“The Passover Haggadah: A Biography” by Vanessa L. Ochs— The Life and Times

Ochs, Vanessa L. “The Passover Haggadah: A Biography”,  (Lives of Great Religious Books), Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Life and Times

Amos Lassen

Passover is biting at our heels and as usual Jews all over the world are making preparations for our most unifying of holidays. I have always loved Passover for the simple reason that knowing when I sat down to Seder, Jews all over the world are doing the same. Years ago, after I returned from many years of living in Israel, Passover was the one time of year that had supreme importance for me even though my Israeli celebration of it was purely secular. I remember so well that after my kibbutz Seder, (celebrated without the traditional Haggadah), I would go back to my room and pull out my traditional Haggadah and reread the story of the exodus so that I could feel as one of universal Jewry. It was not so much about religious observance but about the traditions that my family had observed for seemingly forever. Of course, what I knew of the Haggadah came from what was written on the pages within and it was not until I moved to Boston and became really engaged in my religion that I wanted to know more. This year ,Vanessa Ochs helped me to do so.

The Passover Haggadah is the script for the Seder and it is a religious text unlike any other. It is the only sacred book that appears in many different versions and I say that as I look at the 42 different Haggadot sitting on the shelf in front of me. I still treasure my Maxwell House edition that is filled with wine stains , my beloved copy of Arthur Waskow’s countercultural “Freedom Seder” and my copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah.  The beauty of the Haggadah is that even those with limited knowledge of Jewish law and ritual are able to lead and conduct a  religious service that is, in itself, complex.

In “The Passover Haggadah: A Biography”, Jewish scholar, Vanessa Ochs shares the story of the Haggadah from its origin and emergence in antiquity as an oral practice to its many forms today. She provides the history of how the narrative of the Exodus is related as the story of liberation in the Haggadah and she tells us of the origins of the book in both biblical and rabbinic literature. We see how it became beautifully and lavishly illuminated during medieval times and how the printing press aided mass distribution. Ochs looks the kibbutz Haggadah that celebrate the coming of spring more than they do the exodus, Haggadot that reflect the Holocaust, the feminist Haggadah, the LGBYQ-themed Haggadot (which now number six or more) and she includes the Haggadah of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, the popular television series. Through this we see how this enduring work of liturgy was once and is still used to transmit Jewish identity in Jewish settings is being reinterpreted and reimagined to share the message of freedom and liberation for all. (More than once, I led Seders at a Baptist church in New Orleans where members of the Baptist clergy added their own interpretations).

Ochs shows that the writings in the Haggadah are core texts of Jewish life and they were products of the times in which we lived as well as plans for social action. This book is not a Haggadah but rather the biography of the book that has meant so much to so many people. It is both ancient and it is contemporary and every time I read it, it is new and vibrant.

We are all familiar with the question “Why is this night different from all others?” and, of course, there are many, many answers. Ochs asks, ‘Why is this Haggadah different from all others?’ The answer comes in her survey of the many editions of Haggadot that have been “invented, illustrated, and cherished across the ages”. The Haggadah has become a guide for us on how we lived, how we live and how we will live. As we read the Haggadah, we cannot help but see that it speaks to us individually and as a group. It does not have a fixed text and it is a source of history and comfort.

Going back to the sources in the book of Exodus where the story is described for the first time, Ochs shows us that the original text says that Passover will be a “ritual for all time,” forever and this was even before the children of Israel have even marked the holiday for the first time. Looking at the earliest rabbinic texts, Ochs shows that in the Mishnah and the Tosefta — which include the first descriptions of the Passover Seder (there was no Seder at all, for quite a long time after Passover was first marked. We see key differences between Passover’s “4 Questions” as described in the Mishnah, and those that we recite today at the Seder today. Ochs shows us  the ways in which these questions are “pedagogically, are a disaster.” She also explains that the Passover Seder is representative of a “diminished version” of what the people did for Passover as they were on their pilgrimage to the ancient temple.

Ochs looks the moods of Passover, which are not only joyous. She shows the differences between elements of liveliness and sadness. The Seder was once a time to argue and we see this in errors in the Passover Haggadah— its historic failure to actually tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is assumed that we already know the story.

We look at the traditional Haggadah and what it might mean today. Ochs tells us that there is importance in honoring and paying tribute to the ancient texts of the Haggadah as well as experimenting with contemporary haggadot and creative approaches to the Seder. Texts can set the ways in which wrestling with them can be a deep way of observing the holiday. Revising the Haggadah text can lead to a great deal of criticism and pushback. Jewish rituals, in many cases, have become fluid and can change quickly from a sense of tradition to the new and relevant.

After having read Vanessa Ochs, I find myself looking at both the Haggadah and the holiday of Passover anew and I am totally grateful for that

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