Author interviewIn post-Temple Judaism, the Haggadah bound a bereft people

This year’s ‘virtual’ seders have an ancient echo, says Haggadah historian

Through prosperity and darkness — and now again in modernity — the retelling of the Exodus story has evolved alongside the Jewish people. Prof. Vanessa Ochs traces the journey

Rabbi Vanessa Ochs is the author of the new book, 'The Passover Haggadah: A Biography.' (Courtesy)
Rabbi Vanessa Ochs is the author of the new book, 'The Passover Haggadah: A Biography.' (Courtesy)

Just in time for one of the most unusual Passover seder nights in recent memory, acclaimed scholar Vanessa Ochs has come out with a new book on the history of the haggadah.

“The Passover Haggadah: A Biography” is Ochs’s contribution to the Princeton University Press Lives of Great Religious Books series, which includes explorations of the Book of Genesis and the letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yet the haggadah brings some unique challenges.

Although classified as a book, there’s some nuance to its status. “I believe you can say it’s a liturgical script, a script for a tabletop liturgy,” Ochs told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation. She calls it “a book that’s been revised, reprinted, republished over 6,000 times.”

“I don’t believe anyone has ever been so foolish as to write a complete, more or less, history of the haggadah,” Ochs quipped. This history even predates Exodus, when “thousands of enslaved Israelites would have been only a glimmer in the eye, with a prediction to Abraham,” and it continues up to the current moment, Ochs said.

Yet no one could have predicted that post-publication, Ochs would be fielding inquiries about a new kind of haggadah — a virtual one, due to the coronavirus.

“Every hour, I get another request: Do you have a haggadah for a virtual seder, tips for a virtual seder?” Ochs said. “This year, clearly, there will be haggadot created for the moment.”

‘The Passover Haggadah: A Biography,’ by ordained rabbi and religious studies professor Vanessa Ochs. (Courtesy Princeton University Press)

Although virtual haggadot are not covered in the book, there are plenty of others to learn about, reflecting a range of authors, time periods and places. These include oral versions described in the Mishnah (or Oral Law); printed ones from the Middle Ages; and more recent texts reflecting modern Jewish history — the Reform movement and Zionism, the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, women’s rights and Soviet Jewry.

Ochs researched archives in Israel and the United States, including the Chicago home of Stephen Durchslag, whom she describes in the book as “the premier private collector of the printed haggadah in America.”

Of the 6,000 different versions across history, Ochs said, “they are probably more alike than they are different. Certain things are generally included.”

There are the Four Questions, the Ten Plagues and one celebrated coffee company — Maxwell House, maker of what Ochs believes is the most popular haggadah of all time. There’s the unifying message of “a biblical injunction to fathers to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt to their children,” Ochs writes. Yet in the telling (the literal meaning of the Hebrew term, “haggadah“), some traditions have been updated. Instead of the Four Sons, many haggadot now feature the Four Children, while Miriam’s cup joins Elijah’s.

From ‘Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel’ by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Erez Zadok (Courtesy Erez Zadok)

Ochs describes herself as an “anthropologist who studies contemporary religious practice.” An ordained rabbi and professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia, her previous books include the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Inventing Jewish Ritual.” She said that working on “Inventing Jewish Ritual” provided invaluable experience when she researched the haggadah, including the phenomenon of women’s seders.

“Having learned how it is that new rituals emerge, how they get adopted — that kind of research was great while thinking about this project,” Ochs said. “Certainly it alerted me to the fact that every Jewish practice had a trajectory. Every ritual was at one point new.”

Ochs writes that the first haggadot were oral instructions mentioned in the Mishnah and its supplement, the Tosefta. In the Tosefta, she finds “an ad hoc Passover home ceremony taking place between 70 and 200 CE and beyond.” Citing Prof. Judith Hauptman, Ochs writes that compared with the Mishnah, the Tosefta’s haggadah “was briefer and less elaborate,” and it “may even have come first.”

Ironically for those planning virtual seders today, the original seders had their own virtual quality for Jews who could not worship at the Second Temple following its destruction in 70 CE.

An ancient haggadah (

“Certainly, the seder in the Mishnah grafts ancient practices of the Passover pilgrimage holiday in Jerusalem involving the sacrifice of lambs at the ancient temple,” Ochs said. “In its place, it became itself the first virtual Passover.”

She finds similarities between the seder described in the oral haggadah and the Greco-Roman symposium. However, she disagrees with scholars who see parallels between the seder and the Last Supper of Jesus.

Among many Christians, there has been an assumption that the Last Supper was a seder

“Among many Christians, there has been an assumption that the Last Supper was a seder,” Ochs said. “Among many Jewish scholars, there is debate. I tend to side with Jewish scholars who believe the Last Supper was not a Passover seder. Rather, at just about every Jewish ceremonial meeting, there will be bread and wine, blessings over bread and wine.”

