Published in The New York Jewish Week, March 28, 2017
by Steve Lipman
he most published book in the Jewish world, the Haggadah has witnessed a decrease in the number of traditional, commentary-based guides to the holiday’s readings and rituals, but an increase in individualized — and sometimes humorous — interpretations of the Pesach customs. Blame the expense of putting out new books; the fact that Haggadot, by their seasonal nature, have a limited shelf life; and the surfeit of existing Haggadot; and the deepening of DIY culture and the self-publishing craze.
Here, then, is a roundup of some of the new titles.
Putting Yourself in the Exodus: ‘The Ayeka Haggadah’
The people who attend Rabbi Aryeh Ben David’s seders in Efrat every year know they have to do some homework beforehand — they have to answer a philosophical question about their place in the Exodus experience, and be prepared to discuss it at his seder.
Now, every seder leader can assign similar homework.
In “The Ayeka Haggadah: Hearing Your Own Voice, A Guide for All Ages to Personalize Your Seder” (Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education), Rabbi Ben David, a Scarsdale native who made aliyah three decades ago, brings to Passover his approach to Jewish spirituality that he has emphasized in a career as a Jewish educator.
The rabbi is the founder of Ayeka (Hebrew for “where are you?” the question God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden), an educational initiative that places the heart above the mind. Which is reflected in his Haggadah.
Rabbi Ben David, who previously served as director of spiritual education at the Pardes Institute and rabbinical educational consultant for Hillel International, packs his Haggadah with questions instead of answers, spiritual insights instead of traditional rabbinical commentaries.
“If maror (the bitter herb) could talk, what do you think it would say?”
Most extant Haggadahs “are more or less the same genre — so-and-so’s commentary,” the rabbi said in a telephone interview. Too passive, too impersonal, he said; a seder participant doesn’t necessarily feel him/herself part of the Jews who left Egypt and began their path to becoming a unified people.
“People are not changed by being passive,” the rabbi said.
Hence, “your own voice” in the title — what you’re feeling, what you’re saying, takes precedence over some scholar’s explanations.
The rabbi’s Haggadah places a seder participant in the Exodus generation. He offers, he explains in the introduction, 40 “trigger” questions for people of various ages, “forty different opportunities for engaging personally with the haggadah.” Questions like “Can you summarize the Exodus in one sentence?” “Today, what questions do you imagine the wise child would ask?” “If maror (the bitter herb) could talk, what do you think it would say?”
After each question is blank space on each page for writing out one’s answer.
The purpose is to stimulate “quality conversations” said the rabbi. No need for each seder participant to answer each question in depth. “People don’t need to have 40 quality conversations.”
And there are short insights and suggestions for better absorbing the seder themes: “Ask someone to talk in Egyptian.” “Ask someone to act out one of the four children.” “Have everyone share a ‘Jerusalem moment,’ a high point they experienced in Jerusalem.”
The Haggadah’s input from participants makes it easier for the seder leader to lead, Rabbi Ben David writes. “The pressure is off. You don’t have to illuminate or entertain. Your job is to create the space for everyone to feel comfortable, to participate, and to share.”
Every Haggadah contains the reminder that in every generation everyone at the seder should act as if he/she came out of Egypt.
Rabbi Ben David’s Haggadah refines this obligation with the request that everyone answer the question “Where am I?” – where do I see myself in the exodus experience?
“I’m not interested in what happened [to the collective Jewish people] in leaving Egypt,” Rabbi Ben David said. “I’m interested in what happened to you.”
From the Rabbi’s Classrooms to Your Table: ‘The Mosaic Haggadah’
As a teacher for a dozen recent years at the Toras Chaim Elementary and Middle School in Portsmouth, Va., Rabbi Sender Haber would every year have his students prepare individualized Haggadot they could use at their own family seders — each Haggadah a collection of the students’ questions about the seder’s readings and rituals, and the rabbi’s answers.
Over the years, he thought about compiling all the give-and-take into a published Haggadah that any family, especially one with young children, could use.
