A Minimalist Haggadah
A short and somewhat secular take on the traditional Passover Haggadah.
For the motivation that led me to write this Minimalist Haggadah, please see:
My search begins for a new Passover Haggadah
What I’m looking for in a Haggadah and a link to my Minimalist Haggadah.
I developed this Haggadah with no formal experience in Jewish scholarship but an interest in getting the key components of the Seder locked down before trying other modern alternatives. I used this Haggadah with Leah and some friends on April 24, 2019, and I update it from time to time as I learn more.
A Minimalist Haggadah starts below. Please feel free to print and share this, and please share your modifications with me so that I can learn from them.
Notes for the Seder Leader (You)
The Haggadah is a very old Jewish text written in Hebrew and Aramaic originally around the year 300 CE that was read by our ancestors on Passover. (There are several versions of the Haggadah from different parts of the world but they are all very similar, and modern English Haggadahs are generally identical except for their English translations and illustrations, which can be quite fanciful.) The Haggadah is a guide to the observance of Passover. It is a collection of poems and songs, excerpts from the Torah, and discussions by rabbis of long ago about the meaning of the Exodus story and how to remember it. Traditionally, the Haggadah is read start-to-finish on the first two nights of Passover. For those who have studied the text and have the patience, there is much to learn and experience by reading it twice again each year. But for the rest of us, there may be a better experience in a shorter and more focused observance.
In creating this Haggadah, I looked for what the Torah and the traditional Haggadah itself tells us to say and do during the Passover Seder:
- The Haggadah calls Passover “a holy convocation in memory of the Exodus from Egypt.” The recalling of the Exodus story, from the book of Exodus in the Torah, is a central component of the Seder. In the Exodus story, which takes place three or four thousand years ago, God frees our ancestors from oppression by Egypt’s Pharaoh. The book of Exodus itself commands that its story be retold (which makes the retelling of the story a mitzvah). In particular, the sacrificial lamb whose blood plays an important part of the story is the first of the Haggadah’s “three things” that must be mentioned during the Seder. That lamb is represented in the Seder ritual by the afikoman (Hebrew for dessert), which is the name it gives to a piece of matzah eaten as the last dessert.
- The Haggadah also calls Passover a “Festival of Matzah.” Matzah is the traditional holiday food, and it has a recurring role throughout the Seder. The book of Exodus also commands that matzah be eaten on Passover (which is considered achieved at the motzi-matzah stage of the Seder), and it is the second of the “three things” we must mention during the Seder.
- Each person at the Passover Seder “is obligated to see [yourself] as if [you] left Egypt” yourself. In other words, we must not merely tell the Passover story. We are supposed to tell the story in a manner that leads each participant to imagine and feel themselves being liberated right then. (Indeed, the traditional Haggadah does not recount the story in whole or even in order.) Eating maror, a bitter food to represent the bitter times of our ancestors in Egypt prior to the Exodus, is a part of experiencing the Exodus story here — it is the third of the “three things” that we must mention during the Seder. The Haggadah says we should also be relaxed to enjoy the feeling of liberation.
- Lastly, the Haggadah tells us to thank God for God’s role in rescuing our ancestors from oppression.
The Haggadah’s formal conclusion, roughly translated as, The Seder is now concluded according to the judgments and statutes, captures a theme in the Haggadah text that that these key practices come from rules that are meant to be enumerated, debated, and completed.
A few other traditional (or required, depending on who you ask) parts of the standard Passover Seder are included here. During ancient Passover celebrations (in the pre-rabbinical time of the Temple), things were done a little differently: With sacrifices. A “festival sacrifice” is represented by an egg on the Seder plate and is eaten during the first course. (The lamb in the Exodus story was symbolized in those times by slaughtering as sacrifice and eating an actual lamb, a tradition converted by early rabbis into the only item on the Seder plate that is not eaten: the shank bone. However I have omitted this here.) Drinking wine is a recurring part of the traditional Seder as a celebratory drink, but I give an alternative here: eating a grape at each instance where a cup of wine would normally be. Please make sure that you will have something available that each of your participants will be able to consume in celebration at the indicated parts of the Seder.
There are some things I left out. Instead of praising God toward the end of the Seder, I have replaced that with reflecting on our obligation to help those who are not yet liberated. I’m a secular Jew and this fits my sensibilities, but you may want to add some praise back, and of course that’s fine.
