Dayenu in the  the Birds' Head Haggadah manuscript, South Germany. c.1300
Dayenu in the the Birds' Head Haggadah manuscript, South Germany. c.1300 Photo by Wikimedia Commons / Sodabottle
Text size
related tags

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, the Jewish religion faced one of its greatest challenges: adapting to this new reality, in which a central focus of religious observance was suddenly and brutally gone.

The Jewish leadership reestablished the Sanhedrin, the Jewish legal council recognized by the Romans, in the city of Yavne. Handed the daunting task of leading the Jewish people down a new road was Rabban Gamaliel II, who resided over the Sanhedrin assembly as Nasi.

Gamaliel and his fellow rabbis strived to adapt Judaism as best they could to the new circumstances. Among their efforts was a profound reform of the Passover ritual.

The ritual changes

Contemporary Jews read the Haggadah every Passover, during the Seder feast. But the book they ritualistically read now would be unrecognizable to ancient Jews.

After the destruction of the Temple no longer could Passover be a holiday of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Instead the holiday moved from the Temple to the home.

Before the destruction of the Temple, the lamb would be sacrificed there and its blood sprayed on the altar; then the family would get back the body to roast and eat it at a festive meal. Afterwards, Gamaliel enacted a halakha – a new observance - by which each household would continue to sacrifice lambs in their own homes. These sacrificial lambs were called gedi kilusin (“blessed kid” - kid as in young goat). While eating, dinner conversation centered on the minutiae of the laws governing the Paschal sacrifice in the Temple.

The anti-sacrifice lobby prevails

Even during the lifetime of Gamaliel, the rabbis vehemently opposed this sacrificial practice. It became a major issue of contention at the time. Some communities followed the practice, others didn’t.

Within a number of generations, the slaughter of lambs for Passover was completely stamped out, after the rabbis threatened to expel its practitioners as heretics.

By the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132 CE, the issue had been settled and the practice of sacrifice had disappeared. The theme of discussion at the Passover table had also changed. No longer did the discussion focus on the sacrifice but rather on the Exodus from Egypt.

This was fitting: the time saw a rise in nationalistic fervor and hope that once again God would save his people and the Temple would be rebuilt.

The Romans crush the revolt

After some initial success, the revolt was crushed by the Romans, with horrific results. Most of the Jews who lived in Judea were either killed or exiled. The dwindling number of rabbis transmitting the law and the fear that all would be lost led Rabbi Judah the Prince, the leader of the small remaining Jewish populace of Judea, to write down the oral law in a compilation of Jewish code called the Mishnah.

The Mishnah is our oldest source prescribing the order of the Passover Seder.

Its description - though brief - is very similar to our modern-day Seders, though at the time no fixed Haggadah had yet been written. This happened during the time of the Talmud, probably in the 3rd or 4th centuries CE, as the earliest reference to the Haggadah is in a Talmudic discussion of which Abba ben Joseph bar Ḥama , known as Rava, (c. 280 – 352 CE) takes part. The Haggadah is mentioned as a book one may lend out in order to be copied, making it clear that during his lifetime people were already making copies of the Haggadah.

The earliest manuscript to survive is an 8th century Haggadah discovered in the Cairo Geniza. It is strikingly similar to both our modern day Haggadahs and the text of the Mishnah.

Here's a breakdown of how the Haggadah as we know it came about.

Kadesh

As is done in the contemporary Seder, the Mishnah tells us to start with Kiddush. It does not however provide the text , though the Talmud written two centuries later does (c. 500).

According to the Mishnah, the House of Hillel says we should first bless the wine and then the day. The House of Shammai says it’s the other way around. Like in most cases when the two houses disagreed, the Jews wound up siding with the House of Hillel.

Urchatz

The Mishnah is mute about the washing of hands at his point, though it is mentioned in the Talmud.

The earliest manuscripts of the Haggadah dictate that a benediction should be chanted after washing your hands. Today’s Haggadahs actually say you shouldn’t.

Why this change took place is not clear but it happened sometime during the Middle Ages.

Karpas

The Mishnah is very terse on the herb. It only says: “It is brought before him and the hazeret is dipped.” Early Haggadahs like our own have the benediction on vegetables spelled out. As for the nature of hazeret, in modern Hebrew that means "horseradish" though this is due to a misunderstanding. Today, different families have different customs for the actual vegetable or leaf used.

Yachatz

This portion only appeared in the Middle Ages, it is based on a Talmudic passage in which Rav Papa describes breaking his matzas..

Magid

HaLachma Aniya first appears in Rabbi Amram’s Haggadah, dating from the 9th century.

