Why the Passover Hagadah is a wreck

Andy Oram
April 16, 2022

Many people think that just because the Hagadah has been around a long time, it has some kind of sacred status. It does not. Although large portions are taking from the Bible and Talmud, the Hagadah is just an accretion of anonymous contributions over many centuries. We are free to discard parts that don’t hold meaning for us.

There’s no doubt that the Hagadah is a barrier to appreciating this joyous occasion. Seder attendees stumble constantly over the Hagadah. They slog through ridiculous speculations like how many plagues the Egyptians suffered or whether Jacob intended to settle in Egypt. There seems to be little connection between the oddball citations and the story we’re supposed to tell. Questions are asked and not answered. Answers come without the context to understand them.

Most participants shrug and assume that all this verbiage had meaning to some earlier generation of Jews, murkily conceived. In fact, I’m convinced, the Hagadah never had meaning for anybody at any time in history.

But how did the Hagadah get to be what it is?

A telling analogy

It took me many years to discern the thought processes that led to the choice of materials for the Hagadah, particularly the telling section (magid). The key to my insight was an experience I had as a technical writer. As I uncovered the mysteies behind a bad technical manual, I learned how poorly motivated redactors could create such a cumbersome piece of work as the Hagadah.

It was my very first assignment at my very first job in tech writing. The managers wanted me to update a manual about computer networking. They probably had no inkling how bad this manual was, much less the factors that led to its wretchedness. I read it over a couple times and realized it was useless, although I didn’t yet know why. I did decide, fortunately, to ignore it from then on and start from scratch, learning the computer systems myself in order to document them. (This choice guided me through the next couple decades of my writing career.)

My company—Honeywell, a historic part of the computer field but now long disappeared—deserves a lot of credit for letting me take the time to create a good manual. They gave me access to a large computer center, where I could reserve mainframe systems and connect them with cables through patch panels. I wrote programs. I read the original specifications. I created my own network.

Critical to my success was the guidance of an engineer named Dave Wray. Simply because he liked the networking product much more than it deserved, he wanted the best possible manual. He saw that I was dedicated to doing justice to this product, so he patiently gave me his time.

One day, things weren’t going too well in my programs, and I started banging on the terminal. I noticed that the paint was worn away in in the place I was banging, indicating that I was by no means the first person to get frustrated with Honeywell systems. But suddenly I heard Dave’s voice behind me: “Can I help?” He had turned up like an angel at the right moment. Every young person deserves a mentor like Dave.

But I am digressing from my point. What I came to realize, painstakingly putting together a network, a computer program, and eventually a successful manual, was that this system awkwardly tied together at least three different layers of computing, designed by different committees. There was a hardware layer, a networking layer, and a COBOL programming layer.

Because none of these systems were designed with the others in mind, their concepts and terms didn’t translate to the other layers. As a simple example, one specification might refer to a “port” while another uses “terminal” to refer to the same thing. Unless you realize that a port and a terminal are the same thing, you can’t possibly work with the system.

The writer of the original manual was clearly swimming out of their depth, like the author of Psalm 69 (“The waters have come up to my neck…and there is no place to stand”). When I read the original specifications, I realized that the author had simply plagiarized them. The writer grabbed material that seemed relevant and stuck it in, with no attempt to harmonize the different selections or even explain when a port and terminal meant the same thing.

And that process bears an excellent analogy to the Hagadah. A bunch of random authors who didn’t understand the meaning of Passover went though source texts, grabbing things that seemed relevant. “This passage talks about Jacob coming to Egypt…this passage talks about plagues…let’s take them…”

Yes, the redactors tried to organize the misch-mosch into an “order” that made sense for those passages, but it makes no sense as a narrative or a teaching tool.

Freeing ourselves from a tight spot

So if the Hagadah is inadequate, how shall we celebrate Passover? Each of us should read Genesis and Exodus and come up with some ceremony, game, story, or other engagement that works for our gathered guests. We can be substantially more creative than the people who gave us the Hagadah.

But we don’t have to totally throw out the manual in this case. We can take things from the Hagadah that we like. It makes sense to recite Psalms 113–118 (Hallel) because doing so is traditional on the pilgrimage festivals. The symbols on the seder plate are visually engaging, as is opening the door for Elijah. I happen to have a fondness for the “Pour out your wrath on the nations” prayer.

When I am responsible for leading a seder, I pick out key passages from the Hagadah, such as the brief descriptions of the pesaḥ, matzah, and maror. (I regrettably leave out Hallel because it’s long and comes at a time when guests get impatient.) I create a reasonably familiar seqeuence of traditional texts liberally enhanced with innovations from the many modern Hagadot in circulation.

Jews hold a variety of positions regarding traditions. But we should not let a flawed tradition with no sacred status get in the way of experiencing the beauty in other traditions.

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