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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 9: The History of the Passover Haggadah


Jeremy Shere: So, I'd like to start this episode by introducing you to our Associate Producer, Jen Richler. Hi, Jen. 

Jen Richler: Hello, Jeremy.

Jeremy Shere: When we're putting the show together, Jen and I spent a lot of time sharing our thoughts about the episode. And so we thought it would be cool to share some of those thoughts with you. So going forward, at the beginning of each episode, that's exactly what we're going to do.

Now, as you may be able to tell because of the audio, Jen and I are not actually in the same room. Due to COVID-19, we're recording remotely and we are sequestered in our own lockdown homes. Jen, how are you holding up in your lockdown? 

Jen Richler: Well ,I'm doing okay. You know, a lot of walking the dog, a lot of loading and unloading the dishwasher…nothing too exciting. 

Jeremy Shere: Yeah. It’s —  I mean, it's pretty wild that this year for Passover, we're dealing with essentially a real-life plague, right? I mean, you could create a new Haggadah that includes COVID-19 as the eleventh plague. To your mind, how does COVID-19 stack up against the plagues of the Exodus?

Jen Richler: I mean…it’s pretty bad. But I suppose you could say the same about some of the other plagues. Perhaps frogs wasn't the biggest deal, but slaying of the firstborn is pretty tough. 

Jeremy Shere: If we did our Haggadah with COVID-19 in it, it would just be a description of this virus. And then the Egyptians just kind of sequestered at home, all bored, but the Israelites are allowed to just go about their normal lives and have fun. 

Jen Richler: Yeah, that sounds good.

Jeremy Shere: So now, for those who are not familiar with the Haggadah, our listeners that just don't know that term, it's the book used as a guide to the Passover seder and to tell the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. And the Haggadah is also the focus of this episode. And one thing that's remarkable about the Haggadah is that there are just so many versions. 

Jen Richler: Yes, it happens that I haven't been that adventurous in my own personal Haggadah use. So for all the years of my childhood and even into adulthood, I used the same Haggadah every year at our seder. Some of you will know what I'm talking about when I say the one that is yellow and maroon. I use that every year, to the point that I know, you know, what is on which page of the Haggadah. I know where the wine splotches are from seders past. But yeah, I know that there are a lot out there. I know there’s the Hogwarts Haggadah — that’s the one that always leaps to mind — but I know there's pretty much a Haggadah for everyone out there.

Jeremy Shere: There's an emoji Haggadah. Of course, there's even a Trump Haggadah that someone put out. There are just many, many varieties, and the good old traditional Haggadah as well. You know, I can't think of another Jewish liturgical text that's so massive and that we're allowed to shape and change. There's nothing quite like that, except for the Haggadah. So, in this episode, we explore the history of the Haggadah, how and why it was created, and how it's evolved over time. We hope you enjoy.


Imagine that it's the year 50 of the common era, and you're living in the Roman province of Judea, in the land of Israel. It's the 14th day of the month of Nissan, the beginning of spring. And it's time to celebrate the festival of Passover, or Pesach

But it's nothing like how we celebrate Pesach today. There's no searching for bits of leavened bread with a candle and feather, no gathering around the table with your family for the seder, no matzah ball soup. Instead, you and your family select an unblemished firstborn lamb, gather some provisions, and alongside all the other families from your village, set out for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There, on the eve of the holiday, you hand over your lamb to a priest, who leads it to a blood-soaked altar for sacrifice.

Ruth Langer: Then they would get the meat of the lamb, essentially take it home and roast it in Jerusalem and have a feast that night. 

Jeremy Shere: This is Ruth Langer, a professor of Theology at Boston College and the author of several books about Jewish liturgy. The feast, she says, consisted of roast lamb as the main dish…

Ruth Langer: …along with some matzah and a really nice condiment, which was some kind of bitter herbs. So if we think about that as eating a mustard on a hamburger, or something like that.

Jeremy Shere: Several centuries earlier, according to the Second Book of Chronicles, Judean kings used the pilgrimage festival of Pesach as a way to demonstrate and consolidate their power. Rabbi Vanessa Ochs is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and author of the recent book The Passover Haggadah: A Biography. She notes that Judean king Josiah, who ruled from 641 to 610 BCE, is described as having sponsored a lavish Pesach celebration. 

Vanessa Ochs: He donates 30,000 lambs and goats and 3,000 cattle. The Levites are singing. They are roasting Passover sacrifices and they are dispatching them to the people. 

Jeremy Shere: This type of communal experience, Ochs says, embodied what the anthropologist Victor Turner would call communitas.

