Ask the Rabbi

Ask the Rabbi April 2024

Rabbi Carla Freedman

April 2024 QuestionI attended the Temple’s first seder last year and enjoyed it a lot. But I was surprised that you did not read the entire Haggadah, which is what I remember my grandfather and my father doing. Why do you not do this, and is that okay to do?

April 2024 Answer

I also remember my grandfather and my father reading the entire Haggadah, though my grandfather read it in a sing-song Hebrew, while my father read it in English. I don’t know how much my grandfather understood of the Hebrew, but I know for certain that no one else at the table understood it.

The actual religious obligation (mitzvah) we have at Pesakh is to tell the story of the exodus. This has come to mean reading the Haggadah from cover to
cover. But the original text of the Haggadah doesn’t just tell the story; it embellishes the story with midrashic interpretations, quotations from various
Psalms, and songs celebrating the triumph of good over evil.

My study of the Haggadah at rabbinical school and ever since has led me to
understand that the Haggadah was probably not intended to become the frozen text it is today. It seems to have developed as an exercise in agile
interpretation on the part of the early rabbis; a lot of that material is of very
little interest to many people today.

But we still have the religious obligation to tell the story, and that is what I do, using the Haggadah for the rituals associated with that story, but not
relying on the Haggadah itself for the narrative. I originally developed this
approach when I conducted temple sedarim (the plural of seder) with lots of
kids in attendance. But it seems equally appropriate for our community, many of whom are eager to understand more of the seder experience than what they’d get from a faithful reading, word for word, of the Haggadah (which, by the way, means “the telling”).

It is also interesting to note that there are literally hundreds of different editions of the Passover Haggadah available just in Hebrew/English, each one offering either a particular point of view (the Pioneers’ Haggadah from Israel; the Liberated Lamb vegetarian Haggadah, the Archeological Haggadah, etc.) or an original translation with commentary (A Different Night; The Yeshiva University Haggadah; My People’s Passover Haggadah).

I’m glad you enjoyed our temple seder last year. I am very conscious of the
time, as the evening proceeds, and the fact that everyone wants to eat. Still, I am aware of the obligation to tell the story of the exodus, so I am juggling
many concerns all the time.

And yes, it is okay to tell the story of the exodus without reading the traditional Haggadah text word for word, just as it is okay to have fun while fulfilling our religious obligation. In fact, that is probably how the traditional Haggadah text came into being: the early rabbis were having fun with the story, and so should we.

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