The Passover Story
How To Read The Haggadah
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How To Understand The Haggadah
Reading the Haggadah is just one of many, many rituals at the Passover Seder – but it’s not easy to read. Sometimes in a rush to fit it all, we mumble our way through the Maggid text, without really considering what it means. But Haggadah is a text to be studied, not rushed, and it’s easy to miss the bigger picture – and one of the most important messages behind the Maggid.
You might ask, where in the Haggadah is the actual Exodus story, the reason we hold Passover? Instead, the Haggadah shows us the story from a farmer’s perspective, written much later, as well as stories of God’s interaction with the Israelite nation – all the way back to Abraham. How does reading the Haggadah fulfill our commandment to retell the Exodus on Passover? Why not skip the introductory text, dive straight to the Exodus, and finish the Seder a bit earlier?
The main part of the Haggadah, Maggid, literally means “retelling a story”. And “retelling” is the key word for reading the Haggadah – if we look closer at the text, we can find pointers on how we should also retell the story, even in a modern world. The Haggadah is the perspective of the Exodus story that the Rabbis wanted us to see – to find a meaningful story that we never imagined existed. But what is the crucial meaning that the Haggadah authors wanted us to see?
Rabbi Fohrman argues that the Maggid is really a deep narrative that shows evidence of God’s ongoing promise to save His people. It grounds all the survival of the Israelite nation throughout the centuries, to show that God’s original promise to Abraham wasn’t a one-time thing, even if it was delayed by twists and turns that the people imposed upon themselves.
Rabbi Fohrman urges you not to rush through the Maggid reading. In this video course, he looks at how the different stories hang together. Through these connections, discover how the Haggadah is still a message for Jews in exile today, that even if faced with oppression or dark times, the hope is real – God will bring us out of this, and the nation will never be extinguished on foreign soil. Even if it may take years, Abraham’s promise has always been with us – even today.
Although the Maggid section of the Haggadah may be difficult upon first reading, Rabbi Fohrman shows how the Maggid is really a meta-story that introduces an actual story – and that's where all of the action takes place.
Hi everybody, Rabbi Fohrman here.
So, if you're like me, every year you probably set aside a little bit of time before Pesach to look over the Haggadah – you wanna have something to share with your guests or family about this text when Seder night arrives. The good news is that you can count your video-watching-time here as part of that "Seder Prep." But I am going to tell you, right off the bat, that – to paraphrase Mah Nishtanah – this Seder Preparation will be a little different this year than all other years.
Preparing Your Haggadah Dvar Torah
Because, typically, you know, what do you sort of do when you look to prepare for the Seder? Well, you know, think of what Haggadah Dvar Torah at the Seder often looks like. They tend to be very particular, very local. Often, you look at an isolated bit of the Seder – say, the Four Sons, or that little story with Rabbi Akiva and the Sages sitting around the table in B'nei Brak – and you try to find a little nugget of inspiration that you can share around the table about that particular part of the Seder.
So, what kind of a Seder ends up evolving out of that? Well, maybe something along these lines...
Kadesh! Alright, everyone gathers around for Kiddush. And you know, kiddush, it feels all very nice and communal, we all gather and listen to the sonorous melody of Kiddush and drink our wine. We eat that little bit of parsley or potato dipped in salt water, break that Matzah and show it around, and listen to little Jimmy or little Debbie, little Beryl and little Chanie, standing on the chair, tenuously reciting the four questions as best he or she can from memory. In Yiddish, sometimes. Or in English. Or Sanskrit – or whatever; but you get the point. And then?
And then you get to sing a song. Avadim Hayinu, Hayinu… Songs are fun. And then… Well, one of the kids has a question: Daddy, how come the wise son's question sounds so much like the wicked son's? Good question, Beryl, let's talk about it.
Before you know it, another song again: V'hi She'amda, V'hi She'amdah, lavoteinu velanu… As you put the wine cup down, and as you do, Little Chanie wants to put on a skit with her about those Rabbis in B'nei Brak. Everyone watches and claps. And so it goes. Until you get to the hard part.
Understanding MaggidThe hard part are those really difficult-to-follow paragraphs a bit later on in Maggid. At that point, things often devolve into what I call a "mumble-mumble-stop" routine. You know, everyone kind of mumbles a few paragraphs to themselves, then, stop! Dvar Torah… then: mumble mumble mumble some more – song. Mumble mumble some more. Soon people start getting tired, and so you pick up the speed… mumble mumble mumble – song!… mumble mumble mumble – d'var Torah! … And finally: mumble mumble – Dayenu! Yay, we've made it through the maggid!
