Sunday, April 10, 2011

A review of the 2011 Absolut Haggada

(You can also check out my review from last year.) Also guest-posted at DovBear.
I am more comfortable with writing responses than reviews, so I will respond to a point or two in The Absolut Haggadah (a free haggadah, online, available for download available at that link), and along this way convey a bit of the flavor of the haggadah.

Here is a part I partly disagree with. In discussing the Four Questions, the Ma Nishtana, they write:

Does this mean that one major theme of Ma Nishtana is these two conflicting themes? Or perhaps what is meant is that Ma Nishtana exists by itself, but one interesting question that comes out from it are these two conflicting themes.

In terms of the two conflicting themes, I indeed agree that they exist, and conflict, in much of the seder -- in the Matzah, in the reclining, in the drinking of the four cups derech cheirus, and that much of the seder is summarized in these four questions. I am not sure, though, that conflicting themes was the original intent of the Four Questions.

Indeed, I'll cite the "Four" questions from my translation of the Rif:
They mix him a second cup, and here the son asks. If the son does not have the knowledge to ask, the father teaches him:
"In what way is this night different from all other nights?
That on all nights we do not dip a single time, while on this night, twice.
That on all nights we each chametz and matza, while on this night, only matza.
{The Bach adds, likely incorrectly -- see Mishna in Yerushalmi, which only has three}:
[That on all nights we eat other vegetables, while on this night, maror.]
That on all nights we eat roasted, boiled, or cooked meat, while on this night, only roasted.
Thus, the Rif and the Yerushalmi have only three questions:
  1. dipping twice
  2. matza
  3. roasted meat

Maror is added in other versions of the Mishna. And we replace tzli, roasted meat with leaning, for a total of four.  The order, as it appears in the Mishna, rather than our Haggadah, seems to follow the order of the seder -- dipping twice, which covers carpas and maror, then matza, then roasted meat. Yes, many of these items have symbolism -- freedom by dip and servitude by matza. But I am not sure that the tzli really represents either of the two. Perhaps it represents the speed, the chipazon, matching that aspect of matza. My point is that we have a nice two-and-two match of polar opposites, but this might be by happy accident.

And that might be perfectly fine. We can discover meaning in the seder in one of two ways -- getting at the original intent, or considering what the haggadah conveys, intentionally or not, in its present form. Perhaps the former could be considered more 'authentic', but personally, I think both have what to contribute. (And thus, for example, explanations for why the Rasha differs from the Chacham, even though the Rasha says lachem and the Chacham says etchem may well be valuable, as newly discovered meaning, even though, as scholars discuss, and as I discuss in this post, the Biblical text before whoever wrote the derasha was likely otanu.)

Here is an example of the former approach -- discovering original intent -- from the Absolut Haggadah. From page 46:
Although the simple meaning of "arami oved avi" seems to be "my father was a wandering Aramean," the Haggadah, which identifies the Aramean as Laban, clearly interprets it homiletically as "an Aramean tried to destroy my father." There is some evidence that the Haggadah originally interpreted this phrase in accordance with its simple meaning. The Mishna in Pesachim says "he begins with disgrace and ends with praise and expounds from arami oved avi until he finishes the entire passage."

Apparently, in the time of the Mishna they read the last sentence (which we no longer have in our Haggadah): "And you brought us to this land, a land flowing with milk and honey." At this point in the development of the Haggadah, the passage began with "we were nomads" and
ended with a thank you for the land. The first verse (our forefather was a wanderer) is contrasted with the fact that we are now settled in the land (at the time the pilgrim makes this declaration). This may have been the original "disgrace and praise" referred to in the mishna. After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the majority of the population, the last verse was dropped. Without the last verse, the passage ends with the redemption from Egypt, leaving the passage unbalanced since the beginning is "we were landless." This led to the reinterpretation of the phrase "arami oved avi" to mean an Aramean tried to destroy my father, thus giving the passage a new symmetry, the beginning of "we were oppressed" leads to "And God
redeemed us." JPS Haggadah, Tabory (2009)

One of the early Geniza haggadahs provides support for this theory...
We see here this balance of original meaning vs. newly reinvented meaning, with (allegedly) the reinvention a result of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and galus. And they see it as important to put forth the original intent, because the changes to the haggadah obscured that original intent. If so, it is not just preoccupation with the peshat meaning of Arami oved avi, in accordance with, e.g., Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, but rather, caring about the original intent of the derasha.

Of course, this is really a balance of original intent and later original intent. The earlier text, without Lavan HaArami, has one original intent. And the deliberate editing of the Haggadah to strip out reference to entering Eretz Yisroel and to add in Lavan reveals another original intent. This is still very different from accidental meaning that we can read in to the haggadah.

By the way, I am NOT entirely convinced that this was the original intent, or the original text of the haggadah. But there is what to think about. For example, drinking of the fifth cup, which is optional, and corresponds to the fifth language of geulah, vehevesi; And compare our avadim hayinu (=Shmuel) with the original pasuk in Devarim. Our haggadah:

Note that it stops with Hashem taking us out bizroa netuya, such that we would still be slaves. But the original pesukim read:

כ  כִּי-יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר, לֵאמֹר:  מָה הָעֵדֹת, וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, אֶתְכֶם. 20 When thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: 'What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the LORD our God hath commanded you?
כא  וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם; וַיֹּצִיאֵנוּ יְהוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה. 21 then thou shalt say unto thy son: 'We were Pharaoh's bondmen in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
כב  וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה אוֹתֹת וּמֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִים וְרָעִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל-בֵּיתוֹ--לְעֵינֵינוּ. 22 And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his house, before our eyes.
כג  וְאוֹתָנוּ, הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ. 23 And He brought us out from thence, that He might bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers.
כד  וַיְצַוֵּנוּ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, לְיִרְאָה, אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ--לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל-הַיָּמִים, לְחַיֹּתֵנוּ כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. 24 And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is at this day.
כה  וּצְדָקָה, תִּהְיֶה-לָּנוּ:  כִּי-נִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ--כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ.  {ס} 25 And it shall be righteousness unto us, if we observe to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as He hath commanded us.' {S}

Thus, the answer to the son does not terminate with the Exodus, but with the taking of the land and with receiving the commandments. I am also reminded of the Dayeinu song. Yes, 'it would have been enough' cause for us to render praise, not that Hashem should have stopped there. But essentially, this is an important message of the seder. We can praise Hashem for that which we do have. Even when we did not yet have the modern State of Israel, it was 'enough' that we were a Jewish people, who had received the Torah and mitzvos, and this special relationship with our Creator; and Yetzias Mitzrayim all by itself it was sufficient cause upon which to base our seder.

All in all, the Absolut Haggadah has a rather nice approach to the haggadah, and it is well-worth a read. It is funny, accessible, and erudite.

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