Whence a Haggadah?

Haggadah #2. January 18, 2021


I promised I'd write brief columns about the haggadah in preparation for Passover. Here's the second one:


Why do we even have a book called "The Haggadah?" As you know, there are myriad Jewish prayers. An early tradition commands saying 100 blessings a day. Jewish liturgy is very complex. Not only do we have three standard worship services daily, there are special prayers for holy days, for home, and for all kinds of special occasions like weddings and other life cycle events. The prayer book expresses the soul and history of the Jewish people.


The first gatherings for Passover are certainly biblical. Our ancestors sacrificed and ate the Passover lamb as commanded biblically, and likely recited something. But the prayers we associate with the haggadah developed by and large after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. The haggadah service is, therefore, post-biblical, and structurally reflects the Roman Symposium meal of the first century c.e. and later.


While Jews have recited prayers since Bible times, our worship developed not only over centuries but over millennia. Psalms are a form of liturgy. Individual prayers are recorded in the Bible. But the book of prayers we call the siddur came into existence in a process that primarily took off in the absence of the sacrificial service. Many prayers are recorded in the Talmud, but there were no official prayer books (authorized compendia of prayers and rules for their recitation) until the responsum of Rabbi Amram Gaon in the ninth century c.e.

That first prayer book, and those that followed for the next few centuries, were nothing like the books of prayers we think of today. They were primarily law books, instructing Jews when, what and how to follow our developing prayer traditions. The first "prayer books" therefore referred to all of the prayers for the year, often with text for those prayers, and how they should be used. Within that liturgy, from the very beginning, were the prayers, readings and poetry recited at the home service, the "Passover seder," on the first night of Passover.


So when did we get the separate volume, the "haggadah" we think of today? The haggadah as a separate book, removed from the prayer compendium and with a complete order of worship and full text of the prayers, first occurred in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. They were created for home use, and often contained fancy lettering and illuminations. Still prior to the printing press, a financially well to do family might have a single haggadah they ordered to be hand written for themselves. If they were wealthy, they might have a scribe letter the haggadah in fancy script and have illuminators draw scenes from the Bible or pictures of the activities described on the page.


This subject is complex, but one more note. These early books did not necessarily limit themselves to just the haggadah text. They might contain all of the prayers for the entire holiday of Passover, including the Torah and haftarah portions, and a great many liturgical poems. Such a haggadah from the middle fourteenth century is known as the Barcelona Haggadah, and the library at the Nelson-Atkins has an exact facsimile copy. Or the haggadah may contain simply the seder service.


Finally, the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century made mass production possible, and Jewish book production took off. It's easy to find reproductions of the many illustrated haggadahs from the sixteenth century onward. But then, as today, the texts may vary depending on not only illuminations, but the stage of development and the liturgical tradition of the place of origin. (Sephardi vs. Ashkenazi for instance)

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