The Haggadah: A Book of Beloved Imperfections

By | Mar 17, 2020
Spring Issue 2020, World

Robert Siegel interviews Vanessa L. Ochs

The Passover Haggadah could hardly be more different from the Torah. A Torah scroll is housed in a synagogue. The types of parchment, ink and pen used by the scribe are mandated. The layout of text and the style of calligraphy are uniform. The Torah is a document of constancy, of what’s eternal at the core of Jewish communal worship.

By contrast, the Passover Haggadah is a measure of Jewish diversity and change. It’s a household possession, and its pages may be marred by the occasional wine stain. One famous edition served the added purpose of flogging Maxwell House coffee; a contemporary Haggadah might be gender-neutral, feminist, vegetarian, environmentalist, or one family’s edited compilation of its favorite readings, prayers and songs. In The Passover Haggadah: A Biography, the latest contribution to the Princeton University Press series The Lives of Great Religious Books, Vanessa L. Ochs, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, surveys the history of the Haggadah and arrives at the interesting conclusion that these variations have proliferated because of the book’s inherent imperfections. ­

When was the Passover story first set down in the form of a Haggadah?

Until the 9th century CE, you were on your own. There were teachings about Passover observance in the Mishnah and the Talmud, which were transmitted orally before they were written down, but basically families were supposed to wing it. They were expected to know the story and how to have a home service, a seder, and children knew they were supposed to ask questions. And that was that.

In the 9th century, Jews essentially bugged their authorities for a text. Some of the first were written down by the Talmudic scholar Saadia Gaon in the context of a prayer book. There wasn’t a freestanding Haggadah until long after that. In the medieval period, there were illuminated versions, and that’s when the notion of your own book, your own lovely book, began to emerge.

In the Haggadah, in contrast to the story told in the Bible, Moses plays a lower-profile, less-heroic role than, say, Judah Maccabee does in our telling of the Hanukkah story. Why?

I was curious myself. The concern was that if Moses were prominent in the Haggadah, one might mistakenly conclude that he was the hero of the story and not God, or that God needed Moses in some way. The hope was that parents would figure out how to talk properly about Moses when the time was ripe, to add Moses into the story when it wouldn’t provide a problematic conclusion for the children.

To avoid hero worship and keep it at God worship?

Exactly. To avoid hagiography.

Like other books, the Haggadah was revolutionized by the invention of printing. Was a 16th-century printed Haggadah a prized possession, a thing of beauty, like a menorah?

No, not at all. Certainly during the medieval period, if you had an illuminated version made by hand, perhaps as a gift to a married couple, it meant you were sufficiently well-to-do to afford to commission or purchase such a document. That would have been quite the prized possession. But when printing emerged, the first copies were not particularly fine, and they included a lot of illustrations that were copied from other volumes, sometimes not even Passover volumes. We have pictures from the Book of Esther, the Megillah, repurposed for Haggadahs. A printed Haggadah was a wonderful thing to have, but it wasn’t seen as a prized possession, at least until the 19th century when there was a revival of illuminations in the style of the Middle Ages, and certainly in our era when incredible artists such as Ben Shahn created special fine arts books.

Images from the Freedom Seder Haggadah by Arthur Waskow (1969).

The Haggadah has always been a cozy, homey book. It’s the only Jewish book I know of where, at the end of Passover, people pile them up and put a rubber band around them and stick them in the box with their Passover pots and pans and spoons and dishes, and off that box goes into the basement or the attic until next year. When it comes out, you have to shake it to get out the matzah crumbs. But that being said, in many homes where there is no prayer book and no Bible, and that would include many Jewish homes, there will be Haggadahs—either a bunch rubber-banded together and tossed in a box, or a nice Haggadah put on a shelf. So it’s beloved in a different kind of way.

People also have very special memories of the Haggadah they used in their childhoods. Even if it’s a truly quirky Haggadah, it still might kindle very special feelings of warmth and family and the past, and cozy feelings about tradition.

I’ve often wondered whether the household of my great-great-grandfather, a fairly humble leather tanner in Poland, would have had a single Haggadah, or a set of Haggadahs. Or  was that more likely to be true of high bourgeois Jewish families in the cities?

In that era there might have been one Haggadah in the family, if people were quite poor, and hence we have this notion of the leader of the seder. This is what my grandfather did. That person said all the blessings and directed the ritual practice. The youngest child was supposed to ask the Four Questions, and then we chimed in once again for the grace after meals, which we knew from everyday use. So the practice of years gone by is not like the current democratic one where everybody goes around the table and says a few lines.

You describe the great variety of Haggadahs. I remember one—by Arthur Waskow, I believe—in which buying an electric car is a mitzvah.

