The Haggadah Published in Germany at the Height of Nazi Fervor

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Avraham Fraenkel
Avraham Fraenkel

Dr. Daniel Goldschmidt was known as a leading research scholar of the history and text of the Passover Haggadah. The first one he edited was brought out by the Schocken publishing house of Berlin in 1936. Now, 80 years after the publication of that volume, its story is being told.

At the time of the Nazis’ rise to power, in 1933, Goldschmidt was a research librarian at the Royal Library of Prussia, in Berlin. Among the projects he worked on, Goldschmidt was involved in the cataloging of incunabula – books that were printed prior to 1500. (The word means “swaddling clothes,” and refers to volumes produced when the printing craft was in its infancy.) His efforts were focused on the earliest Hebrew-language publications. As an observant Jew, Goldschmidt had a special arrangement with his employer not to work Saturdays; he would make up the hours on Sundays and the rest of the week.

In April 1933, the new German regime ordered the dismissal of all Jews employed in government positions. Initially, however, since Goldschmidt had fought in the German army in World War I, he was permitted to continue working. But in order to avoid attracting any special attention, on more than one occasion he would come to work on Saturdays – on foot – and sit there without writing anything, since that would have been a transgression of Jewish law.

His supervisor suggested the company submit a request to exempt him from working Saturdays, but Goldschmidt turned down the offer. Nevertheless, a directive was adopted by the German interior ministry that came to be known as the “Goldschmidt clause,” which affirmed the exemption from work on Saturdays and Jewish holidays to those who were still permitted to continue working. The Nuremberg laws, issued in 1935, forced the dismissal of all German Jews from public positions, even those who had served in the German army. As was typical for the Nazis, who frequently concealed their true motives, Goldschmidt’s letter of dismissal, issued in late 1935, offered no details for the reason of termination; it merely provided a laconic summary of the monetary amounts owed to the dismissed employee.

The Schocken Haggadah. Published in Nazi Germany in 1936.Credit: Avraham Fraenkel

It was only a short time earlier that Schocken Verlag had opened for business in Berlin. (The company’s founder, Salman Schocken, bought this newspaper in 1935; today, his grandson is its publisher.) One of the publisher’s first projects was an extensive series of books on Judaism in German. Its 83 volumes, which came out in a small format over a fast-paced, six-year span, were written by the foremost experts in their respective fields. It was a scholarly series intended for the educated lay reader. Initially, the series was intended for that element of German Jewry that had grown distant from the Jewish faith – those whom the racial laws of the Nazi regime pushed back to their Judaism.

Jewish music and more

Some of the books included translated excerpts from the writings of numerous early Jewish philosophers and scholars such as Maimonides, Yehuda Halevy, Philo, Josephus Flavius, and even Hermann Cohen and Abraham Berliner (respectively, a philosopher and theologian, both from the turn of the century), S.Y. Agnon and Franz Kafka. The authors of the volumes written exclusively for the Schocken series included Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Arthur Spanier (a Jewish liturgical scholar who would perish in the Holocaust), Franz Rosenzweig, the historian Isaac Fritz Baer, the musician Arno Nadel, and many others. The expertise of the authors and the scientific approach they adopted also helped draw the approval of Orthodox Jews who’d had a general education. They received the series’ volumes with rapt interest.

Pages from the Schocken Haggadah, published in 1936.Credit: Avraham Fraenkel

One of the books was devoted to the zemirot, melodic poems sung at Shabbat meals; they appeared in Hebrew, complete with musical score. The entire series was handsomely designed by Dr. Moses Spitzer, a highly skilled graphic designer of books in Hebrew and German.

In late 1935, Schocken Verlag asked Dr. Goldschmidt to prepare an edition of the Passover Haggadah for the series. The challenge he faced was to complete work on the book in very little time – no more than six months – so that it could be printed and distributed before Passover, in April 1936. Goldschmidt, who was apparently already aware of his imminent dismissal from the Royal Library, accepted the assignment.

The Schocken Haggadah included the traditional text in Hebrew, complete with a German translation and scholarly commentary. That was preceded by a five-chapter introduction: a survey of the contents; an explanation of how the seder table is arranged; the sequence of the evening’s proceedings; unique customs; and a final chapter on the language of the Haggadah. It was a dense compendium of knowledge drawn from the traditional commentaries, Jewish legal literature and the (relatively sparse) scientific literature that had been published to date.

A postcard, bearing a Nazi stamp, that was sent by Prof. Aharon Freiman from Frankfurt to Goldshmidt in Berlin thanking him for the Haggadah, 1936.Credit: Avraham Fraenkel

Alongside the Hebrew text were notes on differences in practice between diverse Jewish communities: Spain and Portugal, Rome, Romaniote Jews (referring to the ancient Jewish community of Greece), Yemen, the Maimonides version, the Gaonim version of Rav Amram and Rav Saadia (dating to medieval Babylonia), the Vitry mahzor (early 12th-century France), an English version from before the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, and a version from Provence.

