Holidays

The Seder is Anything but Orderly

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Yosef Lindell

 

The Passover Seder seems like a tightly scripted affair. The final chapter of the Mishnah in Pesahim, the primary rabbinic source detailing the event, reads like a checklist. We pour the first cup, and matzah, hazeret, haroset, and cooked dishes follow. We pour the second cup, ask Mah Nishtanah, and so on, until Birkat ha-Mazon and Hallel.

With so many requirements to fulfill in sequence, it is no surprise that we refer to the rituals of Pesah night as a seder, or an “order.” It is a term found in the earliest versions of the Haggadah in use today,[1] and although it is an obvious choice—little different than calling the prayer book a Siddur or referring to the Temple service of the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur as the Seder ha-Avodah[2]—the rituals of the night of the fifteenth of Nisan have become synonymous with the word seder in a way that little else did. Nowadays, for example, it is common to call the entire night the Leil ha-Seder. The Passover Seder thus promises to be the structured evening par excellence.

Furthering this semblance of orderliness, poets in the Middle Ages composed lists of the Seder’s steps as mnemonic devices so that participants would know what to do and when. The list beginning Kadesh, urhatz, karpas, etc.— probably composed by the twelfth century Tosafist R. Samuel of Falaise—has even become part of the Haggadah, recited or sung as the Seder begins. One might suppose that if the Seder has steps, it must be organized.

Yet a closer read of the Haggadah reveals a puzzlingly disorganized structure that demands explanation. The Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus in a seriously disjointed fashion. We seem to begin this narrative with the paragraph of Avadim Hayinu—“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord our God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” Yet the Haggadah quickly gets sidetracked, speaking of rabbis who stayed up all night telling the story, expounding on the commandment to say the Shema morning and night, discussing four different types of children, trying to determine the appropriate day for holding the Seder, and backtracking to the patriarchs and their idol worshipping ancestors. When we then raise our glasses in joyful praise of the One who saves us time and again, it is long after sundown, and we still haven’t begun explaining how God redeemed the Children of Israel from Egypt.

Matters get more confusing when the storytelling starts in earnest. Instead of relying on the full story in the Book of Exodus, the Haggadah uses a succinct passage from Deuteronomy (26:5-8) recited by a farmer bringing first fruits to the Temple as a springboard for a dazzling exercise in rabbinic hermeneutics and midrashic derivation. Centuries of commentators have struggled to explain the more difficult parts of this midrash. To give one example, what is the basis for the Haggadah’s assertion that the word “amaleinu” – “our toil” refers to the children who Pharaoh ordered thrown in the Nile?

And there is another problem with the story that is arguably more bewildering: from the Haggadah alone, it is hard to piece together many of the basic facts about what happened. We learn that the Egyptians oppressed the Children of Israel, who cried out to God for mercy. Then, in a powerful revelation of the Divine Presence, God—and not an angel—saved the Children of Israel by means of a cattle plague, a sword, a staff, blood, fire, pillars of smoke, and finally, the Ten Plagues. Next, we learn of additional plagues at the sea (250 according to Rabbi Akiva), but the Haggadah has not yet explained how the Children of Israel found themselves at the sea to begin with or what happened there. In fact, from the way the Haggadah tells it, we would never know that after the plague of the firstborn, Pharaoh relented and expelled the Children of Israel from his land. And in the end, we only learn about the splitting of the sea from a brief reference in Dayeinu—a poetic litany of miracles—which assumes that the reader already knows the story. And where, as many have wondered, is Moses in all of this? He is essentially absent from the Haggadah.

In short, the Haggadah tells its story out of sequence, adds events from midrashim not found in the Humash, and omits crucial details. Paragraph after paragraph, midrash after midrash, the storyline becomes more muddled. One must be thoroughly familiar with the biblical account of the Exodus to understand the Haggadah’s version at all. As the scholar of religion Vanessa Ochs puts it in her recent book, The Passover Haggadah: A Biography, “Questions are asked in the Haggadah that are not answered. Answers are given to questions that have not been asked. The pedantry can overwhelm. Biblical narratives are referred to, but in such oblique and cryptic ways that it is hard to piece a coherent story together.” The Seder may be orderly, but the Haggadah’s account of the Exodus is disorienting.

