Passover: Peshat and Derash on the Haggadah

Since I began writing historical commentary on the Haggadah (The Schechter Haggadah), word has gotten around that I am “the Haggadah guy,” and people have begun to approach me for my evaluation of their understanding of particular points in the Haggadah and Seder. Occasionally these are creative readings of certain texts, at other times they are discussions of the structure of the Seder. My first reaction to most of these suggestions is to flinch, for they are rarely correct representations of the original texts and customs of the Haggadah. They are usually creative, the person who suggested them has put a lot of thought into them, but nevertheless, they are historically inaccurate.

However, this does not imply that I think that they are wrong. Indeed, much of the time these interpretations are “right” in the sense that they help bring meaning to the rituals and texts of the Seder. They are even historically “right” in the sense that the process of imbuing the Seder’s texts and customs with new meaning is a process that has existed practically since the Seder was created. For example, many Jews and Haggadah commentaries explain the three matzot on the Seder table to be for “Kohen, Levi, v’Yisrael.” The actual reasons for three matzot are entirely unrelated, but this “popular” drash emphasizes the theme of Jewish unity, a nice idea on the holiday.

For nearly two thousand years each generation of Jews has taken the Seder’s elements and made them their own by finding symbolic meaning in everything said and done at the Seder table. This process is, I believe, the “peshat” of the Seder itself. Historically, the Seder can indeed be defined as a continuing attempt to find spiritual and national meaning in a ritual that cannot always be observed in the way that our ancestors celebrated it.

So “darshen” away, learn the original meaning and contexts of the texts and customs, but make them your own by finding both hidden and new meaning in everything we do on that special night. Just forgive this historian if I still flinch when you send me your hiddushim. I can’t help it.