That’s a great one. It must be one of the more recent ones, when electric cars were already possible. There are 6,000 to 7,000 Haggadahs now in print, which is crazy. And there’s a website called, so anyone can go online and make a highly personalized Haggadah.

I teach a course in which my students learn about the Haggadah while also volunteering in the Charlottesville community. At the end, each student creates a Haggadah that reflects the mission of his or her community partner—it might be a Haggadah about mental health, or women’s health, or climate change. One student was volunteering with an organization that helped people with their taxes, and he made a filling-out-your-taxes Haggadah, with four cups of coffee instead of four cups of wine.

So what makes it a Haggadah?

That’s a great question. I never thought about that. I would say that what makes a Haggadah a Haggadah is that a parent tells the story of what the Exodus means to her or him, and a child listens and registers the story as important. And perhaps the child knows that one day he or she will have to tell it in turn.

You write about three kinds of flaws in the traditional Haggadah that might help explain why it invites so many additions and improvisations: liturgical flaws, pedagogical flaws and theological flaws. Lets start with what you mean by liturgical flaws.

We need to go back to antiquity, when the Passover holiday was a massive pilgrimage festival with Jews coming to Jerusalem from all over Israel. They were gathering together at the ancient temple, bringing their lambs and provisions for a few days. There was the sound and smell of the burning lambs and perhaps the chant of the Levites. This was a heavy-duty visceral experience. We see pictures of Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, where there is preparation and excitement and lots of human connection and fervor. At Passover, we don’t have that any longer, and the seder takes its place. And no matter how lovely the table ritual is, no matter how much study and symbolism transpires there, theres no way that it can replace this powerful ancient ceremony.

A Maxwell House Haggadah (1950s)

People in the ancient pilgrimage felt moved outside themselves, into community, feeling bonds and oneness and nationhood. And when you go to Grandma Tessie’s house and the relatives are slowly coming in by car and plane, and you’ve got a box of Manischewitz matzah and a shank bone you got from your butcher and roasted—or its contemporary substitute, a beet—it’s not the same. And my guess is that one reason we get so involved in Passover cleaning, dusting our chandeliers or shaking books out or whatever we do, is that we’re looking for something physical and visceral that can connect us to a sense of emergency, movement, change. So that to me is the liturgical imperfection—the fact that the current ceremony in no way can be as powerful as the one in antiquity that it’s meant to replace.

On the other hand, it becomes a celebration of family and of teaching your children, and it moves the leadership role from a priestly caste to grandpa, which is democratization at work.

And it’s all well and good. Ninety percent of Jews worldwide observe the seder, which is pretty astonishing, and I think it’s because of that sense of connecting to family and hearing that transmission from our elders. But the issue of transmission leads us to the second imperfection of the Haggadah, the pedagogical flaw, which is that the text assumes a level of Jewish learning that very few people have. People haven’t sat down and read the full Exodus story in the Torah unless they’ve had a sophisticated Jewish education, and even fewer know how to study those texts from the perspective of rabbinic literature, in particular midrash, which is the style that is replicated in the Passover Haggadah. So you end up with a text that assumes that you know other texts, but those other texts aren’t there. Seder leaders are generally amateurs, and the Haggadah is not such a great guide to transmitting the story effectively. The scripted Four Questions, for instance, are not really questions a child would ask.

Moment for just $19.97...subscribe now and get Good Karma FREE

I always wondered why the Haggadah never answers the question, “Why do we recline at Passover?”

None of the questions are answered in a satisfying way. Many contemporary Haggadot encourage parents simply to tell the Exodus story and what it means from the parent’s perspective, so that the child will genuinely say, “Tell me more. Tell me more about this narrative. Tell me more about when you left Russia or when you left the Lower East Side in New York. Tell me your story of how you took the obligation to invite the hungry to your table or to care for the needy because you were a slave and needy yourself once.” If a parent can personalize the story, then a child, even an adult child, is bound to ask for more, and without having to use scripted questions.

We pray, we read, we sing, we eat, we celebrate God’s leading the Hebrews out of slavery. But you say there’s a theological flaw.

The Haggadah poses a really large theological challenge without giving us any of the tools that would address it. We tell a story about how God once heard the pained voices of the suffering slaves, and how God engaged in our history so that these slaves were not only liberated but miraculously brought to safety. If that were the end of the story, we could keep telling it quite happily without any dissonance. But there have been far too many times when Jews have cried out and God didn’t come into history to hear their cry, end their suffering and bring them into freedom. And I don’t think any contemporary person at a seder can hear the glory of God’s redemption long ago without asking, “But where was God during the Holocaust? Where was God when so many voices were crying out to God to end their suffering?”