In a masterful essay well worth reading, Rachel Sharansky Danziger suggests that the Haggadah’s circumlocution is quite purposeful. By telling the story in a barebones and haphazard fashion, the Haggadah allows the Seder’s participants to create their own story and to feel as if they were personally redeemed from Egypt. “By liberating us from the mindset of a passive audience,” she writes, “the Haggadah frees us to taste self-determination, in an echo of the very event which it so circuitously explores.” But I would like to offer an additional perspective.

The disorganized Haggadah may not have the markings of a great novel, but perhaps it was never meant to be easy, its meaning delivered on a silver platter. With its non-sequiturs and cryptic passages, the Haggadah looks a lot like any page of the Talmud. So perhaps you can’t just read the Haggadah. Instead, you learn it. The freewheeling, disjointed Haggadah creates a Seder that mimics the dynamics of a beit midrash. It is no accident that its central portion is a midrash, the sine qua non of the Oral Torah.

Thus, spirited discussion becomes central to the Seder. Around the Seder table, we must learn the Haggadah together. Its words are the beginning, not the end, of the conversation. Maggid is lively: full of questions, answers, and divrei torah the children learned in school. We interrupt, talk over one another, discuss the meaning of passages, or perhaps even demonstrate the plagues with plastic frogs. The Haggadah says that “whoever tells more about the Exodus is praiseworthy,” and the Sages of Bnei Brak led by example: going strong all night until their students reminded them to recite the morning Shema.[3] Learning Torah in partnership is a heady, engrossing, and sometimes disorganized experience.

In a similar vein, we treat the Haggadah less formally than other ritual texts. Imagine, for a moment, the Haggadah and the Siddur placed side by side. As texts, they share certain similarities. Neither has a single author; they are products of a lengthy and messy evolution. Both are hard to interpret in places. And despite their rough edges, they are both fixed texts.

But that is where the similarities end. The experience of reciting the Haggadah lacks the formality and solemnity of praying from a Siddur. The Siddur is designed for the synagogue, where we speak to God, and preferably not to our neighbors. Ideally, one does not interrupt the Torah reading or the prayers with questions or comments. On the other hand, the Haggadah is said at home, around a table with family, friends, and food. Disruption and interruption are part of the experience. In the daily prayers, when we do not understand a word, we usually let it slide, held in thrall by its familiar rhythm or simply pressed for time. How different is Seder night, where we feel compelled to discuss the Haggadah’s ambiguities, translating and elucidating as we go. The Torah reading and the prayers are chanted precisely. A reader who makes a mistake must sometimes be corrected. There are no such rules for the Haggadah. Its text may be fixed, but there is much leeway in how it can be recited. Some families read every word together. Others go around the table. Both practices are acceptable.

The Siddur, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is the book of Jewish faith. There is a rock-solid certainty to the Siddur, a comfort in its familiarity. Even when the world around us is falling to pieces, we may find solace in the prayer book’s routine and repetition. But the Haggadah is never quite the same. Every year, new insights present themselves, new questions sharpen one’s understanding, and new commentaries are published. Riffing on a Talmudic passage, R. Naftali Maskil Le-Eitan, in his late nineteenth-century essay Ma’amar Yesod Mosad quips, “Ten portions of interpretation descended to the world, the Passover Haggadah took nine, and one was left for the rest of the Torah.”[4]

The Siddur and the Haggadah look quite different too. There are few illustrated siddurim; its pages are typically plain and unadorned. Yet the Haggadah has sported pictures since medieval times. From the enigmatic early fourteenth century Birds’ Head Haggadah, to the exquisite woodcuts of the 1526 Prague Haggadah, to the newly minted Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel, there is no shortage of artwork found on its pages. One of the most widely used haggadot in America, the Maxwell House Haggadah, is a walking advertisement for a coffee company. About it, Ochs wonders:

How many other sacred texts could tolerate being branded by a product, by corporate sponsorship? Would we tolerate, much less embrace, a Kleenex Lamentations, or the Lens-Crafters Book of Mormon? Could another sacred text come with tear-out inserts: shopping checklists and advertisements for farfel, gefilte fish balls, macaroons, and candied, jellied slices of “fruit”? Surely, Leviticus could not withstand a centerfold of coupons for an ox of the sacrifice of well-being; the goat for the people’s sin offering; 20 percent off turtledoves and frankincense, two-for-one on pigeons.

