Why is this Haggadah different from all other Haggadoth?

Thoughts about "An American Haggadah," by David P. Stern   (22 January 2003)


      This section is meant for those interested in the ideas and changes embodied in "An American Haggadah." Page numbers are those of this Haggadah--e.g. page 6.5 means halfway down page 6.

        (1)     Style

        The reading of the Haggadah is an ancient rite, handed down over many centuries, a celebration of Jewish culture and tradition. Any update should strive to keep the "patina" and style: the participant at the seder should not be suddenly yanked into the 21st century by words or structures of a different style. Changes should try maintain a poetic quality, and the tone should remain serious--there is little levity in a story of enslavement.

        The archaic style of the King James Bible was therefore kept--"Thee" and "Thou," also "the LORD," and the capitalization of all pronouns related to God, who is always regarded as masculine (even if no gender is implied). Sometimes it is hard to decide what to change and what to keep. A small example:

          Now if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not brought our forefathers out of Egypt, then we, and our children, and our children's children, would have been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Therefore, even if we are all wise...

        Is this still appropriate, with no Pharaoh in Egypt, and no slavery? Indeed, if the story is historically true and our forefathers had remained in Egypt, we might be now poor Moslem peasants, not slaves. Yet the phrase still echoes an ancient sentiment, and a strong case can be made for keeping it intact. One might then explain, "this is how our forefathers used to feel when they celebrated the redemption from Egypt."

        Yet while the words echo the distant past, they fail to strike a chord with present-day Jewish consciousness. That is why, in the end, this sentence (alone) was changed--changed in the Hebrew and then translated. The new version raises the meaning from a personal level ("we, and our children...") to a wider one:

        Now if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not brought our forefathers out of Egypt, there would be no people of Israel and no land of Israel, and perhaps the world would still be divided into slaves and masters. Therefore, even if we are all wise...


        (2)     The Language

        That may be the most serious problem area. The original Haggadah is in Hebrew, a language most participants at a Passover seder in the US are not likely to be fluent in. With the original text, the solution was to translate--one side of the open book was printed in Hebrew, the facing side in English, and participants chose whatever they preferred. More and more, English is the language of choice, and some "modern" English Haggadoth are a long way from the spirit and style of the original.

        Any substantial change involves compromise. In this version the original Hebrew Haggadah still forms the backbone and framework, and much of the English that accompanies the text is just a translation. Some changes were introduced in the Hebrew and then translated (see preceding example). The replacement text for "Pour out Thy Wrath" was also originally written in Hebrew and translated.

        However, with the several English poems included here--e.g. "Have you come to the Red Sea place in your life (p. 15.4)--no translation into Hebrew was attempted. Poetry is a delicate, perishable commodity, and English-speaking participants would anyway use the original even if a translation were available. Towards the end, more and more English appears as part of the main text, with no translation. Often these parts introduce new ideas, and though they are in keeping with the style and the thrust of the Haggadah, they are more appropriately expressed in English. Thus this is indeed "An American Haggadah."

        On the other hand... not all the Hebrew was translated, either, reflecting a feeling that in an American non-Orthodox seder, these parts may be either read in Hebrew (to fulfil a requirement, e.g. of the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after the meal, p. 26-28) or else omitted. An example is the pilpul by Rabbi Yossi the Galilean (top of page 15). Indeed, how many participants at a seder would be aware of its connection with verse 49 of Psalm 78?

        This might change: perhaps it would be preferable to keep a translation of every Hebrew text, but print it in small lettering, suggesting a lower priority.

        The Hallel was omitted, and "Dayenu" was replaced by the short English version, usually sung (the original Hebrew is hard to sing).


        (3)     Changed Passages

    A few parts of the main Hebrew Haggadah were updated.

  1. "A Wandering Aramean" (p. 10.6) in the original Haggadah deliberately skews a line in the scriptures (unrelated to Passover--see Deuteronomy 26, v. 5), interpreting it as "An Aramean sought to destroy my father" and reading into it an accusation of Laban, father-in-law of Jacob. That line is retained, but its new message is how the Israelites in Egypt changed from a family to a nation, making it more relevant to a celebration of Jewish identity.

  2. "Then we, and our children, and our children's children... " was already discussed.

  3. The "four questions" (p. 4a-4b) differ today from the ones specified in the Mishnah. The logic of the last two seems strained: why ask about "dipping twice" before we have dipped even once? And concerning the seating, nowadays in most seder celebrations the same chairs are used as always! Yet the questions are quite popular, as the part of the service in which the youngest participant can show off, and is usually expected to do so.

        Our family revised two of these, but both versions are included--leaving the choice open. In addition, commentary is added (p. 3.5) on the history of those questions. Participants can read those comments at their leisure or discuss them at the table.

  4. For many participants, the section on the four sons also needs explanation. Therefore a short passage is added on the word "Haggadah" (p. 6.4) and the 4 sections of the scriptures related to the four children are cited (p. 7). Again, participants may read this at their leisure.

  5. "Ve-hee she'amdah" ... "This promise made to our forefathers.. " (P. 10.2), is usually sung to a traditional melody. It follows a section in the original Haggadah which cites God's promise to Abraham, the prediction that his descendants will be enslaved in Egypt, but will be liberated in the end. The Torah tells that this promise was indeed kept.

        But it was not this promise which has saved our people "in every generation" as "Ve-hee she'amdah" states. That was a different promise, also made to Abraham, a promise much more fundamental to the Jewish people and their creed. In this Haggadah, therefore, that other promise (p. 9.9--10.0) replaces the traditional section.