An appendix to the Haggadah included an excerpt that had been omitted from Haggadot in the Middle Ages, as well as certain paragraphs that appear only in the texts of specific Jewish communities (for example, the expanded kiddush that appears in the siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon and in the Yemenite version; the blessing on redemption, in the form of a liturgical poem; and other odes that appear at the end of the Provence and Romaniote Haggadot).

A thank-you note to Dr. Daniel Goldschmidt from Prof. Moshe David Cassuto, Rome.Credit: Avraham Fraenkel

This was one of the first scholarly editions of the Passover Haggadah. The text, commentary and traditional customs were integrated with the scientific notes, together on each page of the book.

The book was well received: For many years, it was regularly used on the seder eve by German-speaking Jews, wherever they were, and was also warmly received by scholars engaged in research on prayer, who found within it abundant but concise information in an easy-to-use format. The author did not intend to interpret the Haggadah from any particular ideological bias, but merely out of an interest in clarification of the meaning of the words and their development. Therefore, as noted, the book was also well received in many Orthodox homes, at first abroad and subsequently in Israel.

Goldschmidt went on to produce volumes similar in their orientation – combining both traditional text and scientific commentary – on the Selihot (penitential prayers recited before the High Holy Days) and Lamentations, as well as a volume of the Mahzor, the prayer book used on the High Holy Days.

As for the Haggadah, it was distributed rapidly throughout Europe. By 1936, it had been reviewed in several Jewish newspapers in Germany, Holland, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary and even in a French-language newspaper published in Cairo.

That same summer, Goldschmidt immigrated to Palestine, settling with his family in Jerusalem. A second edition of the book was already in print by 1937. The contract to publish this edition was signed in Jerusalem, since by that time the Schocken publishing house had also transferred its operations to Israel.

A Hebrew translation of the Schocken Haggadah was issued during the War of Independence (1947-1948). This edition was cited by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher in the footnotes of his own Haggadah Sheleimah; Kasher referred to Goldschmidt’s Haggadah as being “slight of quantity and abundant of quality.”

In 1960, Goldschmidt published his expansive study, “The Passover Haggadah and its History,” including the oldest known version of the Haggadah, which was found in the Cairo Geniza (a storage room of discarded books and manuscripts belonging to the Jewish community there, which includes documents dating back as far as the ninth century C.E.). Before his death, in 1973, he prepared a revised edition of his Hebrew Haggadah, first published in 1947, although the revised edition remains unpublished.

We will note three unique interpretations included in his Haggadah:

1. Most readers are well aware of the riddle regarding the four questions: How can “How is this night different?” be asked at a time of the proceedings when the differences to be manifested on the seder eve have yet to occur? (In other words, even before the matzot and maror have been served, or before the two dippings.) The proposed answer is that in the days when the seder tradition began, in the mishnaic period, the Haggadah’s story was only told after the group had already completed eating. This solution was also proposed by the 13th-century work “The Mordechai,” citing Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg in his concise clarification of the seder: “At the time that the Temple existed, all of the seder was done after the meal.” This is also what a simple reading of the Mishna teaches us (in Tractate Pesachim, chapter 10), and it seems this was still the situation at the time of the seder that was held in Bnei Brak (which is referred to in the Haggadah), when it was customary to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt until the first light of day.

2. “And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, as it says, Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they fight against us, and get them up out of the land.” Why did the Midrash specifically cite the verse “Come, let us deal wisely with them” as proof of the enslavement to the Egyptians, and not a verse that explicitly refers to the edicts and enslavement? It seems that the Midrash bases itself on the unique wording “And the Egyptians dealt ill with us” (instead of “did evil to us”), and Goldschmidt interprets that the Egyptians thought the Hebrews to be evil people – in other words, they suspected us of being evil. Indeed, this is what is written in the verse cited in the Midrash: “When there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us,” etc.

3. In the song, “Ki lo na’eh, ki lo ya’eh,” the chorus is, “To you, yes to you / To you, surely to you / To you, even to you / To you, belongs the kingdom.” This refrain hints at several verses that contain the words “to you” twice (in the Hebrew text, but not necessarily the English translation): “Thine is the day, Thine also the night” (Psalms 74:16); “Praise waiteth for Thee, O God, in Zion; and unto Thee the vow is performed” (Psalms 65:2); and “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and Thou art exalted as head above all”) 1 Chronicles 29:11.

The Schocken Haggadah from 1936 is an example of the cultural world and spiritual life of German Jews under the Nazi regime, which persisted until the outbreak of war in 1939, and even beyond. All of this was going on in spite of the overwhelming difficulties and edicts, and despite the departure of many German Jews to Palestine and other lands between the years 1933 and 1939.

Avraham Fraenkel is a grandson of the late Daniel Goldschmidt.

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