Today you can find thousands of haggadahs. What makes one right for you?
by Rich Robinson | March 14 2023
I grew up in a fairly secular Reform Jewish home. It was not entirely secular, I always hasten to add, and not extremely Reform either. My grandfather was raised religious and taught me a lot about Judaism. And at our Reform temple, everyone wore yarmulkas. And we walked, we didn’t drive, to temple. The holidays were high points of my Jewish experience and, of course, Passover was one of the highest of the highs.
While walking to temple might sound pretty religious (for Reform Jews!), our usual haggadah veered in a more secular direction. I still have a stack of my parents’ Maxwell House Haggadahs—you know, the ones that were given away for free at supermarkets?
Although it did tell the biblical Passover story, as all haggadahs must, it ended up expressing sentiments (I’m doing this from memory now) along the lines of, “We hope there will be peace for everyone, everywhere, at all times, in all places, in all ways. We hope people will be free around the world.” Good thoughts, but more like white bread than good Jewish rye. Nothing much to grab onto there.
I will never forget my father asking, “How much of the haggadah can we skip so we can eat?” There’s nothing like taking the haggadah to heart—and that was nothing like taking the Haggadah to heart!
Today you can find thousands of haggadahs. Collectors will often amass them, prized for their historical value or their artistic renditions. There are haggadahs from many countries and time periods. There are haggadahs edited by famous Jewish authors and rabbis. You can find haggadahs oriented around social issues from human trafficking to the climate; there are humorous haggadahs like the Donald Trump Haggadah.
Some haggadahs are elaborately bound and illustrated, more for the coffee table than the dinner table where they are liable to have wine spilled on them and matzah crumbs sprinkled into their spines. Others are one-offs designed for a single use, understanding that by the end of the seder, they will be wine-sogged, bent, and useless for the following year.
Choosing a haggadah is a very personal choice—or at least a choice that should make sense to whatever group you are having a seder with. But I think the best way to pick a haggadah is by considering your Passover non-negotiables. What makes Passover meaningful to you?
I usually want my haggadah to include both the story of the Exodus as well as the traditional prayers and ceremonies for the karpas, the maror, the charoset, and the matzah. I’d like a bit of explanation for each of the items, not just going through the motions. I’d like to have some reflection on the Passover story and the deliverance from Egypt.
That is not to say there is no room to innovate as you go—the roasted shank bone of the lamb not only reminds us of the ancient sacrifice, but it’s useful if someone is falling asleep at the seder—you can use the bone to give them a good a klap in kop, a “knock on the head.” Gently, of course.
I also think the haggadah is sometimes just a starting point for interaction. Maybe instead of just having people alternately reading (or droning) long text-heavy paragraphs, how about taking a break from the recitation and open it up to some questions for people to discuss for five minutes? We already have the Four Questions, so why not more? Throw in a bit of rabbinic commentary, too, for the sake of tradition and extra wisdom.
How about adding some customs unique to your own background within the Jewish community? Some Sephardim take green onions and use them to “whip” the person next to them so as to picture Pharaoh’s whipping of the Israelite slaves. That’s one thing we never did in our house: use the food for weapons. But hey, why not have a food fight at Passover, or at least a nod in that direction?
Since I’m Jewish and also believe in Jesus, it’s meaningful and important for me to hear some connections between Passover and the life and death of Jesus, which the New Testament already makes. I like to reflect on questions like, What does Passover have to do with Jesus? Does the fact that we don’t eat lamb any more at the seder have anything to do with it? You might want to personally explore questions like, What do we need to be redeemed from today? Is there a Pharaoh in all of us? What does that even mean?
I also find much value in the afikoman ceremony, in which a piece of matzah is broken off and wrapped in a napkin shrouded in a mystery and encased in a conundrum. The way it’s done today, we hide the wrapped-up matzah somewhere in the room and the children get to search for it (usually with shouts of, “Warmer! Colder!”) When they find it, they get money in exchange for the afikoman. No one is really sure why the ceremony is there, and it can be such a welcome break from the proceedings that no one bothers to ask about it. But some think it had messianic implications, so that would be another point of contact with the Jesus story.
My ideal haggadah has some nice illustrations. But for use at the seder table—remember, there will be wine spills, matzah crumbs, and even more matzah crumbs from trying to eat maror and charoset on an extremely brittle piece of unleavened bread—if you have a room full of kids, I’d opt for using some cheap printouts that can even be colored on. There are many printable options available on sites like Etsy. You might also find that you want to write or design your own haggadah, using existing ones as a template.
For some people, it’s important to have some fun songs like Chad Gadyo (One Kid, meaning a goat, not a little child) and Mi Yodea Echad? (Who Knows One? That’s the song that piles up more and more things in each verse, more numerous than the previous verses, and at a faster and faster pace. Think of it as a Jewish alternative to The Twelve Days of Christmas.)
How long do you want your seder to be? My Reform family tended to slog through the first part, have dinner, and then pretty much skip the rest. We weren’t much for long seders.
I’ve been to some other seders that were even shorter, pretty much just, “We suffered, life sucked, now get in the buffet line.”
Some religious families will have seders that run for hours. There’s supposed to be enough going on to engage even the youngest children, but I don’t know that they would last that long. Personally, I like a seder that runs around two hours, meal included.
At a local JCC, I’ve attended several years’ worth of seders, in which the crowd mostly consisted of secular Jews and Russian Jews with not a whole lot of knowledge of Jewish tradition, plus a fair number of young children. In the case of the JCC, they used a very abbreviated custom-made haggadah that rushed through the basics of the ceremonies and allowed plenty of time for people to line up at the buffet and serve themselves dinner. It might not be traditional, but it makes a lot of sense for that group.
And that is why finding the right haggadah for your event matters. A good haggadah is your partner in facilitating a time and space for people to personally connect with the story of redemption.