Welcome to Creating Lively Passover Seders! By David Arnow

Evolution of the Haggadah

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The Evolution of the Passover Haggadah On One Foot

The Haggadah developed over more than a thousand years and continues to do so. After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E. it was no longer possible to observe one of Passover’s central commandments, the paschal sacrifice. The sages of the early rabbinic period resolved to redefine the celebration of Passover so that it would continue to be meaningful even without the sacrifice. They gave other symbols greater prominence and eventually designed an evening celebration in which eating symbolic foods and telling the story of the Exodus would substitute for the earlier ritual of sacrifice.

Some scholars believe that the Tosefta, a code compiled in the second century CE, includes the earliest description of the post-Temple Passover. There the Seder includes many of the familiar rituals--but with no reference to telling the Passover story. The Mishnah (Pesachim, chapter 10), a law code or teaching manual that was compiled in about 200 C.E. contains a very different plan for the Seder.

The Mishnah contains many elements that remain central to the Passover Seder: Four cups of wine; dipping of herbs and charoset, eating matzah, reclining, asking questions, elaborating on “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt few in numbers (Deuteronomy 26:5-8), explaining the meaning of the Paschal sacrifice, matzah and bitter herbs, and reciting the six psalms of Hallel (Psalms 113-118).

The Mishnah balanced elements that were fixed with those that were more creative and spontaneous. The child’s questions were not specified nor was the elaboration on “May father was a wandering Aramean.” In striking a balance between the spontaneous and prescribed, the sages sought to create a ritual that would remain sufficiently engaging (and fun) that one generation would eagerly pass it down to the next.

The ritual was further defined in the Talmudic period (200-500C.E.). The compilers of the Haggadah added other passages from the Bible and from the midrash. And they created passages specifically for the Haggadah. For example, this statement found in the Haggadah appears no where else in rabbinic literature: “Whoever elaborates on telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt deserves praise.”

The Geonim of the tenth century, leaders of the Jewish communities in Babylonia, included Haggadah’s in their prayer books. Later copies of these prayer books suggest that by the tenth century, the Haggadah was very similar to what we use today without the rituals associated with Elijah, “Pour out Your wrath…,” and the songs at the end of the Seder. These all entered the Seder in the Middle Ages.

The oldest manuscript of a Passover Haggadah dates from the tenth or eleventh century. In the early twentieth century it was found in the Cairo Geniza, a repository containing centuries of Jewish liturgical texts and other documents. This Haggadah is in the possession of the Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. It reflects the tradition of the land of Israel and differs in many ways from the Haggadot of the Geonim. For example, this Haggadah includes different questions and lacks the midrashic elaboration on “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

The first printed Haggadah appeared in Spain in 1482. Today there are more than 4,500 different Haggadot, most of which include one of three versions of the “traditional” text—Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Yemenite. The common Maxwell House Haggadah represents the traditional Ashkenazic text.

View the oldest HaggadahTo see the Haggadah's "Three Questions" (about why we dip twice, eat matzah, and eat only roased meat) go to page 4 (i).