On Passover Haggadot (2003)

The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder
Ron Wolfson (Jewish Lights, 2003)

 A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah
Noam Zion and David Dishon (Hartman, 1997)

The Moss Haggadah
David Moss (Bet Alpha Editions, 1990)

The Lubavitch Library currently has over two-thousand different printings of the Passover haggadah (and this collection is made up of only traditional editions).  A search for haggadot (plural) on Amazon.com quickly yields a return of hundreds of different versions for purchase.  This should come as no surprise to us, as today you can find a haggadah to fit just about any flavor of Jew.  From environmentalist to feminist, and from nursery student to Holocaust survivor, there is a haggadah with a twist for just about any theme – both traditional and liberal, and everything in between.

I have been collecting haggadot since I was young and have adopted the custom of acquiring a new one each year (although in actuality it’s often a few each year).  My collection includes haggadot from over a century ago and some “hot off the press.”  People often ask me for recommendations, and so with this month’s book review I look at a few haggadot in the hopes that you will relocate your standard issue Maxwell House copies to the closet and get a little creative this year.

There are three types of Passover haggadah.  There is the one for use at the seder, in which you should choose based on ease of use, translation, and instructive notes.  There is the haggadah or guidebook that serves as a resource helping you prepare for the seder, in which the most important qualities are the commentary, creative recommendations, and explanation.  Lastly, there are the haggadot chosen for their artistic value.  These versions help us fulfill the precept of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the commandment) and should be chosen based on personal artistic taste.  These are the haggadot that are nice to look at and display, but aren’t too functional for the actual seder (too expensive to endure the annual wine stains).

In the seder haggadah category, you cannot go wrong with A Different Night from the Hartman Institute.  This haggadah claims to put forth a lively dialogue between parent and child, and it does just that.  The explanations, commentary, and ease-of-use make this one of the best haggadot on the market.  The personal reflection sections will help you turn your seder into a family renewal ceremony and will keep even the most apathetic guest from boredom.  My favorite part of this haggadah is its collection of the many artistic representations of the Four Children, giving you a beautiful art-filled haggadah that can be used at the seder table.  You could easily spend half your seder discussing the artists’ interpretations.

To help you get new ideas to enliven your seder each year, I recommend Wolfson’s The Passover Seder (not a haggadah, but a great resource).  Jewish Lights Publishers has just released an updated edition containing suggestions from different families to make your seder an energetic production.  Wolfson divides the seder into acts and scenes, with innovations for each section for you to put into practice.  Even if you are not the seder leader, you are sure to benefit from this very helpful resource.  My favorite piece is entitled “How to Keep Them at the Table After They’ve Had Dessert.”  Wolfson also gives valuable suggestions for choosing a haggadah, making your home kosher, choosing your seder leader, and treating your seder guests.  With so many families sharing their seder traditions, you’re sure to walk away from this book with more new seder ideas than you could actually use over the course of decades.

There are truly some beautiful artsy haggadot to be had without spending too much money.  The Moss Haggadah is one of these.  If you only look at the illustration on the cover, Dayenu!  David Moss, who has served as an artist-in-residence at Camp Ramah, is a gifted artist who uses his talent to put forth his own interpretation of the midrash that is the haggadah.  My favorite representation is his B’khol Dor Vador (In Every Generation) spread in which he brilliantly includes small mirrors interspersed among depictions of our ancestors so that we may actually see ourselves as having been a part of the exodus from Egypt.  I suggest putting a few of these haggadot on display during your seder and for the entire eight-day holiday for your guests to enjoy, and to help them gain more insight into the festival.

Finding good haggadot should be less challenging than locating the afikoman.  I highly encourage you to start your own collection.  While it’s a good idea to settle on one version for use at the seder, you should let your imagine run wild at the bookstore.  Compare the features of a few haggadot, discovering the intentions of the editor (how do they portray the issues of slavery, collective memory, plagues, the four children, and redemption?).  If after acquiring your own library of haggadot, you can’t find an appropriate one for your seder, my final suggestion will be: Make your own!