Monday, March 29, 2010

The Passover Haggadah

Passover, which begins at sundown this evening, is similar to most other Jewish holidays in being organized around a book. It is unlike Yom Kippur, however, which is concluded when the 800-page mahzor is read, mostly aloud and in a singsong chant, over twenty-four hours. At least in the Diaspora, the Passover Haggadah is read twice straight through on back-to-back nights—one time on the first night (tonight), a second time on the second night (tomorrow).

The Haggadah announces its theme about a third of the way through: “In every generation let each man look on himself as if he came forth out of Egypt.” The ideal is that the Passover seder, using the Haggadah as a dramatic script, should be a reenactment of the Exodus story. The central part of the book, then, is the maggid or retelling.

Instead of reciting the biblical narrative, though, the maggid is principally built up from Mishnaic texts. The plagues, for example, are introduced by means of a rabbinical commentary on Exodus 14.31, which expands upon them in a series of hyperboles. “How do we know that the Egyptians were struck by ten plagues in Egypt and fifty at sea?” Yossi the Galilean asks—increasing the number of plagues sixfold. “How do we know that each and every plague that God visited upon the Egyptians was equal to four more plagues?” Eliezer asks, adding another forty to the number. “How do we know that each and every plague that God visited upon the Egyptians was equal to five more plagues?” Akiva asks, boosting the total to exactly a hundred.

The Haggadah is heavily mediated by Jewish literature, in other words, creating a chain of commentators (that is, literary critics) which links the living to the rabbis and, through them, to the Israelites who escaped to freedom. At the conclusion of the seder, the linkage is extended into the future. L’shanah habaah b’Yerushalayim: “Next year in Jerusalem!” the Jews shout joyously. It is a shout that assumes an extra poignance in the current political climate.


R/T said...

From one simple teacher to a much better teacher: Happy Passover!

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks, Tim. I’ll tell my “rabbis” (Jon Levenson, Ruth Wisse, Neal Kozodoy, John Podhoretz) that you said so. They are the better teachers.

S.K. Azoulay said...

It's always bothered me that the Haggadah doesn't actually tell the story of the Exodus, instead opting for a sort of cliffnotes version. If the goal is to make future generations remember the exodus, wouldn't telling the story be better? Isn't narrative more memorable than commentary?

D. G. Myers said...

“Cliff’s Notes version” does not strike the right note. The source of the Haggadah is the Mishnah, not the book of Exodus. And the reason (or effect) is twofold.

First, the native form of Jewish literature is the commentary, not narrative. Even midrashim and Talmudic storytelling are conceived as commentary.

Second, the form of the Haggadah encourages further commentary, gloss upon gloss, suggesting that the final word has not been spoken: the story remains incomplete, awaiting the contribution of every Jew at the seder.