Wednesday, 09 Apr 2014

Written by Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh

Shabbat Haggadol
The Book of our lives

That wise old sage Kohelet stated – ‘of the making of many books there is no end’, and he then added ‘and too much study is exhausting!’

As one of the peoples of the book we might well agree with the sentiment of the remark but the bibliophiles among us would do so with a broad grin, for one can NEVER, EVER have too many books!!!

This Shabbat is Shabbat Haggadol, the ‘great’ Sabbath which immediately precedes the festival of Pesach, and there should be only one book at the forefront of our minds – the Haggadah, probably the most popular and most reproduced text in Jewish history.

I have been collecting haggadot for years – different editions, different countries of origin. 

The Ashkenazi haggadah and the Moss haggadah, the Rylands haggadah and the 1712 Amsterdam haggadah, the A Night for Questions haggadah, The Journey Continues haggadah and the A Night to Remember haggadah, the Szyk haggadah and the Feast of Freedom haggadah, the Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb and The Animated Haggadah, The Schechter Haggadah, The New American haggadah, The Yeshiva University Haggadah and the The Open Door Haggadah, to name but a few. 

Why have so many?  The text, after all, doesn’t vary that much!  Partly for the sheer love of having them and seeing them on my bookshelves, and also because haggadot are impressive, in and of themselves; partly because, though the prayers in classic haggadot may be identical, the artwork isn’t, and the commentaries certainly aren’t.

And never, ever, think that it is only from the words in a haggadah that inspiration may be derived, for illustrated, and even more illuminated, haggadot have as much richness and wonder in their art work as they do in the text itself.

In recent years a slew of modern haggadot have been published by the various branches of non-Orthodox Judaism, introducing wonderful new texts – in poetry and prose – to an ancient classic. But the haggadah is not merely a ritual text:  it means much more to us than, say, a siddur, even though we engage with it much less.  Why?

Because for one night at least, and often two, the haggadah takes over our lives for several hours, it accompanies us through a long meal – both the symbolic and the actual – and it is a text which appeals to all generations.

Unlike the siddur, which is distinctly unfriendly to children, the haggadah encourages them to participate in the Seder ritual, it facilitates their presence at the heart of the ritual, it inspires them to ask questions, and thus fully to engage with what is going on around them.  And for the very young, those who do not yet know how to ask, it contains sufficient pretty and colourful pictures to capture their interest.

The haggadah is also a friend:  each year we pull it off the shelf at home, prior to using it; often each family member has their own copy, and when we begin to leaf through its pages, and see the matzah crumbs from years past, the wine stains from over-enthusiastic spilling during the recounting of the ten plagues, and other signs of use and wear and tear, our hearts are flooded with nostalgia.

When I was a little boy we alternated Seders at our own home and that of fellow members of our congregation; their children were much older than I was so I was ALWAYS the youngest person present and always did the four questions.  In fact, I remained the youngest person present at family seders long into my twenties!

But I remember aspects of those seders of over forty years ago very clearly.  I recall the haggadah we used, which had a pale turquoise cover, I recall our friends Henry and Mary Cushman, z”l, and from the surviving haggadot I know the parts we each read, year after year.  These are cherished, vivid memories, and the sedarim themselves are among my most important early Jewish recollections…and some of the tunes that we sang round those two seder tables I still use today.

Once my wife and I married we started to host our own seders, using a new haggadah.  The cast of participants was different:  at the first three my parents were present, together with old friends from Kingston Liberal Synagogue, my first solo congregation; to them were added a family to whom we were close who had two young children – and at last I got out of having to do the four questions!! – and other friends, some from within my congregations others from outside came later.

Together, we created new seder traditions, based on the haggadah and the ideas and conversation of those who joined with us to use it, and the memories of those gatherings are golden ones, and the recollections of those present astonishingly vivid, even after many years.

And I mustn’t ignore the communal seders, the first of which I conducted in 1978;  there, the size of the participating throng – up to 200 – brought new twists to our use of the haggadah, new opportunities for participation, new interpretations of the text, and some wonderful and often hilarious renditions of some of the songs.

At this juncture I am very confident of at least one thing:  that just as I have evoked memories of past seder nights, past haggadot and past joining together with friends and loved ones, so, as I have been doing it, many of you have wandered off down memory lane and recalled some events, and people, ostensibly long forgotten but with this trigger surprisingly easily remembered.

So now, as we prepare to celebrate Pesach once more, let us salute the haggadah, probably the most wonderful Jewish liturgy of them all.

A mishnaic sage once said– Turn it this way and turn it that way, for everything is in it.  Look into it, grow old and grey over it, and do not turn away from it…if that is true of the Hebrew Bible how much the more is it true of the haggadah?

Turn it this way, and turn it that, and not only does wisdom pour from its pages but also the crumbs of seders past, and the blessed memories of happy evenings of prayer and celebration, and much loved men and women.  And what, for us, could possibly be better than that?

Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
Director of Jewish Studies, Leo Baeck College
Ordained 1986

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.