Studies on the Haggadah
From the Teachings of Nechama Leibowitz
Edited by Y. Reiner and S. Peerless
Urim Publications, 2002, 159 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 19, 2013
Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) was a much loved and highly respected teacher in Israel. Her Gilyonot, study sheets, in which she raised questions and offered the answers of famous Bible commentators, were very stimulating and they fostered in-depth study and understanding of the Bible by its readers. Many rabbis consider her their teacher. Books have been written about her and her Gilyonot. The editors of this volume collected Gilyonot that relate to the Haggadah and help explain parts of it. The Haggadah is the book that many Jews read on Passover evening at the Seder meal. It tells many facts and traditions regarding the Israelite exodus from Egypt during the days of Moses. When Jews read it, it helps them fulfill the biblical command to recall the exodus and the message that it has for people today, a message of freedom. The word Seder means "order." It is the name given to this Passover meal because of the order of the Haggadah readings, its fifteen parts, and the physical practices that are part of the Seder, such as encouraging children to ask questions, and eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
This book contains the entire Haggadah with the Leibowitz questions and answers and is interesting. Readers do not have to read it from front to back, but can leaf through it and see Leibowitz’s comments on various parts of the readings and practices.
Leibowitz, for example, explains why Jews drink four cups of wine during the Seder and why a fifth cup is set aside, and said to be placed for the prophet Elijah. She notes that the blessing made over the first cup of wine begins with part of a verse from the end of chapter one of Genesis and continues with chapter two and explains why. She tells that some scholars’ explanations of various practices differ with those offered by other scholars and analyzes why they differ. Four different kinds of sons are discussed during the Seder, and she asks what is it that makes one of them wicked? She answers many other questions, such as: How many years did the Egyptian slavery last? Why wasn’t God’s decree that the Israelites should borrow goods from Egyptians with no intention of returning them theft? What was the significance of Moses’ staff? What was the purpose of the plagues; couldn’t God have saved the Israelites without them or with fewer of them; and how should they be grouped? Did God "harden" Pharaoh’s heart? Why were the Israelites told to mark their homes with blood; wouldn’t God know who lived in each house?
The editors include some heart-warming stories about Nechama Leibowitz and her encounters with people that readers will also enjoy. These include conversations with cab drivers and her refusal to leave Israel, which she loved, for any reason.