The Four Questions

Ma Nishtana? - While one of the most well known parts in the Haggadah is very ancient, it has gone through some change since it was first spelled out.

The Mishnah asks: Why matza? Why bitter herbs? Why roasted meat? and why double-dip? In our own Haggadahs we dropped the roasted meat, which had to do with the temple sacrifice we don’t observe any more, and instead ask why we recline while we eat, while on other nights we sit up.

This change probably came about during the 11th century.

Avadim Hayinu only appears in the Middle Ages.

The discussion between Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Akiva on the reading of Shama in Bnei Brak doesn’t appear in the Talmud or in the earlier Haggadahs, though the characters described in the conversation are from the second century.

The four sons

The four sons - wise, wicked, simple and one who can't even ask questions - appear in the Jerusalem Talmud, where Rabbi Hyyia, a student of Rabbi Judah the Prince, is quoted as bringing this parable.

Hyyia’s text varies quite a bit from the text we know today: for one, the simple child is not "simple" but stupid.

In the beginning our forefathers were… this is a medieval addition of unknown source.

Vehi sheamda - appears in the early 8th century Haggadahs. So does Tze ulmad.

Here the Mishnah only gives us a short instruction that one should read the entire “Wondering Aramian” portion, alluding to Deuteronomy 26:5-8. The earliest Haggadahs give this text with some minor additions. Our contemporary Haggadahs have the same portion – and a lot of other biblical texts added within it.

The plagues appear

At this point the 10 plagues are recited. This recitation is not explicitly warranted by the Mishnah.

The early Haggadahs have the ten plagues, not the following elaborations, including Rabbi Judah’s helpful acronym for remembering the plagues and the weird counting of them by his contemporaries, the rabbis Yossi, Eliezer and Akiva. This material comes from a Halakhic Midrash called the Mekhilta, which was written sometime between the 2nd and 5th centuries.

Dayenu - This poem first appears in the 9th century Seder Rav Amram.

The next part, with Gamaliel saying that one must say pesach, matza and maror is from the Mishnah and was likely said by the distinguished rabbi. The elaborations on this are medieval reworkings of Talmudic elaborations (Pesachim 116b) on the original short elaborations that appear in the Mishnah.

The following Bekhol dor vador, Lefikhakh aleynu lehodot and Nomar alav halleluia are all taken directly from the Mishnah, with only minor changes.

Next the Mishnah says we should sing some psalms, but tells us the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagree on how many. We follow the House of Hillel and read both Psalm 113 and 114.

The following benediction Ga’al Yisrael is based on quotes by rabbis Tarfon and Akiva that appear in the Mishnah.

Rakhatz

The washing of the hands with a benediction here is a medieval contrivance.

Mozti Matza

Hamotzi appears in the early Haggadah manuscripts found in the Cairo Genizah, but the special benediction on the matza is newer, only appearing in medieval haggadot.

Maror

The benediction on the maror only appears in the Middle Ages.

Korekh

This section only appears in later medieval haggadot.

Shulkhan Arukh

Though the Mishnah isn’t explicit on this, it is clear that this is where the meal took place.

Tzafun

It is not exactly clear when the tradition of stealing/hiding a piece of matza began.

The tradition is based on a quote from Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud, saying that “matzot are stolen on Passover Eve so that the children won’t fall asleep” - though it isn’t at all clear what he means.

The stolen matza began to be called the afikoman in the Middle Ages, though it isn’t clear why. Also, the name for this piece of matza is a borrowed word from Greek, meaning dessert. But the Mishnah explicitly says that afikoman must not be eaten at the Seder's end.

Barekh

The Mishnah forgets to say we should eat - but does say we should recite the benediction on our food. These benedictions appear in the Talmud and are composed of mainly biblical texts.

Halel

The Mishnah only says that one finishes with praise (halel).

The early Genizah Haggadot finish after the benediction on the food, but in the Middle Ages, that short statement in the Mishnah was interpreted as meaning that one should read a collection from The Book of Psalms.

Nirtza

All the songs at the end of the Haggadah are late additions to the Passover Seder.

Some are adaptations from older texts, such is Ve-Natan Lanu Et Mamonam, but most are folk songs written for the entertainment of children in the Diaspora.

The most popular examples are:

Adir Hu, which appeared in Europe in the 15th century.

Echad Mi Yodea, which is also believed to have originated in the 15th century and is probably an adaptation of a German folk song "Guter freund ich frage dich", meaning "Good friend whom I ask."

Khad Gadya, which appeared in Europe in the 16th century. It’s written in flawed Aramaic.

This concludes our quick survey of the Seder. We hope it will enrich yours and your family’s holiday experience.