  6. Finally, any modern Haggadah must address "Pour out Thy wrath" which in the traditional service follows the 3rd cup of wine and the opening of the door (p. 31). The door was opened for a very practical reason--the words were considered offensive, and seder participants opened the door to make sure no eavesdropper stood there, ready to pounce (see p. 30).

        In the modern US (and elsewhere), this reason for opening the door was deliberately allowed to fade and was replaced by the legend of Elijah. We open the door in case Elijah the prophet--whose cup we have just filled--is standing outside, waiting to join our seder, perhaps bringing the Messiah along with him.

        If Elijah does not appear, the traditional seder continues with the Hallel, and then with some songs, followed by the 4th cup, a blessing for the bounty of nature, and the closing of the seder. The Hallel itself is a selection of the psalms not particularly relevant to Passover (it is recited on other occasions as well). In many homes, much of this is skipped, bringing the seder to a hurried end.

        Rather than shift the focus to Elijah, "An American Haggadh" addresses several other motifs relevant to Passover--opening our doors to others in need, tolerance, liberty and the renewing of old traditions in ways appropriate to the times (see below.) The role of Elijah in Passover (including "Shabbat HaGadol") is told in two pages of commentary (29-30), which also explain Elijah's cup and quote the words which originally led to the custom of opening the door. That, again, is for participants to read and ponder.


    (4)     Additions

  1.     The section starting "In every generation one should see oneself as having personally come out of Egypt" here concludes with
    "... Let us remember and never forget that slavery still exists in this world, even if it wears new guises. Wherever it exists, it is an abomination before God, and we will surely fight it until it disappears."

        Immediately following this, on p. 19.0, comes:

        "In every generation one should see oneself as having personally survived the Holocaust. On this seder night began the desperate uprising of the Warsaw ghetto. A month later only ruins were left of the ghetto, and only a handful of its inhabitants remained alive."

        This continues with the poem by Binem Heller "Pesach Has Come to the Ghetto Again," invoking the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto.

  2.    The opening of the door after the 3rd cup of wine is actually the second time the door is opened. The first one (p. 3) is when the head of the household invites "All who are hungry--come and eat". Here the second opening (p. 31) echoes the first:
      "Our door stands open to receive any friend
      To strangers and neighbors, a hand we extend
      We open the heart to the ones still oppressed
      May they too, by right, be with liberty blessed
      To suffer no longer, our freedom to share
      To build a new life that is peaceful and fair."

        and as a further echo of "All who are hungry... " it tells how Rabbi Huna who used to open his doors and say "May anyone who is needy come and eat" (one sage of that time commented on that: "easy for Rabbi Huna to say so--he's a rich man and can afford it").

    This is followed by:

    "In every generation one should see oneself as having been part of an exodus, as our forefathers were when they went out of Egypt, and as our ancestors were when they sought a new free life across the sea. They were greeted by the words of a Jewish poet, inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:"

        Then those words are cited, from a poem by Emma Lazarus, as well as the words of the Torah inscribed on the Liberty Bell. This part may be uniquely American, stressing liberty.


  3. From the above topic of tolerance and liberty, the Haggadah proceeds to the need to creatively renew our Jewish tradition--citing the Haggadoth of Kibbutzim in Israel, and implying that this Haggadah, too, is part of that process. The words of Rabbi Tarfon are cited:

      "It is not up to you to finish the work,
      But neither are you free to abstain from it."

    Following this is a 1939 poem by Julian Drachman "How Shall We Sing?". Invoking psalm 137 "By the rivers of Babylon...," the poet asks:

      How shall we sing Thy song in a strange land?
      How shall we not? For if my tongue should cleave
      To the roof of my mouth and no song ever came
      The dream must perish. Can I still believe...

  4. The 4th cup of wine (p. 34) brings up the topic of nature and its bounty, and reminds us that Passover is also the holiday of spring ("Chag He-Aviv"). After the traditional blessing, this Haggadah cites the words of the prophet Amos, describing an idyllic generous era in the future:
    Behold the days come, saith the LORD
    That the plowman shall overtake the reaper...
    And I will turn the captivity of my people Israel
    And they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them...

and it continues with "Through the Year" by Julian Stearns Cutler

    God be with you in the Springtime
    When the violets unfold
    And the buttercups and cowslips
    Fill the fields with yellow gold...

The seder then ends with the traditional song of conclusion ("Nirtsah"), sung to the melody of "Hatikvah."


    (5)     Final Thoughts

        Assembling a Haggadah raises the question of parts of the service which are clearly popular, regardless of merit. The legend of Elijah (sect. 3-f) is one; it was omitted here (is this Elijah too similar to Santa Claus?), but with some doubts. The four questions are another: two versions are included, again, some doubts remain.

        Still another are the traditional Hebrew songs at the end, and the Aramaic "Chad Gadya," "one little kid." At one time, Chad Gadya was the traditional concluding song. But fewer and fewer participants know the words of these songs, and their literary merit is not great. They were therefore omitted, and instead the service ends traditionally with "Next Year in Jerusalem."

        "An American Haggadah" is not a final product, and was never viewed as one. It is just one more contribution to the creative process of trying to redefine the Passover holiday, in a way relevant both to our day and age and to our Jewish tradition. In its turn, this redefinition is just part of an overdue revitalization of Judaism, which may be essential to its survival as an active cultural force. Will the effort succeed? No one can foretell. But as Rabbi Tarfon wrote long ago

    "It is not up to you to finish the work,
    But neither are you free to abstain from it."


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 11 February 2003