But the Haggadah tolerates corporate branding, perhaps even embraces it. And it is not just the Haggadah’s “robust aura,” as Ochs suggests, that allows it to withstand this commercialization without reputational harm. The Haggadah is sacred and ancient, but since it must serve as a guide to experientially reconstructing one of the pivotal moments in our history, the more relatable features it contains, the better. Coffee made by a familiar brand is certainly relatable. Perhaps it ought to lead one to contemplate the peculiarities of the American way station on the Jewish journey toward liberation, where spirituality and commercialization can go hand in hand. Similarly, the “fandom” haggadot of recent years—from ones about Harry Potter, to superheroes, zombies, and even the tv show Seinfeld—are more enriching than irreverent, creating points of comparison and discussion that help us internalize the Passover story and make it our own. Whatever allows us to better relate to the sorrows and joys of our ancestors; whatever stimulates discussion; whatever makes the story easier to visualize—all these things belong in the Haggadah, especially if there are children in attendance. For the Seder is not just for those old enough or engaged enough to sit attentively in the pews. It is for the whole family and for an entire people.

Even the differences between the songs at the end of the Seder and those that close the synagogue service speak volumes about their respective settings. In the synagogue on Shabbat and festivals, we end with the mystical Song of Glory (Shir ha-Kavod) describing God’s attributes, and Adon Olam, a meditation on faith (the words are serious, even if the tune often isn’t). The Haggadah crescendos instead with a boisterous counting song (Ehad Mi Yodeya) and a rhyme-like ditty about a little goat (Had Gadya). In the Shir ha-Kavod, God is portrayed in the most exalted terms. In Had Gadya, God metes out justice to those ultimately responsible for the consumption of a two-zuz goat. Four cups of wine after the Seder begins, one ends up buzzed and singing a nursery rhyme. This is yet another demonstration that the Haggadah is nothing like a Siddur, and that the Seder is not a synagogue service.

Instead, the Seder is many other things: a conversation between parents and children, a spirited discussion as colorful and sometimes as inscrutable as the Talmud, a family affair around the table with food. The Seder is not exactly orderly, but it is all the richer for it.


[1] The earliest text of the version of the Haggadah in use today, found in the ninth century responsa of R. Amram Gaon, the head of the Babylonian academy in Sura, begins, “And the order [seder] of Pesah you asked about, here is how it goes.” Rambam, in the twelfth century, recounts the “order [seder] of doing the mitzvot on the night of the fifteenth” of Nisan. Mahzor Vitry, writing a little before Rambam, details the “Seder Pesah” of his teacher Rashi, and cautions readers “to follow its order [sidro] that the Sages instituted, and not to change its order [sidro].”

[2] See, e.g., Rambam, Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim 4:1.

[3] A similar account in rabbinic literature (Tosefta Pesahim 10:12), tells of other Sages, in Lod, “engaging in studying the laws of Pesah all night until the rooster crowed.” This parallel is significant because it suggests that the authors of the Haggadah, by including the Bnei Brak story in a format that matches the story in the Tosefta, seem to consider telling the story of the Exodus on Seder night an exercise similar to studying traditional Torah topics like Halakhah.

[4] Ma’amar Yesod Mosad is a comprehensive attempt to explain the Haggadah’s disorderly structure, well known from its English adaptation, The Malbim Haggadah. R. Maskil Le-Eitan (the work was not written by Malbim, a story for another time) suggests that the Haggadah is structured around the verse, “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8), with each part of Maggid corresponding to a different word or phrase. While his explanation often seems too clever to be true, and does not address the difficulties with the midrash or the gaps in the story, it remains a fascinating attempt to grapple with the Haggadah as a whole and some of the problems outlined in this essay.

Yosef Lindell
Yosef Lindell is one of the editors of the Lehrhaus and is a lawyer, writer, and lecturer living in Silver Spring, MD. He has an MA in Jewish history from Yeshiva University and a JD from NYU Law, where he was a Tikvah Scholar in 2011. His writing spans several genres, from science fiction to Jewish scholarship, and he’s been published in venues such as the Atlantic, the Forward, Modern Judaism, and Jewish Action. Check out more of his writing at yoseflindell.wordpress.com.