The story of the Exodus from Egypt has been read by Jews for millennia, but the Haggadah as we know it was compiled during the Gaonic period (eighth-ninth century C.E.) in Babylon, with additional songs written by Jews probably during the Middle Ages.
Based on Torah, Mishnah and Talmud, its editors, leaders of the Jewish community in the Diaspora, provided a compact guide for Jewish survival. With few precious hand-written texts available, often running for their lives and unable to carry volumes, Jews needed to teach their children the basics of the holiday and Judaism.
Pesach refers to the lamb that was offered by Jews not only as a symbol of liberation and commitment, but also the historic mission and purpose of the Jewish people.
Using stories and songs, focused on family units, the Haggadah provides concise educational tools needed to instill Jewish historical awareness and identity. And, built on a prophetic vision of redemption, it is focused on the Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael.
The Haggadah, however, is not chronological. It jumps from one episode to another without a clear line of development. Full of metaphors and historical events, the Haggadah mentions the critical figure in the Exodus, Moses, only once, in passing; Aharon and Miriam are missing entirely. Instead, the Haggadah focuses on rabbis from the second and third centuries, parables about committed and alienated children — insiders and outsiders, and Lavan the Aramean — providing our first clue about why the Haggadah that we use was compiled.
The historic center of Aramean civilization was Babylon, where Jews had built a vibrant and cohesive Torah-based community which provided critical leadership. However, toward the end of the Gaonic period, the community was plagued by assimilation and threatened with destruction. As a result, Babylonian rabbis assembled a codebook for Jewish survival that could be used in future exiles.
The Haggadah reminds us that Jewish history begins in Mesopotamian idol worship, exile and Egyptian slavery. The Exodus from Egypt, however, not only demonstrates God’s power and expresses human freedom, but His will: Jews are a nation and a people.
The paradigm of exile and redemption provides a context for understanding how Jewish history works: nationhood is determined by geography, the occupation of space; peoplehood is spiritual/cultural existence in time. Nationhood is building a civilization — political, judicial, economic institutions, civic organizations; peoplehood is transcendent, founded on history, language, memory and a sense of destiny.
An instruction manual on how to survive as strangers in strange lands, the Haggadah focuses on the centrality of Eretz Yisrael and an understanding of Judaism and Jewish history. Its reference points are rabbis who led the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple, to Yavneh and through the Bar Kochba rebellion and exile: Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Elazar. Quoted throughout Talmud and in Pirke Avot, their prominence in the Haggadah indicates an emphasis on surviving the trauma of exile/dispersion and the basics of Jewish education.
Children’s stories and songs in the Haggadah are parables that illuminate dark paths of suffering with rays of hope. As individuals and as a people we are all of the four children, simple, curious, rebellious and faithful — but involved. What unites us is the belief in one God expressed in the Sh’ma, a simple way of attachment — a lifeline.
Reciting the Haggadah with his colleagues, Rabbi Akiva, who would be martyred as he uttered Sh’ma, is called upon by his students: “It’s time to say the Sh’ma!”
This affirmation of faith is the Jewish beginning and end, in prayer, in life and at death. The Sh’ma, however is not only about monotheism — God is One — but also about community, “Hear O Israel,” a unifying connection as a people. For Jews in exile, despite oppression and suffering, often with limited Jewish resources, this one phrase contained identity and purpose.
The editors of the Haggadah understood that Jewish communities in exile, under pressure, isolated and with few texts or schools, needed things to be reduced to essentials. Eating matzot requires no belief, but the reason we eat matzot (and refuse to eat bread) could become an inquiry that leads to study and commitment.
Matzah is also a paradox. It represents freedom, yet is the “bread of slavery,” as if to say that in exile we need to move toward redemption. But how? Eat it, the Haggadah instructs, with maror, bitter herbs, and sweet charoset, and remember the Pesach sacrifice offered in the Temple in Jerusalem — a place that might be far away and nearly forgotten, yet which connects us to God, to the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael.
Amid destruction and chaos the Haggadah asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” Pesach reminds us not only that we are messengers of Torah, living examples of ethical monotheism, but of our heritage and our national homeland.
Moreover, Pesach is not an isolated holiday, but is the beginning of a 50-day period which culminates in Shavout, celebrating receiving Torah. It is also a time when the first fruits of Eretz Yisrael were brought to the Temple in offerings of thanksgiving and faith that resonate throughout the year.
The Haggadah teaches us the history of Jewish persecution through songs about animals and natural symbols: a goat bought for two zuzim (a zuz was a silver coin struck during the Bar Kochba revolt; two were equivalent to a half-shekel which Jews were commanded to contribute to the Temple every year to purchase public sacrifices); a cat (Egypt); a dog (Assyria); a stick and fire (Babylon); water (Persia and Media); an ox (Greece); the slaughterer (Rome); Crusaders, Muslims, Nazi and Soviet murderers (The Angel of Death) — and the final stage, redemption.
“Who knows One?” teaches essential elements in Judaism by numbers: Mt Sinai, Patriarchs, Matriarchs, Torah, Mishnah, Shabbat, brit milah, family/birth, commandments, stars (constellations), tribes and attributes of God.
“Dayenu” (it’s sufficient) is not just about appreciating freedom and survival in the desert, but, at the end, highlights the purpose: Torah, Shabbat, Eretz Yisrael and the Temple.
These stories and songs reflect the history of Jews as a people and a nation, in slavery and freedom, times of sadness yet full of hope, scattered throughout the world and home.
The Haggadah reminds us that “once we were slaves,” dispersed and in exile, but that’s not where we belong. Pesach transports us back into history and propels us towards our future in Eretz Yisrael.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” the fulfillment of God’s promise, is ours, too.
Moshe Dann is a Ph.D. historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.