> Holidays > Passover > The Haggadah

Haggadah: An Introduction

May 22, 2012 | by Shimon Apisdorf

Putting the Seder into perspective.

Why do we Read the Haggadah?

The holiday of Passover marks the anniversary of the birth of the Jewish nation. The story of the Jewish nation is one of individuals who became a family who became a people. The great individuals who laid the spiritual foundation of Jewish peoplehood were Abraham and Sarah, their son and daughter-in-law Isaac and Rebecca, and their son and daughters-in-law Jacob, Rachel, and Leah.

From Jacob, Rachel, and Leah came a family of 70 people who, due to a famine in Israel, were forced to migrate to Egypt. In Egypt this family grew and prospered to such an extent that they eventually came to be seen as a threat by their Egyptian hosts. Respect and admiration turned to contempt, and finally to an organized program of enslavement and oppression. After 210 years, and a series of unheeded warnings by Moses to Pharaoh which resulted in the Ten Plagues, God liberated a nation which had grown from the original family of 70 people. Seven weeks later this newly conceived nation received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The Haggadah is the story of the birth of the Jews as a people. It deals primarily with the events in Egypt which led from slavery to liberation, though it also spans the entire period from Abraham to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. One could say that the Haggadah is our national birth certificate as well as our Declaration of Independence. More than just a historical document, it also speaks of the ideals and values which constitute the essence of our national consciousness and identity.

The word haggadah means to tell, or to relate. The Haggadah is a vivid narrative which is set in the context of a parent-child dialogue. Passover, with the Haggadah as its focus, tells every Jew three things: who you are, where you came from, and what you stand for.

The message inherent in the Haggadah is that Jewish identity and continuity hinge on encouraging children to ask questions -- and being prepared as parents to provide sensitive and substantive answers. In Judaism, being learned, knowledgeable, and wise is not only a goal, it's a prerequisite.

Putting the Seder into Perspective

Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The story is told of Dan and Bob, two homeless people who are talking one afternoon.

Dan says: "Do you know what tonight is? It's the holiday of Passover. That's when the Jews have the Seder feast -- the fine food and delicious wine -- all served in the most elegant manner. I went to a Seder last year and it was incredible. All you have to do is go to the synagogue tonight, and when the services are over, someone will invite you to their home."

That evening, the two friends stand in the back of the synagogue waiting. Sure enough, when services are over, they each get invited to separate homes for the Seder. "Good luck," says Dan, "you're gonna love it."

At the Seder, Bob is really excited. He's hungry and hasn't had a home-cooked meal in months. He can already smell the delicious food wafting from the kitchen. He sits patiently as the family reads in a language he doesn't understand. He's getting hungrier, but finally he sees a plate of food being passed around. But it's only little pieces of celery (for the "Karpas")! After this, they go back to reading from the book.

An hour goes by and Bob is really hungry now. He's willing to eat anything. Finally they pass around some Matzah and Bob takes a big piece. Then they serve a bowl of some white vegetable and Bob heaps a big pile on his plate. He stuffs his mouth full with it and ... FIRE!!! The horseradish burns Bob's mouth and stomach, and he runs out of the house screaming and cursing.

Later that night, Bob and Dan meet up again. "I'm so mad at you," shouts Bob. "You sent me to a Seder and it was terrible."

"What do you mean?" says Dan. "At my house, they had incredible fish, soup, chicken, kugel and dessert! All you had to do was hang in there and you'd have gotten yours, too!"

This story captures the theme of Passover night. On one level, it is a metaphor for the dramatic turnaround of events the Jews experienced in Egypt. They went from the bitterness of slavery to the glory of freedom -- all in one day. So too, when we feel enslaved and in pain, remember that God can redeem us in the blink of an eye.

On another level, this story is a good introduction to the Seder itself. The Seder goes from bitter herbs to feast in a matter of moments. For while the Haggadah may seem long at times, hang in there. Food is on the way!

(story attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov)

Lessons for Life

Rabbi Stephen Baars

Each Jewish holiday is a lesson in life. What is the lesson of Passover? Freedom. It's the type of freedom that has given the Jewish people it's power to survive and to thrive. It's not a freedom of the body as much as a freedom of the spirit. And this freedom is available at Passover-time to help you achieve whatever you want. A person with true freedom knows no bounds, and can achieve whatever they wish. They are free to change themselves and change the world!

