Who cares when we eat

Families gather around the festive Passover table and hungry guests smell the aroma of delicious foods wafting from the kitchen as the seder leader intones: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt …”

Participants’ eyes glaze over as they listen:

“Rabbi Akiva said, ‘You can say from this that they were smitten with 50 plagues in Egypt, and at the sea they were smitten with 250 plagues.'”

No one seems to have a clue about what the words mean, children squirm in their seats, and adults try to look interested until someone shouts, “Let’s eat!”

All nod in agreement, hurriedly say the blessing and drink the second cup of wine, put the haggadahs away, and pursue the savory Passover meal with gusto.

An example of one of many cryptic texts that seder participants struggle to understand is the ancient Hebrew formula, Arami oved avi — “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5), a line that sounds more like Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics than a liturgical prescription.

Called by scholars “a little cultic credo,” its formulaic doctrine is one of the few instances in which a public recitation of a biblical confession of faith was demanded. Once recited by every Israelite who brought first-fruit offerings to the Temple, this ancient doxology tied successive generations of Israelites to their agrarian past in what Jewish scholar Judah Goldin termed an act of “memory making past present.”

The haggadah — a strange amalgamation of biblical, talmudic and midrashic legends, prayers, hymns and songs — was put into its present form in around the year 200.

The appearance of two new haggadahs — “My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries” and “A Mystical Haggadah: Passover Meditations, Teachings, and Tales” — enrich the variety of volumes and haggadahs with commentaries that have been written that make understanding Passover and the haggadah more accessible.

Both include the traditional text and a variety of commentaries.

“My People’s,” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman and David Arnow, also includes a rich selection of essays authored by a roster of scholars who have attempted to transform the Passover seder from what Hoffman calls “a feature-length riddle” into “lived experiences, not historical treatises …”

In addition to the highly accessible essays, each section of this haggadah is presented in two formats: one that offers only the text, and a second in which a section of the haggadah is placed in the center of the double pages. Surrounding it, in a layout designed to evoke a page of the Talmud, appear modern commentaries and interpretations.

The only drawback to utilizing this volume at the seder table is its size — more than 500 pages in which the traditional text is interspersed with voluminous notes and essays, making it cumbersome to use.

Nevertheless, it should be a reference guide for any Jew who seeks entry into and deeper understanding of the seder and who has a scholarly eye toward appreciating its historical and psychosocial constructs.

“A Mystical Haggadah,” meanwhile, written by Rabbi Eliahu Klein of Berkeley, is a wonderful surprise. Easier to use for the seder than Hoffman and Arnow’s weighty volume, this elegant haggadah is filled with wondrous commentaries — many outside the realm of standard interpretations and comments — by a variety of kabalistic and Chassidic teachers.

Three examples are illustrative:

n Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach suggests that when we first break the matzah, we hide a part of ourselves that travels through the seder.

It is only upon eating the broken piece at the end of the seder that we can be healed by bringing liberation into our daily lives.

n According to his Chassidim, when the Rebbeh of Rizhin conducted his last seder, he focused on “this very poor bread that we eat in exile.”

As he taught about establishing a Jewish homeland where his Chassidim could truly be free, he let out a cry that echoed through their hearts and, for a moment, “they crossed the Red Sea to begin their journey of freedom and redemption.”

n When a follower of Reb Bunim despaired upon finding the open doorway for Elijah empty, the rebbe lovingly rebuked his follower by teaching that the revelation of Elijah is a state of mind that results in enlightenment.

A serious student of Passover and its customs who wishes to deepen and extend his or her understanding of Passover and its celebration would do well to do more than just be sated by a rich meal. He or she should feast on these abundant offerings that are a banquet for the heart and mind and open doors to greater understanding and explication.

“My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, Volumes 1 and 2,” edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman and David Arnow (267 and 297 pages, Jewish Lights, $24.99 each)

“A Mystical Haggadah: Passover Meditations, Teachings, and Tales” by Eliahu Klein (200 pages, North Atlantic Books, $16.95)

Stephen Pearce is senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.