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Jewish World Review
April 17, 2008
/ 12 Nissan 5768
Is innovation at the Seder a slap at tradition?
Rabbi Elazar Meisels
A challenge for modern, thinking Jews
We conduct a large Seder at our home each year, and the same question arises every year: Must we loyally follow the text of the Haggadah, or may we innovate in the recital of the miracles? My husband is of the opinion that we needn't be smarter than the authors of the Haggadah and should stick to the original text. I maintain that it's not a question of being smarter, but rather, I'd like to do so out of a desire to discuss the events in a more personal manner that resonate with us today. I know that it's traditional to stick to the text and I'm prepared to do so if I must, but I'd love to know your opinion on the matter?
As a rabbi, I couldn't be happier about being asked to mediate this dispute between you and your husband, because it affords me a rare opportunity to side with both of you since you're both right! There are differing opinions on the matter, so each of you can take comfort in knowing that a great Halachic (Jewish law) expert saw it as you did.
Rabbi Natrunai Gaon [Natronai bar Rav Hilai Abba Mari, leader of the Sura Academy c. 854-862] is quoted in Sefer HaManhig as saying that adherence to the text of the Haggadah is mandatory, and that any variation is akin to heresy, since it is based on the sacred words of the Mishnah and Talmud. Hence, one may not delete any part of the text, or replace it with other parts of the text, to accommodate their own personal preferences.
A very different viewpoint was expressed by Ritvah [Rabbi Yom Tov ibn Asevilli c. 1300] in his book titled Hilchos Seder HaHaggadah. He insists that ideally, one should discuss the aspects of the Exodus without a formal text, since the purpose of the discussion is to offer praise of Hashem, which is more intensely felt when expressed in spontaneous fashion. The text of our Haggadah, insists Ritvah, was only introduced for those who are ignorant of the Exodus and incapable of discussing it in an original manner. They may exempt their obligation by following the standardized text of the Haggadah. All others should seek to converse in as informal and genuine a manner as possible.
Raavad [Rabbi Avraham ben David of Provence, c.1125-1198] agreed with the opinion of Ritvah, and thus, it was his custom to expound upon a verse or two related to the Exodus prior to the recital of the Haggadah.
It is very important to note that even Rabbi Natrunai Gaon agrees that the Haggadah need not be recited in the original Hebrew, and should be recited in any language that the reader understands, so that its message is better internalized [quoted in Rit"z Ga'us, Chelek 2:102].
In practice, we seek to accommodate both opinions and therefore remain loyal to the original text, while not hesitating to probe it for additional insights and elucidations that lend inspiration and understanding. Thus, there is a tradition to spend some time in the days and weeks leading up to the Seder studying the Haggadah and the various commentaries so that one can discuss it in-depth, and with a degree of originality. This not only accommodates the opinion of Ritva and Raavad, but also adds depth to the conversation and keeps the focus on the Exodus, a subject all can agree upon, as opposed to current events and politics, which are rarely the subject of universal agreement.
There are many resources available to assist you in doing so, including a vast array of Haggadahs from Artscroll, the popular Judaica publisher that feature English translations, and approach the Exodus from a wide range of perspectives. They may cost a bit more than the version your Bubby picked up free in the grocery store with the Maxwell House coffee, but they're well worth the investment in time and money.
Wishing you a joyous and kosher Passover!
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Rabbi Elazar Meisels is founder of the Lidrosh Institute for Jewish Education. He serves as the Rabbi of The Michigan State University Hillel and Educational Director of The Partners In Torah Telepartners Division.
© 2008, Partners in Torah