Biblical scenes in miniature paintings, illuminated in gold and striking colours. The Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, ca. 1320 CE (courtesy British Library)

As the Diaspora spread from the Middle East to Europe, Jews grew concerned about relying on oral tradition for Passover. Ochs said that between the ninth and 11th centuries, they asked the amoraim, or sages, to write down instructions. These were originally part of prayer books, but then became stand-alone volumes. The first printed haggadah was made in Guadalajara, Spain, in 1474. Printed haggadot increased dramatically after the invention of the printing press.

“Once you have the printing press, it means lots more people can have their own text,” said Ochs, citing “beautiful illuminated texts, clearly for the well-to-do,” with some of them “fortunately preserved.” These include the Amsterdam Haggadah, first printed in 1695 for a community of Sephardim in the Netherlands, although it contained versions for both Sephardic and Ashkenazi readers.

Ochs follows the story as Judaism grew denominationally in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the first Reform haggadah in 1842. She said that the Reform movement was “quite critical of the traditional text” and instituted some changes.

“The goal was to create a tasteful seder service that would appeal to the sensibilities of modern man,” she said. “The Four Questions were out. There was only a succinct two-part question. Why is this night distinctive, and what is the meaning of this service?”

A wine-stained page from the ancient haggadah in the Schneerson Collection. (Courtesy)

Yet, she reflects, “in some of the haggadot where there were significant exclusions … the communities that created those haggadot eventually returned [parts] of the liturgy that were excluded. The Reform movement in America had early haggadot that did not have the plagues. But they came back.”

America is the birthplace of another, more enduring development. It began in the 1920s, when a certain coffee company decided on a marketing venture aimed at the Jewish community. Although the company was not Jewish, it adopted the recommendation of a Jewish advertiser — the Joseph Jacobs Advertising Agency — and the Maxwell House Haggadah was born.

The Reform movement in America had early haggadot that did not have the plagues. But they came back

Ochs said that the “idea of a branded haggadah was quite curious,” noting in the book that there is not, for example, a Kleenex Lamentations. Yet the text was both free and traditional, and it became a Passover staple. Ochs can recite its transliterated Ashkenazi pronunciation of the start of the Four Questions from memory: “Mah nish-ta-naw…”

A Maxwell House Coffee company Haggadah. (JTA)

“It’s been revised so many times since the 1920s,” Ochs said, noting last year’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Haggadah, a partnership between the hit show, Maxwell House and Amazon Prime that included gender-neutral language but kept the Ashkenazi pronunciation. Ochs recently spoke with someone who grew up reading the Maxwell House Haggadah in Cuba, and noted that copies have been sent to Israel. “I’m sure, in the former Soviet Union, it was sent over with boxes of matzah,” she said.

Ochs also addresses what she calls “haggadot of darkness,” oral and written versions created when Passover occurred in times of unimaginable tragedy — notably the Holocaust.

“It’s incredible what people needed to do if they did not have a haggadah,” Ochs said. “Some people took one with them as a treasured possession that they were able to hold on to.” For those without a haggadah, “individuals, [based on] what they could remember, even without the materials for a seder, would recite the words,” Ochs said. She added, “the idea that … however dark the time was, the impulse to mark sacred time and memory with the hope of redemption was so powerful.”

A page from the ‘Survivors’ Haggadah’ written for the 1947 Survivors’ Seder in Munich, Germany (Courtesy National Library of Israel)

One particularly powerful narrative for her is that of the Landau family of Poland. A non-Jewish Polish family sheltered them and let them kosher their oven for Passover. Patriarch Shmaryahu Landau recited the haggadah from memory to his 17-year-old son Elimelekh, who wrote it down in an illustrated version that is now at Yad Vashem.

Elimelekh Landau subsequently moved to Mandatory Palestine and served with the Haganah during the War of Independence. His battalion fell under siege, and during Passover, he typed up another haggadah, for his fellow soldiers; it is also at Yad Vashem.

A children’s Haggadah from 1945 compares draws parallels between the Passover narrative and the Holocaust. (Yeshiva University Museum/Center for Jewish History/via JTA)

Ochs noted that the 1974 edition of the Reform haggadah reflected the Shoah through writings from Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel and Martin Buber. And, she said, “the Reform movement’s attitude toward the Land of Israel had shifted,” including an emphasis of the phrase that ends the traditional haggadah, “next year in Jerusalem” or “L’Shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim.”

This phrase has taken on added complexity in modern history. “After the Six Day War, there were all types of options and celebrations,” Ochs said. “Certainly, haggadot in that era, thinking about L’Shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim, quite certainly American Jews were thinking about the joy about Israel.”

A page from the haggadah written by the 36a Palmach Third Battalion for Passover 1948 (Courtesy National Library)

Ochs said she presumes there is also “a small segment” who intend the phrase to mean “that they are looking toward a time when there is a third temple, when temple sacrifices once again resume.”

Yet, Ochs said, “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim, to my understanding, was never about going to, literally traveling to, a particular place. It’s about a messianic hope of the ultimate community of Jerusalem, a messianic era of peace, completion, more so than physically traveling.”

Physical travel looks unlikely this Passover. But however Jews celebrate, perhaps they can find some hope by learning from Ochs’s book how the haggadah has endured in challenging circumstances. Perhaps it will give hope that the haggadah can help people make it through a similarly challenging virtual seder this year.

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