Haggadah through the Ages

I love teaching. One of the things I love most about teaching is that I always learn something new, both from my preparation and from the participants in the class.

This is exceptionally true for my most recent class, The Story of the Story: History, Art, and Culture of the Haggadah. We have discovered so many interesting tidbits as we take a journey alongside the development of this “book” – a text that continues to change.

In 2011, Edward Rothstein wrote in a New York Times article that over 5,000 editions of the Haggadah had been published since the invention of the printing press. Considering that 5,000 doesn’t include the many illuminated manuscripts created in the Middle Ages nor does it include the vast number of editions that have been published in the past 10+ years, I can’t even imagine what the real number is. And with the explosion of online and DIY Haggadot… the number is incalculable.

Why so many editions? The liturgy in the Haggadah is not exactly mandated or required. The main goal is to tell the story, to relive the Exodus, to celebrate our freedom and commit to working toward the freedom of all people.

The “traditional” text of the Haggadah wasn’t fully in place until the late Middle Ages. Although some basics were outlined in the Talmud, there was no book or instructions. In the early Rabbinic period, they held a study session instead of telling the story of the Exodus, and they were forbidden for taking part in the Afikomen. What? No searching for the Afikomen? In those times, as the Passover Seder was modeled after Greco-Roman banquets, “afikomen” or “dessert” referred to the post-dinner revelry that we should most definitely not participate in. Parents were encouraged to create a game of matzah snatching to keep the children engaged; perhaps that was the precursor to the Afikomen search.

Some tidbits we have discovered is that the order of the Passover Seder wasn’t written down until the 12th century; that Maimonides wrote the passage Ha Lachma Anya – the “bread of affliction; and the Seder Plate itself didn’t make an appearance until the 16th century.

The most interesting to me – so far – was a question asked and later answered (through some research) by a class participant about a fox seen in an illuminated manuscript. It turns out that many illuminated manuscripts include the motif of a rabbit or a hare being chased by dogs or hunters or even a fox. In every image, the hare escapes. Why is this non-kosher animal in our Haggadah? It could be that the hare was a common image for the time. But in the context of the Haggadah, the hare symbolizes the Jewish people being persecuted and surviving time and time again. From one odd image almost hidden in Haggadah illustrations, we find the main theme of Passover symbolically represented: freedom.

There’s so much to learn, so many creative ways to explore our past, our present and our future in this holiest of days.

Chag Sameach – Happy Passover (almost)