You chomp your way through Matzah, marror and arrive gratefully at Matza Ball Soup and Brisket. Things are good now.
It's all very sweet. It really is. But here's the issue: When you sort of mumble your way through difficult paragraphs, you sort of lose the larger picture. You can end up having an entire "mumble mumble stop" Seder without actually understanding what you're actually saying.
And, when I say that you won't have a basic understanding of what you're saying, I don't mean you won't be able to translate any given word, phrase or even a sentence. You will. But what you'll be missing is an understanding of how it all hangs together; how does line A lead to line B? How does paragraph C connect to paragraph D?
The Meaning of the Haggadah
But that stuff's important. You know, you read an article in the "New York Times" or some other newspaper – what do you do when you read the article? Consciously or not, your brain asks: What is that first paragraph doing, what's it talking about? And how does it connect to the second paragraph? And you keep on reading the article that way and those are the questions you ask.
But imagine you were reading that article, and … and you couldn't make heads or tails of how one idea led to the next – but then, instead of trying to figure that out, you say to the person next to you: "Hey! Did you notice that it says 'because' in this paragraph not once, but twice? Let me tell you a fascinating idea I once learned about that…" That sounds kind of absurd, right?
So let's not do this with the Haggadah. I mean, I grant you, when it comes to the Haggadah, reading comprehension is harder than the "NY Times." The Haggadah is a rabbinic text that's many centuries old, written in the style of – and about the same time as – a piece of Baraita, or Talmud. And these texts aren't meant to just be read, they're meant to be studied. And the way you study such texts, is really to focus on the main things that any of us focus on subconsciously when you read the newspaper: For each paragraph, you ask: What was that paragraph about? What was its main point; what was its purpose? And then, you ask yourself: How does this paragraph connect to the paragraphs around it? The paragraph before it, and the paragraph after it? What's the flow here?
In the videos that follow, we are going to do exactly that with the text of the Haggadah. Dive in with me, and let's begin to look at the main part of the Haggadah, that section known as Maggid.
Retelling the Story of Maggid on PassoverMaggid. This word literally means "retelling a story." This, supposedly, is the part of the Haggadah dedicated to actually retelling the Exodus story. But look how it begins.
Ha lachma anya: This is the bread of affliction; poor man's bread, the bread we used to eat in Egypt. This is the part where we hold up the matzah for everybody to see and we explain what it is. What's the main point of this paragraph? Well, we seem to be quite literally pointing to, and explaining, a central symbol of the Seder that is about to unfold: Here is the matzah, and here's what it means.
All right, that's great. But let's ask our reading comprehension question: What's this doing here? We are supposed to be a telling a story, right? Pointing at Matzah doesn't seem to be telling a story.
But maybe we are beginning the story, in a certain kind of way. We are pointing to a concrete thing – a food – that will tell the story to come not just in words, but in flavors and textures. It is setting the tone, the flavor, if you will, of the story.
So, maybe it is a reasonable way to begin the Seder.
All right, next?
Insights Into the Haggadah's Story
The next paragraph is ma nishtana, four questions in which a child remarks on how very different this night seems from others during the year. How is this paragraph connected to the last one? Well, we just held up the matzah, we called everybody's attention to one of the main symbols of the night. And, our children notice that there's something out of the ordinary going on tonight, they want to understand. In a sense, these questions create the opportunity for a story – a story that we will soon tell.
All right, so Mah Nishtanah isn't yet the story, but it is a precursor to it. The story we tell is going to be couched as an answer to a set of questions. This question and answer format is a pedagogical model that the Rabbis lay out in the Talmud. We, as parents, have an obligation to tell the story of the Exodus to our children. But the Rabbis knew that the best way to engage children is to first give them the opportunity to ask their own questions. So this paragraph is giving the children a chance to do just that – helping them get engaged in the story we're about to tell.
All right, let's move on, the next paragraph is avadim hayinu: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God took us out of there.
Wait, this seems like a story! Has Maggid, the story-telling part of the Haggadah, really, finally, begun?