On Sukkot, the holiday of joy, we focus on the need to increase our joy. On Rosh Hashana, we commit to working on goals. On Yom Kippur, we focus on a sense of regret and a returning to where we should be. On Passover, the holiday of freedom, everyone thinks they are free.

The challenge of Passover is to appreciate that this may not be true.

Slavery takes many forms; not all shackles are made of iron. Once slavery becomes a way of life, the slave may even become unaware of his own servitude. Passover is a "virtual reality experience" in freedom -- and the Haggadah is our guidebook. It assists each Jew in unearthing his own "slavery." The Seder is a seminar on how to be truly free, and on Passover night we can reenact the transformation of leaving Egypt, from slavery to freedom.

Out of the original events of Passover emerged the greatest and longest standing empire of the world. Not an empire of space but an empire of thought -- Jewish thought. The story of Passover is the story of the beginnings of the Jewish people, a people that set out to form a "new world order" with a new morality and new concepts of life.

The 'old' world was a pagan one, where war and violence were not only ways of life but often national pastimes. The world the Jews ushered in includes ideas with which we are all familiar -- equal rights, universal education, social responsibility, and peace for mankind.

Experiences come through two vehicles: Experiences of the body, and experiences of the mind. Passover is a "mind" holiday. We have to become free -- not from a physical oppressor, but from a spiritual, mental one. Ideas may enslave us. Pressures, self-imposed limits -- all these are in our mind. To be free of them, we must first understand them. But first we must become aware of those things that enslave us on a 'subconscious' level.

That's why the Haggadah encourages us to ask questions to exercise our mind. So as you encounter questions throughout the Haggadah, take them seriously. Try to answer them, and encourage others to ask more questions.

Give each of the guests some candies before the Seder starts, so that they can toss a candy to whoever asks a good question. This is a particularly effective way of keeping children interested.

The key is that the Seder should be relevant, not dry and boring. Read ahead, familiarize yourself with the text and look for interesting questions to discuss during the Seder. Circle those points you want to read out during the Seder and write in your own comments.

Discuss the ideas in a deep and meaningful way. Don't just rush through the text in order to get to the meal! One good way to start your Seder is by asking everyone to recollect their childhood experiences of what their Seder was like.

If everyone at the Seder is thinking, then the Haggadah seminar is sure to show you how to be truly free.

Can I Skip the Boring Parts?

Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf

The reading of the entire Haggadah is the way in which one fulfills his or her obligation to speak about the exodus from Egypt on the night of Passover. In order to realize the full benefit of this mitzvah, one must both read and understand the complete text of the Haggadah. This means that if you don't understand Hebrew, then you shouldn't read it in Hebrew. This also implies that -- beyond understanding the words -- you should strive to discern their deeper meanings and messages.

Let your imagination loose for a moment and picture this: you have just concluded a marvelous encounter with the most adorable extraterrestrial you could ever hope to meet. A conversation transpired (though no words were actually spoken) and clearly your rendezvous was with a being of superior intelligence whose understanding penetrated the many layers of life and the universe. As a parting gift, you are left with a book, but there's one catch - in twenty-four hours it will mysteriously vanish. Now ask yourself: over those next twenty-four hours, how much time will you spend preparing and eating meals, watching television, or sleeping?

Or... imagine that while rummaging through a long-neglected corner in your attic you were to find a dusty, handwritten manuscript authored by your great-grandfather. Wouldn't you be curious to see what he wrote? And what if the opening lines read: "To my dear children, this is the most important book you will ever read. It is about Jewish life and the wisdom of living written by a Jew who dedicated his life to the pursuit of wisdom. Countless hours have been devoted to finding the words and the thoughts which I trust will serve as a faithful guide in life, and as a key to your freedom..."

The yellowed pages of that manuscript are the timeless folios of every Haggadah. That great-grandfather is the collective wisdom of our greatest sages. You are the heir who happened upon those lost words. A multilayered message about the meaning of Jewish existence, about life, and, most of all, about freedom. And all you've got is one night.

The legacy of freedom is yours to discover.

from the "Passover Survival Kit Haggadah"


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