Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

It’s just one of those things that everyone knows. Golden Blossom makes honey, Tenuva produces milk and cheese, and Maxwell House publishes the Haggadah.

I always wondered what the connection is between Maxwell House coffee and the Haggadah. I’m sure I’m not the only one. With a little research I finally found out the answer.

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During the 1920s, Maxwell House realized that Jews weren’t purchasing their coffee during Pesach. As Ashkenazic law prohibits eating kitniyos – loosely translated as beans and legumes – on Pesach, they wouldn’t buy coffee, which is produced from coffee beans. The truth is that coffee is permitted on Pesach because the coffee bean is actually not a bean but the pit of a fruit. However, because the word bean is part of its title, Jews were keeping their distance from coffee during Pesach.

The Maxwell House company reached out to Joseph Jacobs, the head of an advertising firm that specializes in marketing to Jewish customers, who got a rabbi to certify that the coffee was indeed permitted on Pesach.

In 1932, the company decided to ratchet up its marketing campaign by giving out a free Haggadah with every can of coffee purchased. Since then, the Maxwell House Haggadah has become the standard Haggadah in many Jewish homes. It’s an inexpensive way to provide all of one’s Seder guests with a side-by-side Hebrew-English text. Over 55 million Maxwell House Haggadahs have been published since the 1930s.

In 2011, the Maxwell House Haggadah translation underwent its first significant update since its original publishing. “Art, thou and hast” were replaced with more conversational contemporary English.

Every year multiple, beautiful new Haggadahs are printed with original insights and perspectives, but it’s intriguing that the Maxwell House printing has gained such pride of place in the Jewish world generally.

It got me thinking about other possible connections between coffee and the Seder. Here’s a few possibilities:

  1. During the Seder we recount the famous Seder in B’nei Brak, when five distinguished Tanaim reclined together while discussing the exodus throughout the night until their students informed them that it was time to recite the morning Shema. It seems that the conversation was so intriguing that they didn’t require any coffee to keep the conversation flowing all night. (Think about how much coffee we consume on Shavuos night as we struggle to stay awake engaged in Torah study.) These great rabbis were so stimulated by their discussion that they didn’t require any external foods to keep their attention.
  2. Coffee itself is actually quite bitter. Very few people enjoy drinking black coffee. Everyone seems to have their own specifications of how much milk, sugar, and creamer they like in their coffee. It is only when we have the right blend of those added components that we truly enjoy our coffee.

The great sage Hillel would eat the “korech,” a sandwich that consisted of matzah (which in those days was more lafa-like), maror (perhaps both lettuce and some grated horseradish) and the freshly roasted meat of the korbon Pesach (what a delicious sandwich!). When maror is eaten as part of such a sandwich, it is not only not distasteful, but also enhances the taste of the meat.

Maror symbolizes the challenging parts of life. When viewed and experienced in themselves they are arduous and painful. But when they are understood as part of a greater context that includes matzah and Pesach, symbols of redemption, it becomes an integral component of one’s growth and identity.

No one wants challenges and painful times, but amazingly, often after people have endured such situations, they will assert that now that it happened, they wouldn’t trade the experience. In retrospect, they recognize the incredible growth, and spiritual, and emotional maturity, they experienced because of the challenging situation. On Seder night we don’t only celebrate redemption, we recall and recognize the exile and the perpetual effect it had upon our national identity and conscience. Like a cup of coffee that combines different foods to give it the perfect taste, Pesach is the celebration of the culmination and result of all the experiences we had in Egypt.

  1. My mother used to have a mug that she used for her morning coffee, which had a picture of a bear and the caption “Bear with me until I’ve had my coffee.” It was a pleasant way of saying that the day’s stresses and pressures could not be dealt with until she had her morning dose of caffeine. I can relate.

Pesach is the first holiday of the year (see Rosh Hashana 1:1). In a sense we do not confront the spiritual challenges and vagaries that life invariably presents us until we have had our “dose of Pesach” with its vital message of subjugation, faith, and trust in G-d. We cannot deal with anything without that initial spiritual dose.

  1. Finally, halacha dictates that we do not eat anything after we have eaten the afikomen, to ensure that its taste lingers in our mouths. This is symbolic of our desire that the spiritual elevation we experienced during and as a result of the Seder remain with us long after the Seder has ended. In addition, many people don’t appreciate the concluding sections of the Seder. In the late hours of the night, after a long Seder and a delicious meal, many people have a hard time reciting the magnificent words of Hallel and the moving and stunning songs of nirtzah.

But for those who have really been inspired, they even continue beyond the actual text and recite Shir HaShirim as the only possible means to express their deep feelings of elevation and exaltedness.

The Seder is truly good to the last drop!

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Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is a popular speaker and author as well as a rebbe in Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, NJ. He has recently begun seeing clients in private practice as part of the Rockland CBT group. For appointments and speaking engagements, contact 914-295-0115 or stamtorah@gmail.com. Archives of his writings can be found at www.stamtorah.info.