Revolutionary Moments in the History of Pesach

The Pesah Seder is full of threes and fours. In this brief article I would like to deal with a “five”—what I term the fivefold history of the celebration of Pesah. Dividing the Jewish celebration of Pesah into five historical periods provides us with an overall perspective of the history of the holiday, where it came from and where it is now.

The earliest stage is clearly the Temple-period. During this period Jews came to the Templein Jerusalemto celebrate the holiday with a sacrifice. The sacrifice might have been accompanied by wine, song and celebration, but we don’t know of any formal “seder” or “haggadah” that occurred during this period. We also know very little of how Pesah was celebrated at that time by Jews outside theTemple.

The second period is the rabbinic invention of the Seder and haggadah. After the destruction of the SecondTemple(70 CE), the rabbis instituted a formal meal, patterned after the Greek symposium, during which a ritualized discussion, the incipient haggadah, would occur. This was a revolution, transforming a Templeritual into the most powerful and observed home ceremony in the Jewish calendar.

The next stage was the formation of a written Haggadah. This occurred some time during the geonic period (8th-11th centuries) inBabylonia. Once the Haggadah was written down, it became susceptible to the insertion of additional liturgy. It is during this period that some of the most well-known aspects of the Haggadah were introduced: the midrash of the four sons and Dayyenu among others. As Haggadot traveled from land to land, different communities added in poems and songs, leading to the variant versions that still exist today.

The fourth period was the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, which had two main effects. First of all, it basically “froze” the text of the Haggadah. Subsequent Haggadot were simply copied from earlier editions, with very little added in after this period. Second, it made it possible for a far greater number of people to have a Haggadah at the Seder table. In the past most Jews came to the seder table expecting to hear the Haggadah recited. The printing press enabled a far greater number of Jews to follow the text by reading along.

The current period, in which we live today, is characterized by a veritable explosion in the variety of Haggadot. There are two primary causes to this phenomenon, one technological and the other social. Technologically, printing and distribution of material is cheaper and easier than ever been. People can buy new Haggadot every year – prices are reasonable and they are readily available through catalogues, at bookstores and on the Internet. Socially, Jews have divided themselves into sub-groups and one of the marks of a sub-group is their own Haggadah. Unlike the days not so long ago, when everyone came to the table with the Maxwell House Haggadah; today, I increasingly hear from people that every person at the table has a different Haggadah.

As is often the case, examining the Pesah holiday opens up a larger window into the development of Jews and Judaism in general. I believe that these five eras are relevant not only for the study of the Seder and Haggadah but for the development of Judaism as a whole. And as we will say at our seders: ??