Vanessa Ochs: There is a sense of exuberance, of connection to your people, connection to God. And when the temple is destroyed, the question becomes, how do you mark this day?

Jeremy Shere: That was, indeed, the central question concerning not only Pesach, but the entirety of Judean life and religion, because in 70 CE, when Roman legions destroyed the temple in response to a Jewish rebellion, the Jews lost not only their central place of worship, but also their community and traditional way of life.

It's easy to imagine the Jews of the time wondering if the ancient covenant between God and the people of Israel was broken .

Vanessa Ochs: When you're in exile and you’re in great despair, how do you continue to rejoice and be grateful for a time when God once redeemed your people, but now you're no longer in a place of redemption?

Jeremy Shere: And so the rabbis of the period faced the monumental task of reimagining Judaism as no longer centered on the Temple and on offering sacrifices. Instead, Judaism became a civilization focused on studying and interpreting the laws of the Torah. In other words, Judaism became intensely text-based, through the study of the Holy Scriptures.

The rabbis began to reconfigure how Jews would keep the commandments and celebrate the festivals, including Pesach. And it's here, in the Tosefta and Mishnah, that we see the very first glimmers of what would eventually become the Haggadah. 

Like the Mishnah, the Tosefta is a written compilation of Jewish oral law, and it includes a section on how to conduct what we might call a seder at home. 

Vanessa Ochs: It begins with a blessing over wine, and then there is an hors d'oeuvre of dipped sweet breads. Some psalms are recited at the table. 

Jeremy Shere: There is also to be matzah on the table, along with bitter lettuce, dipped in charoset, a sweet paste made of fruits and nuts. And after the meal, there's to be a scholarly discussion of the laws of Pesach, which, according to Ochs, may not have proven to be the best arrangement…

Vanessa Ochs: …because you're discussing all the laws of Passover, you're studying only after all of the eating and praying is done, which means you might not be terribly awake.

Jeremy Shere: Which may be why the Pesach ritual described in the Mishnah seems to be the one that stuck and served as the model for seders going forward. As Langer notes, the Seder as described in the Mishnah was modeled after the Greco-Roman symposium, which consisted of a meal connected to some kind of formal discourse and discussion. It’s in the Mishnah’s discussion of what should constitute the details of the seder discourse that we begin to see elements familiar from the Haggadah. For example:

Ruth Langer: The Mishnah itself tells us that there's a very important interaction between children and parents. So they talk about fathers and sons, that the son needs to ask the father questions — as it came to be known through the Babylonian tradition Four Questions, which is one of the most familiar passages of the Haggadah. 

Jeremy Shere: As for the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Mishnah focuses on a passage from the book of Deuteronomy Chapter 26, verses 5 through 8, which summarizes the history of Israel, from the patriarchal period to entry into the Promised Land. It begins, “A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there,” and ends with God delivering Israel from slavery, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

In more ancient times, this passage was recited on the holiday of Shavuot, which is several weeks after Pesach. So why did the rabbis of the Mishnah zero in on this passage for Pesach? Well, maybe it's because it gave people in exile hope that God would one day rescue them from their plight. It's worth noting that the Mishnah deliberately leaves out the following verses in Deuteronomy, which describe God delivering Israel to a land of milk and honey, and the people offering the first fruits of the harvest as a sacrifice to God. 

In its truncated form, focused on Israel's deliverance from bondage, Langer says, it was a way to give a people in exile a brief, relevant and easy to memorize text that could serve as a jumping off point for discussion. 

Ruth Langer: And you say, okay, take this text and use this as the basis for telling the story. It's got the nuts and bolts there, and then you can expand on that. You can expound on it. You should be thinking about it, talking about it, letting it grow, so that it's not just those five short verses, but a hour, two-hour, five-hour discussion, whatever you want to make it into. 

Jeremy Shere: The Mishnah also introduces the concept of the afikoman, although not initially as the piece of matzah eaten as the last bite of food after the meal 

Ruth Langer: It says, "Ein maftirin achar hapesach afikoman.” So it says, “After you eat the Paschal lamb…” and then we don't quite know what the other words mean. Afikoman sounds like it's a Greek word for “revelry.” So it's saying, “Don't go out and party after you finish eating the Paschal lamb.”

Jeremy Shere: Several centuries later, the Gemara, the part of the Talmud that compiles rabbinic commentary and the Mishnah, relates the rabbinic decision that the last taste of food during the seder should be matzah, to replace the taste of meat in the mouth.

Ruth Langer: Not very effectively, but it does. That’s its purpose. And so you can't move on and finish the seder, or you can't do the grace after meals and the rest of Hallel, without having had this last taste of matzah.

