Golden Haggadah - the Book and its Stories

The text of the Haggadah is not a story, but rather a recipe for telling, remembering, discussing and re-creating a story. The origin of the Seder service is to be found in two Biblical verses from Exodus in which Moses tells the people to ' Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt' (Exodus 13.3) and 'You shall tell it to your son on that day' (Exodus 13.8).

This remembering and recounting has continued for centuries. The stories and ideas have been passed down through the generations orally, until printing continued the process of crystallisation and dissemination of what would become a more standardised text. Nevertheless, there are many variations in Haggadot - a Sephardic text (from Spain) may differ greatly from an Ashkenazi text (from Germany) for instance. Variations also depend upon the period in which the text was written. Thus Haggadot vary greatly, going from simple typewritten sheets to elaborately decorated books.

 

So why work with the 'Golden Haggadah'?

It is one of the earliest editions that we have. This book, produced nearly seven hundred years ago, is a very tangible reminder that the function of this story is to maintain a culture - it has been passed on from generation to generation over the centuries. It was given by a father to his son-in-law at his marriage, - a signifier that the expectation of the father-in-law was that his grandchildren to come would be brought up in the knowledge of their ancestors and their history and would be expected to both question, discuss and celebrate it so that in their futures they would tell it in their turn.

It contains a very complete visual record as well as text. At the beginning of the book there is the history of Israel in pictures. It is like a contemporary cartoon book: by looking at the pictures we can remember and recount the story. In our project, we want to find a way too to remember and recount our stories.

This book is a beautiful artefact - it is a pleasure to look at, to read and to handle - an example of the kind of pleasure we should derive from our education and researches.

This artefact was put together by a number of different individuals whose work has been bound together to make a whole. This is the aim of our project too, and so is an inspiration for us.

Within the text that is written down in the Haggadah there are many references to to the story of the Exodus, but the story itself is not told in its entirety, so where is it?

Partly it exists in the Bible - the story of the People of Israel begins in the book of Genesis while the story of the events in Egypt is in the book of Exodus. However, there are many midrashic stories that are of importance in the story.

 

What is a 'midrashic' story?

It is an exposition of a verse or verses of the Bible. From the moment the texts of the Pentateuch were written down in the fifth century BC, interpreters, scholars and ordinary people discussed, explained, analysed, argued over and embroidered them, creating a vast body of oral stories (Midrashim) around them. Sometimes called 'the hammers that draw sparks from the words of the Bible', these stories often arise to try to amplify or explain that which might be unclear in the Bible. In the book of Exodus, for example, it is said that Moses was slow of speech and tongue (his brother Aaron had to speak for him) and so there is a midrashic story regarding the testing of the baby Moses by Pharaoh's advisors that explains how this came to be.

Really, the Haggadah itself is an extended Midrash on the story of the Exodus in that it is an exposition of and discussion of it.

What might be useful sources for these stories?

'Legends of the Jews' by Louis Ginzberg Vol 2 + notes Vol 5

'Legends of the Bible' by Louis Ginzberg One vol. Much shorter and probably easier to navigate than the above.

'Legends of Israel' by J.B. Levner, translated by Joel Snowman

'Legends of our Fathers' by Hyman E. Goldin

'Ancient Israel - Myths and Legends Vol 2' by Angelo S Rappoport

 

What are good sources of the Bible stories?

I would recommend looking at the Tanakh  - the Jewish Bible, translated from the Hebrew into contemporary English. The Jewish Publication Society produce a clear edition.

Tyndale's Old Testament , edited by David Daniell, is also a very rewarding edition - the first translation from the Hebrew made in the1530s by William Tyndale.

Both of these have a very different feel from the better known King James version and are much more fluid in their storytelling as well as having very interesting notes.

 

How does one decide how much or how many of these stories to tell?

The pictures in the Golden Haggadah begin with Adam and Eve, the beginning of the human story, but I would suggest beginning with a mention of Abraham as the father of Israel - the first to believe in the one God and with whom the Covenant was made - the arrival of Jacob in Egypt, his death and the change in the fortunes of the people of Israel.

So pictorially, the story would start with folio 8v (Jacob meets Pharaoh , his death, the Pharaoh ordering the Midwives to kill the babies of the Hebrews), and finish with folio 15r, Miriam with the Tambourine celebrating the crossing of the Red Sea. (Or it could finish the page before with the drowning Egyptians).

This is the section of story that I tell at Passover.

 

And then?

To be true to the text, the recipe, the story the tradition: questions should be asked, stories should be amplified and discussed and relevant (contemporary) stories should be told by all participants!