The story of the Exodus from Egypt has been read by Jews for millennia, but the Haggadah as we know it was compiled during the Gaonic period (8th-9th century CE) in Babylon, with additional songs written by Jews probably during the Middle Ages.
The Haggadah’s editors, leaders of the Jewish community in the Diaspora, provided a compact guide for Jewish survival. With few precious handwritten texts available, Jews, often running for their lives and unable to carry volumes, needed a portable way to teach their children the basics of the holiday and Judaism.
Using stories and songs, focused on family units, the Haggadah provides concise educational tools needed to instill Jewish historical awareness and identity. And, built on a prophetic vision of Redemption, it is focused on the Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael.
The Haggadah is not chronological; it jumps from one episode to another without a clear line of development. Full of metaphors and historical events, it’s strange that the critical figure in the Exodus, Moses, is missing, along with Aaron and Miriam. Instead, the Haggadah focuses on rabbis from the second and third centuries and parables about committed and alienated children, insiders and outsiders.
The historic center of Aramean civilization was Babylon, where Jews had built a vibrant and cohesive Torah-based community that provided critical leadership. Toward the end of the Gaonic period, however, plagued by assimilation and threatened with destruction, Babylonian rabbis assembled a codebook for Jewish survival in immanent and future exiles.
The Haggadah reminds us that Jewish history begins in Mesopotamian idol worship, exile, and Egyptian slavery. The Exodus from Egypt, however, not only expresses God’s power and human freedom, but His Will: Jews are a nation and a people.
The paradigm of Exile and Redemption provides a context for understanding how Jewish history works: nationhood is determined by geography, the occupation of space; peoplehood is spiritual/cultural existence in time. Nationhood is building a civilization – political, judicial and economic institutions as well as civic organizations; peoplehood is transcendent, founded on history, language, memory and a sense of destiny.
An instruction manual on how to survive as strangers in strange lands, the Haggadah focuses on the centrality of Eretz Yisrael and an understanding of Judaism and Jewish history. Its reference points are rabbis who led the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple to Yavneh and through the Bar Kochba rebellion and exile: Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Elazar. Quoted throughout the Talmud, their prominence in the Haggadah indicates an emphasis on the basics of Jewish education and surviving the trauma of exile/dispersion.
Children’s stories and songs in Haggadah are parables that illuminate dark paths of suffering with rays of hope. As individuals and as a people, we are all of the Four Sons: simple, curious, rebellious and faithful – but involved. What unites us is the belief in One God expressed in the Shema, a simple way of attachment. A lifeline.
Reciting the Haggadah with his colleagues, Rabbi Akiva is called upon by his students: “It’s time to say the Shema!”
This affirmation of faith is the Jewish beginning and end, in prayer, in life, and at death. The Shema, however, is not only about monotheism – God is One – but also about community: “Hear O Israel,” a unifying connection as a people. For Jews in exile, oppressed and suffering and often with limited Jewish resources, this one phrase contained identity and purpose.
The editors of the Haggadah understood that for Jewish communities in exile, under pressure and isolated, things had to be reduced to essentials. Eating matzah requires no belief, but the reason we eat matzah (and refuse to eat bread) could become an inquiry that leads to study and commitment.