There's More to the Haggadah Than Meets the Eye

The Rabbinic process of reading and interpretation is known by the acronym, PaRDeS, a play on the Hebrew word for paradise or orchard. The four primary letters stand for pshat, remez, drash, and sod, and translate as “plain,” “hint,” “interpretation,” and “secret.” The rabbis read the text as a multi-layered document. Like the old World Book Encyclopedia, with its overlays and transparencies, each layer could be pulled back to reveal another understanding hidden below.

The Passover Haggadah can be read in the simplest form without much interpretation, but, in fact, the Haggadah is itself interpretation, or midrash. On the surface, it is meant to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and it does so in the course of a meal with numerous symbols that help the narrative process while reflecting key Jewish values.

We begin by sharing matzah with the hungry and needy. The ritual of the Ten Plagues, with the spilling of 10 drops of wine, teaches us that, even in the midst of our rejoicing for the miracles of our freedom, we lessen the sweetness of our cup of wine in sympathy for the suffering of the Egyptians. Most importantly, we retell this story every year because we are to remember that, having ourselves been slaves, outcasts, and oppressed, we must always remember our history to prevent others from being oppressed and outcasts in our own day or in the future.

But there is a deeper level of the Haggadah that can be explored. We realize that telling the story of the Exodus is an excuse to tell the story of what happened after the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E.

Until that time, Judaism had been a religion based on animal sacrifice carried out by the priesthood. Following the Temple’s destruction, the setting of God’s sacred dwelling place moved to the home, where anyone serving as leader could perform the sacred rituals of Judaism.

The dining room table replaced the Temple altar. During the festival of Pesach (Hebrew for Passover), a symbolic lamb bone, matzah, and wine would be placed on the seder table and the story of the Exodus would be told in a format reflecting the Roman symposium of its day.

The Haggadah refers to the rabbis of that era, including Rabbis Gamliel and Hillel, which  dates the seder’s origins to a period some time between the Temple’s destruction and the third century.

The question has been raised whether the Last Supper of the Gospel accounts was a Passover seder. The answer: While Jesus may have come to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival and shared a Passover meal with his disciples, it was certainly not a seder as we know it today. We know this because the seder’s key elements – the Four Questions, the four children, the afikomen (dessert), the telling the story of the rabbis of Bnai Brak, and other parts of the Haggadah all postdated the death of Jesus.

There is still another layer of the Haggadah to uncover, though the interpretation is perhaps a bit more speculative. The seder rituals might have been a way of determining who was “in” or “out” during this era of great sectarian division within the Jewish world. Karaites, Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Sicaari, Jewish followers of Jesus and other early Christians all had vied for influence during this time period. 

When Rabban Gamliel declared, “Whoever does not consider well the meaning of these three: pesach, matzah, maror, has not fulfilled the purpose of the seder” (Mishna Pesachim 10:5), was he afraid that members of other sects, perhaps especially the followers of Jesus, would bring their own interpretations of the seder’s ritual items?

Did the rabbis who “canonized” the Haggadah not mention Moses in the retelling of the Exodus story because they did not want the people to place too much faith in a human savior, whether Jesus of the Gospels or Bar Kochba, the false messianic leader who led a disastrous three-year revolt against Rome (132-135 C.E.)? These questions continue to be of interest to those who seek to understand how Judaism and Christianity went their separate ways in these early days of their dual emergence from Biblical Judaism.

There are many ways to make the seder relevant and inspiring. Viewing the Haggadah itself as a form of midrash or interpretation of the Biblical story of the Exodus makes it a living document, leading to lively questions, discussions, and conversations around the seder table.

What is the leaven or yeast of our time? Can a spring housecleaning be seen as a way of symbolically expunging the chameitz within ourselves? What enslaves us today? What are the plagues of our world? How do we welcome the stranger and outcast?

These are just a few of the questions that expand beyond the traditional four.

For another perspective on the multi-layered meanings of the story contained in the Haggadah, check out "To Revolt or Not? Deciphering Passover's Secret Code." 

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon is the spiritual leader of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.