The Haggadah doesn’t acknowledge the problem.

It just leaves it there for us to deal with on our own. I think we as individuals all come to our own theological resolutions, but it’s a harsh and difficult matter.

In many American families, there used to be a fifth question at seders, which was, “Why did the Maxwell House coffee company publish Haggadahs?”

We’re supposed to publicize the Exodus from Egypt just as we’re supposed to publicize the Hanukkah story. So I guess our friends at Maxwell House, in addition to publicizing the availability of kosher Maxwell House products, help us do that work. But you have to admit, it’s pretty odd that we had advertisements in the back of a Haggadah, whether for Maxwell House coffee or something else. It would be weird if the Book of Lamentations came with an ad for Kleenex. I’ve seen Haggadahs with ads for Breakstone dairy products and for various banks, and one of my favorites, an ad for a palm reader on the Lower East Side. One of my prize Haggadahs, I believe it’s from ShopRite, has a centerfold—imagine that—with a shopping list for your seder as well as coupons for matzah and matzah meal. It’s something utterly quirky, which shouts out at us that this text is very different from other texts.

Reading your book took me back 60 years ago to when my synagogue was lent a set of historic Haggadahs. My class all got a chance to hold them and read them. I remember holding a rice paper Haggadah from Kaifeng in China and thinking, “How are they letting me touch this thing?”

In my research, whenever I saw Haggadahs in a museum or a library, tremendous care was taken—I’d be given gloves and a pencil to take notes and told to leave my bag outside. But once I went to the home of the preeminent collector of printed Haggadahs, Stephen Durschlag, and he was just piling up these super-rare Haggadahs on the table. It was a very hot day, and he gave me a glass of water. I hadn’t noticed there was also a bottle of Coke on the table. I wanted to be a gracious guest and help him out, so I scooped up the big pile of Haggadahs, and I spilled his bottle of Coke all over the table. I began to say my own little “Dayenu” prayer: If the Coke only gets on the catalog from Sotheby’s, let that be enough. Or, if it would only get on something modern, that would be enough. And Steve got a rag and started patting away the Coke, totally unflustered, and he said, “What makes a Haggadah a Haggadah is that it’s used, and the signs of use and love and being part of people’s lives, that’s what animates a Haggadah.”


Illustrated pages from the Birds’ Head Haggadah (circa 1300).

I had never heard anything like that before—the idea that you could see people’s lives and histories and the passage of time within these texts. They have this way of being our friends and companions in life. Whether they’re lovely ones that we had from our childhoods, or the one our kid made in Jewish preschool with collages and stick-ons that is now falling apart, we take them out lovingly and touch them and remember the people we used to be.

It’s only one line in your book, but I can’t resist asking about it. Jews from Iran and Afghanistan, when singing “Dayenu” at the seder, playfully whack each other with scallions?

You don’t do this? I know that we have to be careful about appropriating other people’s traditions. But I must confess that the moment I learned about this practice, I couldn’t resist. One year, I was in Santa Barbara before the seder, and I was at a farmer’s market and bought onions by mistake. I brought these onions home to my mother-in-law, and she put them out at the seder and took the greatest pleasure in whacking our relatives during Dayenu. It was cathartic.

Can you explain the survival of “Had Gadya,” not one of the great pieces of music of our time? What is the significance of that song?

It’s clearly allegorical, but no one quite knows what the allegory is all about. I think one of the reasons it’s so beloved is that at the end, God triumphs over death. It’s about hopefulness: No matter what we endure, God or goodness will prevail. What’s curious is that we sing it in such a joyful, carefree way, some of us making animal noises, when the subject matter is quite terrifying. I think one of the reasons so many artists have created freestanding illustrations of the “Had Gadya” song is this challenge of how to reconcile what goes on in the story with our joy in singing it.

What defines wickedness in the typical contemporary Haggadah? For years, my father would remark on the picture in the Haggadah we used, which showed a guy reading the racing form, and he was the wicked son.

In many Haggadahs, the wicked son was depicted as whatever figure in that culture was seen as a no-goodnik. For instance, often the wicked son would be a soldier. But today many Haggadahs have abandoned those notions of good and evil and have instead depicted children with different learning styles or different perceptions of their own position within Jewish life. The judgmental quality is taken away.

So theres no wicked child whose “teeth should be set on edge” and who would’ve been left behind in Egypt?

No. With so much availability of fine dentistry these days, everyone’s teeth remain intact.

Not even despoilers of the environment, or misogynists, they couldn’t qualify as wicked?

No. These days, everybody is good. Everybody is potentially redeemable. Its probably a much healthier pedagogic strategy. 




Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.