Every Seder is in some way a performance, and I also especially encourage you to add back some of the traditional performances such as songs like Dayenu and Had Gadya, the reading of the four questions (traditionally by the youngest person at the table), other passages from Exodus and the Haggadah, and any other readings or activities that you think will help your Seder participants complete the holiday’s rules.
A few notes about the Hebrew prayers: Below the Hebrew, you’ll see transliterations (English letters for Hebrew sounds). The ḥ with the dot under it is pronounced like you’re choking. (This same sound is commonly written as “ch.” Same sound.) One Hebrew word isn’t translated exactly, and that’s יְיָ which is God’s true name. We don’t know the correct pronunciation for God’s true name, so instead we say Adonai, meaning the lord (both in Hebrew and English). Jewish law says that God’s name should not be destroyed. Consequently, if you print this out, Jewish law would say that you must bury it in a white shroud if you want to discard it. Using a tablet instead of printing this out on paper might avoid this problem — though Orthodox Jews cannot use electronics on the first two days of Passover. So please be sensitive to this, depending on your and your participants’ practices.
Read this through before your seder because you’ll need to have some particular food and drinks at the table.
You may want to share some or all of the above with your participants, as much as you think is appropriate.
The Hebrew and humanist prayers are adapted from the Sefaria.org Haggadah and A Haggadah of Our Own by Thursday Bram, respectively, and I also used OpenSiddur.org’s translation of the Haggadah by Eve Levavi Feinstein and Efraim Feinstein as a reference. And of course the thoughts and emphasis are based on reading a lot of other analyses of Passover.
The Minimalist Haggadah begins next.
Welcome to our Passover Seder. “Seder” is the Hebrew word for order, and the Passover Seder is so named because all Passover Seders go through similar steps in a similar order.
The Haggadah is a very old Jewish text, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, that was read by our ancestors on Passover. The Haggadah is a guide to the observance of the Passover holiday, and it tells us what must be said and done on Passover, and we use its order and directives to guide us tonight. We will be doing an abridged Seder. Rather than following the text of the traditional Haggadah, we will be proceeding through the same steps but focusing on three obligations that the traditional Haggadah gives for properly observing Passover: telling the Exodus story, experiencing the Exodus story here tonight, and eating matzah.
To get you thinking now, when we get to the part about experiencing the Exodus story here and now, I’m going to ask each of you to think about suffering you have experienced and a time of liberation you have experienced, so you can start to think about what memories you want to recall before we get to that point.
We’ll now start the standard Seder steps.
1. Kadesh (sanctify over wine)
We begin by sanctifying this time and saying thanks for wine and for this holiday, the festival of matzah. We will do this in the traditional form, first in Hebrew then in English:
.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּפֶן
Baruḥ atah Adonai, eloheinu, meleḥ ha-olam, borei p-ree hagafen.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Baruḥ atah Adonai, eloheinu, meleḥ ha-olam, sheheḥeyanu vekiyimanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this season.
We each now drink a cup of wine or eat one grape. Savor the wine or the grape because unlike our ancestors in Egypt, we now enjoy the liberty to do so.
2 Urḥatz (wash)
The Seder leader will symbolically wash their hands.
3 Karpas (spring vegetable)
We will now dip a piece of celery into salt water and eat it. The celery is to remind us of spring. The salt water is to remind us of the tears of our ancestors enslaved in Egypt. As you eat, I will say the traditional prayer:
.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה.
Baruḥ atah Adonai, eloheinu, meleḥ ha-olam, borei p-ree ha-adama.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the earth.
4 Yaḥatz (break)
.הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח
Ha laḥma anya di aḥalu avhatana b-ara demitzrayim. Kol diḥfin yeitei veyeḥol. Kol ditzriḥ yeitei veyifsaḥ. [This prayer is Arameic.]
This is the bread of destitution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who is famished should come and eat, anyone who is in need should join us.
I have here three pieces of matzah. I will break the middle piece into two. The larger one is now the afikoman, our dessert, which I will wrap and put aside. The afikomen represents the sacrificial lamb in the Passover story, which we’ll get to next.
5 Magid (the story)
The recalling of the Passover story is the central component of the Passover Seder, and there are a wide range of traditions in how the story is told. The book of Exodus in the Torah is the Passover story, and we could simply read Exodus next, but that would miss the point and take quite a while. In the traditional Haggadah, parts of the story are related several times, from different perspectives, and in different levels of detail. The point isn’t to read the story as it’s found in the Torah, but to retell it in a way that makes meaning to each of us here tonight.
