of our Haggadot will remain in their boxes this year in this Pesach of isolation. But in the familiar words we may still hear the voice of hope. As Ochs puts it: “The next redemption, however bleak the current moment, may be just around the bend.”

The Passover Haggadah, Vanessa L.Ochs is published by Princeton University, £22.


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