Haggadah

Two Views (Pesach 5768)

The very word הגדה (Haggadah) conjures up wonderful memories of Sedarim past, reliving the story of the Exodus with family, friends and students. It’s used to refer colloquially to the booklet -- a compilation of texts and commentaries -- read at the Seder, but the word itself actually contains a wealth of information about the way in which a truly memorable and effective Seder should be conducted. Allow me to share some ideas:

According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen, the way to discover the core meaning of a Biblical word is to look at the first time it appears in the Torah. In the case of הגדה, the root word first occurs in the story of Adam and Eve. When God addressed Adam after the Sin, we find the following dialogue:

The Lord God called to Adam and said to Him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard your voice in the Garden and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.’ [God] said, ‘Who told (הגיד) you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’ (BeReishit 3:9-11)

Rashi explains that God’s question is to be understood in the following way:

How do you know? What shame is there is standing naked? (Rashi ad loc.)

Before the sin, Adam and Eve wore no clothes but were not ashamed (BeReishit 2:25); however, they subsequently acquired a sense that there was something embarrassing about being naked.

It can be seen from this that the word הגיד means to acquire new information. This has an interesting implication for Seder night: the story must be told in a way that is new and exciting for the participants. One cannot fulfil the requirement of הגדה (which is primarily directed at one’s children) by merely reading the text or presenting a stale version of the Exodus. Instead, one must find a new angle on the story each year and create interest and fascination by finding new nuggets of information and by telling it in a refreshing way: one that will grab the imagination and retain peoples’ attention well into the night.

Based on ‘Hegioney Halachah’ Haggadah by Rabbi Yitzhok Mirsky

The Avney Nezer of Sochaczew pointed out that an accurate reading of the word הגדה can be derived from the Aramaic Onkelos translation of the word:

And you shall tell (והגדת) your son on that day as follows: because of this that God did for me in bringing me out from <st1:place style="font-style: italic;"   (Shemot 13:8)

And you shall point out to your son… (Onkelos ad loc.)

It seems that the word הגדה means to show or to demonstrate that something is true, rather that merely tell a story. This fits with the Rambam’s version of the text of a key paragraph of the Haggadah:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself (לראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt (standard text)

In every generation, one is obliged to show oneself (להראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt (Rambam’s text)

While the standard text suggests one’s mindset during the Seder, the Rambam’s text (supported by the Targum) regulates one’s behaviour by re-enacting aspects of the Exodus. The Seder should demonstrate the facts of the Exodus and present them in a tangible and accessible way such that leaving Egypt becomes a real, rather than purely intellectual, experience for the participants.

In fact, the text of the הגדה itself indicates the use of props to turn the Seder into a demonstration, rather than a purely intellectual process. We may only tell the story when the illustrative ‘props’ are in place:

One might have thought (that one should begin telling the story) from Rosh Chodesh (Nissan), so the verse writes, ‘on that day’ (only). But perhaps ‘that day’ means while it is yet daytime (of Erev Pesach), so the verse writes, ‘because of this’. One can only say, ‘because of this’ (by pointing towards something tangible) when the Matzah and Maror are present.

This could be considered the original multi-media presentation: one can only properly fulfil one’s obligation of הגדה by turning the occasion into an experiential show.

Based on the Haggadah of the Shem MiShmuel of Sochaczew

With a little thought over the remaining hectic days until Pesach, it should be possible to plan for a Seder that incorporates both of these ideas: telling the story from a new perspective, and bringing it to life for the participants.

May we be blessed with inspirational Sedarim, the impact of which will remain with us throughout the year. Chag Kosher VeSamayach.

This post originally appeared on Cross-Currents

A Visit To Sochaczew

A day in Poland

Last week, I fulfilled a long-held desire – to visit the ruins of the Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew, a town some 40 miles west of Warsaw. With a Jewish population of over 3000 prior to its destruction by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Sochaczew was known as a centre of Hassidic thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries (as well as being very close to the birth-place of the composer Frederic Chopin).

The Rebbes of Sochaczew were world-renowned thinkers: the first was the son-in-law of the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Bornstein (d. 1910), known as the ‘Avney Nezer’ after his monumental collection of halachic responsa; he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel (d. 1926), known as the ‘Shem MiShmuel’ after his nine-volume collection of discourses on the Torah and festivals. Representing a rare blend of intellectual, psychological, esoteric and inspirational material, the Shem MiShmuel rigorously analyses Midrashic sources, which are used to offer a creative approach to understanding Biblical narratives.

Around fifteen years ago, I was introduced to the writings of the Shem MiShmuel by a friend in Gateshead, and I have been a devotee ever since: his ideas have heavily influenced my own thoughts. My younger son is named for him, and as I am about to embark on a major research project into his writings, it was a privilege to be able to visit Sochaczew to daven at his grave and that of his illustrious father.

On my first visit to Poland some years ago, it struck me that the Holocaust happened very close to the UK – it took just two hours by plane to get to Warsaw from my home in London. This visit brought home again how easily the Nazis might have been more successful in their attempts to invade England, in which case my grandparents could have been victims of the Nazi’s death camps. Yet for reasons we can never know, it was European, rather than British Jewry who fell victim to the horrors of the bestial murder-machine.

My travelling companion and I found the visit to Sochaczew powerful and intense, yet it was outwardly unremarkable. There was no crying, no grand gestures, no throngs of people and nothing even slightly remarkable to look at. The cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis, but since then, a memorial wall to the murdered Jews of the locale and a memorial made from fragments of desecrated tombstones have been erected. The graves of the Rebbes have recently been restored, and an ohel (small building) constructed over them. We were only in Sochaczew for an hour, during which time we said some Tehillim, prayed for various people and davened Minchah. But the most powerful part of the experience was learning two short essays from the Shem MiShmuel, standing close to his grave: it was a truly memorable moment, one that I hope to repeat quite soon. There is something indescribable about standing in a small building in the middle of a field in a hick-town in the Polish countryside next to the grave of a man who made a real contribution to Jewish thought, while studying his very words. Therein lays the beauty of great ideas: they are eternal. The Nazis may have deported and murdered the Jews of Sochaczew and even attempted to erase every trace of Jewish habitation there by destroying the cemetery, but the ideas of the Shem MiShmuel exist for ever in the thoughts of his spiritual inheritors.

For photographs of my trip, please look here.

For more information about the destroyed Jewish community of Sochaczew, please look here.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents