My People's Passover Haggadah
Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, Volume 1
Edited by Rabbi L. A. Hoffman and Dr. David Arnow
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, 267 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 14, 2011
This is a very detailed, informative addition to the traditional Haggadah, a valuable tool for anyone who wants to understand the Haggadah. The Haggadah (meaning, telling or retelling) is a volume that Jews read in the special Seder (meaning, "order" of the ceremony) on the first night (or for some Jews, first two nights) of the Passover. The editors offer so much information that they had to divide their presentation into two volumes of 267 and 297 pages, a total of 564, even though an average unannotated Haggadah would have no more than 35 pages. Eleven people, men and women, comment and add keen insights on the ancient Haggadah.
The nine articles in the Introduction, comprising almost ninety fact filled, interesting, and easy to read pages, discuss subjects such as: "What is the Haggadah Anyway," "Passover in the Bible and Before," "Passover for the Early Rabbis: Fixed and Free," "This Bread: Christianity and the Seder," and other subjects, such as feminist questions about the Haggadah and how different Jewish denominations understand Passover, the Seder, and the Haggadah.
The reminder of this first volume has the text of the Haggadah in Hebrew, a modern English translation, instructions on how to perform the many ceremonies, and extensive commentaries by different scholars. The commentaries include "Modern Haggadot" (plural of Haggadah), ways that modern Jews perform the Seder; "Our Biblical Heritage," explaining the sources of most of the readings and practices; "Medieval Commentators," opinions about the Haggadah from many authorities; "Translation," why the translator of this volume translated a passage as he did; "History," "Chassidic Voices," Feminist Voices," and a section on the Jewish law on the issues. The book also has occasional pictures of ancient documents.
An example of the many contributions is the discussions on the well-known "Four Questions" that begin with the words: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
Fourteen pages are devoted to the comments on the eleven lines. The first is a picture of how these questions appear in a tenth or eleventh century Haggadah. The comments address such subjects as: Doesn't it appear that there are five questions? Why is this question style also used for slaves who have their ears pierced because they do not want to go free? Why is it the practice to have the youngest child ask the questions? Why does the number four reappear so often in the Haggadah and in the Bible? Why did the ancients change an original version of these four questions? Are these formal questions or are they designed to provoke other question? What are more important, questions or answers? Should we add questions that engage us in a critical inquiry of the women's role in the exodus story? What is the moral lesson about the matzah, the unleavened bread? Are we following a Jewish or Roman practice when we lean while eating the Seder meal? What is the meaning of freedom?