First, let’s get the basics. The Haggadah begins the story with Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people (and who lived before Jews were ‘Jews,’ in Canaan). Jacob’s name was changed into “Israel” in a story in the book of Genesis, and his descendants are called Israelites, which is what you need to know to understand the start of the Exodus story:
Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt יַעֲקֹב וּבָנָיו יָרְדוּ מִצְרָיִם
since the famine was heavy in the land of Canaan. כִּי כָבֵד הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן
And he became a nation of people. וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי.
And Egyptians enslaved the Israelites with breaking work. יַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ
Fast-forwarding, God decides to free the Israelites by making life so hard for the Egyptians through ten plagues that they agree to let the Israelites leave. God instructed the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doors with its blood so that God would pass over those houses and spare them from the last plague. While the Egyptians were suffering, the Israelites escaped into the dessert and headed toward the land of Israel.
We remember the sacrificed lamb as the afikomen.
We’ve now retold the Exodus story, but we haven’t felt as though we were in the land of Egypt ourselves. So we’ll pause here, and I ask that each of you recall a time of suffering or oppression in your own life. And I ask that you keep that memory with you over the next few minutes.
With this in mind, please drink your second cup of wine or eat your second grape.
6 Rohtzah (wash before matzah), Motzi (blessings over the Matzah), and Matzah
We now wash our hands before eating matzah for the first time tonight.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were in a hurry to get away from the Pharoah’s army and made matzah on the run. It symbolizes the harsh journey of the Israelites out of Egypt, through the desert, to Israel. Keep thinking about that memory of suffering or oppression as you eat a piece of dry, plain, rough, and fragile matzah. (Use either the top piece or the remaining part of the middle piece of matzah.)
7 Maror (bitter herbs) and Koreḥ (sandwich)
Hold onto your memory of suffering or oppression as you eat the foods symbolic of the hard times in Egypt, the maror — the bitter herbs, in our case romaine lettuce — and the ḥaroset — in our case, the almond butter — which represents the mortar from the hard labor in Egypt when the Israelites were building the pyramids (I guess!). Using matzah, eat it as a sandwich.
8 Shulchan Orech (the meal)
We escaped from Egypt. We did it. Wash away that memory of suffering or oppression. We’re a liberated people now. Please recall now a memory of liberation and hold that memory for a moment.
Then feel free to stand up, pour your neighbor a glass of wine, or help serve the Seder meal.
Please start your meal with a piece of egg — the last item on the Seder plate to be eaten. The egg represents the celebrations of Passover with a sacrifice at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was subsequently destroyed, twice, about 2,000 years ago, and following the destruction of the Temple the old Israelite traditions of animal sacrifice transformed into the symbolic traditions of Judaism that we have today, and in this case, animal sacrifice became a cooked egg.
9 Tzafun (eating of the afikoman)
With the meal complete, we can how have our last dessert. We now eat the afikoman. Remember that the afikoman represents the sacrificed lamb that helped God spare the firstborn of the Israelites, during the last of the plagues, and so it is fitting to be our last dessert.
10 Barech (blessing over the wine)
We now drink our third cup of wine or eat our third grape. Enjoy the wine or the grape, for we are free.
11 Hallel (praising God)
This part of the Seder is traditionally for praise of God, in particular for God’s role in freeing the Israelites from oppression.
Why did God free the Israelites? The Exodus story is often told as a story of justice. But another answer may be in this line from the traditional Haggadah and the book of Exodus: “God remembered his covenant with Abraham,” the father of the Jewish people. In the covenant, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would rule the Land of Israel, something that would have been impossible if the Pharaoh in Egypt kept them enslaved forever. It seems that, at least in part, God frees the Israelites not because of justice but because of obligation.
We can honor the tradition of praising God by reflecting now on our obligations as a liberated people to help those who are not yet liberated. Let’s keep in mind that as a liberated people, we may now benefit from the oppression of others. We might even unwittingly be the hand of oppression ourselves. The work to liberate all people goes on.
We now drink our fourth and last cup of wine or eat our fourth and last grape.
12 Nirtzah (completion)
We’ll now conclude the Seder:
.חֲסַל סִדּוּר פֶּסַח כְּהִלְכָתוֹ, כְּכָל מִשְׁפָּטוֹ וְחֻקָּתוֹ.
The Seder is completed according to its laws, judgments, and statutes.
.לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָלָיִם הַבְּנוּיָה
Next year, in Jerusalem.
Next year with freedom for all! [Adapted from humanist ending in Bram’s Haggadah.]