The result is “The Mosaic Haggadah: Inspired by Bright Kids” (Mosaica Press), 63 pages of questions (some of which Rabbi Haber thought his students would be likely to ask, but did not) and short answers, accompanied by striking color drawings by Israeli artist Yocheved Nadell.
The questions are basic, reflecting their elementary school provenance. Typical ones: “What do we mean when we say we will knock out the wicked son’s teeth?” “Why is it so important to see ourselves as if we personally left Mitzrayim?” “Why do we eat hard-boiled eggs on Pesach?”
There are also some unanswered questions, designed to stimulate conversation.
The book is laminated for use at “many sedarim to come.”
In addition to a few de rigueur illustrations of pyramids and Jerusalem, most of the artwork shows the Haber family — the rabbi and his wife Chamie and the couple’s five young children — preparing for the seder and taking part in it.
“I want readers to feel that they are at the seder,” said Rabbi Haber, who has lived for 16 years in Norfolk, serving for a decade as a spiritual leader at the city’s Bnai Israel Congregation.
His Haggadah is geared to kids, particularly those with a traditional Jewish education. Some of the text appears only in Hebrew; it’s Mitzrayim, not Egypt; Korech, not the Hillel Sandwich; the Chacham, not the Wise Son, etc.
Several other youth-oriented Haggadahs are on the market. How is Rabbi Haber’s different from all the others? “It’s actually tested on kids,” he said. Every year he got feedback from his day school students about which parts of their made-in-school Haggadahs resonated with guests at their family seders and which didn’t. And he would incorporate some of the kids’ questions and his answers into his own seders. And he’d offer his insights on the chinuch.org website.
The contents of the published Haggadah, Rabbi Haber said, are “proven favorites,” practical and sure to please a seder crowd.
The Haggadah’s style reflects the seders Rabbi Haber has led for his family, and those he attended while growing up in a rabbinic family in Jerusalem, Buffalo and Australia.
Next week, Rabbi Haber said, he and his family will again host about 15 guests at their seders. They will use The Mosaic Haggadah. “We will give everyone a copy.”
A Guide to the Torah’s Exodus Texts
‘The Exodus You Almost Passed Over’
The title of “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over” (Alpha Beta Press), while cute, bears a serious message. Rabbi David Fohrman, founder of the Long Island-based Alpha Beta Academy nonprofit Torah education website (alphabeta.org), offers an in-depth explanation of the biblical passages that serve as the foundation for the Exodus experience that is celebrated at the seder.
Rabbi Fohrman’s book is neither a Haggadah (it does not contain the seder’s readings or rituals) nor a typical Haggadah supplement (many of the verses expounded on do not appear in the Haggadah).
Rather, it is seder preparation, to be read in advance by the seder leader — or by eager participants — to offer a spiritual context to what takes place at the seder. In 286 pages are dozens of verses, interpreted from the perspective of the Jews departing Egypt, of Pharaoh and of God, written in a conversational, highly accessible, pose-a-question-then-answer-it style.
Rabbi Fohrman calls the book “a guidebook … a travelogue, of sorts … an attempt to engage with the original Hebrew text of the Torah.”
Typical of his teaching style, the rabbi shows that our usual understanding of biblical verses, our superficial reading, often misses nuances that add to a more-complete seder.
He asks why the festival of freedom is called Passover, why Pharaoh remained intransigent in the face of repeated Heaven-sent plagues, why various names of God appear at different times in the Torah and other questions of that ilk. His answers are as intriguing as his questions.
“The Exodus story is about more than we ever suspected,” the rabbi writes, inviting readers to “uncover the hidden secrets of this ancient and sacred saga.”
Redemption Then and Now Pesach Haggada, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Menorah Books.
This is two books in one: a traditional Haggadah with commentaries that are paged from right to left, and a collection of essays paged left to right.
Both commentaries and essays focus on two themes: Jewish redemption in a personal, contemporary context; and national redemption from a historical perspective.
Rabbi Blech, a scholar and prolific author who previously served as spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Oceanside (L.I.), writes with a definite academic bent, from his spelling of Pesah (with a dot under the h) and of Haggada (no final h), to his wide-ranging sources and frequent citations of gematria.
