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Jewish World Review
April 2, 2004
/12 Nissan, 5764
The Hagadah: Story of a People in flux
Rabbi Berel Wein
Pay close attention to the primary Passover text you pick. It says much about the society we live and lived in
As Pesach is perhaps the
most beloved and observed of Jewish holidays, so is its story as related in
the Hagadah a source of unusually great Jewish pride and affection.
many centuries since its basic format was codified and set (approximately in
the seventh century CE) the Hagadah has appeared in numerous editions and
formats. In the High Middle Ages, when illumination of scrolls and later
printed books were in vogue, the Hagadah was also the subject of the
illuminator's art. There are a number of famous illuminated Hagadahs that are
still extant with us.
The Rylands Hagadah, a page of which is pictured above, is located in Manchester, England
and contains some of the most beautiful art work and decorative touches in
all Hebraica. The famous "Birds' Heads" Hagadah, a replica of which can be
seen in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, shows all of the human characters
portrayed in the Hagadah as having the heads of a birds instead of that of
human beings. This is in line with the opinion of some, under Jewish law,
that a human figure should not be rendered faithfully as that could perhaps
violate the prohibition against idols and their creation.
Of note, in these
medieval Hagadahs, is the fact that the Jews portrayed are all wearing "Jew
hats." The Church forced the Jews to wear ludicrous looking hats as a
penance and punishment for their obstinate refusal to renounce Judaism and
accept Christianity. These hats, some formed like a dunce cap or having a
ridiculous ball tied to them, were instead converted by the Jews into a
badge of pride to their loyalty to Torah and the G-d of Israel. As you may
have noticed, many Jews still have a penchant for wearing strange hats, a
practice which the general non-Jewish society in the Western world has long
One of the more fascinating features of the different editions of the
Hagadah over the ages is how the "ben rasha" the "bad son" is portrayed
in the illustrations.
In early times, he is portrayed as a Greek thespian or
as a Roman gladiator. In medieval times, he was either the rough, coarse,
unlettered peasant or the equally brutal and cruel wandering knight. In
later Hagadahs, the "bad son" was portrayed as being foppish and a dilettante
in appearance. In early twentieth century American Hagadahs, he appears as a
member of an organized crime gang, cigarette dangling from his lips and a
large hat pushed back on his head. In certain Hagadahs published in Eastern
Europe and later also in Israel, the "bad son" was portrayed as the leader
or member of a certain religious or political group that the publisher of
the Hagadah strongly disapproved of. One can learn a great deal about Jewish
life, past and present, not only by reading and studying the Hagadah but
also by just looking at the pictures.
There have been numerous revisionist Hagadahs printed and distributed over
the centuries. In the early
twentieth century, the believing Leftists amongst us produced a Hagadah
according to the teachings of Marx and Engels. It was intended not so much
to remember the Exodus from Egypt as it was to extol the wonders of
socialism and communism and trumpet the collapse of the capitalist chains
that enslaved the proletariat.
Somehow, Stalin diminished the popularity of
this Hagadah though there are still kibbutzim in Israel that have such
Leftist Hagadahs in use. Jews are true believers till the end. For all of us
raised in the United States in the early and middle parts of the last
century, the "Maxwell House" Hagadah was a staple of our existence. Many
food companies and supermarkets produced Hagadahs that they distributed
"free" to their customers.
Today, there are all types of Hagadahs available,
ranging from erudite scholarly works to beautifully illustrated books for
young children. Every Pesach brings with it new editions of the great old
Hagadah. The Hagadah of Pesach should not just be reserved for the Seder
night of Pesach alone. It has much to teach us at any time of the year.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and
founder of the Destiny Foundation.
He has authored over 650 tapes, books and videos which you can purchase at RabbiWein.com.
Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Rabbi Berel Wein