Jeremy Shere: And that final, palate-cleansing piece of matzah became the afikoman

Still, the Pesach ritual described in the Talmud doesn't say anything about a Haggadah. Beyond the focus on the passage from Deuteronomy, the rabbis of this period don't offer a written guide, laying out the order of the ritual. It's only later, during the ninth and tenth centuries, that the earliest Haggadot begin to appear.

They were discovered in the late 19th century, by American rabbi Solomon Schechter, who found fragments of ninth century Haggadot from Babylonia and from Palestine in the geniza, or repository, of the Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. These early Haggadot were not free-standing books, but rather parts of volumes, including liturgies for all Jewish festivals.

One thing that's ironic about early Haggadot, Ochs says, is that the rabbis of the period were at first reluctant to provide too much guidance and fix the seder ritual in place. 

Vanessa Ochs: But once texts got written down, then rabbis were very adamant that the way that they had written it down was the only way that it should be done. 

Jeremy Shere: The Babylonian and Palestinian factions argued heatedly about the details of the seder recorded in their competing Haggadot.

Vanessa Ochs: There are debates between the rabbis of Babylonia and the rabbis of the land of Israel over when you do the different hand-washings, do you use blessings, which blessings do you use? We only do a blessing over the second hand-washing, whereas there were people who did a different blessing over the first hand-washing.

Jeremy Shere: The Babylonian Haggadah eventually became the standard. And even in its earliest versions, it's pretty close to the Haggadot we use today. For example, among the documents discovered by Solomon Schechter was a nearly complete manuscript of a Haggadah compiled by Saadia ben Yosef Gaon, head of the Sura academy, or yeshiva, in Babylonia during the tenth century.

Ruth Langer: It starts with kiddush; it starts with the blessing over the wine. And he's got havdalah, if it's a Saturday night. The Aramaic passage that follows that, we think of as “Ha Lachma Anya," “This is the bread of affliction." 

Jeremy Shere: Next appear the Four Questions — albeit in a different order than we're used to — and then the answers to the questions.

And here we see, for the first time, the result of a Talmudic debate concerning the interpretation of the passage from Deuteronomy we discussed earlier. The rabbis of the Mishnah had declared that expounding on the passage had to begin with denigration and end with prayer. 

Ruth Langer: And the Talmud asks, “What do they mean by denigration?” And there's a debate between Rav and Shmuel — and I always get mixed up, which one said which, but one of them says, “The denigration is that we were slaves in Egypt.” And the other says, “In the beginning, our ancestors were idolaters."

Jeremy Shere: Like our Haggadot, Saadia Gaon's version includes both interpretations. It begins to answer the four questions by stating we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

Ruth Langer: This goes directly from that into the four children, which is an ancient piece, which is found in a midrash and is integrated into the Haggadah…

Jeremy Shere: …and from there delves into the other answer, that our ancestors were idol-worshippers, which in turn leads into telling the story of Israel, starting with the patriarchs and their idol-worshipping forebears.

Ruth Langer: Then he has this passage that we always sing in our house: “Blessed is He who kept his promise to Israel. Blessed is the Holy one. Blessed be He.”

Jeremy Shere: The blessings are to praise God for keeping his promise to Abraham that after four hundred years of Egyptian slavery, God would rescue them. 

Ruth Langer: And this promise, which has stood for our ancestors and for us, is important, because not only has this one, Pharaoh, stood up against us to destroy us, but every generation, they stand up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand. That's one of the most important lines of the Haggadah and that's here already.

Jeremy Shere: By the end of the 13th century, the main text of the Haggadah as we know it was nearly complete. At a time when owning books was becoming popular among the wealthy, the Haggadah finally emerged as a stand-alone text. But it wasn't only text — some Haggadot also included elaborate illustrations. The beautiful ones were commissioned by wealthy Jewish families.

Vanessa Ochs: And they were created by Hebrew scribes with fine hands who also knew how to draw.

Jeremy Shere: In places where Jews were barred from artists’ guilds, rich Jewish families would commission Christian artists to fill their Haggadot with colorful images. 

Vanessa Ochs: One form of illustration is to show you the rituals of the Passover seder and its preparation. You'll see people making matzah, you'll see people sitting around a table, families at their tables and families preparing.

Jeremy Shere: Sephardic Haggadot from the medieval period often included other illustrations…

Vanessa Ochs: …and that would be images from other books of the Bible that might be illuminating, clarifying, but are not referenced in the Haggadah itself — say, images of the seven days of creation, images of stories from Genesis.

