Navigate to Belief section

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.

Joshua J. Friedman
March 26, 2010

“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).

Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Review, is a writer in New York City.

Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Review, is a writer in New York City.