Well, in a sense it has. When we say that one sentence – we have, in essence, just told the entire story: We were once slaves, now we're free. So, you might be thinking… if we've gone and done it already – if that's the story – well, we have finished our business! Let's close up shop and bring out the soup and brisket: Let the meal begin! Why don't we do that?
Well, maybe the rest of the paragraph is actually explaining why we don't do just that: the next thing we say in the Haggadah is, Had God not done this, we'd still be in Egypt. In other words: These events that happened so long ago, they're not just bygone events in history, mere curiosities of times past – they have profound consequences for us sitting right here right now. If it were not for the Exodus, Israel as an independent nation would never have come to be. We would have been a perpetual class of slaves – and eventually, we'd have probably assimilated into the host culture. You and I would never be sitting here today had the Exodus not happened. And therefore…
...and therefore, we need to do more than perfunctorily dispense with the story. It's not enough to just summarize the Exodus story in a line, and move on to the meal. No, no matter how knowledgeable or wise we all are, no matter how many times we've heard this story before, we need to elaborate on it, flesh it out, make it come alive. We need to delve into this story, cuz it's this story that changed everything for us.
The author of the Haggadah is providing a rationale for what comes next – a reason why the meal won't be coming yet for another few hours. In other words: This paragraph is really the beginning of a meta-story: A story about the telling of the Exodus story. Here's why we do things this way, little Jimmy and little Debbie. We are learning why the story is important, and why we're going to spend a lot of time telling it.
The Haggadah's Meta-Story ContinuesOkay, so what happens next? Do we start telling the story? Well, no, actually we don't. The next paragraphs continue the "meta-story." They continue to talk about telling the Exodus story. We get a little episode about some Sages from the Talmud, in Bnei Brak, who told the Exodus story on Seder Night in so much depth and detail that they stayed up all night doing it. And, that paragraph is illustrating the last point: That no matter how much you know, you just have to lose yourself in the telling of the Exodus story. It has to be all-encompassing.
The "meta-story" continues with the next paragraph in the Haggadah, the "Four Sons." You see, if the previous paragraph told us how much to tell the Exodus story, this paragraph tells us how to tell the story. Cuz, the Rabbis noticed that the Torah tells you not once but four different times that you have to tell the Exodus story to your children. From there, they drew the idea that there are actually four different ways to tell the story – the story needs to be tailored to the needs of the listener, to the needs of each kid.
In all of these paragraphs, and, for that matter, the ones that follow – we are not yet getting the actual story of the Exodus – we are getting the meta-story; we are being given pointers as to how to tell the story.
Where Does the Story in Maggid Actually Begin?We don't have anything that really sounds like an Exodus story in the Haggadah until we get to these words:
"Metchila ovdei avodah zara hayu avoteinu…"
Once upon a time, our ancestors were idol worshipers…
Well, that's a proper way to start a story – quite literally with a "once upon a time." And in fact, the Exodus story really does begin at this moment, at least in a way. Yeah, we're starting from all the way in the beginning, even before Abraham, and there are still some confusing paragraphs in the Haggadah beyond this point, but it seems fair to say: The meta-story is over, and an actual story has begun. This is where the action really begins.
So, as you sit down to the Seder this year, keep your eye on the ball. Until now, we talked about how important it is to retell the Exodus, how much we have to retell it, how we have to retell it, when we have to retell it – but we haven't yet actually retold it. Until right here. This is the beginning.
So how does that affect you? Well, at your Seder, it is easy to entertain lots of questions and divrei Torah about these introductory pieces – why Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah's beard was so white when he was only eighteen years old, and all that… but there is a price to pay for these indulgences. You get up to this point where we're at now, Mitchilah – and… by now, the kids are getting restless, the guests are hungry, and in front of you there's this dense and intimidating section of Rabbinical analysis. So if you're not careful, it's "Come on folks, we've got an afikoman to eat by midnight, let's move!"
My advice: Try not to fall into this trap. Say fewer divrei Torah on the introductory parts, and make sure you get up to here, fully awake and ready to go. Remember: The story starts here. Don't let it pass you by.
In the next videos of this course, we're going to tackle the next paragraphs of the Haggadah. They are some of the hardest to understand in the Haggadah. It is not easy to figure out exactly how they hang together at all, or what story they are meant to tell. But if we can piece together their puzzle, we will find ourselves richly rewarded. We will get an inside look at the Exodus story, as the rabbis beckoned us to see it. We will, I daresay, begin to see a side of the Exodus story that we never imagined existed before.