Jeremy Shere: The invention of the printing press during the 1440s sparked a flourishing of new Haggadot. It was a period when Jews began to want to know more than just how to conduct the seder — they wanted to explore the deeper meanings of the ritual.

The printing press allowed for the publishing of Haggadot with rabbinic commentaries on the text. For example, in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Haggadah commentary of the 15th century Jewish Portuguese scholar Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel was sharp and pointed.

Vanessa Ochs: His questions are profound and disturbing. He asked, "What benefits have we in the Diaspora today derived from the Exodus from Egypt? Isn't it possible that we would have been better off in Egypt than in our contemporary exile and in a period of desolation?” I think what we see in the printed Haggadot that we see nowadays is a sense that there are real existential questions that are part of the Haggadah, which aren't answered within the Haggadah. We need our commentaries to help address our heartaches.

Jeremy Shere: Now, you may be wondering, “What about all those songs we sing at the end of the seder, like “Chad Gadya,” the song about a goat? According to some sources, they began to appear in Haggadot during the 16th and 17th centuries. And according to Langer, they were basically popular folk songs.

Ruth Langer: They're of a type that we sing in English: “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly. I don't know why she swallowed a fly. She swallowed a spider to catch the fly” and so on and so forth. “Chad Gadya” is the same thing,

Jeremy Shere: Although it may be tempting to find deep meaning in these tunes, Langer has her doubts. 

Ruth Langer: Some people try to read theology into them, and their really being about Jewish survival or something like that. But I don't think that most people are thinking about that. I think they're just enjoying being a little bit slap-happy after four glasses of wine, and a long night, and enjoying themselves.

Jeremy Shere: Haggadot continued to evolve throughout the Renaissance, the age of Enlightenment and on into the modern age, adding new commentaries and illustrations to reflect changing times. In 1932, Maxwell House began publishing its famous Haggadah as a marketing strategy. It became the most popular Haggadah among American Jews and earned the brand loyalty of millions of American Jewish coffee-drinkers. In 1946, the Third US Army published what came to be known as The Survivor’s Haggadah, which included the recent experiences of Holocaust survivors alongside the traditional text.

In the 1950s, Israeli Jews published Zionist Haggadot, celebrating the founding of the modern state of Israel. And starting in the late 1960s, Haggadot with explicit political viewpoints began to emerge, promoting civil rights, feminism, vegetarianism, and many other movements and philosophies. 

Today we're awash in so many versions of the Haggadah that it's difficult to know exactly how many there are. There's a Haggadah to suit every sensibility, whether you're a JewBu, a social justice activist, or even a Harry Potter fan. And yet, at their heart, all of the various Haggadot do the same kind of work, guiding participants along the ritual of the Passover seder. 

Vanessa Ochs: Most remarkable about it to me is that between its covers, it holds the possibility for a Jew who might never have been to a seder before, or might not even know the story of Exodus very well — it holds the possibility for her to do a lot of cooking and shopping and invite a bunch of people over and say, “We are about to observe an incredibly old Jewish ritual.” That's really important. And this book allows her to facilitate that ritual

Jeremy Shere: For Langer, the ways in which the Haggadah tells the ancient story of the Exodus from Egypt, while also inviting us to make the experience our own, is a big part of what makes the Haggadah special and enduring.

Ruth Langer: So, personalizing the Haggadah, personalizing the seder discussion. Contemporizing it — the word that my Catholic colleagues use is “actualizing” it — taking this ancient story and making it be relevant to who we are today is always meant to be central to the experience.


Episode Guests

Ruth Langer

Ruth Langer

Ruth Langer is Professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology Department at Boston College and Associate Director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. She received her PhD. in Jewish Liturgy in 1994 and her rabbinic ordination in 1986 from Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. She writes and speaks in two major areas: the development of Jewish liturgy and ritual and Christian-Jewish relations. Her books include, Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat HaMinim (2012), To Worship God Properly: Tensions between Liturgical Custom and Halakhah in Judaism (2005), and Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to Research (2015). She also co-edited Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue (2005) and has published a long list of articles.

Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs

Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, PhD, is Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and a core member of the Jewish Studies Program since its inception. In her research, she investigates new Jewish ritual, Jewish feminism, the Passover Haggadah, Jewish material culture, and Jewish Sensibilities. Her books include The Passover Haggadah: A Biography (2020), Inventing Jewish Ritual (winner of a 2007 National Jewish Book Award), Sarah Laughed, The Jewish Dream Book (with Elizabeth Ochs), Words on Fire: One Woman’s Journey into the Sacred, and Safe and Sound: Protecting Your Child In An Unpredictable World.

Episode Host


Jeremy Shere, PhD

Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.

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