The family is the center of Jewish life and continuity, especially om seder night, he stresses. “No wonder than that commentators point out that the very first letter of the Torah is a beit, the letter whose meaning is house,” the rabbi writes. “All of the Torah follows only after we understand the primacy of family.”
This is a book for the mind — not for the eye; there’s no artwork — to be read and absorbed before the seder; the long paragraphs, while profound and insightful, do not lend themselves to be read out loud by participants, particularly children or people with minimal Jewish educational backgrounds, at the seder table itself.
This Year in Jerusalem! Rav Shlomo Aviner on the Haggadah
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim.
Rabbi Mordechai Tzion, a U.S.-born scholar who made aliyah a decade ago, translated the original-Hebrew manuscript written by Rabbi Aviner, a prominent leader of the religious Zionist movement in Israel.
His Haggadah, which includes detailed halachic instructions for preparing for and participating in a seder, is clearly for an Orthodox reader — or at least one familiar with the terms and concepts sprinkled throughout the text.
Rabbi Aviner’s affiliation with the religious Zionist philosophy is also clear — one of his favorite sources is Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Palestine, who has served as an inspiration for subsequent generations of men and women dedicated to both an Orthodox lifestyle and to living in Israel.
Rabbi Aviner’s Haggadah is user-friendly, written in an accessible style, with heavy use of questions: philosophical ones designed to encourage conversation at the seder table, and simple Q&As to move the night along.
The Mirrer Haggadah: Unique Insights from Legendary Mirrer Roshei Yeshiva
Compiled by Tsemach Glenn, Judaica Press.
This is a comprehensive, well-written, well-researched book for an Orthodox audience. In an era of fewer old-style commentary-based Haggadahs, this is part of a new trend — a single Haggadah that includes the thoughts of several individuals.
Glenn, a Far Rockaway resident who has done a similar Passover compilation about the leaders of the yeshiva he attended, Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, brings together history (the Mir Yeshiva, founded in present-day Belarus, with major branches today in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, was the only yeshiva in Nazi-occupied Europe to remain intact throughout World War II), profiles of the nine deceased rabbinic heads of the yeshiva that are featured in the Haggadah, the rabbis’ yom tov preparation and practices, and their commentaries on the seder night’s readings and rituals.
The book, which contains no art, gives a sense of how such luminaries observed the holiday at home. “Pesach … was one area in which each talmid [student] remained decidedly individual, rooted in family ancestry,” Glenn writes. “This Haggadah offers a true taste of ‘home,’ transporting them back to their days spent learning with their roshei yeshiva [yeshiva heads] and rabbeim [rabbis].”
The commentaries vary in length — some are short enough to be read at the seder; others, more lengthy, can easily be condensed to their essential messages.
From Ancient Egypt to Modern Israel: The 3,000-Year Journey of the Jewish People
From Stand With Us, the 15-year-old pro-Israel advocacy organization, comes its own Haggadah.
It’s the complete text of the book, with beautiful color illustrations, and commentaries with a predicable slant that relates ancient events to contemporary Zionistic history. “This Haggadah,” introduction states, allows readers to “relive their history of tradition and challenges throughout the ages, leading to the triumph of having achieved statehood in our ancestral homeland, Israel.”
Included is a synopsis of the biblical history that led to the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt and post-Egyptian Jewish history, explanations of the various seder readings and rituals, relevant quotes by such people as Theodor Herzl and Mark Twain and dozens of other men and women, and suggestions for seder participants (e.g. the “wicked” child: “It is our job to invite him or her to join our greater Jewish family through inspiring celebrations like tonight’s Seder and, if possible, a visit to Israel.”)
Also, a “Facts About Israel” unit, some paragraphs about such “Passover Legends” as “Young Moses” and “Pharaoh’s Vanity,” and discussions about contemporary Jewish-freedom topics like the Soviet Jewry movement, Ethiopian Jewry, and “Shared Experiences [with] African Americans.”
The Stand With Us Haggadah is not only good seder night reading, but year-round remedial education.
Other new titles this year — and those that appeared too late last year for wide dissemination in the Jewish community: