My arrival to the search
The Jewish holiday Passover has always been my favorite holiday, and it is a part of some of my earliest and fondest memories. My grandfather led the earliest Seders in my lifetime, directing each member of the family to have a turn reading a portion of the Haggadah in Hebrew or English, while my cousins and I laughed over the absurdity of eating something called soup nuts. This year, while I celebrate Passover with my fiancée’s family, my cousins now lead the Seder for our family back home.
The Haggadah instructs and guides us to retell, explain, and experience the liberation and exodus of the Jews from ancient Egypt. (The telling of the Exodus story is one of the enumerated 613 mitzvahs of Judaism.) As a quiet child, I think I enjoyed the performance aspect of the Seder. It was an opportunity to speak loudly before a friendly audience for a few seconds. As I grew older, I appreciated the values that I saw in the Haggadah, in particular justice (the Exodus story) and critical thinking (“the four questions”).
Over the years I’ve used a number of Haggadahs. One year my grandmother added a feminist justice insert into the middle.
But, by and large, Haggadahs are terrible:
- Most Haggadahs are reprints of the same 1,000-year old Hebrew (with some Aramaic) book. The text is stilted — not only because of outdated translations into English, but also because the original text interleaves the story of Passover with gratuitous citation language (“as it is written [in the Torah/Exodus]”), redundant quotations from the Torah, pedantic debates between rabbis over the meaning of words in the Torah, and —from my perspective as a secular Jew — way too many exhaltations of God.
- Part of the reading is traditionally done in Hebrew. So, in most households, no one understands it. Often at least some parts of the Haggadah have transliterations — English letters for the sounds of the Hebrew text so that everyone can participate in reciting the Hebrew even if they don’t understand it. Though understanding it would be better.
- On account of the Haggadah and the Seder being so long (my fiancée’s family’s Orthodox Seder takes about 4 hours, including dinner), and skipping parts being frowned upon, I think every family tries to get through whatever tradition they have as fast as possible. The Haggadah instructs us to — but doesn’t actually allow us to be — mindfully present for the experience.
- Lastly, while there are some Jewish communities that embrace the creation of new, modern Haggadahs, the persistence of the traditional Haggadah, with minor updates by a handful of rabbis, is not aligned with a story of liberation of the oppressed, which is inherently a story of change and inversion of power.
Key components of the Passover Seder
As an instruction manual for the Passover Seder celebration, the Haggadah luckily tells us the key components of the Passover Seder:
- The Haggadah calls Passover first a “Festival of Matzot,” referring to the traditional holiday food matzah (in its plural form), which has a recurring role throughout the Seder. It is the subject of the first (in the Ashkenazi order) of the four questions and is the second of the “three things” obliged to be mentioned.
- The Haggadah also calls Passover “a holy convocation in memory of the Exodus from Egypt.” The telling of the Exodus story must be done for its own sake, “even if we were … all knowledgeable about [it]” already, and in a manner attuned to how each person present will best learn it (the four sons). The first of the “three things” obliged to be mentioned is the “Passover sacrifice,” the lamb slaughtered in the Passover story for blood that indicated to God to pass over the houses of Jews when slaughtering the first borns of Egypt, which is represented by the afikomen, a piece of matzah designated as the last dessert (the obligation may be to mention a sacrifice made at The Temple in early Passover holiday celebrations, but that one was to remember the original lamb, so either way we get to the original lamb).
- Each person at the Passover Seder “is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt” himself, i.e. to experience the Passover story. The Haggdah tells the Exodus story alternatingly in the past tense and the present tense (“this year we are slaves, next year we will be free people”) as if Seder participants are being liberated in that very moment. The subject of the second of the four questions and the third of the “three things” obliged to be mentioned is maror, a bitter green food to represent the bitter times of the Jews in Egypt prior to the Exodus, which is eaten during the Seder to experience the bitterness. Seder participants recline (the subject of the last of the four questions), because relaxation is a privilege of the liberated.
- There is also an “obligat[ion] to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, lavish, bless, raise high, and acclaim” God, and that praise is most of what the second half of the Haggadah is about.
There are many other Passover traditions that don’t seem to appear in the original Haggadah text. One common tradition is the performance aspect of the Seder. Traditionally, the youngest person present chants “the four questions,” a performance which connects the telling of the Exodus story with the directives to experience the story. The hunt for the hidden afikomen, raising and breaking the matzah into pieces, singing the poems in the Haggadah, and other small performances are common. Because the performance aspect of the Seder has been important to me, and I think to most, I’ll include this one as well even if it does not appear to be strictly indicated in the text.
These are, in my reading of the Haggadah, the five key components or objectives of a Seder. To recap: eating matzah, telling the story, experiencing the story, thanking God, and the Seder being a performance.
(I relied on the Sefaria.org Haggadah for the text analysis. Haggadahs vary, and I noted that apparently the order of the four questions varies. I assume that the key values that I’ve identified don’t vary, but I don’t know whether that’s true.)
The search begins
Leah and I had a few friends over for a quick Passover Seder this week —we needed a Haggadah! But traditional Haggadahs don’t seem right for for me for a Seder that I’ll be leading.
I would like to use a Haggadah that is more accessible, shorter so that the important parts can be experienced with more intention, and, frankly, has less about God. (I’m not interested in rewriting the story, but I could do with less exhaltation.)
And I would like my Seder to connect the Exodus story to oppression happening today as a way to fulfill the Haggadah’s directive to experience the Exodus story as if it were occurring in the present (as many new Haggadahs do). Although the Haggadah instructs us to experience the liberation as if it were happening today, we should also recognize that we may today be the oppressor or beneficiaries of oppression. Most Seders have a leader —we should perhaps be giving more agency to others in the Seder to shape the Seder itself and upend the power of the Seder leader.
On the more nerdy side, I would like to connect the freedom of the liberated Jews to the freedoms in the modern “free” software and open access movements to create works that are free to use and adapt by others, e.g. as the Open Sidur Project and Sefaria.org apply open access practices to Jewish texts.
As all lazy scholars do, I began my search for a new Haggadah with a Tweet.
This led me to A Haggadah of Our Own, a successful Kickstarter project by Thursday Bram which created a “radically inclusive” Haggadah, a Haggadah “for as many readers as possible.” Bram’s Haggadah offers gender-expansive blessing options, a font and layout suitable for those with visual impairment, clear writing, and so on.
A Haggadah that is inaccessible because of unfamiliar or unparseable language cannot fulfill the holiday’s goal and the mitzvah of telling the Exodus story so that Seder participants can best understand it, nor does it treat people as if all people are worthy of liberation. The male gendered language of traditional Haggadahs also stands in the way of non-male Seder participants identifying with the characters in the Passover story and (I assume) hinders experiencing it in the present as the Haggadah intends participants to do.
So with these starting points in mind, I am in search of a new Haggadah.
While I haven’t found my ideal Haggadah yet, I did put together this minimalist Haggadah for our Seder with friends this week.