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Piece Meal

The first Passover celebrations included neither haggadah nor seder. With the passage of millennia, the two have become central elements. Herewith an interactive guide to the collage of texts that constitutes the holiday’s guidebook.

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“Rabban Gamaliel said: He who does not explain the following three Passover symbols has not fulfilled his duty: pesach, matzo, and maror.” This familiar pronouncement captures the essence of the haggadah not only by directing us to contemplate symbols of the Jews’ slavery and redemption but by giving us a window into the haggadah’s own history. More than the siddur, or daily prayer book, the haggadah exposes us to the debates—legal and interpretive—that shaped its creation. And yet the missing dimension is time: When did all these pieces separately emerge, and why? Despite its order—the word “seder” means just that—the haggadah feels like a collage. Perhaps this is intentional: In My People’s Passover Haggadah, scholar David Arnow likens the haggadah to a modern cubist work, exposing the Exodus and our place in it simultaneously from all angles. But the story of the haggadah’s development helps us understand its message and reveals a submerged history of the Jewish people journeying in the Diaspora. (Continued below the interactive guide.)

To honor the haggadah’s spirit of collage, we offer an interactive guide to learn about the origins of this Passover text. Click on the words and icons to learn more about the origins of the elements of the haggadah; their explanations appear underneath the graphic.

When Jews observed Pesach in the Second Temple period, roughly from the mid-sixth century B.C.E. to the first century C.E., there was no seder and no haggadah. Those who could make the journey would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing the paschal lamb as a sacrifice, and afterward take the whole roasted animal back to their homes across the city to eat with their families. Wine, matzo, maror, and charoset would accompany the festival meal, as would a recitation of Hallel, but without any substantial discussion of the Exodus. Only after the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. were the rabbis of the Tannaitic era, which lasted until 220 C.E., forced either to re-imagine Passover observance or to lose it altogether. In that moment, they reoriented the holiday toward study and reflection, setting forth in the text of the Mishna a list of rituals and readings that still form the core of today’s celebration: the search for chametz, the four cups of wine, the four questions, the story of the Exodus told “from disgrace to praise.” It is at that moment that we see Rabban Gamaliel, standing on the threshold between the Pesach observance of the Second Temple era and what would come, declaring the haggadah into being by telling us: You are obligated to explain these symbols.

In the centuries that followed, the haggadah evolved as Jews migrated from Roman-ruled Palestine to Babylonia, to Europe, to Modern Israel, and the United States. In the Amoraic era (the time of the Talmudic rabbis, between 220 and 550 C.E.), the haggadah was formalized as liturgy and as a public occasion, with a leader and a script. In the Geonic era, between 589 and 1038, the text was consolidated and additional passages added. For centuries the haggadah was not written down: The seder leader would know the elements by heart and, at a crucial moment, give a substantial drash, or interpretation of biblical passages. In the Middle Ages, as Jews spread across Europe, and as Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1440s, printed haggadahs finally emerged, filled with illustrations and, to enhance the festivities, lively songs like Chad Gadya. The haggadah became one of the most common Jewish printed books, found wherever Jews have settled across the world.

(Sources include Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai’s Haggadah of the Sages (1998), Joseph Tabory’s JPS Commentary on the Haggadah (2008), and Joshua Kulp and David Golinkin’s Schechter Haggadah (2009).

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Wonderful idea. What would also be cool would be to click and get songs, stories, images, dramatizations…wow. A Talumudical phantasmagoria. Then I would feel virtually transported. If only Moshe could Twitter!

Jarad says:

But David, Moshe Rabenu does tweet. See @tweettheexodus and @Moshe_ben_Amram specifically!

Lisa says:

Beautiful and helpful. Truly the next step – Gutenberg would be proud. Still not sure what’s going on with that rooster on the table, though- is that for chicken soup?

Rivka says:

This is a beautiful and meaningful piece of writing.

LIsa Greenberg says:

The interactive “collage” part of this article did not work. do I need special software or what?? Would love to be able to use it…


Leslie Martin says:

Ditto what Lisa said. Liked the article, though.

Ari B says:

Very nice, but Chad Gadya DOES have a significant thematic connection to Pesach. The song is a messianic vision: one creature prays upon another creature, one nation prays upon another nation, until the end of days when G-d will abolish death (m’chayei hameitim). This messianic redemption is one of the major themes of the Hagaddah, which is trying to tell us that not only were we redeemed from Egypt, but we will be redeemed by G-d in the world to come.

richard Skeen says:

Fantastic! 8, 11 and 15 year-olds all got something from this, and it will help drive our theme this year: the Hagadah as a living document. Tablet strikes again…

lisa: the rooster symbolizes that morning had come and it was time for the five rabbis ((E,J,E,A,T) to recite Shema

Gail Wides says:

Could you fix the interactive element to the collage – we cannot see the explanations without that.

Thank you,

Gail Wides

It is really a nice and useful piece of information. I am glad that you shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

I’ve said that least 1702279 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Just admit it! Just pleasing! Your posting manner is charming and also the way you dealt the topic with grace is valued. I am intrigued, I assume you might be an expert on this subject. I am subscribing to your upcoming updates from now on.


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Piece Meal

The first Passover celebrations included neither haggadah nor seder. With the passage of millennia, the two have become central elements. Herewith an interactive guide to the collage of texts that constitutes the holiday’s guidebook.

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